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Interview - Author Laura Steel-Marshall and the astonishing adventures of Harkhuf The First Explorer

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Photo by James Marshall

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with Children's Author Laura Steel-Marshall, the writer of the rather fantastic book 'Harkhuf: The First Explorer'.

Harkhuf: The First Explorer tells the exciting story of legendary explorer, Harkhuf, as he makes his way on a perilous journeys into the mysteries land of Nubia. Inspired by real-life history, this is a book for adventurers of all ages. It certainly kept me, a fully grown 39 year-old man-child, frantically page turning until the very end.

We spoke to Laura about what inspired her to write a book set in Ancient Egypt, the strange facts she uncovered during her research and what top tips she has for prospective writers.

Check the interview out, it's about an inch below this WORD. Oh, and if you'd like to read Harkhuf: The First Explorer than you can buy a copy here. There's also loads of wonderful free teaching resources that link in with the book, you can find them here.

Adrian - Could you tell our readers a little about your fantastic book, Harkhuf: The First Explorer?

Laura Steel-Marshall - Hi Adrian! I'm so glad you enjoyed reading the book. Harkhuf the First Explorer is a work of historical fiction for children, although I'm told that grown ups enjoy it too! It follows the story of the legendary explorer of the same name, who lived in Egypt during the 6th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt and went on important trade missions into Ancient Nubia (now Sudan). He is the first explorer in recorded history.

Adrian - Harkhuf is based on a real-life historical figure, could you tell us a little more about him?

Laura - Harkhuf made three expeditions into Nubia, making vital trade links and bringing back rare and valuable specimens to Egypt, such as incense, ebony, oil, aromatics, panther skins, ivory carvings and (perhaps most excitingly) boomerangs.

Adrian - Egyptian Boomerangs are the best, some were even found in Tutankhamun's Tomb. Anyway, I'm getting carried away with boomerang excitement. Back to the questions! What inspired you to write a fiction book for children set in Ancient Egypt? Laura - Like many people, I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt as a child, and in particular the story of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. However, I found that I didn't have much of a chance to revisit the study of Ancient Egypt later on in my formal education, despite taking History for A Level. When I was in my early twenties, I did a lot of travelling and was given an Atlas of Exploration as a gift. I began reading about Harkhuf's life and gathering as much information as I could, before eventually going to Egypt to visit Harkhuf's tomb. After this incredible experience of treading in the first explorer's footsteps, I felt I had to throw all my energy into telling his story.

Adrian - I'd love to visit Egypt someday, what a great research opportunity that would be. Speaking of research; You set your story deep in the distant past, long before the time of super famous Pharaohs like Cleopatra and Tutankhamun. What were the challenges of researching such a bygone era and how did you overcome them? Laura- It was very tricky to source the research materials I needed. Most of the readily available information is gleaned from the hieroglyphs inside Harkhuf's tomb. This was useful but I needed more information about geology, as well as more detailed maps of the trade routes and historically-accurate place names. Whilst on a teachers' residential course at the University of Oxford, I was able to apply for permission to access specialist Egyptology collections at the Sackler Library, and The Peet Library (at the Queen's College).

It was a real stroke of luck that I happened to be in the vicinity of these special collections whilst I was writing the book, and I'm very grateful to have been granted access. I also struck up a correspondence with a professor who was excavating tombs in the same funerary complex as Harkhuf, and thankfully he was willing and able to answer lots of niggling questions.

Adrian - That's some very thorough researching! So, how did you go about balancing the need for historical accuracy, whilst also ensuring that you were telling a fun and exciting story? Laura - I do enjoy research, but I also tire of it easily, so I found that embellishing my findings with imaginative details was the most enjoyable part of writing the book, and could be done whilst drinking a coffee in a café, rather than in a library with no hot drinks allowed! There is also quite a limited amount of information available that is directly relevant to Harkhuf's journeys, so I was prevented from getting too bogged down in research.

Once I had visited Egypt, it was far easier to me to visualise Harkhuf's upbringing and the first part of his expedition. I became fascinated by the more mystical aspects of Ancient Egypt such as heka (magic) and the idea of amulets being imbued with special powers. I tried to read around these subjects sparingly so as to stay informed, whilst also maintaining the storytelling momentum.

Adrian - Fascinating! What was your favourite Egyptian history fact you uncovered whilst writing the book? Laura- I was surprised to learn that camels were not present in Egypt during Harkhuf's lifetime!

Adrian - You've written a sequel, Harkhuf: The Red Sea, do you have any plans for future books in the series? Or will your next story be something entirely different? Laura - I have begun writing the third book in the Harkhuf trilogy, which I aim to complete by early 2022. I am hoping that Book 3 will feature more boomerangs as I've just realised that they are sadly lacking in Book 1 and Book 2. I then have plans for a middle grade book with an ornithology theme.

Adrian - They both sound awesome, we can't wait to read them! Finally, do you have any advice for our readers who might want to write their own story set in Egypt? What's your top tip? Laura - My advice would be to focus on one aspect of Egyptology that fascinates you and read as much about that subject as possible before beginning your story. If you want a bit of extra help with structuring your story, you could also follow the PYRAMID model of story-writing, something that I developed whilst working on teaching resources for the book. Protagonist (hero/heroine) Yarn (fantastic elements - magic) Rhythm (e.g. alternating short and long sentences) Antagonist (villain/baddie) Movement (what is the journey of the protagonist? Keep it moving) Imagery (e.g. similes and metaphors) Depth (detail and description)

Adrian - That's brilliant! Thanks so much for your time Laura, we're looking forward to reading Harkhuf's next exciting adventure!

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