Legends of Sheba – Tracing the Elusive Queen by Marc Graham

We’re going way back in time today. Marc Graham, author of Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, used the latest archaeological findings and linguistic research to construct an accurate depiction of the Old Testament Middle East and to revive the untold story of Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and Bathsheba, wife and mother of Israel’s first kings. Over to you, Marc.

Legends of Sheba – Tracing the Elusive Queen by Marc Graham

Did she or didn’t she…?

This may be the foremost question relating to the Queen of Sheba. Did she or didn’t she have an affair with Israel’s King Solomon, as suggested in the Song of Solomon. Did she or didn’t she bear his son, as related in Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast? More fundamentally, did she or didn’t she actually exist?

In researching my latest book, Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, I faced the thrilling, yet daunting, task of chasing down the elusive queen. At first glance, the problem seemed simple: Use the most common tale (as told in the Hebrew Bible), and weave a more elaborate story around it. But no.

For starters, the Bible give us only thirteen verses to work with. Thirteen! It gives four times as much print to Jephthah and his daughter. Who? you ask. My point exactly.

Second, the queen’s name is never mentioned. Not terribly surprising for a book that lists twenty times as many men as women, and which names fewer than ten percent of those women. Add to this the fact that we don’t actually know where ancient Sheba was located. While the most generally accepted theory equates the legendary kingdom with Saba in ancient Yemen, the queen is claimed by various peoples ranging from Nigeria to Java, spanning nearly a quarter of the globe.

So where does the intrepid writer/researcher begin?

Fortunately, there exists a fairly rich body of legend in ancient Arabic and Ethiopian sources. These lands, as it turns out, are precisely in the area to be expected from the Saba-equals-Yemen school of thought. While the tales range from fantastical (Arabian djinns and flying carpets) to the anachronistic (adherence to one god long before the advent of monotheism), they do provide a rich source of story material. There was still, however, the matter of a name.

The Quran and associated Arabic tales give us the queen as Bilkis or Balqis, while in the Ethiopian legends she is Makeda. Choices, choices.

And, frankly, that’s what it comes down to. The author simply has to make a choice, to decide what shape the story wants to take, and then leaven it with elements from the legends. Which is where the fun begins.

I can hear the wails of protests from the historical purists. You must stay true to the source material! You can’t simply innovate. To which I calmly reply, That didn’t stop those initial writers.

The Biblical stories of David and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were not written and canonized until some five hundred years after the events they purport to record. The Arabic and Ethiopian legends are removed by another millennium or two. Archaeology reveals that the Levant around the turn of the first millennium BCE was universally polytheistic, yet the sanctioned version of the story has the fabled kings calling upon the One True God. What goes on here?

As with most history (the purview of the victors), the Queen of Sheba legend serves a definite political agenda. The actual writing of the Bible came about in the years surrounding the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish aristocracy. Convinced by the priests of Yahweh that the disastrous turn of events was due to the people’s infidelity to their god, most of the Hebrew/Canaanite pantheon was destroyed and their history cleansed with the bloody hyssop.

So do we have any reliable means of recreating these tales? I believe so.

Archaeologists are making some extraordinary finds around Jerusalem and throughout the Levant. These give us a keen insight to ordinary life in the time around 1000 BCE. Between these finds and the official version of things, we can understand the distortion wrought by the lens of the patriarchal, monotheist agenda and reverse-engineer a likely (if not entirely accurate) version of how things might actually have been.

As with our ancient myths and legends, today’s stories give us an opportunity to explore what it means to be human, to look deep into our collective unconscious and find what lurks in the darkness. While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

Does the Queen of Sheba legend hold any meaning for us today? Of course. As with all great legends that stand the test of time, she has many stories to share, and the value of her lessons hold true even three thousand years later.

Marc Graham is pledging half of the proceeds from his latest book Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba to Yemen humanitarian relief in partnership with the Zakat Foundation of America , who will match his donation.

Many thanks for being here today, Marc. The furthest back I’ve gone is 1870 Paris. I can’t even imagine how challenging your research process has been.

Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba by Marc Graham

When Makeda, the slave-born daughter of the chieftain of Saba, comes of age, she wins her freedom and inherits her father’s titles along with a crumbling earthwork dam that threatens her people’s survival. When she learns of a great stone temple being built in a land far to the north, Makeda leads a caravan to the capital of Yisrael to learn how to build a permanent dam and secure her people’s prosperity.

