The Man in the Cistern

The Man in the Cistern is the title of a short story now available on Amazon, in ebook format only. Currently it is enrolled in the Amazon KDP program, which means that it is available for loan for the next few months. It also means that from time to time there will be special offers, such as this weekend (Saturday Oct 20th to Sunday Oct 21st) when it is scheduled to be absolutely free to download. Don’t get too excited though – it is a short story rather than a full-length novel, so wil only cost you 77 pence in the UK (99 cents in the US), so even if you miss the promotion it will not set you back too much. Over time I shall add more short stories to the collection, ranging back and forward in time rather than trying to fit everything in strict sequence.

Cover - The Man in the Cistern
Cover - The Man in the Cistern

The Man in the Cistern is set in the same town as In a Milk and Honeyed Land but about a decade later. Most of the characters will be familiar from the novel, although you do not have to have read it to follow events in the story. We follow Damariel and Nepheret, priests and seers of Kephrath, as they juggle the conflicting possibilities that have arisen from newcomers in the region. The story begins as follows:
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The Mitsriy were withdrawing from their outpost up at Ramoth Hurriy. Damariel the seer had first caught rumour of the move nearly a year ago, but had waited to see if there was real substance in it before taking the news seriously. These days, there were always stories of this place or that being abandoned, and so many of them were either scare-mongering or wishful thinking, depending on who was talking.

Now, for sure there would be little impact on Kephrath and her three sister communities, the four towns Damariel cared for. Ramoth Hurriy was south of Shalem, up on the heights overlooking the southern edge of that town, and Damariel was not sure he had ever met anyone who lived there. So far as he knew, there was only a shrine to the goddess Hathor served by a few Mitsriy priestesses overseeing a training centre for Kinahny girls who had been given over by their families to her service, a small garrison of bowmen, and a straggle of traders adhering to the slight wealth as best they could. At a guess, only the Mitsriy would actually return home, and the temple novices and acolytes, as well as the traders and their families, would be left to reintegrate as best they could into Shalem itself, or maybe down into the lowlands.

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Find out how it continues at Amazon.com – http://www.amazon.com/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/ – or Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/. Don’t forget – this coming weekend The Man in the Cistern it is scheduled to be free to download. If you like the short story, follow it up with the novel.

As always, more information can be found at the web site http://www.kephrath.com.

The task of writing in Kephrath

This blog post was partly inspired because I got annoyed watching an otherwise quite informative BBC documentary, in which the presenter gave the Phoenicians around 750BC all the credit for developing and distributing the alphabet. Well, the Phoenicians were certainly a key factor in spreading alphabetic writing far and wide, but the actual invention goes back about a thousand years before then! There is intense debate as to whether the very earliest examples are from the Sinai or from Egypt a little north-west of Luxor, but either way we are talking around 1800BC or so. The presenter was (I suspect) repeating a seriously out of date view in which alphabetic writing was seen as the immediate precursor to universal literacy and general social transformation. However, this old romantic view that “every urchin would be able to read” shortly after the invention of the alphabet was soon dashed by the observation that large fractions of the Roman and Greek world remained illiterate, despite having a well-defined alphabet to work with!

The real mystery, now that more of the true history of alphabetic development is known, is why this seemingly liberating tool sat around for the better part of a thousand years without being used for anything much more than odd bits of graffiti and the occasional short dedicatory text. The first real piece of extended narrative that we have written in alphabetic script is called the Moabite Stone, dating from around about 850BC and giving a broadly parallel account (but from the opposite perspective) of an event recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Rather earlier, and further north in Ugarit, a large collection of religious material has been found written in an alphabetic script, but this uses poetry rather than prose to achieve its purpose.

