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.
And then you leap into the void, gladius in hand…
If readers would like to try writing an alternative history story, they can download my FREE handout on tips and techniques: http://alisonmortonauthor.com/writing-books/writing-in-an-alternative-history-setting/
Here’s the blurb
“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:
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Meet the Author
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.
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