Funerary Urns and Bats

Last week, I was reminded of some truths about research.

  • What you need is not always in the most obvious place.
  • Going back to a place/person can turn up more.
  • Your intuition may be right.
  • Nothing is as inspirational as feet on the ground.

I have fallen in love with the plot in which my main character is inspired to tell his story when he finds an Etruscan coffin (actually they were called funerary urns and held ashes) on which were carved images from the deceased Etruscan man’s life. I want my character to say:

This unknown man who preserved the events of his life through carvings of himself and a woman, children, a horse, a ship, continues to call to me, and even in the night I sometimes come out and study it. It raises more questions than it gives answers: who was the man, why did the child die, what is the meaning of the horse, the ship?

I know that I will never know the answers to these questions. And yet, at some place deep within me, I know the man. He is no longer just one of that mysterious race we call Etruscan. He is saved from oblivion by his story, vague and incomplete as it is.

But, unfortunately, when I visited all the great Etruscan sites near Rome, I learned that these funerary pieces depicted religious symbols—gods and sacrifices, etc.

Well, bummer. I decided maybe I would just invent a funerary urn with a personal story—there might have been one, right?

But then, in San Gimignano, the town that I can see in the distance when I look out my bedroom window, I found funerary urns that were much smaller and cruder than the ones in Rome. With family events carved around the base. Apparently the Tuscan Etruscans valued their personal stories.

Sometimes, what you need is not in the Library of Congress but in your own little corner—in your local library or in the mind of your elderly neighbor. Sometimes it’s better not to settle for the “best,” but to keep looking.

This family’s story included a horse.

My other ah-ha moment of last week occurred when I revisited the underground rooms beneath the hotel in my little village of Certaldo, where this novel is set. I only went back to take an American friend. The owner had shown it all to me before, relating how the ceiling collapsed sometime in the past, but no one knows when, effectively sealing off a whole area of rooms. He basically gave us the same tour, but this time, he happened to mention the bats.

“I don’t know where they get in,” he said. “They don’t come through the hotel, so obviously, somehow there is an opening from the sealed rooms to the outside.” Then he shone his light into the small opening above the mound of debris that blocked a flight of stairs going down to somewhere and, sure enough, there was a bat.

One of the hotel’s underground rooms with a mysterious double wall.

These stairs once led down to a lower level, but a cave-in has sealed those rooms. What’s in them? No one knows, and the architect says it’s too dangerous to find out. But the bats know.

Why this matters is that my characters, who are trapped down there, can now see a bat and realize that the legends about a tunnel leading out could be true. And that will be a big moment in my plot.

If you went back to a site in your story—perhaps at a different time of year, perhaps accompanied by someone with fresh eyes, perhaps understanding better now what you are looking for, would you find something that you hadn’t seen before? Maybe. If you revisited someone you interviewed previously, might they say something new? Probably.

Research is like peeling back the layers of an onion. You can go deeper by looking at smaller, less well-known sources. You can go deeper by revisiting sources that you think you’ve already mined.

And if you have a feeling, such as my instinct that some people would have wanted their own stories on their funerary urns, don’t ignore it. That research intuition comes from the same place inspiration comes from–that mysterious source of our story in the first place.
– Alison