Aspen Times Weekly: Lafferty’s latest |

Aspen Times Weekly: Lafferty’s latest

by Andrew Travers
Lafferty brought some of her equestrian expertise to her new novel, "The Shepherdess of Siena," which is about the first woman to race in the Palio di Siena.
Aspen Times file |

Novelist Linda Lafferty has carved out a literary niche by finding women who have previously been relegated to historical footnotes and fashioning them into fully realized characters.

A young assistant to a bloodletter in Hapsburg-era Prague (“The Bloodletter’s Daughter”). The “Blood Countess” of 17th century Slovakia (“House of Bathory”). An Ottoman seductress (“The Drowning Guard”). These women propel the stories in Lafferty’s richly imagined historical landscapes.

So it’s no surprise that when, on a trip to Tuscany five years ago, Lafferty began hearing stories about a humble young shepherdess who became the first woman to ride a horse in the Palio di Siena race, a new novel was born.

Titled “The Shepherdess of Siena,” the recently published novel is a portrait of Virginia Tacci, who raced in the Palio in 1581 and remains just one of two women to do so.

During a three-week stay in Siena in 2010, the local author and retired Aspen schoolteacher was writing a different book but also looking for a new subject.

“I was so enamored of it that I wanted to find a story,” Lafferty says of Siena.

As she heard tales about Tacci at the Palio, her ears perked up.

“She is truly the heroine of Siena, I found, and I thought, ‘Wow, there is a novel,’” she recalled.

Lafferty started researching — reading every book she could find about the Palio and its history, and about the era’s powerful de Medici family, while digging through archives for information on Tacci.

As it turns out, there isn’t much.

“I could only find fragments,” she says.

She did find a letter from Siena’s governor to Granduca Franceso de’ Medici in 1581 — which Lafferty found in a Medici archive — about Tacci’s uncanny equestrian skills and ability to tame wild colts. She found poetry written for Tacci in the same period. But after 1581, there is no historical record of Tacci.

The trail going cold may have been a blessing for a fiction writer like Lafferty. Unbound by historical fact, she was able to invent a life for Tacci. Her research also brought Lafferty to meet Rosanna Bonelli, who in 1957 became the only other woman to ride in the Palio, and who gave her a sense of the male-dominated culture of the Palio.

Though she speaks Italian conversationally, the arcane Renaissance language in the archives was a challenge. She enlisted an Aspen-based expert to help translate.

“It’s like translating Shakespeare,” she says. “It’s been really a stimulating experience, looking at all of these Medici documents.”

A horse lover and polo player herself, Lafferty was able to bring her own equestrian expertise to the project. But she also spent time watching the races and interviewing today’s top riders in Siena, to learn about the unique strategy, wheeling and dealing that happens between teams before the bi-annual race.

“I dived right in,” she said. “I know a lot about horses, but this is a whole different sub-culture.”

“The Shepherdess of Siena” is Lafferty’s fourth published novel since her 2012 debut, “The Bloodletter’s Daughter.” Last year she won the Colorado Book Award for Historical Fiction for “The Drowning Guard: A Novel of the Ottoman Empire.” She is nominated again this year, in the Thriller category, for “The House of Bathory.”

Four books into her late-blooming career as a novelist, the journey from inspiration to research to finishing a book has gotten smoother for Lafferty.

“I think I have made a lot of progress, in that I know what to look for when I’m doing my research,” she says. “Each path is different with the books. But I feel like I have a better idea of where I’m going.”

Lafferty is currently at work on a novel about a woman who fought in the Russian Guard Infantry and Cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars, for which she spent some of the winter researching in Russia. For that project, which she expects to finish by summer, she has a rich historical record to work from: she found a diary written by her subject.

“Sometimes you do find enough information,” she said. “But it’s always enough because, as a fiction writer, I get to make it up.”