My current work in progress has been a labor of love--BUT--I've learned that when writing historical fiction, it's all about STORY. That means, no matter how hard I may attempt to present historical details, characters, and timelines, sometimes those things have to be changed. Why? Because of plot. I must have a story, and a plausible one.
I'm still a relatively new author, and if there is one huge take-away from my current project, THAT is it.
But there's a new type of historical fiction! It's called Alternative Historical Fiction, and this week, I'm pleased to have Alison Morton, a prominent British Roman author with us to describe how she has designed the world existing in her novels: Roma Nova.
So, do bring along your love for history and your knowledge of the Roman world. And should you not have much of those things, don't worry. Alison knows her job well and will make this informative and fascinating for EVERYBODY!
And she's to be congratulated, as well. Her novel Inceptio has reached its tenth year, and it's the one that started her journey into Alternative Historical Fiction.
Happy Birthday, Inceptio, and read ON, everyone!
A lovely post-card from Roma Nova that Alsion sent me!
Writing historical fiction ‘alternatively’
By Alison Morton
Setting a story in the past such as in Ancient Rome, or in another country, is already a challenge. But if you invent the country and the timeline diverges at a point in the past from our own one, then things become complicated! Roma Nova, where a remnant of the ancient empire survived into the present day, is a perfect example of such an alternate history.
Let’s talk setting Alternate history stories usually stay in the world we know, i.e. Planet Earth. Once you’ve chosen the approximate region of the world (in my Roma Nova books, south central Europe), you need to think about whether it’s in the mountains, near the sea, by a river, has sweeping plains and/or upland hills. What’s the weather like? How advanced is the society? What would you see in their towns and cities? How do people earn their living and who holds the power? And importantly, what is their history? Every living person is a product of their local conditions and their country’s history. Their experience of living in a place, and the struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.
I’ve visited most of the real versions of my settings such as the Alps and Rome, so I have an idea of how the imaginary countryside and cityscapes should look like. The results are here; I refer to them if I’m finding it difficult to visualise my characters in a particular location.
How do writers weave all this into their stories?
The key is plausibility and its partner, consistency. Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers come from all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in different places along the personal morality ruler. But whether vigiles and cohortes urbanae as in Ancient Rome or custodes in Roma Nova, whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable form of cop. They catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system.
As with stories set in the past, legal practicalities in the alternate timeline may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader. A Roma Nova courtroom has statutory magistrates as judges like many modern European jurisdictions, but still has plaintiff’s and defendant’s benches as in Ancient Rome.
Almost every story written in any genre hinges upon artificiality The writer sets up a problem in an imaginary context she has created, even if the story is set in a real place with a real character. Readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust by infusing, but not flooding, the story with corroborative detail; verifying and reinforcing the original setting the writer has introduced.
Even though my series is set in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Roma Novan characters say things like “I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not ‘shoes’) when he finds out.” And there are honey-coated biscuits, not chocolate digestives (iconic British cookie) or bagels, in the squad room.
In INCEPTIO, which I’m celebrating today, the core thriller story of a twenty-five year old who faces total disruption to her life when a sinister government enforcer compels her to flee to another country could be set anywhere.
But in the Roma Nova timeline, I’ve made New York an Autonomous City in the Eastern United States (EUS) that the Dutch only left in 1813 and the British in 1865. The New World French states of Louisiane and Québec are ruled by Gouverneurs-Généraux on behalf of Napoléon VI. California and Texas belong to the Spanish Empire and the Western Territories are a protected area for the Indigenous Peoples.
These are merely background details as the New World is only the setting for the first few chapters of INCEPTIO, although we do return there in CARINA, the novella that follows INCEPTIO. But as J K Rowling knew with Harry Potter’s world, although you don’t put it in the books, you have to have worked it all out in your head.
Things to consider when writing alternate history stories
1. Decide when your timeline splits from real history
Research the political set-up, religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, geography, economy, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups current at the time of the point of divergence. These are the foundation blocks for your alternate society.
For Roma Nova, in early AD 395, three months after Theodosius’s last decree completely outlawing all non-Christian religious practice, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia. Led by Senator Lucius Apulius at the head of twelve families, they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law. By purchase, alliance and conquest, this grew into today’s Roma Nova.
2. Know how you want your society function
If your story world doesn’t hang together, you will break a reader’s trust. The world of your imaginary timeline needs to have reached where and when it is in a credible way, whether by personal or political motivation or forced by circumstances from outside.
In my modern Roma Nova world, women are prominent. This seems a long way from the ancient world where Roman attitudes to women were repressive. But by Late Antiquity, women had gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Divorce was easy, and step and adopted families were commonplace.
In the late fourth century, the then tribune Apulius met Julia Bacausa, the tough daughter of a Romanised Celtic princeling in Noricum. (Your can read Julia and Lusius’s story in JULIA PRIMA.) Women in Julia’s mother’s family made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Apulius and Julia’s daughters were amongst the first pioneers of Roma Nova so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years when new peoples were invading Rome’s territory and radically changing Europe, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and heft weapons to defend their homeland and way of life. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.
3. Keep some anchors to the readers’ pre-knowledge Creating a story should be fun for the writer and the result rewarding for the reader. But writers shouldn’t bewilder readers. Earlier, I mentioned how to drop in details to make the world being created believable. Anchors to our world are equally important. For example, if you say, “special forces soldier”, “forum”, “cop” or “rush hour”, most readers have an idea of these concepts already.
For standard Roman fiction fans coming to the Roma Nova thrillers, they might be relieved to find senators, gladii, Praetorians, an imperatrix, solidi and characters such as Aurelia, Marcus, Flavius and Galla. The modern shopping centre is called the Macellum and the main hospital the Central Valetudinarium, although in Roma Nova the latter is fully equipped with scanners and doctors practicing laser surgery.
4. Make the alternate present real for the characters Writers need to imbue their characters with a sense of living in the present, in the now. This is their current existence – for them it’s not a story in a book! Readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Roma Novans’ ancient heritage is an intrinsic part of who they are. They’re known for their effective military forces, their courage, their robust attitude to threats, their engineering skills and (regrettably) for conspiracies and power grabs. Sound familiar?
In summary, alternate history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling to maximum speculative stretch while keeping a firm tie back to a historical place and time of origin. And the writer of such stories is, of course, the magistra mundi sui.
For me, a ‘Roman nut’ since the age of eleven, using the Ancient Roman Empire as the foundation block for my alternate history series required very little thought and no hesitation. But don’t all writers of Roman historical fiction ask themselves (if secretly) that ultimate “what if” question?
All About the Book
“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 10thAnniversary hardback edition includes bonus content: Three character ‘conversations’, two short stories and the story behind INCEPTIO.
All About Alison Morton
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 21st century 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 4th century, the accolade of Editors’ Choice.
Alison lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
Connect with Alison
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INCEPTIO 10th Anniversary special edition hardback: