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Writers' Corner

From Historian to Historical Novelist
By Write Historical
Posted on 4/20/2017 2:55 PM

Originally published 4/18/17

Have you ever looked back and pinpointed a turning point that changed the course of your life? We all have life experiences that steer us in a new direction. Sometimes they are small; sometimes they only become clear in retrospect.

For me, one of those moments came while I was riding on the back of a slow-moving passenger ferry in the Venetian lagoon. Inhaling diesel fumes and the distinctive scent of hundreds of sweaty international tourists under a July sun, we headed to the island of Murano.

You see, even as a wide-eyed teenager raised on Georgia farm, I knew I was supposed to go home from my trip to Venice with Murano glass, but I had no idea why. All I knew was that I was whisked to the famous “glass island” on an overcrowded, stinky boat. Then I waited behind two dozen American and Japanese tourists to pay an exorbitant price for a little glass fish. What a bewildering experience!

Still, I wanted to know what was so great about Murano glass anyway. And it was the artistic traditions of Europe that lured me back and inspired me to study the great artists of the past. I went on to pursue graduate work in art history, earned a Ph.D. from Yale, threw myself into my research, and began to teach university students about everything from Greek pottery to contemporary painting.

Working as an art historian involves three things: teaching, researching, and writing. Art historical research is a passion for me, and I also love being in the classroom and sharing the history of art with my students. However, it was in the “writing part” of my job that I began to realize I had an itch that was not being scratched. Writing for scholarly journals takes years of training and discipline. I have great respect for the craftsmanship of academic writing and for those who practice it. Personally, though, after writing within the conventions of academic scholarship for some years, I began to feel like I was going to burst!

One day I found myself yawning in the audience of a scholarly conference, and I realized that there was something fundamentally wrong. After all, the history of art is the most fascinating topic in the world! Why do we scholars insist on making it dull and inaccessible? In that moment, not only did I see an opportunity, I felt called to share the excitement of art history with a broader audience through my writing.

Another moment of clarity.

My first foray into “non-academic nonfiction” resulted in a guidebook called Made in Italy. That project took me from the Alps to Sicily, interviewing craftspeople passing on a special kind of knowledge from one generation to the next. I understood that many historical artistic practices remain living traditions. I also acknowledged that it was the stories and the people behind the world’s most enduring artistic traditions—everything from Murano glass to Limoges porcelain, balsamic vinegar, Chinese silk and cowboy boots—that inspired me above all else.

The story of The Gondola Maker, my first work of fiction, germinated inside my head while I was busy researching for my nonfiction guides. The contemporary artisans I interviewed, one after another, told me how important it was to them to pass on the torch of tradition to the next generation. I began to wonder what would happen if the successor were not able or willing to take on that duty. The characters of the gondola maker and his heirs began to take shape, and the idea compelled me to share the story in a debut novel. I soon discovered that my true calling lay in marrying art history and art historical fiction.

It was a journey that began with a turning point. And the rest… is history.


LAURA MORELLI holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, has taught college students in the U.S. and in Italy, and currently produces art history lessons for TED-Ed. She is the author of the
Authentic Arts series that includes the popular shopping guide, Made in Italy. Her debut novel, The Gondola Maker, won an IPPY for Best Historical Fiction and a Benjamin Franklin Award.

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