December 9, 2020

Hercule Poirot in Ancient Egypt: BlueInk Review Talks with N.L. Holmes

By Paul Goat Allen 

The pseudonymous N.L. Holmes burst onto the literary scene in 2020 with not one but two stellar sagas: the Lord Hani series, a historical mystery saga set in pharaonic Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten; and the Empire at Twilight, a historical fiction series which takes place in the last days of the Hittite Empire. The professional reviews have been glowing: BlueInk Review described Bird in a Snare, the first book in the Lord Hani saga, as “a highly compelling start to what could be a wildly successful mystery series: Hercule Poirot in ancient Egypt” and Kirkus called The Crocodile Makes No Sound, the second Lord Hani novel, “a satisfying mystery in a vividly realized historical setting.” Holmes took time out to speak with BlueInk Review about her work and the indie industry.

BIR: Truth be told, I’ve wanted to interview you ever since I reviewed Bird in a Snare. Not only was that novel—and subsequent releases in the series—absolutely unputdownable, but your personal background was fascinating. You’re an accomplished archeologist, a teacher, an artist, a world traveler—and you were a nun earlier in your life for two decades. When did you begin writing with publishing specifically in mind, and what was that initial spark?

NLH: Although I’ve written for my entertainment all my life, I only started thinking in terms of publication after I retired from teaching [at age 66]. The spark came from an assignment I had given my students: here are the few meager documents that give us any evidence about a certain royal divorce in the 12th century BCE. How much can we tell about what happened? The diversity of answers convinced me: not much! So there was plenty of room for the novelist to fill in the gaps as it “might have been.”

BIR: In the last year, you’ve released four Lord Hani novels (Bird in a Snare, The Crocodile Makes No Sound, Scepter of Flint, and The North Wind Descends) as well as three Empire at Twilight novels (The Lightning Horse, The Singer and Her Song, and The Queen’s Dog), which are set in the Hittite Empire in its last generations. What was the thinking behind the release dates for these titles? Seems like you were putting one out every few months. Releasing seven novels in one year takes a lot of preparation and coordination…

NLH: Well, it should have had more preparation and coordination! I was learning on the fly. I had been writing these books for several years, and finally decided “they’re not doing any good until I get them out.” So I started shaping them up for publication and just released them as they were ready.

BIR: The research aspect for these historical novels must be intense. Your attention to detail—even with a seemingly insignificant narrative element—is impressive. In Scepter of Flint, for example, there’s a scene where you offhandedly describe the fare during a meal: “…the servant handed around the bowl of dates wrapped in fat smoked pork, swimming in a tangy pomegranate-juice sauce.” And the entire series is like that—the reader is virtually immersed in the world of pharaonic Egypt. How long does it generally take you to finish a novel?

NLH: Now that my basic research is done, I can write two books a year comfortably. Of course, I brought a fair bit of professional knowledge to the table (I used to teach a class on ancient Egypt), but in addition to that, I needed specialized bits of research. I was starting off with less basic knowledge when I tackled the Hittites. I have a pretty extensive library and know how to follow bibliographical leads, so it went fairly fast. In fact, I adore doing research! But at the end, you’ve got to remember these books are fiction. If there’s an element of life that we don’t know about, I felt free to plausibly reconstruct. Probably my background as an artist made me so conscious of these details.

BIR: In recent years genre fiction has—finally—begun to embrace inclusivity and feature characters that would have been marginalized in the past. Stephen Spotswood’s stellar Fortune Favors the Dead, which was just released by Doubleday in October, immediately comes to mind—a mystery set in 1945 featuring a Manhattan gumshoe suffering from multiple sclerosis and her bisexual protégé. Your Lord Hani novels are a great example of this sea change. The cast of characters is diverse but authentic: for example, Hani’s secretary and son-in-law Maya is a dwarf, one of Hani’s daughters Baket-iset is a paraplegic, and his youngest daughter Neferet is romantically involved with another young woman.

