Today, I’m delighted to welcome Alison Morton to the blog to celebrate the 10th Anniversary edition of INCEPTIO.
Why Roman alternative history?
An avid reader of spy, thriller and crime stories from childhood and a life-long devotee of all things Roman, I yearned to write a Roman thriller with a true-hearted heroine imbued with Roman virtue but a tendency to go off-piste. Lindsey Davis does this beautifully with Flavia Albia, Falco’s daughter and to a certain extent with Helena Justina, Falco’s wife. However, I wanted women to run this New Rome. Yes, I had also read a lot of science fiction including wonderful stories by Anne McCaffery where women were equal if not leading their society. But I didn’t want to write space opera.
There was only one solution: I stayed on Planet Earth and brought my Roman stories up to the 21st century.
A fascination with the ‘what if’ idea
Perhaps it’s something all kids speculate about: suppose I have the wrong parents, suppose I’m really a lost princess, what if I could fly, what if we were all rich? Later, as a student of history, I was always fascinated by the possibilities of the tiniest thing turning the huge wheel of history – “For want of a nail,” and so on. Then I learnt about the ‘butterfly of doom’ where one butterfly flapping its wings cascaded events in a different direction.
When I produced my first manuscript, I didn’t know I was writing in a genre called alternative history (“althist” for short). I was inspired by Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a tense, shocking and beautifully written thriller with a heart-wrenching ‘secret’. Twisting history was allowed and used by acclaimed writers such as Michael Chabon and Kingsley Amis as well as Harris!
Of course, a thriller must be exciting, intriguing and full of emotional punch, but althist stories have their own ‘rules’. The most important are to identify the moment where history as we know it veers off onto a different path forever, and to weave into the story to show how the alternative timeline has developed since that point of divergence.
Why Roman alternative history?
‘Rome’ lasted 1229 years in the West, which time span would take us back to AD 794 from today. It changed from a tiny community of tribal farmers to a confident military and trading empire boasting high culture, diversity, power, engineering and rule of law, eventually dwindling to a miserable rump kneeling before barbarians.
Rome had the dark side of all ancient and later cultures: slavery, rampant corruption, patriarchalism and scant regard for disabled and poor people. But Rome gave us systems, values, including civic-mindedness, cultural and engineering genius and literacy that are still firmly embedded in our psyches today. So it shrieked “explore me” very loudly!
It goes back to a mosaic in Spain Standing on the beautiful floors in Ampurias, I asked my father, “What would it be like if Roman ladies were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism peeping out or maybe just a precocious kid asking a smartarse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”
That childish vision grew and grew. When I was older, I realised I had to put in some proper research. The dissolution of the Roman Empire is fascinating and full of ‘what if’ and natural conflict:
The senatorial families at the end of the 4th century fiercely defended their tradition of worshipping the Roman gods despite ever encroaching Christianity. Led by former urban prefect of Rome and consul Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, they pleaded for religious tolerance, but by late 394 AD Emperor Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence.
In its last fifty to seventy years the Western Roman Empire was dissolving into small enclaves, client states, cut off regions – the Domain of Soissons is one example.
Many former Roman territories retained their Roman administrative systems into the seventh and eighth centuries. Could one remote colony last even longer, say centuries?
Switching from a male Roman ethos to a feminist-lite one
I wanted a strong female character who drove the story, but not a harsh, excluding one, hence my heroine has some very human faults and characteristics. There was and perhaps still is a distinct lack of stories where two women have conversations beyond social or fashion issues and are not dependent on the male characters as wife, girlfriend, colleague. I use a technique called gender mirroring where I reverse the behaviour of the characters of a typical spy or action thriller. Think Jane Reacher or Jamie Bond in modern terms. A fascinating writing exercise!
So, I had to exercise the brain and apply some historical logic for Roma Nova. As the men defended the tiny new state of Roma Nova women worked in the fields, traded, sat on the council and managed the families. Consider the dynamic of only a few hundred men at the front especially during the Great Migrations. They simply ran out of male fighters to defend Roma Nova, so sisters and daughters from these pioneer families had to put on armour and heft weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life.
Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. In this way, women developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.
Pulling in my own history
I served six years in the UK forces with active assignments all over the NATO area and beyond. It never occurred to me that women couldn’t serve in the military. I loved it! In the forces, you are only as good as your last job and you are promoted only on merit; both appealing ideas. Thus, my heroines serve in the elite forces in Roma Nova which fits in neatly with the traditional Roman military mindset.
Building the world
For credible alternative history (not Inglourious Basterds!), there is no easy ride such as making everything up. You need to research as thoroughly as for standard historical fiction, especially around the point in time when the timeline splits and leaves the standard one. For Roma Nova this was AD 395.
