Blog 103 23/10/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Alison Morton on Building an Alternative World
A LITERARY WORLD
An Interview with Alison Morton on Building an Alternative World
My guest today, is the esteemed, Alison Morton, an author I have known since I first began writing just over five years now. During this time, I have watched her grow from strength to strength, not only because she is a great writer, but because she has an extremely professional attitude to writing and publishing. Alison writes the award-winning Roma Nova series featuring modern Praetorian heroines – “intelligent adventure thrillers with heart.” She puts this down to her deep love of Roman history, six years’ military service, a masters’ in history and an over-vivid imagination. She blogs, reads, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband. One busy lady. She has also been very helpful to other authors, myself included, for which I am most grateful. Like most great writers, she is clearly a thinker and her books reflect this – professionalism again. So I thought I would ask her, just how do you blend the past with the present in an alternate world?
Welcome to A Literary World, Alison. It’s great to have you with us. Can you tell us a little about building an alternative historical world?
Every living person is a product of their local conditions. Our experience of living in a place, and the struggle to make sense of it are expressed through our behaviour and culture. And as we know in our real world, the unexpected happens. Like us, characters in historical fiction have to deal with sudden disasters such as outbreak of war, invasion, plague, earthquakes and volcanoes. People will react in different ways and so must our fictional characters.
Setting a story in the true past or another country is already a challenge, even just in the research! But if you invent the country and need to meld it with known history, then you have a double task.
A writer’s job is to tell a compelling tale. However, the world of the book must grip whether it’s real or imagined. When you tweak time and send it off in a slightly different direction in an alternative historical fiction story, the plot must still be strong; just having a clever or exotic setting isn’t enough.
So how to attract and keep the reader in an unfamiliar time and place?
The key is plausibility. 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 corrupt or clean, they catch criminals, arrest and charge them within a judicial system. Legal practicalities may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining completely plausible for the reader.
As with any story set in a strange place or time, an alternate history story must keep the reader’s trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with detail that verifies and reinforces the setting the writer has introduced. Even though my books are 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 or bagels in the squad room.
In my first novel, INCEPTIO, the core story of a twenty-four year-old under threat of elimination by a sinister government enforcer and compelled to flee could be set anywhere. But I’ve made New York where she lives 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 background details as the New World is only the setting for the first few chapters. But as J K Rowling knew with Harry Potter, although you put only a small percentage of the detail of your imaginary world in the books, you have to have worked it all out in your head.
So, how to do this?
1. Decide on the point of divergence from real history
This us your starting point. Research this to death; know the political set-up, religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, geography, economy, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups. These are the building blocks for your alternate society.
2. Know how you want your society to be and develop it with historic logic
You can invent a fantastic world, but it needs to have reached that place in a reasonably plausible way.
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 [starting point]. But towards the later Imperial period [moving time on] women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property as well as run businesses of all types [social and economic development]. Divorce was easy, and step and adopted families were commonplace [standard Roman social custom].
Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s original founders, married Julia Bacausa, the tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property [non-Roman values introduced]. Their four daughters [next generation] were amongst the first pioneers [automatically new tough environment] so necessarily had to act more decisively [changing behaviour patterns] than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.
In the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years [outside circumstances], the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life [societal motivation]. Thus, women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen hundred years into the 21st century.
3. Keep ‘anchors’ to what readers already know
Most writers like to encourage readers to participate in the experience of reading their books, but writers shouldn’t bewilder readers. I mentioned plausibility earlier and how to inject corroborative details into the world being created. Anchors are equally important. For example, if you say “Roman legionary” most readers have an idea in their head already.
Taking Roma Nova as an example:
Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high-grade silver in their mountains [geography with a dollop of luck!], their efficient technology historical fact, and their robust response to any threat core [Roman attitude]. Remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople [known historical fact], Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe known [historical turning point]. I actually wrote a short story about their unique contribution as part of Roma Nova’s background history!
4. Make the alternative present feel real
Characters should act as normal people of their time with a sense of living in the present; what do they wear and eat, where do they live, what do they like or loathe? Readers like to follow what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as reading about major historical events. It’s often more compelling to follow the individual character’s story than the big event…
As with any story in any genre, the writing must create a credible and consistent world backed by meticulous research, but the writer is, of course, the mistress of her universe.
Download Alison’s practical guide to writing in an alternate historical environment: https://alison-morton.com/roma-nova/writing-in-an-alternative-history-setting-2/
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Alison, and I can just imagine how much thought goes into this series. I particularly like your comment – “As J K Rowling knew with Harry Potter, although you put only a small percentage of the detail of your imaginary world in the books, you have to have worked it all out in your head”. This why your series flows. I have said this to you personally, but I will say it again for my readers, the Roma Nova Series would make a great TV series. Fast-paced, unusual, and visually inspiring. I look forward to that day. In the meantime, on behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success.
MORE ABOUT ALISON”S BOOKS:
All six full-length Roma Nova novels have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. 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. SUCCESSIO was selected as an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller. Novellas CARINA and NEXUS and a collection of short stories – ROMA NOVA EXTRA – complete the series so far.
Social media links
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: https://alison-morton.com Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison_morton Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/alisonmortonauthor/ BookBub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/alison-morton Alison’s writing blog: https://alisonmortonauthor.com Alison’s Amazon page: http://Author.to/AlisonMortonAmazon