When I began to write “The Dead Sea Codex,” I realized that I didn’t really want to go back to Israel and risk being blown up by a suicide bomber. So I cheated; I stayed home in Illinois. I used today’s virtual magic carpet, the Internet. Lucky me—I avoided the purgatory of crowded airports and multiple gas-powered vehicles to traverse oceans and time zones only to arrive sleep-deprived, sweat-stained, and thoroughly grumpy. Instead, I lounged around in my pajamas and sipped hot chocolate while dragging out all my old textbooks, diaries, and pictures from my Junior Year Abroad.
As a visiting archaeology student at Tel Aviv University in the 1970s, I feasted on the exotic. I tasted shwarma (roasted lamb) and six kinds of yogurt, joined an international excavation at biblical Beersheba in the Negev desert, swam across the Sea of Galilee with a hundred other people, and was adopted by a wonderful Israeli family with Russian and Romanian roots.
But these memories are out-of-date. What does the Israeli architecture look like now? Is my memory of palm trees and cacti in urban settings accurate? How do you make hummus and tahini dip? What is the name of the female version of the long garment Arab men wear? I found all these things on the Web, as well as listings of current restaurants with their street names, signature dishes, and local beers. To supplement my virtual findings, I purchased a brand-new travel guide to Israel, dug out my Hebrew grammar book, and reread Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and several related books on the Gnostic Gospels, and watched movies set in the Middle East.
Creating an exotic setting without going there in the flesh isn’t easy, but it is possible. I created a notebook for Codex, complete with hand-drawn maps of the area around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a historical timeline, phrases of Arabic and Hebrew that my characters would hear and speak, and cutout photographs of models that resembled the physical description of my heroine, archaeologist and museum curator Lisa Donahue.
Using the Internet and other media does not mean that I’ve given up travel. A recent trip to Egypt proved that no computer screen or video footage can quite capture the smelly and precarious experience of riding a camel or the enormity of the pillars of Karnak. Those experiences have become my fourth novel, “The House of the Sphinx.”