historical fiction inspiration

Inspiration and obsession are two concepts that all writers keenly understand. The inspiration for my Tales of Ancient Rome saga led me to a distant civilization in Tuscany and Lazio, and on a publishing journey from Australia to America. That odyssey lasted 16 years.

tales of ancient rome saga by elisabeth storrs

My saga currently consists of three books: The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice, and Call to Juno. As is often the case with debut authors, my first book took years to write. In my case, 10 passed before The Wedding Shroud was finally released by an Australian publisher in 2010. During that time I received numerous rejections, and rewrote it twice on the advice of two successive agents.

My writing time was limited to a handful of hours per week which I conscientiously diarized to avoid “slippage.” I hired young local teenagers to babysit my sons while I wrote. And it is surely an example of the tangible passage of time (i.e., my age) that those schoolkids were university graduates by the time The Wedding Shroud was published. And when Call to Juno was released by Lake Union Publishing in the States last year, my two boys were well and truly adults.

I thought it a dream come true when The Wedding Shroud was published and I was contracted to write the sequel, The Golden Dice. However, the fairy tale ended abruptly. The book was released in the same week that Borders went under. Sales were sluggish. And then I was devastated when the Australian fiction imprint failed and the contract fell through for the second book. I couldn’t believe that 12 years of blood, sweat, and tears had been reduced to a shelf life of merely six months.

So I persisted.

A Turn to Self-Publishing

In 2012, the digital market was taking off with the introduction of the Kindle and other e-readers. Self-publishing was now a viable option. I decided to join the indie “gold rush.” People were buying e-readers and hungry to fill their shiny new toys with books.

With my rights returned to me, I released both novels in both digital and POD formats. And with marketing strategies through Amazon, I found The Wedding Shroud leaping into the historical novel popularity and bestseller lists for months at a time. I had accessed the international market, which had a far greater potential for sales than in Australia.

By 2014, sales of both books attracted the attention of Lake Union, the historical fiction imprint of Amazon Publishing. They offered me a contract to re-release The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice in 2015. And they commissioned me to write the third novel, Call to Juno, which was released last year.

I have now sold tens of thousands of books. The writer’s credo of perspiration, practice, patience, passion and perseverance has reaped rewards.

Bestselling Inspiration

So who and what inspired my obsession to write my saga?

For you to understand, I need to take you back to the cusp of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, to a time when Athens was a shining light for its democracy, philosophy, art, and literature—and where the nascent Republican Rome was still scrapping with its neighbors to gain ascendancy in Italy: insular, self-righteous, and belligerent.

At that time, women were possessions of men—in Athens they were cloistered in women’s quarters—and in Rome they were second-class citizens restricted to rearing their children and performing household duties. Roman women rarely ate with their men and could be killed with impunity by their husbands or fathers for committing adultery or even just for drinking wine. And when they died, they were placed in a man’s tomb and not commemorated.

etruscan married couple sarcophagus

With this in mind, I was reading a history book one night when I came across a photograph of a sarcophagus with a man and woman reclining on their bed in a tender embrace. The image of the lovers remained with me. I had to find out who these people were with their distinctive almond-shaped eyes and straight noses and brows. What kind of culture exalted marital fidelity while showing such an openly sensuous connection? What ancient society revered women as much as men?

The answer led me to the Etruscans, a society that lived in Italy from before archaic times. Etruria consisted of a loose confederation of city-states known as the “League of the Twelve” which were located in the regions we now know as Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio. When I dug deeper, I discovered the Etruscans were as enlightened as the Athenians, but there was one major difference: They granted independence, education, and sexual freedom to women—and as a result, were considered wicked, decadent, and corrupt by the rest of the ancient world.

erotic etruscan funerary monument

I found another sarcophagus with an even more powerful image: a man and woman embracing naked beneath a mantle which I came to understand could be the large veil under which an Etruscan bride and groom were married. So, in effect, this husband and wife were lying for eternity under their “wedding shroud.” Such an erotic embrace, or the “symplegma,” is a common theme in Etruscan tomb art, with examples that range from the demure to pornographic. For sex is a potent force against death.

So what do we know about Etruscan women?

They were educated, influential, drank wine at banquets with their husbands, exercised in gymnasiums, and attended athletic games. As a result, they were considered sinful compared to Roman women. The famous story of the Rape of Lucretia is based on the fact the Roman matron was seen as the epitome of feminine virtue compared to the dissolute wives of the Etruscan kings who once ruled Rome.

Despite the slurs cast on Etruscan women by ancient writers (from societies that repressed women), they definitely were held in high esteem in their own society. Some historians have postulated that noble women may well have raised illegitimate children in their own right due to their rank and wealth. There is certainly proof that married women held positions as high priestesses with status comparable to a magistrate.