On her arrival, Makeda discovers that her half-sister Bilkis (also known as Bathsheba) who was thought to have died in a long-ago flash flood, not only survived, but has become Queen of Yisrael. Not content with her own wealth, Bilkis intends to claim the riches of Saba for herself by forcing Makeda to marry her son. But Bilkis’s designs are threatened by the growing attraction between Makeda and Yetzer abi-Huram, master builder of Urusalim’s famed temple. Will Bilkis’s plan succeed or will Makeda and Yetzer outsmart her and find happiness far from her plots and intrigue?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Discussing historical fiction – Fiona Veitch Smith

pilates-daughterFormerly a journalist, Fiona Veitch Smith now writes novels, theatre plays, and screenplays. Her mystery series, Poppy Denby Investigates, is set in the 1920s. Fiona has recently written Pilate’s Daughter, a tale of star-crossed lovers. Welcome to A Writer of History, Fiona.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

I know it’s a cliché, but historical fiction ‘brings the past to life’. I remember reading it as a teenager and discovering that history – the often dry stuff we learned at school – was about real people who really lived. They were people I could identify with, and, through my imagination, was able to travel back in time and live their stories with them. As I grew up I discovered that some of my favourite authors were criticized for historical inaccuracies. But, and don’t shoot me here, ‘accuracy’ of fact is not as important to me as ‘authenticity’ of experience. A book that draws me in and gets a few facts wrong, is far better in my opinion than one that gets everything ‘right’ but does not connect with me emotionally.

So I think what the best authors do is create characters we can identify with. That we can feel what it’s like to be them … and then put them in a richly evoked – through sights, sounds, smells and tastes – ‘alien’ world. The characters should be brought to life emotionally, and their world sensually. Add to this an understanding of the social, economic, political and cultural context in which they live – without allowing it to overpower the story – then I think you’ve got a winner.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

People read historical novels to immerse themselves in a bygone age. We have a fascination with our past and instinctively don’t want to be cut off from it. That’s why all pre-literate cultures have an oral storytelling tradition that keeps each generation connected to those who have gone before. Historical fiction – and creative non-fiction – performs the same function. So yes, we read these books to enjoy a good yarn, but I believe they perform a much deeper function than that. That’s what makes them different to contemporary novels.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

Your readers might be surprised to hear that I always consider the present – the contemporary world around me – when deciding what to highlight in my historical novels. When doing general reading into a historical period, I look for issues and situations that have a modern, contemporary resonance. I look for things that can contrast with the way they are today; perhaps that readers can say: ‘Gosh! Look how far we’ve come!’ Or the opposite: ‘Oh dear, the more things change the more they stay the same.’ All of my historical books – four published so far, one due out later this year – have all focused on the issue of outsiders in society and how they are able to overcome societal and inter-personal opposition to achieve their potential. I have looked at this issue in Apartheid South Africa (The Peace Garden), Edwardian and 1920s Britain (The Jazz Files and The Kill Fee), and now, in my latest book, first century Palestine (Pilate’s Daughter).

Women play a large part in the stories I choose to write. Apart from the one set in Apartheid South Africa, the primary ‘outsiders’ in all my books are women. The connection with today is of course the continued journey towards equality of opportunity that is sadly still very variable. In a similar vein, ‘class’ is something that attracts me too, and how the accident of one’s birth will affect the opportunities available to you.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period? 

As I also write for stage and screen, my writing tends to be very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I create the mis en scene in a play or film, by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of period, I do the same in my novels. I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, theatre etc of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. In addition I like to ‘hear’ the voices of people who actually lived in the period I’m writing about. I read books and memoirs written by those who lived at the same time. In terms of my new Roman / Jewish book, I have read Josephus and Herodotus as well as letters and ‘writings’ by women of the period (in translation, obviously!) – as well as the Gospel stories. This helps me with dialogue – but, more importantly, my understanding of the mindset of the real people who lived in the time I am writing about.

Conflict and plotting are something that all good writers should be able to turn their hands to, not just historical novelists. Again though, my experience in scriptwriting is most useful, as scripts are structured primarily around conflict and plot. Hence I draw on scriptwriting technique – particularly three-act-structure – in my novel writing too.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the romance or the mystery. But you can’t please all the people all the time. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. This allows them to bring their existing understanding of what happened in the period as a foundation on which I can build.

The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.

Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I think we are seeing more novels about women in history that are not just ‘simple romances’. For too long women featured in historical novels either as the love interest or the pursuer of love. Although my book Pilate’s Daughter is a romance – and the success or failure of the key relationships is the structural core of the book – it is more about women as real people in history and the active role they played in shaping it. The book is about far more than whether or not the girl and boy live happily ever after. I see this as a welcome trend in historical fiction with books such as Paula Maclain’s Circling the Sun and Emily Holleman’s Cleopatra’s Shadow, as well as Michelle Moran’s books, being very good examples. Like Pilate’s Daughter, they mix real historical women and fictional ones and show them as more than just the object or pursuer of love.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Pilate’s Daughter (Endeavour Press, 2017) is set against the Roman occupation of Palestine in the first century. Claudia Lucretia Pilate, the daughter of the governor of Judea, falls in love with Judah ben Hillel, a young Jewish Zealot who has been tasked to kill her. But Claudia is promised to a dashing young Tribune whose job it is to rid Palestine of the Zealot problem, and to complicate matters further, is having an affair with a conniving slave who is set on getting rid of Claudia. In the meantime a Jewish prophet from Galilee has been stirring up trouble, claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah. Judah is torn between following the prophet and eloping with Claudia, and as the last days of Jesus come to a head in Jerusalem, so does the destiny of the four lovers. The lives of the lesser-known characters of the gospels rub shoulders with fictional characters in this historical Roman romance. The Pilates, the Herods, Barabbas, Caiphas and Judas Iscariot are shown not just as walk-on parts in the Jesus story, but as real people struggling to reconcile love and duty in one of the most volatile periods of history.

