Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today’s guest for the WHAT is Malayna Evans, author of Jagger Jones and the Mummy’s Ankh has long enjoyed crafting stories that feature and promote ancient Egyptian settings, characters and artifacts. Jagger Jones gave her the opportunity to share her passion for ancient history with today’s middle graders and pursue her dream of becoming a published author.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
Absolutely. The moment is crystal clear in my memory.
First, two things-to-know about my biography. One, I’m an Egyptologist by training. And two, my kids are biracial. Now that you know those tidbits…
I was having lunch with my son—he was nine or ten at the time—talking about ancient Egypt, one of my favorite topics. He’d asked what ancient Egyptians looked like and when I said he’d fit in well, he told me someone should write a book about a kid like him who went back in time. He spontaneously whipped up a title and set up: the book should be called The Eye of the Mummy and the kid should fall into a mummy’s eye to time travel.
He and I went home and wrote a chapter that afternoon. Not much about that initial chapter is still in the manuscript, but the inspiration is solid.
(And my son, now a teenager, loves pointing out that the book was his idea.)
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
When my son suggested time travel via mummy, I immediately thought of a tomb from the Amarna period–my favorite historical period–that features images of princess Meketaten’s death. Her death, and mummy, still shape the plot.
I was also influenced by an ancient Egyptian blessing: Ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity, and health. I wanted to examine modern vs. ancient notions of life, prosperity, and health in a format that would entertain young readers. So book one has the modern kids fighting for their own lives while the ancient characters fret about the afterlife. Book two, Wedja, will similarly explore modern vs. ancient ideas surrounding prosperity. And book three, Seneb, health.
It’s mostly mummies, magic and giant scorpions, but these elements were my scaffolding.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
Oh, yeah. My first version had a murkier (dare I admit, more academic) plot that kids probably wouldn’t have found all that fun to read. I didn’t realize it was all wrong until I had the entire idea down on paper. Once I let it percolate, and got some advice from some more experience writing pros, I realized I needed to start over with a crisper plot. I sketched out a general idea—the idea influenced the manuscript but I adapted as I went. As the characters became clearer in my mind, it was easier to figure out what they’d do in given situations. So I’d say I tailored twists and turns to my characters’ strengths, weaknesses, resources and quirks more than anything else.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
I have a million ideas in my head, but most of them don’t stick long. Almost anything can spark an idea: something I read, a tweet, an image. I have one idea twirling around my brain now that was trigger by a phrase I heard in passing that I thought would make a nice book title.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
I have about five manuscripts in some stage of development on my laptop. If an idea loiters in my head long enough—for a few months—I’ll write a few chapters down then ignore it. If I’m still thinking about it a few months later, and it moves me when I review my first stab, I push it forward. I find it really useful to have different projects percolating at once. I can’t edit when I’m too close to a manuscript, so immersing myself in a different WIP helps me see the manuscript I should be editing with fresh eyes.
I have a lot of cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
My rescue dog, Caesar, has been by my side through a huge chunk of my writing. My ten-year-old daughter is my review partner: I read what I’ve written and she gives it a thumbs up…or down. (She is brutally honest.) And I spend an embarrassing amount of time writing in coffee shops. The energy and buzz helps me focus. Plus…. caffeine!