Every writer has a favorite (and least favorite) step in the process of creating a manuscript. For me, research is it. Research starts the second after I have that ‘lightbulb’ moment. I love the old Looney Tunes scenes when a literal bulb is turned on over a characters head. Excuse the digression. I was tempted to begin to search for images of this and then the origin of the lightbulb for ideas metaphor. Again, I love research. I especially live archival research, but it was a bit difficult to arrange from Hong Kong.

In this case the lightbulb moment was hearing a friend and tour guide, Ayala, casually refer to ‘that time’ her great-grandparents walked from Yemen to Jerusalem in 1881. I had to hear more! I had to know all the details about her family’s journey and this journey in general. I knew about Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950 airlift and sea rescue of 45,000 Yemenite Jews), but an 1881 walk from Yemen was news to me.

Step 1: I asked Ayala for all the details of her family story.

Step 2: (began minutes later) I searched online for hours and days for more information on this particular historical event.

Step 3: I researched Yemen, Jewish Yemen, Jewish Yemenite culture, Jewish Yemenite dress, Jewish Yemenite culture, Semite Aliyah, the 1st Aliyah, Operation Magic Carpet, Jews of Arab Lands… Some sites that I used were: the Israel Consulate page on Jews of Arab Lands, The Jewish Virtual Library, and the National Library of Israel blog (The Librarians). The Librarians is one of my favorite blogs!

Step 4 (visual and sound): I looked for videos for a better understanding of the people. I wish that I had kept track of all the incredible videos that I watched. I spent days and days doing this. It was here that I learned how they cooked, dressed, sang, and danced. Though my book was going to be historical this still gave me invaluable insight into the culture. The films replayed in my mind as I added details into the story like the mother’s singing voice, the poetry, the dancing, and the sound of their silver jewelry. Some that I really appreciated include (this is only a few of dozens): The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Yemen Music of the Yemenite Jews, Yemenite Women Dance, Yemenite Jewish Wedding Celebration.

I also watched many, many other films on Yemen and Sana’a generally to get a feel for the landscape and architecture.

I continued my internet research and collected dozens of images. I knew these could help my future illustrator, but I also needed these to help fill in the world and story that I was telling.

A Yemenite family walking through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Joint Distribution Committee near Aden (image from the Israel Embassies website: Jews of Arab Lands)

Step 5: Since I have limited access to libraries with the materials that I need, I had to buy books to help my research. Many books I only found a sentence or two that was relevant to the specific time period. My two main printed sources were The Jews of the Yemen, 1800-1914, By Yehuda Nini, Routledge, 1991 and The Land of Sheba: Tales of the Jews of Yemen, Schocken, 1947. 

I also read academic articles. These included:

Yemenite Dances and Their Influence on the New Israeli Folk Dances Author, Gurit Kadman, Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 4 (1952), pp. 27-30;Operation Magic Carpet: Constructing the Myth of the Magical Immigration of Yemenite Jews to Israel, Esther Meir-Glitzenstein, Israel Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3; and  The Literature of the Jews in Yemen, A. Neubauer, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Jul., 1891), pp. 604-622.

I then read far too many articles on demons and folk beliefs. This was not helpful for this project, but very interesting.

Step 6: Repeat steps 2-4, but not ad infinitum. Rabbit holes are useful, but there will be a point when even I can see that I’m wasting time.

Step 7: I consulted with people with a similar background. It was difficult to find other families that had made the 1881 journey, but I have many friends who do come from Yemenite Jewish backgrounds. I spoke with their mothers and fathers, their grandmothers, and anyone else willing to speak to me. I asked about character names, language, dress, customs, and food.

Step 8: Consult experts. This step was crucial in fact finding and also these same experts will later be able to help fact check as they did in this case. From Asian Jewish Life, I developed a wonderful working relationship with experts of Far East Jewry. Yemen was new to me. I asked everyone that I knew. One leading expert, from a top US university, was introduced to me at a cocktail party in New York. Another I found from a community member in synagogue and one from X Twitter. This meant that I had to talk about my book non-stop!

Step 9: Repeat steps 1-8. Every detail is important. Every fact is essential.

The trick again is to know when to stop the research process. For me it was when the fully fleshed out manuscript ‘appeared’ on the page. During the revision process with my editor, I had to refer back to the research several times.

All of this – months of this – was what enabled me to write Saliman and the Memory Stone. The incredible illustrations by Yinon Ptahia are what brought this all to life!

There are no shortcuts.

More on Yinon and working with illustrators in a later post!