Monday, October 20, 2014

Travel Guides and Historical Fiction

Today we welcome Michelle Ule, our guest blogger.

Who knew how important travel guides would be when I wrote a book set in Egypt 100 years ago?

You say Egypt and people think pyramids, King Tut and Luxor; all the famous places tourists have been visiting for years.

Since we know the pyramids have been there forever, I turned to a guide book to give me a sense of the where and what–as in, where are these tourist spots, what’s the weather like and what do people eat? I focused on the timeless–what would have been the same in 1914 as it is today.

So I checked travel guides–they’d have the basic information I need and provide maps, along with perspective. I started with Lonely Planet’s Egypt.

Lonely Planet’s travel guide gave me an overview of the entire country and its history. The index enabled me to look up items pertinent to my story: like just where the pyramids are in relation to Old Cairo, for example. It included a glossary of common terms an English speaker might need, including how to pronounce them.

Lonely Planet Egypt also interpreted foreign customs. Many understand “baksheesh,” and a beggar’s desire for a tip, but who knew a loud hissing sound is their way of saying, “watch out?” 

The travel guide that excited me most was found through Google books: Baedeker‘s 1914 Egypt.

The information is priceless! I learned the name of an occulist and his advice for guarding your eyes in a sandstorm; which tram to catch to Heliopolis and how much it cost (along with the schedule); that crows and kites live in the few city parks; the Fishmarket (which is not close to the Nile) is a disreputable quarter and soothsayers squat beside the road to tell fortunes by consulting the sand!

As this was the actual guide used by people living 100 years ago to tour the country, the details were extraordinary. It provided the names of shipping firms (including the ships that sailed between Southampton and Alexandria); explained how to catch the train and described the dusty exhibits in the Egyptian Museum–all information I used.

From Baedeker, I learned the streets were filled with the sounds of “cracking driver’s whips, jingling money at the table changers and the rattling of the brazen vessels carried by water carriers.” I’d never have imagined those sensory details.

He spared us information on the smells, but did provide a list of restaurants in Cairo and included warnings about places respectable ladies should not visit.

Travel guides might not be the first choice for a writer’s research, but their overviews and insights can supply details that make a story come alive—no matter in what armchair or what century you’re reading them!

Michelle Ule is a best-selling author of inspirational and historical fiction who lives with her family in northern California. When not traveling herself, she likes to read about foreign lands. Visit her website at

1 comment:

Terri Wangard said...

I often refer to travel guides. They've been so helpful, even if it's just an idea about the weather.