The twin guidelines of alternative history writing are plausibility and internal consistency. No country, real or imagined, can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social and political system, food, law and order and income. The basic skills of historical fiction writing apply in the same way: ability to research, respect for known facts (up to the point of divergence), a sense of historical setting, the avoidance of the information dump, and keeping speech, clothes and manners both consistent with and in the world you are describing. For example, in AD395, solidinot aurei, sestertii or denarii were coins used in the late empire, so Roma Nova Internet banking and credit cards in the 21st century are denoted in solidi.
The sources problem
Much of the historical record is missing from the late fourth century, the springboard for my book world. This complicates research. The big problem of records from antiquity is that they tend to contain the actions and thoughts of the elite and usually only of men. Symmachus, whom I mentioned above, was not only the urban prefect of Rome at one time but also a noted writer in a wide circle of intellectuals. Just under a dozen books of his letters and official dispatches have survived. Such fragments combined with finds from archaeological digs and the physical remains on the landscape help researchers build up a picture of life at the time. I’m always dropping into the British Museum, buying new books and searching online. It’s very much a case of putting the different pieces of a jigsaw together then filling in the gaps intelligently and with historical logic.
“It’s about Roman blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”
In an alternative New York, Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, the last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her for a very personal reason?
Stifled by the protective cocoon of her Roma Novan family, deceived by her new lover, she propels herself into a dangerous mission. But then the killer sets a trap – she must sacrifice herself for another – and she sees no escape.
A thriller laced with romance and coming of age, this first in series is Roman fiction brought into the 21st century through the lens of alternative history and driven by a female protagonist with heart and courage.
This 10th Anniversary hardback edition includes bonus content: Three character ‘conversations’, two short stories and the story behind INCEPTIO.
INCEPTIO 10th Anniversary special edition hardback:
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her ten-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21stcentury and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue. INCEPTIO starts the adventure…
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading historical, crime and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Six full-length Roma Nova novels, including INCEPTIO, have won the BRAG Medallion, the prestigious award for indie fiction. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices. AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The Bookseller selected SUCCESSIO as Editor’s Choice in its inaugural indie review. The Historical Novel Society recently selected JULIA PRIMA, the first Foundation story set in the 4thcentury, the accolade of Editors’ Choice.
Alison lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identityand Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
I’m delighted to feature JULIA PRIMA by Alison Morton, and she’s written a fabulous post about her book.
The dangers of travelling in the fourth century
Historical fiction at its best transports the reader into another time and place – the heat, fear and smell of battle, the celebration of a marriage where fire flickers nearby when the bride’s hair is arranged with a sharp spear point, or a voyage across a cold featureless sea where you feared might drop off the edge of the world into oblivion.
Style, tone and construction may be radically different, and the settings may be frightening or fascinating, but all good historical fiction conveys the impression of being an eyewitness to what is happening around them as well as how they are acting in that context.
One immediate way of anchoring a book in the past is thinking about how people travelled. We are so used to leaping into the car or catching a train or plane that we forget how completely different journeys were for pre-industrial people.
The concept of distance has changed radically over time. Over much of human history, it was measured in days or weeks taken rather than in land measurement such as miles. Depending on modes of transport available, whether imperial courier’s horse, an ox cart or simple trudging on foot, the perception of distance depended on the state of tracks, paths or roads.
JULIA PRIMA features a journey on horseback through mountains, transfer on a coastal barge, a voyage on a trading ship, crossing the Apennines on horseback and finally walking through the city of Rome. Each method presents challenges. Horses must be rested and fed regularly. Roman imperial couriers carrying urgent dispatches would change horses at official way stations every 8-10 miles for this reason. Only in Hollywood films and Netflix series can they gallop on and on all day. Saddles at that time had four horns – two back and two front – which held the rider in securely; there were no stirrups. Then there was the question of whether horses were shod or not . . .
Not all Roman roads were hard metalled and impeccably paved and drained. Primarily, the roads had been built for military use as a quick and efficient means for overland movement of armies and officials. Altogether there were more than 400,000 kilometres (250,000 miles) of roads, of which over 80,500 km (50,000 miles) were stone paved. Many were gravelled, even in towns with some slabbed surfaces in the most important parts such as the forum. Added to these were private roads, rural roads, tracks and link roads. Much more detail here: https://www.alison-morton.com/2020/12/18/on-the-road-to-rome/
Taken together, they allowed the movement of people and goods, and connected isolated communities, helping them to absorb new ideas and influences, sell surplus goods, and buy what they could not produce locally. This trade resulted in an increase of wealth for everyone to a level not seen before and is suggested as a strong reason why many people strove to adopt the lifestyle of their conquerors.
But towards the end of the fourth century, there were potholes, missing slabs and invasive vegetation as local authorities could not afford their upkeep. Bridges built earlier, especially in the time of Augustus nearly two hundred years earlier, were failing, with parapets missing, holes in the surface and even collapsing completely.
Sailings, even for short passages such as across the Adriatic from Trieste to Ancona, were subject to season, usually May to October, and in the late fourth century, the most fearful danger: pirates. The imperial navy was mostly based in Constantinople by the time of JULIA PRIMA in AD 370 and the few ships still based in Ravenna would not offer comprehensive protection. Storms could bring all sea transport to a grinding halt as could a complete lack of wind. Nevertheless, traders still crossed the water, usually in convoys, and if fortunate escorted by a naval ship which gave an appearance, if not the reality, of protection.
Ferries today such as the cross-Channel ones offer cushioned seating, restaurants, shops and even cabins with ensuite bathrooms. Julia and her companions travel on the hard deck of a merchant ship with whatever shelter and comfort, such as light mattresses, they brought with them. The galley could provide hot water, but you brought your own washing bowl, cups and eating dishes and your own food. Once it set sail, a ship was a self-contained and vulnerable world that was lost to all human contact until it docked again. No ship’s radio, GPS, satellite tracking and communication meant that it could disappear without trace and nobody would know its fate. And news of events, e.g. death of an emperor, would only be available once the ship docked.
Many travellers stayed with friends, family or trade colleagues. In larger cities and ports, there was a range of possibilities from well-equipped rooms in top classinns to a bed in a shared dormitory, often also shared with travellers of the insect variety!
At the most simple were private houses offering a room in their property for a fee. They could include stabling for animals and supper for their riders. Perhaps an early form of B&B! Travellers would know these houses by a lamp lit over their entrance door. Often this was the only form of hospitality in rural or remote areas.
A mansio gave accommodation to official visitors and feeding, watering and stables for their animals. They had to produce a travel document/official chit to show their entitlement to gain access to these government-funded facilities or they were back on the road again.
Non-official travellers had a choice, depending on the size of their purse and their inclination. Cauponae were often sited near the mansions and performed the same functions at a lower level of comfort. However, they suffered from a bad reputation as they were frequented by thieves and prostitutes. Tabernae provided hospitality for the more discerning traveller. In early days, they were mere houses along the road, but as Rome grew, so did its tabernae, becoming more luxurious. Of course, some did not, but they were generally above the level of the scruffy cauponae. Many cities of today grew up around a taberna complex, such as Rheinzabern in the Rhineland.
A third system of way stations serviced vehicles and animals: the mutationes (changing stations). In these complexes, the driver could purchase the services of wheelwrights, cartwrights and equarii medici, or vets. Some hostelries had elements of each type above, so historical fiction writers can often use generic descriptions such as inns or lodgings and vary the description of the accommodation as it suits their story.
For travellers in the late imperial period, such as Julia in AD 370, the danger from bandits had increased markedly. Some were dispossessed agricultural workers, some escaped slaves, mercenaries for hire or just criminals. As systems dissolved, the military became less visible and finances to fund them ran out, thereby making travelling increasingly dangerous.
Here’s the blurb:
“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.
Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.
Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.
But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. But a vengeful presence from the past overshadows her perilous journey. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21stcentury and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her latest two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
Today I’m featuring an excerpt from 1066 Turned Upside Down by author and Anglo-Saxon historian Annie Whitehead
A MATTER OF TRUST
by Annie Whitehead
Wearing the crown is one thing, but if Harold were to rule with any security and authority, he needed the support of the northern earls. At some point between his coronation and April 16th, he travelled north to try to secure that support. It has often been said of Earl Morcar that he ‘owed’ his earldom to Harold, who had endorsed him after his brother Tostig had been ousted. The Earldom of Mercia had once been a separate kingdom, and nationalist fervour had often caused problems for the kings of Wessex. Mercia had strong links with the neighbouring Welsh, and Edwin’s family had been close allies of Gruffudd of Gwynedd, whose death was engineered by Harold. Edwin and Morcar’s grandfather had been a political rival of Harold’s father, and the Godwin family had caused their father, Aelfgar, to be removed first from an earldom in East Anglia and then, briefly, from Mercia. These two families had ‘history.’
Late February – York
The message, when it arrived, had been simple. Edward dead, Harold is king. Come north. Riding to answer his brother’s call, Edwin had his grandmother’s words still ringing in his ears. ‘Our time has come, now. It is time to make Mercia great again.’