As regards the time I write about, around 1200BC, the job of a scribe was interesting, varied, and very complex. Someone like Damariel in the hill country would at minimum have to be adept at reading and writing the “new” alphabetic signs – and writing them meant doing it neatly and consistently, not just scrawling them. But to make contact with the major authorities he (or possibly she – we have little evidence either way) would also need to be competent in cuneiform writing (wedge marks in clay). Damariel is quite disparaging about cuneiform to his friend Kothar – “of course no-one writes this stuff any more, this wedge and clay work is all finished” – but the reality was that it would continue for many more centuries, and Damariel himself would need to draft a crucial letter using the script later on. Egyptian writing is another story – and another day’s blog.

We do know from archaeology that works of fiction that were considered great classics – such as the story of Gilgamesh – were copied and enjoyed in cuneiform versions in the Levant area and not just far out to the east in Mesopotamia. Analysis of the clay used for these shows that they are local copies, not imported ones, and one particular fragment originates from southern Israel – perhaps even the tablet that Kothar acquired in the market at Bayth Shamsh! We also know that much early alphabetic writing was produced on materials which by nature are perishable – wood, wax, cloth etc. So it is possible, although not certain, that Damariel and his fellow seers were writing alphabetic stories and prose accounts themselves, but that these have simply not survived. Some scholars think that the use of local alphabetic scripts was a deliberate challenge to the older, established nations such as Egypt – a sort of very early example of using social media to spread a slightly subversive message!

Writing in various forms colours large parts of In a Milk and Honeyed Land – why not see how many examples you can find! Your local bookshop should be able to order copies – in case of difficulty see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

Some forthcoming plans

Today I’m going to talk about a couple of forthcoming pieces of writing. I’m hoping that the first of these will be ready for release before the end of October. The second is lagging behind a bit, but should be ready by the end of the year.

Both are being published under the banner of Matteh Publications (http://mattehpublications.datascenesdev.com/). Matteh is the ebook publishing wing of DataScenes Development, based in north London. DataScenes is also responsible for some mobile and tablet applications relating to the ancient world (http://apps.datascenesdev.com/). So far the most popular of these is a version of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet. This is considered by many people nowadays as an ancestor of backgammon, but in Egypt seems to have had a religious dimension as well as just entertainment.

Back to the forthcoming books. The first is a short story called The Man in the Cistern, set in the same community as In a Milk and Honeyed Land but about ten years on. It describes how Damariel and Nepheret have to tackle the arrival nearby of a group of migrants trying to settle near the town of Kephrath. For those who know a little of the archaeology of the region, it also proposes an explanation of the occupancy of a particular village.

The second item is the long-awaited PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. Turning this into ebook format has taught me a great deal about how (and how not) to handle complex matters of layout and font display! Issues that word processing packages handle very easily turn out to be rather more fiddly when you are producing an ebook. This thesis explores cross-cultural issues of poetry in the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, and provides an academic foundation for the romantic spark of creativity enjoyed by Damariel and Nepheret.

More news about both of these in the coming weeks. In the meantime, whet your appetite – or that of a friend – with a copy of In a Milk and Honeyed Land! To find out where to buy it online or in the real world, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.

Five-star review of ‘Asenath’ by Anna Patricio

Here is the text of a review I wrote for Anna Patricio’s Asenath – the name of the Egyptian wife given to Joseph according to the biblical book of Genesis. The review itself may be found on Amazon (UK and com) and Goodreads. As you will see, I enjoyed the book, once I had appreciated its young-adult target, and hope to read other books by Anna in time.

