In Search of Authenticity
by D.J. Niko
In writing believable fiction, research is imperative. Everyone knows that. But how far should an author go to delight her readers by making scenes plausible and characters authentic? I’ve always believed that firsthand research is best, even if it comes with a high degree of adventure (or, as is often the case, misadventure), so I try to visit the places I write about (yes, even the remote ones), get to know people of the cultures represented in my pages, and maybe put myself in some unusual situations, just to see what happens. No risk, no reward—right?
As an example, I’d like to share a story about a personal experience that informed one of the scenes in the first novel of The Sarah Weston Chronicles, my series of archaeological thrillers: The Tenth Saint.
In Chapter 7, Gabriel warns the Bedouins about an imminent sandstorm. As a Western man and a scientist, Gabriel knows with mathematical accuracy the storm is coming. The Bedouins do not listen to him, instead pressing toward the oasis so they do not miss their turn in the fertile lands. Sure enough, the storm comes, wiping out the Bedouins’ caravan and brutally claiming lives.
Describing this sandstorm in an authentic, realistic manner came naturally to me, because I had experienced it firsthand. I was with four friends in the Moroccan Sahara, near the Mali border. We had been traveling on camelback for about a week, heading toward an oasis to replenish supplies.
Just before dusk, we saw the cloud approach from the south and knew we were in for a long night. Typical Westerners, we covered our backpacks and camera gear in blankets so that sand would not get in. We had no tents, and there was no cover anywhere in sight, so we built perimeter fences from bed linens, holding the contraption down with sand bags. We were industrious. We were resourceful.
We were scared.
Meanwhile, our Berber camel drivers were calm as could be. Without breaking a sweat, they built a fire and boiled some murky water we’d collected earlier from a sand depression. They made tea and cooked some noodles. I shook my head. Who could think of food at a time like this?
The nomads were unruffled because they knew there was nothing they could do in the face of such fury. They couldn’t stop it; they couldn’t hide from it. So they went on with life. Whatever would come, would come, tea or no tea.
The sandstorm did come, and it battered our camp from sundown until four in the morning. It was the longest eight hours of my life. I still recall the constant grit of sand between my teeth and the violent stinging of my eyes as I lay there, in the fetal position in total darkness, waiting for the hissing to stop, hoping we would not be buried alive.
At dawn, as the shreds of our perimeter fence whipped in an errant breeze, we surveyed the damage. We shook pounds of sand off ourselves and searched for our belongings, which had been scattered by the wind. I recall inscribing “LIFE” with my fingernail on my sand-caked arm, in the same way you’d write “WASH ME” on a dirty car. But what I remember most vividly is Mohammed the Berber blowing into the belly of a meager fire, coaxing some flames, as if nothing had happened.
I learned something that day, and it is summed up this way in The Tenth Saint: “The way of the nomad is to accept everything as it comes: there is no anticipation of better days, no longing for the unrequited, no despair for loss.”
For my next book, the fourth Sarah Weston adventure, I have traveled to Morocco and the American Southwest, looking for the genuine soul of these places. Stay tuned for more on that release!
Daphne Nikolopoulos in an award-winning journalist, novelist, lecturer, and writing instructor. Under the pen name D.J. Niko, she has written three novels in an archaeological thriller series titled The Sarah Weston Chronicles and a historical novel titled: The Judgment (Medallion Press, 2016). Her debut novel, The Tenth Saint (Medallion Press, 2012), won the Gold Medal (popular fiction) in the prestigious, juried Florida Book Awards. The Judgment won a national Bronze Medal in historical fiction in the IPPY Awards 2017 and first place in historical fiction (pre-published) in the Royal Palm Literary Awards.
All four books have been translated and published internationally, and The Tenth Saint has been an Amazon best-seller in Germany. Daphne has just completed book 4 in the Sarah Weston series, tentatively titled Firebird.
The Tenth Saint on Amazon