His gloves offered protection from the chilly air, a remnant of the winter that was slow to depart, but now he took them off, feeling the reins pressing into his palms while he stared at the leather embossing on his pommel. He had thought for a long time before setting out and was not convinced, even now, that he had done the right thing. They rode through the southern gateway of the erstwhile Viking kingdom of York, where the base of the stone watchtower was strewn with flowers, and had to slow their pace to avoid the press of people, brought out by the late winter sunshine and the presence of the King. The Godwins. Harold Godwinson was standing outside the Earl’s hall, with members of the northern nobility, among them Edwin’s brother, Morcar, the present Earl of Northumbria. Edwin dismounted and handed his reins to a waiting horse-thegn.
His younger brother came running to him, grinning wide enough to split his face. The afternoon sun shone on his hair. It had already left its mark on his face, where a band of fresh red covered his nose and the upper part of his cheeks. Despite the chill, he was in his undershirt. There was a slash in the sleeve; even today, Morcar had been in the yard, practising his sword skills. Edwin had not seen Morcar for some months, but Morcar wasted no time on such greetings.
‘Edwin, you must agree to Harold’s kingship. Tostig was earl, and we threw him out. And when Tostig tried to take Northumbria back, Harold did nothing to help him. Think on it, he chose me as earl, over his own brother.’
Edwin sniffed. It wasn’t much of a compliment. It was no ill reflection on Morcar, but Harold had simply chosen his only available option, as a condemned man might choose life instead of the gallows.
As if hearing his thoughts, Harold Godwinson moved away from the steps of Morcar’s great hall. Moustaches neatly trimmed, carmine tunic blowing in the breeze, he descended with his unmistakeable swagger towards the newly arrived nobles, but Edwin could detect the doubt: the tilt of the head, the slump of his shoulders when the nobles he walked past refused to bow, instead folding their arms across their chests.
Harold stepped toward the Mercians, giving a slight wave of the hand held at hip level, an involuntary betrayal of his thoughts; that the opinions of those on the steps mattered less than those of the men he was approaching.
What happens next? Does the Earl of Mercia accept Harold’s friendship? Find out in 1066 Turned Upside Down
Thank you so much for sharing an excerpt from your story. It’s good to see The Earl of Mercia featured.
Here’s the blurb:
Have you ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings in 1066? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his crown? If so – here is the perfect set of short stories for you.
1066 Turned Upside Down explores a variety of ways in which that momentous year could have played out very differently.
Written by nine well-known authors the stories will take you on a journey through the speculative ‘what ifs?’ of England’s most famous year in history.
“1066 Turned Upside Down is the exemplar for how analytical counterfactual history should be done, combining the best elements of fiction and non-fiction to create an immensely impressive achievement.”
“As a collection, the quality of the writing is exceptional and the variety of possible outcomes presented is truly fascinating.”
“The collection is assembled in such a way that between the ‘alternatives’ are the related facts as they happened, as far as historians and archaeologists know – which still leaves room for these experienced writers’ imaginations.”
“A book I will read and re-read. I heartily recommend it”
“The real joy of a collection of stories like this is, of course, that you are likely to be introduced to writers you may not have come across before.”
1066 Turned Upside Down is a collection of eleven alternative history short stories of a ‘what if’ nature imagined by nine well-known successful authors:
JOANNA COURTNEY Ever since Joanna sat up in her cot with a book, she’d wanted to be a writer and cut her publication teeth on short stories and serials for the women’s magazines before signing to PanMacmillan in 2014 for her three-book series The Queens of the Conquest about the wives of the men fighting to be King of England in 1066. Her second series, written for Piatkus is Shakespeare’s Queens exploring the real history of three of the bard’s greatest female characters – Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Cordelia.
Joanna’s fascination with historical writing is in finding the similarities between us and them –with an especial goal to provide a female take on some of the greatest stories we think we know. www.joannacourtney.com
ALISON MORTON writes the award-winning alternative fiction Roma Nova thriller series featuring tough, but compassionate heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical, adventure and thriller fiction. A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. She has recently branched out into a contemporary crime setting with Double Identity, the first of a planned series.
ANNA BELFRAGE Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal and time-slip ingredients. His Castilian Hawk – returning to medieval times and her most recent release, The Whirlpools of Time, a time travel romance set against the backdrop of brewing rebellion in the Scottish highlands. Anna has won several awards including various Gold, Silver and Bronze Coffee Pot Book Club awards. www.annabelfrage.com
ANNIE WHITEHEAD is an historian and prize-winning author. Her main interest in history is the period formerly known as the ‘Dark Ages’. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed (daughter of Alfred the Great), who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar. Cometh the Hour goes further back in time to the seventh century, to tell the story of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia. Annie has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and was the inaugural winner of the HWA (Historical Writers’ Association)/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Competition and is now a judge for that same competition.
Annie has had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) has been an Amazon #1 Bestseller. Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England was published by Pen & Sword Books in 2020.