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An unreserved five stars for Asenath so far as I am concerned! Anna Patricio has done a great job at imagining and describing a possible reality behind the scanty details given in the biblical book of Genesis regarding Joseph’s Egyptian wife.
I started this book not quite realising that it was aimed at a young adult audience, and so after a chapter or two had to readjust my thinking. That done, it was easy to slip into the swing of the narrative and enjoy the reconstruction. Others who begin reading with the right expectation will not have to carry out this internal switch – but you will need to be aware of the target audience in order to have the right expectations.
Anyone writing around a biblical episode faces the problem that, to a degree, readers already know the ending. Anna is aware of this, and in my view does a great job of instilling a sense of ‘so that’s how it happened’ when you get to items already known from the source materials. The points at which the storyline intersects with the biblical context come over as natural rather than forced, and one feels that Anna did not feel blocked or constrained by these boundaries to her writing.
It’s a while since I read young adult rather than adult material, and it did not take long to appreciate the differences. Obviously sex is toned down substantially from the last novel I reviewed (Michal’s Window (A Novel: King David’s First Wife)), and from my own writing (In a Milk and Honeyed Land). Even within those constraints, Anna manages to show that human intimacy can be pitched anywhere from tender and loving to violent and brutal.
Also, the characters tend to be more easily pigeonholed for character and motive, and the issues and moral problems they face are simpler. There are few people about whom one is in doubt about their intentions. Writing for a more adult audience, I would personally have been inclined to write more moral ambiguity into the characters, especially Joseph’s family who are presented in Genesis as a very dubious collection of individuals, but here seem uniformly attractive. But I think the simpler depictions are appropriate for, and consistent with, the overall standpoint of Asenath.
Having said that, one of the great themes of the book is to see how men and women can be transformed, and redeemed, by the contagious power of moral courage. Here, as in so much of the Hebrew Bible material from which the story is drawn, real change is effected by prolonged personal contact with lives lived out by consistent moral principles, not by listening to speeches or reading texts. So the characters definitely change and grow through the book, mostly but not entirely from bad to good. Prior events, experiences and traumas are not glossed over, but frequently return to haunt, be confronted by, and (typically in the end) overcome by the participants. This narrative theme can resonate equally well in both ancient Israel and Egypt.
From a technical background the details are reasonably well researched. Anna makes a brave choice to select a specific year to start her book (1554 BC), where I would be a little more vague! A range of proper Egyptian terms are used, typically words for rank or items used in worship. Place names are given in modern forms (for example Karnak), which the geeky part of me regretted – but since there is no map, those who are not geeks will therefore be able to look them up on a regular map and orient themselves! Some rituals and key life events which we do not have actual source material for (such as the wedding ceremony) are invented in a rich and consistent manner that does not disrupt the sense of immersion in ancient Egypt.
All in all, a most enjoyable and compelling read, and I look forward to other books by Anna, including a follow-up novel based in ancient Egypt that she mentions at the end of this book.
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To track down Asenath, Michal’s Window, or indeed In a Milk and Honeyed Land, search on Amazon or other online retailers. All three are available in both electronic and physical formats.

5* Review for ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’ by Marsha Randolph

Late yesterday evening I had some good news. I discovered an email telling me that that Marsha Randolph had uploaded a 5* review of In a Milk and Honeyed Land to Amazon as well as her own blog.

Her review title and some extracts follow:
A great book to sit by the fireplace and read
This novel is both intellectually and spiritually challenging… In a nutshell this book is about change. It is the growth and development (or lack thereof) of one community particularly as it relates to one of the characters; Damariel… aids the reader in developing a better understanding of 1200 BC history thus a better appreciation of Old Testament scripture…

Marsha’s blog article may be found at
http://marsharandolph.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/book-review-in-a-milk-and-honeyed-land-by-richard-abbott/, and the Amazon review is at
http://www.amazon.com/review/R3FK2FIQN352HQ/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1466921668&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books

It will also appear on Goodreads within the next few days.

Some new places to browse ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’

The last few days have seen some more opportunities opening up for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, both online and in the real world.

First we have kindlemojo (http://www.kindlemojo.com/2012/09/12/milk-honeyed-land/) who have placed it in their ‘Historical Fiction’ collection.

Then Daunt Books (http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/) have taken copies in their Hampstead and Belsize Park branches, which are the two nearest to where I live here in north London.

Let’s hope they both do well…

Personal names and In a Milk and Honeyed Land

Names are odd things. Nowadays – at least in the UK – we give names for a variety of more-or-less sentimental reasons. Perhaps they remind us of relatives or friends, or there is a family tradition. Or we think about how the future adult’s first name would sound when run up against their family name. We usually do look up the meaning of a name, either online or in a suitable book, but for most of us the name’s meaning is a secondary thing, not the primary one. Still less often, I suspect, do we think of the name as in some way a prophecy over the new infant’s life. At most, we hope that the example of some famous person of the same name might serve as an inspiration. For many people, at the other extreme, a name is simply an arbitrary label of convenience.

In much of the ancient world, however, the giving of a name was a much more weighty matter. The meaning of the name was crucially important. It could act as a reminder of gratitude for safe delivery, or perhaps the gift of life after a period of barrenness. It could act as a prophetic word intended to steer the direction of the new life for many years to come. Even those many names which are based on the natural world – typically animals and plants – can probably best be seen as an expressed wish that the primary quality of the object, such as strength, grace or beauty, would be transferred in some way to the new child. And of course, whether ancient or modern, names often give clues as to the ancestry or birth-culture of the baby.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land follows this principle quite thoroughly. Many of the names are directly copied from, or else strongly based on, actual names recorded in ancient literature. Even allowing for the accidents of preservation of clay tablets, pieces of stone, papyrus sheets and so forth we have a rather bewildering variety of names to choose from. Some of the names I have used are nature-names. So Damariel’s sister, Sosanneth, is “Lily” – the same name as modern Susan, which comes ultimately from Egypt via the Levant and is one of the oldest continuously used names in history. The old chief at the start of the story, Yad-Nesherim, is “eagle’s hand” – no longer in common use!

Many of the names are based on wishes, hopes, or prayers. Damariel’s brothers, Baruk and Bashur, are “blessing” and “good news”. His uncle, Adonilanu, is “my Lord favours us”. In a few cases I made the name overtly related to the person’s role in the story. So Damariel is “my song is El”, El being the name of the chief Canaanite god. Aliyna, who we first meet as a subjugated captive and gradually see her assert a place in Kephrath, is “victorious”.

Some of the townspeople retain the older northern names, often identified by scholars as of Hurrian origin, arising originally from what is now the border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – roughly the same extent as the Kurdish people. These have names like Pirigalla and Putiheba, Tagi and Dadua – recognisably different even to a modern reader, and in the ancient culture these names would advertise their remote ethnicity. Over time this distinction was eroded, and by the time of the book, “the clan islands were no longer so distinct, but extended encroaching swirls into one another like cream being stirred into porridge”.

When Damariel goes down to Gedjet (Gaza) he meets Egyptians with Egyptian names, most importantly Nepheret er-sefet Tefnut, which as his friend and fellow scribe Gilem tells him, means “beautiful like the fragrance of Tefnut”. The name of Damariel’s first wife, Qetirah, means “incense” or “perfume”, a seemingly accidental connection that Damariel never forgot, and reflects on in his final soliloquy.

So when you’re reading In a Milk and Honeyed Land, take a moment to think about the names that are being used. Just like real names from the world of the Late Bronze Age, none of them are accidental.

To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.

Kephrath and a matrilineal society

I have been asked a couple of times why I chose to make the society that lived in Kephrath and the other three towns in In a Milk and Honeyed Land a matrilineal one. As Damariel says to the Egyptian priest Senenptah while in Gedjet (Gaza) “we reckon descent through the mother”. But more than that, houses in the four towns are the property of women rather than men. It is not the same as a matriarchy, where women rule the culture, though the two may in some places have gone hand in hand. The book makes clear that the four towns were customarily ruled by a male chief, and that those who served as seers and priests did so as married couples. Both sexes play key parts in the day-to-day organisation of the towns, but nevertheless households are defined by the oldest woman there, not the oldest man.

