About seven years ago (before my divorce, when I had some expendable income) I traveled to Rome with a group of writers. I fell in love with Italy, Rome in particular. A travel book I read contained a short blurb about vestal virgins; it mentioned they were sworn to thirty years of chastity and, if that vow were broken, they would be entombed alive. Ooooh, I thought, there’s a story!
My interest was further piqued when, on a tour of the Coliseum, a guide pointed out the seats designated to the vestal virgins. I found it interesting that, at a time when most women couldn’t read, the six priestesses of Vesta were educated—in fact they were in charge of all of Rome’s legal documents. Unlike most women, they were permitted private property and dealt with legal issues, making them extremely powerful.
On my return from Rome, I began researching in earnest. And, as I researched, the story developed. I needed a time frame, and I decided the great fire of A.D. 64 would provide a dramatic backdrop. And I needed a villain. Nero, the Roman Emperor, fit the bill—through research, mostly extensive reading, I discovered Nero had raped at least one vestal virgin. The only record of her is the family name, Rubria. That was perfect—gave me lots of leeway.
A book I found added a new dimension to the story, The Faith and the Power—the inspiring story of the first Christians and how they survived the madness of Rome, by James D. Snyder. When I learned Paul of Tarsus had been in Rome during the year I’d chosen to write about, my story really came together. I read a number of books about Paul; the picture I got tended to be “larger than life,” and it took me quite a while to “get” him as a character—a real, live, human-being.
Another indispensable book I used was History of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, published in 1934 by T. Cato Worsfold. This book offers valuable information about the vestals’ daily life, their clothing, and their duties. Very little has been written about them. In my search for information I wrote to Colleen McCullough, and she was kind enough to write back. She gave me the name of an out-of-print book that I’ve used a lot, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, by H.H. Scullard. I have shelves of books I use for research. One of my favorites is Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons. I also have a lot of books about herbs and natural medicines—and I’ve found great site online for researching herbs and poisons. This may sound a bit strange, but I love using the Eyewitness Books—extremely well-researched picture books designed for children. I have one called Ancient Rome, and I also have one about weapons. I like having the visuals right in front of me.
After writing my first draft, I decided I needed to get back to Rome, for the tastes, the smells, the lighting. I work for an airline, which allows me to travel inexpensively. In Rome I met with a scholar, who specialized in the year A.D. 63-A.D. 64, and he gave me an in-depth private tour of the Forum Romanum. He showed me where Nero’s palace had been before the fire, which really helped me visualize the setting for my story.
I’m originally from New York, so while visiting my family, of course I stopped off at the Metropolitan Art Museum and hung out in the Roman area. While doing research, I like to find things to make my experience tactile. That includes finding recipes from the time period and, if they aren’t too weird, preparing them. But I’m not about to attempt a dish using a hundred flamingo tongues or a swan stuffed with sea cucumbers—for that I’ll just use my imagination!
About Vestal Virgin:
Vestal Virgin—suspense set in Rome at the time of Nero, will be published on Kindle and Barnes & Nobel in mid-December. The introductory price for the novel will be .99 cents, just through January 1st, after that it will be $2.99.
Elissa Rubria Honoria is a Vestal Virgin--priestess of the sacred flame, a visionary, and one of the most powerful women in the Roman Empire. But when the emperor, Nero, brutally executes her brother, Elissa's world begins to crumble. Vestals are sacrosanct, sworn to chastity on penalty of death, but Nero holds himself above the laws of men and calls himself a god. He pursues Elissa, engaging her in a deadly game of wits and sexuality. Or is Elissa really the pursuer? Determined to seek to revenge, she stumbles on dark secrets and affiliates herself with a strange religious sect call Christians, jeopardizing her life and the future of the Roman Empire.
Warning: due to the setting and the times, the book includes several scenes involving deviant sex—suggestive rather than graphic—and not more than a few paragraphs.
Suzanne Tyrpak’s short story Downhill was first published in Arts Perspective Magazine. Rock Bottom is published in the Mota 9: Addiction anthology, available on Kindle. Her short story Ghost Plane (not included in the Dating My Vibrator collection) was published by CrimeSpree Magazine. Venus Faded appears in the anthology Pronto! Writings from Rome (Triple Tree Publishing, 2002) along with notable authors including: Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Engstrom, Terry Brooks and John Saul. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers awarded her first prize in the Colorado Gold Writing Contest, and Maui Writers awarded her third prize in the Rupert Hughes writing competition. Dating My Vibrator (and other true fiction) , a collection of nine short stories about dating, divorce, desperation (all that good stuff) is available on Kindle for .99 cents. J.A. Konrath calls it, “Pure comedic brilliance.”
Visit Suzanne's blog, Who’s Imagining All This?