One of the biggest perks of writing historical fiction, for me, is that it basically gives me an excuse to get lost in a whole fascinating world. I read about customs and myths, battles and kings, faith and liturgy, I study languages and listen to music, I watch documentaries... and I get to do this guilt-free, because it's research, right? Yay!
Whether it's a voyage through a stormy sea with a host of Vikings, or a trip to the sleepy countryside in 19th century England, historical fiction is an escape to a different, faraway world. In this way, it's similar to fantasy and sci-fi (though futuristic sci-fi and dystopia tend to give these chilling feels of "oh my, can this really happen?"). Historical fiction is safe, because it deals with something that has already happened - and we can sink into it with a greater feeling of emotional security. On the other hand, part of its magic is in the very fact of its being real - which is a basic question we all, from children to adults, ask when hearing or reading a story: "Did this really happen?"
The setting of my current historical fiction WIP is the same as in Land of the Lost Tribe - Ethiopia at the end of 9th and the beginning of 10th century. In particular, I'm drawing on the historical roots of the community of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, also known as the Falashas.
Ethiopia is unique in the way of being Jewish before it was Christian. There are several theories as to how exactly this happened - some swear by the legend of King Solomon and Queen Sheba giving a start to a dynasty of Jewish kings; others, among them some of the more prominent Biblical historians, believe that an Israelite tribe, or tribes, migrated south via Egypt following the destruction of the first Temple. Either way, when Christianity did arrive in Ethiopia, it grafted itself not on paganism, as in almost every other part of the world, but on Judaism, which led to the formation of a church very closely associated with its Jewish sources (as the Ethiopian church remains to this day).
My Ethiopian novels, both the published one and the one I'm currently working on, take place close to the decline of Aksum, a mighty Christian empire that was at one point reckoned among the greatest forces of the ancient world. The records from that time period, especially regarding the Beta Israel community, are far from precise, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Obviously, the more information an author has to draw upon, the better, but on the other hand, as I don't aim to write scholarly books, and my work is more in the realm of alternative history, vague data gives me more leeway to use my imagination without being accused of inaccuracy.
Initially, writing in this setting began with my deep fascination with the history of Ethiopian Jews, and with searching for fiction to read. I wasn't looking for a scholarly work - I have read some of those, but what I really craved was a rich, intricately plotted novel to transport me to a long-gone world. As I didn't find it, what choice did I have but to write it myself?
I admit I had some apprehensions due to the #notyourculture and #ownvoices tags which are pushed so hard today that people speak of kid toy teepees as "cultural appropriation". Was I allowed to write about the Beta Israel of Ethiopia without belonging to that particular ethnic group? Eventually I realized that, 1) it's better to share a story than have it remain untold, and 2) I will never be able to rest until I actually write it down.
The novel I am currently working on focuses on Judith (Gudit), a legendary Ethiopian queen whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The Beta Israel tales claim Judith as their own, and this is the narrative I am going with, portraying Judith as a Jewish-African Daenerys Targaryen. Writing her story is one awesome journey, and in due time, I hope to take my readers along.