CAROL McGRATH is the author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. Her fifth historical novel, The Silken Rose, first in The Rose Trilogy, published by the Headline Group, is set during the High Middle Ages. It features Ailenor of Provence and was published in 2020. The Damask Rose about Eleanor of Castile was published in 2021. The Stone Rose, Isabella of France, follows in 2022. Carol has also written Historical Non-Fiction for Pen & Sword.
ELIZA REDGOLD is an author and ‘romantic academic’. Her bestselling historical fiction includes her Ladies of Legend trilogy, starting with Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva released internationally by St Martin’s Press, New York. Her historical romances are published by Harlequin Historical, London (Harper Collins). They include Playing the Duke’s Mistress, Enticing Benedict Cole, The Scandalous Suffragette and The Master’s New Governess. They have been translated into multiple languages including Italian, Polish, Czech, Danish and Swedish, and are available internationally.
G.K. HOLLOWAY After graduating from Coventry University with an honours degree in history and politics, he worked in education in and around Bristol, England, where he now lives. After reading a biography about Harold Godwinson, he studied the late Anglo-Saxon era in detail. When he had enough material to weave together facts and fiction he produced his novel. 1066 What Fates Impose, a story of family feuds, court intrigues, assassinations, plotting and scheming, loyalty and love, all ingredients in an epic struggle for the English crown. www.gkholloway.co.uk
HELEN HOLLICK moved from London in 2013 and now lives on a thirteen-acre farm in North Devon, England. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science fiction and fantasy, and then discovered the wonder of historical fiction. Published since 1994 with her Arthurian Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, followed by her 1066 era duo. She became a USA Today bestseller with her story of Queen Emma: The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), and its companion novel, Harold the King (titled I Am the Chosen King in the U.S.A). She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, a series of pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. Commissioned by Amberley Press she wrote a non-fiction book about pirates in fact, fantasy and fiction and a non-fiction book about smugglers, published by Pen and Sword.
Recently she has ventured into the ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Mysteries, the first of which is A Mirror Murder. She runs Discovering Diamonds, an independent online review site for Historical Fiction, primarily aimed at showcasing Indie writers.
RICHARD DEE was a Master Mariner and ship’s pilot, now living in Brixham, South Devon. His novels include Science Fiction and Steampunk adventures, as well as the exploits of Andorra Pett, a reluctant amateur detective. www.richarddeescifi.co.uk
Connect with the authors of 1066 Turned Upside Down
Today, I’m delighted to welcome the Historical Fictioneers and their new book, Betrayal, to the blog. Here’s the blurb;
“Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.
A promise broken
A mission betrayed
A lover’s desertion
A parent’s deception
An unwitting act of treason
Betrayal by comrades
Betrayal by friends
Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.
Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.”
This sounds like a fascinating project, and the authors have been busy answering my questions (yes, all of the authors:)) Enjoy.
How did the collection come about? (whose idea was it)?
The popularity of short fiction has been on the rise, and many of my author acquaintances have been writing shorter works: some as reader magnets they offer for a newsletter sign-up; others for their websites or on retail sites.
I was working on a series of short stories myself when an article landed in my inbox. A group of suspense/mystery writers had collaborated – with great success – on a free anthology. In that case, eight authors contributed to their book. Their individual ‘fans’ were thrilled to get a free story, and at the same time, they introduced their readers to authors they might not know. This sounded like a great way to tempt lovers of historical fiction to sample a new author, a new era. You’ve heard the old adage: ‘don’t re-invent the wheel.’
In November 2019, I broached the idea of an anthology with Cryssa, Annie, and Anna, who I’d met virtually through our work as co-editors of the English Historical Fictions Authors blog. Anna & I also met face-to-face at the HNS Denver conference in 2015, and I met Cryssa at HNS in Oxford, UK, in 2016. This was supposed to be the year I met Annie, but… COVID19.
Fortunately, these ladies were on board for the idea. We created guidelines for the stories and talked themes, word count, cover design, costs, and marketing before reaching out to eight more writers. And lo and behold…we give you Betrayal!
Will Jane Reader devour every story in the anthology? Will Joe Reader discover a new author, a new era, that intrigues. We all hope so!
Why did you choose the theme of “Betrayal” for your books?
When we were considering what could connect all the stories, we couldn’t rely on a unifying event like the Norman Conquest since we all write different eras. This meant that theme needed to be the unifier. Betrayal is a primal emotion. It stirs up our deepest fears. One can’t be betrayed by an enemy. Only those closest to us, the people who know our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses can wield this power against us. Each story explores betrayal in its many facets—shifting alliances, deception, intrigue, vengeance, and treason. Ultimately, they all examine the calculated violation of trust.
What was the once piece of advice you were given about writing historical fiction that has proved invaluable?