There are a couple of answers to this, depending if one is talking about the historical basis or the narrative purpose. History first. It seems clear from numerous archaeological findings, chiefly religious amulets and the like, that women in the Middle and Late Bronze Age (about 1800-1200BC approximately in the ancient near east) were regarded with much more equality and played a much more significant role in social decisions than was the case in the Iron Age (1200BC through to Roman times). So, since I am writing about a society that was still living in a Late Bronze style, I wanted the place of women to be recognised as crucial by the townspeople themselves. In this sense, chief Mahur-Baal’s desire to turn the four towns into a male-dominated kingdom was a little ahead of his time – by about the year 1000BC similar kingdoms were in place all around the region, including ancient Israel, and judging from archaeological relics, women then occupied a much more subordinate position.

We have no specific evidence as to whether the Gibeonite towns really did have a matrilineal society, and such detailed evidence is unlikely ever to be brought to light. The accounts in the Hebrew Bible of Jacob’s trip out to Mesopotamia contain some hints that this was the practice further east, at least in some places. For example, Jacob moves into his new wife’s house to live there, rather than setting up his own household or taking her back to his own father’s home. But the details here can only be seen through the editorial choices of the later scribes who collated earlier traditions into what we now call the Bible, and the process has left us with only some of the information we would like.

From a narrative point of view, the choice presented some challenges. First and foremost, it meant making sure that I stayed true to that particular vision of the society, and avoided slipping into a “normal” perspective. There were a great many times when I found that I had written that someone went to “his” house rather than “her” house. So the choice involved a lot of self-discipline, and discovering just how entrenched some verbal habits can be.

As well as that, keeping the roles of both men and women central as regards the culture of the four towns – while also keeping their roles quite different in other ways – has always seemed to me a key ingredient of the description of the land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’. The phrase evokes a setting of lavish and unashamed femininity, and serves in the Bible as a balance to what seems to some people a very male-centric world view. To make the land flow with milk and honey, I chose to have the four towns live in a way that defines the family households in terms of women.

So the choice seemed to me to be a credible one in terms of the history of the Gibeonites, and was definitely one that fitted the vision of their society that I wanted to portray. Let me know what you think! To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.

KindleGen – turning word processor documents into kindle format

Something a little different – rather than a post on the ancient world today, here is something on the modern technologies that can be used to support authorship.

I guess it is fairly common knowledge now that authors can completely bypass the traditional publishing route and put their own content up on Amazon and other online retailers directly. There are huge debates – some would say arguments – as to the merits of this process of universalisation. I don’t propose to go into these, except to say that I don’t think that selection by a major publishing house necessarily confers literary merit (just think of all those series of airport romances one encounters), nor that going your own way necessarily shows independence of spirit and dedication to a cause (after all, it is true that some indie books have not been edited as carefully as they might, and some are not very good).

Nor am I going to go into a step-by-step account as to how to set up your files to download and then use Amazon’s KindleGen. There are some great tutorials out there and the world does not really need another one.

What I am going to do is talk a bit about my experiences of using these tools. The basic principles are easy – you take the document from your favourite word processing package, export it to HTML, then feed it into KindleGen on your favourite computer, and out comes a nicely produced mobi file. If you really want to short-circuit the process, you just take your word-processing file and throw it as-is into Smashwords and let their software do the work for you. What can go wrong?

Well, as ever, it is the little touches that make some of the difference. Personally, coming from a programming development background, I want to be in control of the process as much as I can. So the Smashwords approach (“just give us the Word document and we’ll convert it”) fills me with unease, even if I can then review the finished product. I am very happy to accept that it has been an enormous benefit to a lot of people who do not have the time, energy, and training to use a geeky tool like KindleGen. Geeky it certainly is! There is almost nothing in the way of online help, and whilst it does indeed have a sound inner logic, my guess is that some people find the raw listing of errors and warnings a bit intimidating. This, however, is just up my street!

I also like the way KindleGen allows you to get more pedantic and proper about the process as you learn more. So personally I would always split off my text styles into a central css file, and put supporting image files in their own folder. I prefer keeping my definition file logically separate from my content files, and both of these separate from the table of contents. That makes good sense!