The fact that both paternal and maternal bloodlines were acknowledged on Etruscan women’s graves also distinguishes them from their Greek or Roman counterparts in that era. In early Rome, in fact, women didn’t even have their own identity. Females only had one name—that of their father, in feminine form.

From Fascinating History to Gripping Fiction

So I fell I love with the Etruscans and wanted to write about these extraordinary people, but I knew it had to include a comparison with the less cosmopolitan Romans of that time. That’s when I discovered the little-known story of the siege between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii.

Veii and Rome were only situated about 12 miles apart across the Tiber, and it intrigued me that merely by crossing a strip of water, you could move from the equivalent of the Dark Ages into something similar to the Renaissance.

But how would I make it interesting? What would be the hook?

I created two characters—a young Roman girl called Caecilia who is married to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna, to seal a truce. And she would leave Rome, austere and intolerant, to travel to his city and grapple with conflicting moralities.

So what did Caecilia find when she reached Veii?

Many of the customs we associate with the decadent imperial Rome were actually adopted from the Etruscans. Caecilia is stunned to find that the Etruscans follow a mystical and sophisticated religion. Their tenets were set out in a series of sacred books that together formed the Etruscan Discipline, with its complex teachings on how to foretell and even defer fate.

It also appears the Etruscans followed two cults. One was a so-called “death cult.” This involved human sacrifice in funerary games—a precursor to Roman gladiatorial combat. Blood was shed to appease the dead so they did not rise up to harass the living, and to gain a type of immortality in the form of a lesser god.

The other cult was much less gruesome and sounds a lot more fun. However, it is equally challenging to the virtuous Roman Caecilia. Etruscans were followers of Fufluns, the equivalent of the Greek Dionysus or Roman Bacchus. In fact, the cult of the wine god was almost elevated to a “national” status among the League of the Twelve. It was believed that the spirit merged with the divine through ecstatic, orgiastic worship. Ultimately, adherents would enter the “Beyond” to obtain eternal life.

The contrasting concept of fidelity vs. wantonness perplexed me. Which version of Etruscan women is correct? Sinners indulging in orgiastic sex or steadfast wives embracing their husbands for eternity?

In my books, I pose this dilemma for Caecilia. She is soon seduced by her husband and the freedoms his society offers her, but the wild, uninhibited and often savage Etruscan religion frightens her even as it offers eternal life.

Throughout the Tales of Ancient Rome saga, she journeys from being a self-absorbed teenager thrust into an alien land to a strong mother committed to her husband, children, and adopted city. In each book she must make a choice—whether to choose Veii and love, or Rome and duty, in The Wedding Shroud; to cut off her ties from her Roman family who consider her a traitoress in The Golden Dice; and in Call to Juno, whether she is prepared to see Rome destroyed, and if she can exorcise the vestiges of the Roman within her by surrendering her religious beliefs.

Bringing the Past to Life

You’ve heard about my publishing journey and my love affair with the Etruscans, but what about my research?

Nearly all historical novelists talk about the value of “walking the ground”—that is, visiting the site of their story. During the time I wrote The Wedding Shroud, I was not in a position to travel overseas. Family obligations bound me to home shores. Yet I yearned to go to Italy. Finally, after many, many years, I reached Veii.

Unfortunately, very little remains of the city that was once the jewel in the crown of the Etruscan League. However, it was lovely to find that the ruins were situated in a national park known as Parco di Veio. I found birdsong and trees rather than bitumen and buildings. And I was excited to be escorted around the ruins by Iefke Van Kampen, an archaeologist who is the curator of the Museo dell’Agro Veientana.

As I left, Iefke asked to read my books. Of course, I was daunted by having an expert reading my novels. When I heard nothing from her, I assumed she did not think much of them. Three years passed, 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.

I was astonished. Funerary art had inspired my words, and now my words would breathe life into the beautiful terracotta images of long-dead Etruscans in a museum near Rome. Imagine my delight when I received an invitation for the December 2016 opening.

etruscan museum exhibition invitation

Alas, Italian museums’ strict rules prevented Iefke sending me photographs or video of the exhibition, and family circumstances have kept me from visiting Italy again, but one day, hopefully soon, I will climb the high citadel of Veii and come face to face with my characters. Only then will my Etruscan odyssey finally come to an end.

For more fiction-writing tips, read on!

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Elisabeth Storss

Elisabeth Storrs 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, Ben Kane, and Sherry Jones. Over the years, she has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, corporate governance consultant, and legal writer. She is the former deputy chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre and the co-founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. Feel free to connect with Elisabeth through her website or Triclinium blog. You can find her on Facebook, on Twitter @elisabethstorrs, Bookbub and Pinterest. Subscribe to her monthly Inspiration newsletter for inspirational interviews, 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.

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