Elizabeth St. John
I wish I had been given the advice personally, for it came in an interview I read with Hilary Mantel, a historical fiction author I greatly admire. “My chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives,” she said, shortly after winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall. “From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.”
That one sentence gave me the confidence to move from extensive research to writing the fiction that became my trilogy, The Lydiard Chronicles. I could use my learnings to form the foundation of my characters, knowing I was free to weave their deeds, loves, friendships and enemies into their thoughts and feelings.
I’d written three books before I was persuaded to employ the services of a professional historical fiction editor. Before then, I’d used a general editor who had an interest in history but focused on spotting typos and making sure the commas were in the right places.
The editor who supports me now is able to take a much deeper view of my writing, as she checks for consistency across a series. Most importantly, she also provides developmental comments to support my revision process, and it able to fact-check details to help with historical accuracy.
This service can be expensive, but in the UK the costs can be reclaimed against tax. Although I find editing one of the least satisfying aspects of the writing process, I always look forward to seeing what comments my editor has made.
Do your research as best as you can, but recognise when it is time to stop researching and start writing.
I come from the formal end of history with a masters’ degree so I’m strict about getting the facts right by using three different sources. That’s the problem, of course. Sometimes there are none. Our job, according to writing friend Conn Iggulden, is to fill those gaps intelligently. So, we are back to thorough research, but fired by our imaginations.
I don’t pay a lot of attention to how-tos, but I did read Stephen King’s “On Writing”. He said something I really took to heart. To paraphrase it, he said your first job is to entertain someone who had a hard day at work and just wants to relax. That statement gave me pause. I’m so worried about getting the story “right” that I sometimes forget that it has to be entertaining. The reader probably doesn’t care about the historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good story.
The best piece of advice is to remember that historical fiction is not ‘about’ history. Like all fiction, it is about a story. Do your research, but don’t let it swamp the story. Your readers may admire your attention to period detail in descriptions of clothing or buildings, but they won’t be reading your work at all if your story does not hold their interest.
Historical fiction defines when and where your story is set, but that is no substitute for skillful storytelling. Sometimes you have to rein in your interest in history to ensure that every chapter end persuades the reader to follow your tale to the end.
Many years ago, I sent my first WIP to an editor. The lady in question had been one of the teachers at a writing course I took and I really admired her writing, so it took some courage to send her my manuscript. Overall, she was very positive—except for one thing. “Scrap all attempts at writing period dialogue,” she wrote. “You have no idea how they spoke back then, I have no idea, the reader has no idea. The only thing we know for sure is that we probably wouldn’t understand them—or they us. Instead, write vivid and gripping dialogue so as to really hook the reader.” Yes ma’am, I thought, feeling my shoulders sag with relief and have since then concentrated on using dialogue to drive scenes rather than set them.
When I first began writing one of my university professors instilled in us the importance of thorough research. ‘Don’t be sloppy,’ he said, and went on to show us the importance of thoroughly researching from every perspective. Once you’ve read all you can, select the point of view from which you wish to write, and stick to it. I’ve written about many people from the Tudor period and they often appear in more than one book but they are never the same. People change depending on who is viewing them. Margaret Beaufort when written from Elizabeth of York’s perspective in A Song of Sixpence is initially a rather interfering, annoying mother-in-law but in The Beaufort Chronicle, which is written from Margaret’s own point of view, she is quite different. Viewpoint is important. It is also crucial that the opinion of the author does not interfere with that of the protagonist. In the author’s note I sometimes add the codicil, ‘The views expressed in this novel are not the author’s own.’
I’m not sure that I ever have been given advice specifically about writing historical fiction. But one thing I always try to bear in mind is the Dorothy Dunnett Quotation which is used as a banner for the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Award, of which I was the inaugural winner, and for which I am now a judge: “History is all very well, but it’s just the showcase. It is the arena in which your characters will perform, and which supplies the conflicts, stresses, dilemmas and the struggles they’ll get through.”
Live the scene. Walk through the events, not as a historian with the benefit of hindsight, but through the eyes of your character who can’t know that a battle is being lost (and why), or the true cause of a fire that destroys their city. Instead, tap into how your character would be feeling during these key moments, be it fear, rage, tenderness or love. Explore their world through what matters to them. If we look back on the historically momentous occasions of our age, we’ll find that we process these events through the lens of our own limited perspective, and in the end, it’s the people around us who make the most lasting impact on our lives.
A critique partner at my weekly writers group asked why I wasn’t using the real (okay, legendary) Robin Hood when I introduced a very Robin-like character in a story I took for the group for feedback. I had a flimsy excuse: ‘oh, he’s been done before by some very talented writers.’ They convinced me to introduce my own Robin-who-is-not-yet-Hood. I was bringing my own perspective, coming into the legend from a different angle. That story, Robin, and other characters from the legend, ended up being an important part of my novel Men of the Cross and ultimately drove plot arcs for Books II & III of my Battle Scars trilogy. My current work in progress, Rogue, takes the legend a step further.