But it has to be said that it is still a slow process. I have been working on two projects – a short story entitled The Man in the Cistern, which is set in the same world as In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and my former PhD thesis Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. Both of these will see the light of day before long… but both have raised interesting problems. There are some common things – just how much geeky metadata does one need? What about getting an ISBN number? Just how many of the optional fields do I really need, and where to they appear in the online listing? When I look at it using the Kindle Previewer does it show up how I would like? In passing, this is another essential app, and one that encourages you to think about multiple different target devices rather than just the one you happen to own!

The thesis has been much the harder, partly because it is substantially longer, but mainly because the content includes funny fonts (well, Hebrew and Egyptian among others), together with lots of tables and diagrams. I have learned that things that work just fine in a word processor really do not work on kindle without a lot of fussing. I do think the effort is worth it – after all, if you are going to self-publish then you are denying yourself the expertise (and the cost) of professional layout. So you have to put in the thought and time yourself. Diagrams that look pretty good in a word-processor document have a tendency to go really weird in HTML and hence in kindle format.

Do I think it’s worth it? Definitely yes, even though my initial guess as to how long it would take has had to be revised upward quite significantly. And yes, I would happily go through the process again… once these two projects are finished and uploaded. For that, continue to watch this space…

While you’re waiting, remember that In a Milk and Honeyed Land is already for sale in kindle as well as other ebook formats, soft-cover and hard-cover. Check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for details.

BlueInk review for ‘In a Milk and Honeyed Land’

Here is the complete text of the Blue Ink review I received a few days ago for In a Milk and Honeyed Land. Of course I don’t agree with the reviewer that the beginning was slower than need be, and I was a little disappointed that there was not some more recognition of the embedded poetry in the book. However, it was gratifying to get a positive review from Blue Ink, with some great little snippets for me to use in publicity material: “…the author is an authority on the subject, and it shows through the captivating descriptions… the story grabs hold of the imagination… eventually satisfies as a love story, coming-of-age tale, and historical narrative“.

All in all I was happy to get this endorsement of the book and hope to get many more positive reviews like it!

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Set 3,000 years ago in ancient Canaan, In a Milk and Honeyed Land tells the story of a young priest, Damariel, and his small village tribe, as they learn life’s lessons of love, loss, sacrifice, and growth. The story follows Damariel from boyhood to adulthood, as he is trained for and then becomes the village seer, taking him through romantic relationships and travels to nearby cities filled with the cultural diversity of the era. A narrative of everyday life as it might have been for early settlers in what is now Israel and Palestine, the story seamlessly mixes history with fiction.

Like The Red Tent, this book aims to complete a missing story in the Hebrew Bible, that of the very beginnings of Israeli settlement. With a Ph.D in Old Testament and Egyptian poetry, the author is an authority on the subject, and it shows through the captivating descriptions of the ancient rituals, songs, village life, and even a battle scene. A confusing introduction of the villagers, their professions, and their connections at the start of the book slows the plot in a way that keeps it from taking root at first. However, as Damariel grows and the characters become familiar, the story grabs hold of the imagination. Despite a sluggish beginning, In a Milk and Honeyed Land eventually satisfies as a love story, coming-of-age tale, and historical narrative.

Anyone unfamiliar with ancient Middle Eastern history should read the postscript before starting the book, as it includes a brief history of the time period and the common names for the ancient terms used in the book, which are helpful to a reader’s understanding and enjoyment of the book.

This novel is likely to appeal to those interested in historical fiction, especially Middle Eastern and Biblical history.

(Reviewed: June 2012)
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I don’t yet have a direct link to this review, but the Blue Ink home page web address is http://www.blueinkreview.com.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land may be purchased online – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for a list of vendors.
Or ask your own local bookshop to obtain a copy – ask by title or else ISBN number:

Paperback: 978-1-4669-2166-5
Hardcover: 978-1-4669-2167-2
e-Book: 978-1-4669-2165-8

Writing, ancient and modern