NLH: The world is and was made up of all sorts of people. I think it would be inauthentic if all the characters were beautiful and physically perfect… and blue-eyed blonds! I hope people realize in reading these stories that the Egyptians were people of color. I got the idea specifically for a dwarf sidekick from a real artifact—a statue of a dwarf scribe sitting proudly with his full-size wife and children. Eventually, the characters’ idiosyncrasies feed into the plot, too. I’m a great believer in inclusiveness and diversity, but I didn’t set out to be Inclusive and Diverse. I just let the characters take shape. Neferet knew she was a lesbian long before I did. I’m not a planner.

BIR: I’ve read and reviewed a lot of historical mysteries over the last few decades and your Lord Hani saga is one of the very best historical mystery series I’ve ever read. I’m curious—did you try to get an agent to rep you before going the indie route? In my mind, this series blends together the very best of historical mystery and historical fiction—the mystery of Elizabeth Peters, the thematic depth of Umberto Eco, the readability of Wilbur Smith… I can easily see these novels on national bestselling lists.

NLH: At one point I had an agent, but things didn’t work out, so we parted company. Rather than start all over querying, I decided to just publish them myself. It gave me more control over the editing process, the covers and other details, and the timeline of publication, although it has been an overwhelming amount of work. At first, I felt like going indie was an admission of failure, that any book that didn’t have to pass gatekeepers was probably not very good. That’s true for some, of course, but I started finding really wonderful independently published books, and finally decided, “Well, why not?” The problem with hitting bestseller lists is that nobody knows about the books; you have no big publishing house pushing them for you.

BIR: You mentioned the covers. I have to comment on the collective cover art for both of these series—the philosophy behind the imagery is brilliant. It’s simple, powerful, and readers immediately know what they’re getting. Whoever created those designs should be commended.

NLH: I agree. I love them. Streetlight Graphics in Louisville, KY, is to thank for those. They’re not flashy, but I love the somberness—they are murder mysteries, after all. As one reader commented, “Thank heavens they aren’t in Papyrus font!”

BIR: You’ve got a solid website but it looks like you’re just beginning to dip your toes into social media. (You just joined Twitter in October.) Most writers that I know have a love/hate relationship with social media—it’s a slippery slope that can steal away previous time and energy but some writers think it’s necessary to have an online presence in order to sell books. What are your thoughts on this?

NLH: My relationship is that of hate! I have managed to avoid social media all my life because it seems like it can suck down an enormous amount of time and I’m essentially a private person. But I agree, an online presence has become a sine qua non of a serious professional. And so, I’ve jumped on board.

BIR: Your titles are available both in print and digitally. What would your advice be to writers who want to publish digitally and forego the issues associated with print?

NLH: Print sales are an infinitesimal fraction of my total sales, so I suspect anyone who wanted to stick to ebooks would do fine unless they aspired to literary status. It would save them money too. Even libraries are stocking ebooks now. Personally, though, I love to hold a real paper book, and so do a lot of reviewers. I have just begun recording the Hani series on audiobooks. My philosophy is that the broadest slice of readers you can appeal to, the better. But the choice is personal. I don’t even have a Kindle or Nook.

BIR: When you say print sales are an infinitesimal fraction of your total sales what would you estimate the percentage as?

NLH: Five percentage.

BIR: Do you see yourself ever writing something other than historical fiction or historical mystery?

NLH: Who knows what I may decide to do in the future, but at the moment I feel that’s a niche I’m comfortable with. I can bring to it my background in ancient history, whereas any good writer can write a contemporary novel. In the mystery genre, it lets me bypass all the high-tech forensic stuff. The Empire at Twilight series is mostly not mystery; I’d be hard pressed to describe the genre. Psychological drama, maybe. Besides, I love the deep past. It interests me profoundly and has ever since I saw Land of the Pharaohs as a kid!

BIR: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Now I can cross interviewing you off my bucket list!

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.

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