Many thanks, Fiona. You’ve given us many interesting ideas on the craft of historical fiction. One perspective I particularly like your notion of concentric circles! Good luck with Pilate’s Daughter. It sounds like just the kind of novel I enjoy.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.


The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord by Geraldine BrooksI purchased Geraldine Brooks‘s latest novel The Secret Chord for the twenty-hour trip home from New Zealand. It’s set around 1000BC in the second iron age, the time of King David and had all the qualities I was looking for:

  • long story – check;
  • interesting historical times – check;
  • excellent author – check;
  • intriguing first page – check.

Brooks, a Pulitzer prize winner for her novel March, had many votes for favourite historical fiction author in 2012, 2013 and 2015.

Most of us know the story of David and Goliath, but how many know of David’s life after that? According to the Books of Samuel, David was the second king of the united kingdom of Israel and according to New Testament accounts, an ancestor of Jesus. In addition to his skills as a leader and military man, King David was a brilliant musician and composer. According to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, “It is safe to say that David’s musical genius and commitment to the worship of God cast a refreshing shadow over the entire book of Psalms.”

The Secret Chord reveals the man behind the legends, a man with both great strengths and great failings. Told from the perspective of Natan (Nathan), the king’s prophet, Brooks has created a compelling drama of David’s life. I couldn’t put it down.

Using the the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey, here’s my perspective. (I should confess that I did not read with pen in hand, which means I have no detailed notes from which to write a review.)

(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – right from the prologue I was in a long ago time “I have laid my head down in many places–on greasy sheepskins at the edge of battlefields, under the black expanse of goat hair tents, on the cold stone of caves and on the scented linens of palaces” … “from across the wadi, I can hear the thin squeal of the planes scraping upon the logs. Hard work to get these trees here, felled in the forests of the Lebanon, lashed together into rafts, floated south on the sea, dragged up from the coast by oxen … soon the king will come .. I know when he arrives by the cheers of the men. Even conscripted workers and slaves call out in praise of him …”

Brooks engages all senses immediately and consistently throughout the story. She offers names, language and imagery of the time: merkavot for chariot, stela for an upright stone slab, “picking at the skein of my deeds like a woman at her weaving basket”, eved hamalek which means servant of the king, Beit Lehem for Bethlehem — and these are in the first chapter.

(2) Superb writing – Brooks’s prose flows almost like a song, giving the feeling that she has polished every phrase to a glossy, lyrical shine. Scenes are well structured, and very little – whether dialogue or description – seems superfluous. Long sentences are artfully interspersed with shorter ones to provide pleasure in the reading. Each chapter left me eager to turn the page.

(3) Characters both heroic and human – kings, generals, prophets, warriors, royal wives and their children populate the story with jealousies and love, heroic deeds and barbaric ones, great wisdom and blind stupidity, loyalty and betrayal, deaths and births, friends who become enemies, enemies who become friends.

Told through Natan’s voice in first person, two characters dominate, King David and Natan his prophet, although many others enrich the story. Through David’s eight wives  we see great love and passion as well as political shrewdness and cruelty. His pampered sons and daughter show us the tender side of King David along with his blindness to their faults and rivalries. Those who are trusted advisors include David’s nephew Yoav (Joab) who becomes his leading general.

(4) Authentic and educational – In The New York Times Book Review, Geraldine Brooks refers to King David as a man who “shimmers between myth and history in the Second Iron Age.” She describes Natan as “a Hebrew prophet, which means he’s a much blunter truth-teller” and “the pebble in the shoe, the goad in the hide, a courtier who doesn’t always have to be courtly, because it’s understood that he serves a higher power.”

Brooks gives us a full accounting of David’s rise to power, the forging of a unified nation from the tribes of Judah and Israel, the formation of what will eventually be called Jerusalem and the destruction of all but one of David’s sons.

Although David’s authenticity is disputed, Brooks declares she is “with the British politician Duff Cooper, who says he did [believe], since no people would make up such a flawed figure for a national hero.”

And even if he didn’t live, The Secret Chord offers a clear window into the way people lived, thought, fought, and survived so long ago and the faith that sustained them.

(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – Geraldine Brooks has written a superb drama. Every chapter reveals the dilemmas and challenges of the times, building to a climax that is hugely rewarding. The Secret Chord, whether based on myth or truth, will captivate you from beginning to end.

Two additional thoughts: (1) time shifts were not always distinct, so I occasionally struggled to know where I was in the story, and (2) at the beginning, ancient names like Shmuel for Samuel and Shaul for Saul added unnecessary challenge to deciphering who was who.

I’m stingy with five star reviews, but, in my opinion, this one deserves such a rating.

For the highlights of King David’s tumultuous life check out this article on Wikipedia.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.