Early on I was advised to let the research be my guide. While I write outlines, I also know that in the course of doing research, I will go wildly off course and the book will be better for it. So many wonderful characters and plot twists come straight out of history. The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” crosses my mind a lot when I’m doing research. Often I’ll use a sort of collage of real events to come up with a plot point, or I’ll honor a long-forgotten person whose name crops up once in an obscure document by using his or her name in my story. I love those small moments of juxtaposing the real with the imagined.
Why do you think historical fiction continues to fascinate?
Elizabeth St. John
Our fascination with the past often comes as a result of wanting to understand and connect with our present. There is, I believe, a certain reassurance to read of surviving great peril, overcoming terrible odds, enduring overwhelming sadness or loss. When we look for meaning in our own lives, looking back at the past can be consoling, offer hope and inspiration for a way forward. Many of my readers tell me they particularly enjoy the perspective of less well-known people, who may have moved in influential or royal circles, and were observers of great historical events, yet lived and loved much as we do today.
And, I think we all enjoy the travelling through historical fiction into another world, a past that is just out of reach but still evident in ruined castles, captivating portraits and fascinating insights from documents left behind.
The history books offer us the bare facts, and even those are often disputed, but rarely put the flesh on the bones. History is about the lives of real people, who lived and died, and historical fiction can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ in a narrative which for many can be inaccessible.
It’s also intriguing to explore the differences in cultural attitudes to such things as love and marriage, childbirth and death, crime and punishment. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the less well-known people around the central figures, such as kings and queens.
The best historical fiction transports the reader, evoking the sights, sounds and even the smells of a different time and place. For me, the fascination is to begin to understand the motivation of figures from history, and to discover why they acted as they did.
Because, until Back To The Future becomes true, or Dr Who turns up in the TARDIS, it is the only way that we can travel back through time – and not worry about getting home again for dinner.
Wanting to know where we come from is a timeless urge but wanting to have a glimpse in a vivid way about how people in the past lived is a strong part of that. Well-written historical fiction gives us the feel of how people tried to make sense of their lives in vastly different circumstances. They were still people, after all.
Sometimes we take a rather idealised view of the past, but as with anything in fiction, it’s an imagined landscape. And sometimes, we wonder how we would act and behave in those times. Historical fiction gives us, from the safety of our armchairs, an emotional connection to the slaughterfields of Cannae, the elegance of the Belle Époque, the dangerous headiness of Byzantium, being under siege in a medieval castle or caught up in the exciting revolutionary transition of the 19th century.
Speaking for myself, once I discovered that history is about real people and real situations (not just names and dates), about love and hate and deceit and disappointment, I was hooked. I’d much rather learn about an event that really happened than a legend from someone’s head. I’m still not sure most readers feel the same way I do, but since history repeats itself, why not be prepared.
The sheer diversity of historical fiction is what keeps readers coming back to this genre for more. It retains its appeal because of its immense variety and breadth of scope. Readers can enjoy romance, action, thrillers, or crime in stories set in any period of the past – it’s like being in a time machine without all the distracting technology. The contrasts between time periods are stark but whether you want to read about World War Two or Roman Britain, historical fiction offers it all.
The Betrayal anthology illustrates this very well with twelve authors writing stories set over a vast expanse of time and employing different writing styles to tackle the same underlying theme.
I think it offers an element of escape. We also tend to believe that life was simpler then, things less complicated and complex. To some extent, that is probably true as the majority of those alive in the past had little time to spend considering anything but how to find food and somewhere to sleep. But no matter the era, the people who live in the times would laugh out loud at the notion that their lives were simple. Take the political machinations in republican Rome, or the complexities of the English Civil War—whatever else you’d call them, they sure weren’t simple! Still: escaping to the past offers a breather from our time. And well-written historical fiction will not only expand the reader’s knowledge about a period, it will usually shed further light on the human condition as such.
There are many different reasons. As an author, I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research, and while it informs, it can be quite dry. Historical Fiction not only tells us what happened, it helps us feel it. A non-fiction account of an execution will tell you what happened and why it happened but a fictionalised version, while based on the same contemporary account, makes the reader suffer alongside the victim. Fiction promotes not only understanding but empathy so the reader shares the protagonist’s pain.
I think that reading fiction, generally, is a form of escape. The reader wants to be transported far away from the everyday. And where better to escape to a more simple world, a more romantic world even, than the past? Okay, the past wasn’t always pretty, but isn’t there something more appealing about a horse ride than a trip in a modern car? Perhaps the reality wasn’t so lovely but we can imagine the beautiful houses, built when architecture wasn’t just about functionality. I think there is also an appeal because of the link to the fairy tales we were told as children, which are centuries old, and usually had old-fashioned illustrations, so there is a sense of comforting familiarity, too.
