Research and reaching across the ether
By Elisabeth Storrs
My two great passions are writing and history. Melding them together provides me with an opportunity to escape the worries of the everyday while venturing into the ancient world. The exercise of trying to understand the emotions and plights of my characters is both exacting and rewarding. Sitting at my desk in 21st century Australia, I’m required to delve into the psyches of 4th century BC women who survived in a masculine culture, and whose worth was measured in how many warrior sons they could bear.
I was inspired to write the Tales of Ancient Rome saga when I discovered a photograph of a sarcophagus upon which a husband and wife lay on their bed in a tender embrace. The casket was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone a couple depicted in such a pose of affection. The image of the lovers remained with me. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men? Discovering the answer led me to the decadent and mystical Etruscan civilisation and the little known story of the war between early Republican Rome and the city of Veii. These cities were situated only 12 miles apart across the Tiber River but the societies were vastly different in their culture and beliefs. The Etruscans were sophisticated and cosmopolitan and afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to their women at a time when the tribal Romans treated females as possessions and second class citizens.
I researched and wrote my first novel, The Wedding Shroud, for over ten years. The story is about a young Roman treaty bride, Caecilia, who is married to an enemy Etruscan nobleman to seal a tenuous truce. Determined to remain true to Roman virtues, Caecilia struggles with conflicting moralities as she is slowly seduced by both her husband and the freedoms offered by his society.
I did not have the opportunity to travel to Italy during the time I wrote The Wedding Shroud. I was reliant on history books to provide details of the customs, culture and religion of the two opposing societies. The internet was the only method by which I could visualise the scenery. To add to my difficulties, very few texts written by the Etruscans are extant because their civilization was destroyed by the Romans and Greeks. As a result I gained much of my inspiration and knowledge from interpreting Etruscan tomb art which depicts the spiritual and physical world of these people.
If the primary sources were scarce, modern secondary sources were just as problematic. A Google search provided a tantalising glimpse of a journal article by the eminent American Etruscologist Larissa Bonfante, and one essay by the Italian historian, Giovanni Colonna. It was not possible to access out of print copies from the Australian library system. And so I reached across the ether by adding a comment on Dr Bonfante’s Facebook page without any expectation of a reply. Six months later she contacted me to say she had uploaded the article to the Academia.edu just for my benefit. Who would have thought social media could provide a platform for an historical novelist to contact an expert!
As The Wedding Shroud dealt more with Caecilia’s internal conflict about converting to Etruscan ways, I was content to accept my lack of ‘hands on’ research. This changed when planning the next two books because The Golden Dice and Call to Juno chronicle the ten year siege that ensued between the enemies. It became important for me to understand the geography of the two enemy cities. With great excitement, I organised a trip to Italy to ‘walk the ground’ in the footsteps of my characters.
My time was limited but I was determined to see as much as I could of Rome, Veii and other Etruscan cities in Lazio. I located a private tour company who provided scholars and archaeologists as guides. These experts were able to impart invaluable insights. At last I could gaze directly on the murals and sculptures I had pored over in books. I was even privileged to visit sites that were closed to the public. On one such occasion I met Dr Iefke van Kampen, the curator at the Museum dell’Agro Veientana in Veio.
Having an expert like Iefke accompany me on my trip enabled me to learn so much more than I obtained through reading sources. And after I’d returned home, I reached out to her to obtain the Colonna essay from an Italian library for me. Alas, I don’t read the language but the virtual world once again came to the rescue when I located an enthusiastic student on Upwork to translate it for me.
As I was in awe of Iefke, I was daunted when she asked to read my books. When I heard nothing from her, I assumed she did not think much of them. Three years passed, and then out of the blue she sent me an email. She was making a funding application to produce an audio-visual exhibition of votive statuary found at Veii. She asked if she could use my characters to give voice to her collection. And so Iefke and I have developed a friendship which reaches across international boundaries and eras.
Imagine my delight when I received an invitation to the opening of the exhibition. Funerary art had inspired my words, and now my words breathe life into the beautiful terracotta images of long-dead Etruscans in a museum near Rome.
So what is the lesson from my story? Never hold back from reaching out to the experts. Show them your passion and dedication for research. And most of all be courteous. You never know when your questions will be answered across the ether.
Elisabeth has a great love for the history, legends and myths of the ancient world. She is the award winning author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga which has been endorsed by Ursula Le Guin, Kate Quinn and Ben Kane. Over the years she has worked as a corporate lawyer and legal writer. She is also the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia.
Now Elisabeth is hurtling centuries forward to write Treasured, a novel set in WW2 Berlin and Russia about stolen art, crazy Nazi archaeology, and a race to save the Trojan Gold during the fall of Berlin. Be the first to learn about her new release by following her on Bookbub.
Feel free to connect with Elisabeth through her website or Triclinium blog You can find her on Facebook, Twitter @elisabethstorrs, Bookbub and Pinterest. Subscribe to her Inspiration newsletter for inspirational interviews, monthly giveaways and insights into history - both trivia and the serious stuff! You’ll receive a free 80 page short story, Dying for Rome: Lucretia’s Tale.
Call to Juno-A Tale of Ancient Rome
"An elegant, impeccably researched exploration of early Rome and their lesser known enemies, the Etruscans…Elisabeth Storrs weaves a wonderful tale!"
Kate Quinn, author of The Empress of Rome Saga and The Alice Network.
Four unforgettable characters are tested during a war between Rome and Etruscan Veii.
Caecilia has long been torn between her birthplace of Rome and her adopted city of Veii. Yet faced with mounting danger to her husband, children, and Etruscan freedoms, will her call to destroy Rome succeed?
Pinna has clawed her way from prostitute to the concubine of the Roman general Camillus. Deeply in love, can she exert her own power to survive the threat of exposure by those who know her sordid past?
Semni, a servant, seeks forgiveness for a past betrayal. Will she redeem herself so she can marry the man she loves?
Marcus, a Roman tribune, is tormented by unrequited love for another soldier. Can he find strength to choose between his cousin Caecilia and his fidelity to Rome?
Who will overcome the treachery of mortals and gods?