Romancing the Research with Lynne Gentry

How do you research a story set in a third-century city? When travel warnings made a research trip impossible, Lynne Gentry took to social media to find an expert. With a bit of help from Facebook, she connected with a passionate researcher who lived just eight miles from the ruins Carthage, Tunisia, just where Lynne needed to be! Here's what an expert from around the world taught Lynne about the setting of her upcoming novel, Valley of Decision.

Some of the most romantic couples in history were draped in royal purple.

According to legend, the ancient Mediterranean city of Carthage was built by a queen who chose to clothe herself in purple and fall upon her sword rather than to defile her love for her dead husband. Queen Dido was forced to flee to northern Africa after her husband’s murder. Within a few years, Dido reigned over a booming empire. When the king demanded Dido become his queen, she killed herself.

I write romantic adventures set in ancient Carthage. A research trip to the ruins of the city of purple would help authenticate my story world. But travel warnings made a research trip unadvisable.

So I scoured the internet for an expert.

I stumbled upon a fascinating blog by the Carthaginian Wanderer. Mohamed Ghassen Nouira is a brilliant marketing executive who lives eight miles from the ruins of Carthage, Tunisia. In Mohamed’s passion to recreate the Phoenician’s lost recipe for purple, he’s acquired a vast knowledge of the forgotten art and the history of Carthage. I had to know what he knew. I found him on Facebook and sent him a friend request. I was thrilled when an expert half-way around the world agreed to answer my questions.

The Carthaginian Wanderer has given me permission to share his labor-intensive process of creating a dye that was once worth many times its weight in gold.

  1. Fat and juicy Murex snails are

    Image courtesy of the Carthaginian Wanderer

     carefully selected. About 40 kg of snails are required to produce a few grams of impure pigment.
  2. Sediment must be cleaned from the shells.
  3. The shell is crushed near the head of the snail with a hammer to expose the hypo-branchial gland which contains the purple precursor.
  4. The glands are carefully cut, laid on a sheet of glass, and left in the sun. In a strange way, Murex glands remind me of vanilla beans. Only when the snail dies does an otherwise colorless and seemingly worthless liquid develop into this precious and permanently colorfast dye, which is exactly the same for vanilla beans. They only develop their distinctive, addictive flavor when they rot and dry out.
  5. On contact with air, the purple precursor starts to oxidize. In the course of 40 minutes it turns from colorless to yellow, green, blue then purple. 
  6. Once the oxidation is finished, the viscous purple pigment is scraped out with a sharp blade and put aside.
  7. The pigment is left to dry in a dark room for three days then finely ground and stored.

Image courtesy of Carthaginian Wanderer

Without the Carthaginian Wanderer’s knowledge of Carthage my story world would have suffered. Mohamed generously described the sights and sounds of places I couldn’t experience. He’s sent detailed photos. He even shared his visceral responses when I asked him to explore the ruins of Perpetua’s Prison.

Image courtesy of Carthaginian Wanderer

Someday I hope to travel to this ancient land and thank this man who loves digging into research as much as I do. Romance a research expert and you, too, could do more than authenticate your story world. You could make a new friend.

Valley of Decision will be avilable in digital and print on Septeber 22, 2015. Preorder a copy: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooksAll Romance | IndieBound. And for more inspirational stories, why not visit our Everything Inspirational page?