I’ve heard it said that we read to either escape or to learn. Historical fiction allows us to do both. This genre takes us to places where we could otherwise never go. Given the chance, who wouldn’t want to go back in time and experience historical events first hand—to be with Elizabeth I as she stares down the Armada or to ride along with Charles II during his nerve-wracking escape from Parliament? But historical fiction also offers opportunities to learn, not just about the past but also to make sense of the present. History tends to be cyclical and it’s not hard to recognize echoes of the past in today’s struggles. There’s always a comfort in having a roadmap.
Historical fiction gives a reader a glimpse of a past they rarely see in history textbooks, textbooks that mainly consist of names, events, and dates. Those texts may – or may not – be accurate or complete, and they rarely factor in the human component. So historical fiction fills in the gaps. It makes history come alive and can transport the reader back in time. Perhaps it reveals more about the famous, or the infamous, but even being introduced to an ordinary person in extraordinary situations brings a better understanding of the past.
Great fiction can bring history to thrilling life. Historical fiction allows us to escape into utterly different worlds that still resonate with the familiar. There is nothing like connecting with a character from the past who is motivated by the same goals and feelings that we have today. We can empathize; we know what it’s like to struggle through life’s challenges and exult in life’s triumphs. But we have the extra bonus of hindsight when we read these stories of the past. Anyone who has nodded off with boredom reading dry history books and then becomes obsessed with the same events and time periods by reading masterful historical fiction knows the power of this genre.
A lifelong history enthusiast, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English/Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies. Judith has written twelve novels to date, nine of which are based in the Tudor period covering women like Elizabeth of York, Anne Boleyn and Mary Tudor, but her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life. The Beaufort Chronicle: The Life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series) covers the transitional period between Bosworth and the death of Henry Tudor. She is currently taking a break from Tudor women and writing from the perspective of Henry VIII in “A Matter of Conscience.”
Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and a seventeenth century enthusiast. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award for Historical Fiction and a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards for Historical Romance. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and a finalist for the 2019 Chaucer Award.
Anna Belfrage wanted to become a time-traveller but ended up as a financial professional with a passion for writing and history. She has authored the acclaimed time travel series The Graham Saga, set in the 17th century, and the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy, set in 14th century England. Anna has also published The Wanderer, a contemporary romantic suspense trilogy with paranormal ingredients. Her latest release, His Castilian Hawk, is a story of loyalty and love set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales.
Derek Birks lives in Dorset, England, though he spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a large secondary school before turning his hand to writing historical fiction. His stories, set both in the medieval period and late antiquity, are fast-paced and action-packed—almost no character is safe. He has also produced a series of non-fiction podcasts on the War of the Roses. When he is not writing, he enjoys travel, walking and watching films.
First published in 1994, Helen Hollick became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen(titled A Hollow Crown in the UK), with the sequel, Harold the King (U.S: I Am the Chosen King), being novels that explore events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure series, The Sea Witch Voyages. Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales, and Life of a Smuggler. She lives in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon, runs Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, and occasionally gets time to write . . .
Amy Maroney lives in Oregon, U.S.A, with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. Amy is the author of the Miramonde Series, a trilogy about a Renaissance-era female artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.
Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines—tough but compassionate women. She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a Masters in History and an over-vivid imagination. It was hot that afternoon when, staring at a particularly beautiful mosaic, she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, Alison blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Charlene Newcomb lives, works, and writes in Kansas. She is an academic librarian (retired) by trade, a U.S Navy veteran, and has three grown children. When not at the library, she is still surrounded by books trying to fill her head with all things medieval and galaxies far, far away. She loves to travel and enjoys quiet places in the mountains or on rocky coasts. But even in Kansas she can let her imagination soar.
Tony Riches is a full-time author based in Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK, and is best known for his Tudor trilogy. After a career in the Royal Air Force he held senior roles in the National Health Service and Local Government. When researching his books Tony likes visiting the actual locations and discovering elusive primary sources. In his spare time he enjoys sailing and sea kayaking.
Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she received her B.A in Literature at the University of Missouri before moving to New York to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended. Today she lives in Sergeantsville, N.J with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Elizabeth St. John
Elizabeth St. John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going thee days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them—in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that’s a different story . . .
Annie Whitehead has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England:To Be A Queen, about the life of Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians; Alvar the Kingmaker set in the turbulent tenth century when kings died young and not always of natural causes, and Cometh the Hour, the story of King Penda the pagan king. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books and she was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award.