Using Art to Inspire Story

By Elisabeth Storrs

Have you ever strolled through a museum and found yourself drawn to a painting or a sculpture? What attracted you? The beauty? The drama? Perhaps the serenity? Look closer. Ask questions. Suddenly, you may find the inspiration you’re looking for to fuel the plot, character, theme or setting for your novel.

I was inspired to write the A Tale of Ancient Rome series after finding a C6th BCE sarcophagus upon which a husband and wife lay in a tender embrace. The casket was unusual because, in this period of history, women were rarely commemorated in funerary art let alone a married 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 a twenty-year love affair with Roman and Etruscan frescoes and sculpture. These fired my imagination in so many ways when I was writing The Wedding Shroud, The Golden Dice and Call to Juno.

Carol M. Cram had a similar experience. She found the springboard for her novel, The Towers of Tuscany, when she saw a small painting of an Italian walled town bristling with towers. Attributed to the Sienese painter Lorenzetti, the painting sparked her imagination of what a Tuscan hill town might have looked like in the 14th century.  This led her to imagine her own female protagonist living as a painter in the town of San Gimignano which had over 70 towers in the 14th century.  Carol found further inspiration for her characters and scenes for the other two novels in her Women in Art Trilogy in artifacts such as C19th English satirical cartoons for The Muse of Fire, and musical instruments and scores for A Woman of Note.

In fact, art has become such a driving force for Carol that she created Art In Fiction, a website showcasing novels inspired by the arts, and The Art In Fiction Podcast on which she chats with like-minded authors.

Carol and I met ‘virtually’ in 2016 when we extended hands across the hemispheres (I’m in Australia and Carol is in Canada) after both of us landed contracts with Lake Union Publishing. We’ve now joined forces to develop the Using Art to Inspire Story workshop to introduce participants to the many ways in which the art of an historical period can be used to construct stories, deepen characterization, drive plot, and seamlessly add historical detail.  

In our workshop, you’ll learn techniques for using imagery found in paintings, ceramics, sculptures, cartoons, drawings, and objects d’art as inspiration for historical fiction. I’ll present the content through the lens of Etruscan and Roman art used in A Tale of Ancient Rome. Carol will reference the art from the three periods, medieval Tuscany, 1830s Vienna, and late Georgian London, featured in her Women in Art trilogy.

You’ll also learn how to analyze the moral and social priorities of an historical era through art and identify the significance of clothing to signify social rank and profession. Even more fascinating (at least to me!) is decoding period-specific symbolism because understanding such symbols helps the novelist to interpret history and present an immersive and authentic world. For example, lack of written sources from the Etruscan period required me to recognize symbolic imagery as cyphers to interpret ancient culture and ritual, particularly with respect to women’s roles.

The workshop includes an interactive component in which you apply the techniques discussed to “deconstruct” sample works of art.

We hope you’ll join us at the HNS Conference online on Friday, June 25 at 4 pm Central Time, for a visual feast and a fun session that will open your eyes to new sources of inspiration.

Carol will also be discussing art in historical fiction in a panel with Syrie James, Jeanne Mackin and Laura Morelli on Friday, June 25th at 10.15 am. And I’ll be putting on my HNS Australasia ‘hat’ to discuss the state of international publishing with Richard Lee (the founder of HNS), Ann Marti Friedman and Suneetha Balakrishnan on Sunday, June 27th at 9 am.

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