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Tuesday 22 October 2013

my Tuesday Talk Guest: ALISON MORTON

How to write the world of INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS

Alison Morton is the author of  INCEPTIO, an alternate history thriller published by SilverWood Books in March 2013
Shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award and  B.R.A.G. MedallionTM honoree Alison is here to talk about the next in the series: PERFIDITAS which was published on 17 October 2013

Thank you very much for welcoming me to your blog, Helen.
[My pleasure Alison!]

When I wrote INCEPTIO, the first of my series of Roma Nova thrillers, I wanted to produce a cracking story full of suspense, mystery, heroism, humanity, Roman values and the odd touch of humour. The characters had to be well-defined and realistic, true products of their societies. The second in the series, PERFIDITAS (Latin for betrayal), came out a few days ago and retains those elements plus hefty dollops of rebellion and treachery. So far, so historical.

But it’s not quite the historical timeline we know. Looking at a familiar part of our world, North America, we find in the Roma Nova books that New York is 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 chapters of INCEPTIO. But as J K Rowling knew, you might not put it in the books but you need to have it all worked out in your head.

Where did Roma Nova come from?
In our timeline, the Western Roman Empire didn’t ‘fall’ in a cataclysmic event, but localised and dissolved like chain mail fragmenting into separate links giving way to rump states, local city states and petty kingdoms such as the Domain of Soissons . The Eastern Roman Empire survived, albeit as the diminished city state of Byzantium, until it fell in 1453 to the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

By late AD 394, Theodosius had banned all traditional Roman religious practice, closed and destroyed temples and dismissed all priests. The sacred flame that had burned for over a thousand years in the College of Vestals was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins expelled. The Altar of Victory, said to guard the fortune of Rome, was hauled away from the Senate building and disappeared. The Roman senatorial families pleaded for religious tolerance, but Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence. And his ‘religious police’ driven by the austere and ambitious bishop Ambrosius of Milan, became increasingly active in pursuing pagans...

The alternate Roma Nova timeline
In AD 395, three months after Theodosius’ final decree outlawing pagan religions, four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area in the direction of Raetia/Noricum. Led by Senator Apulius at the head of twelve senatorial families, they established a colony initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law, and later acquired the surrounding areas by purchase, alliance and conquest.

But the new colony was attacked on all sides as invaders swept across Europe. Sometimes the inhabitants had to retreat to the highest mountains and watch their towns razed and fields torched. In the end, Roma Nova only survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles.

Photo courtesy of

Ancient Roman attitudes to women gave way to pragmatism. The leader of Roma Nova’s founders was married to an influential Celt from a society where women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed property as of right. Their four daughters were amongst the first pioneers 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 hundred years, eventually daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life.

Roma Nova’s continued existence was favoured by three factors: exploitation of high-grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology, and their robust response to any threat. Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe. Nearly two hundred years later, they used their diplomatic skills to help forge an alliance to push Napoleon IV back across the Rhine as he attempted to expand his grandfather’s empire.

Prioritising survival, Roma Nova remained neutral in the Great War of the 20th century that lasted from 1925 to 1935. Today, while retaining the basic principles of Republican virtue, but changing to a more representational model for modern times, the tiny country has become one of the highest per capita income states in the world.

How to write in an alternate history setting
  Setting a story in the past or in another country is a challenge. But if you invent the country and need to dovetail it into history that the reader already knows, then the task is doubled. Unless writing post-apocalyptic, which is too fantastic for me, the geography and climate must resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. I’ll confess: I ‘borrowed’ Slovenia for my model. 

Similarly, no writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development; every living person is a product of their local conditions. People’s experience of living in a place and struggle to make sense of it is expressed through their culture. If that culture is as firmly entrenched as the Roman one was, then writers must research and become familiar with the past in their characters’ heads, their cultural mentality.

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 must act like a recognisable form of cop; they catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system. Legal practicalities may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader. But a flashing blue light, or an oscillating siren on a police car, is a universal symbol that instantly links readers back to their own world.

Almost any story hinges upon implausibility – a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created. Readers will engage with it as long as the writer keeps their trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the original setting the writer has introduced.  Even though my book is set in the 21st century, the Roman characters still say things like 'I wouldn't be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.'  And there are honey-coated biscuits (honey was important for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives in the squad room.
For me, the most appealing alternate history stories are those set naturally in their world without info dumps or long explanations. Yes, we need clues, and yes, we need character 1 to tell character 2 to duck when a steam-driven arquebusque loaded with a radiating bullet is about to blow their head off. But we don’t need a full explanation of how that technology was developed.
Another way to connect to readers when writing from an unfamiliar setting is to ensure the characters display normal behaviour. Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they're expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating (to us) way. But we can identify with, for example, a romantic relationship, whether painful, instant, careful or intense - it binds us into the characters’ inner life.

To sum up, I approach the alternate history aspect from a historian’s viewpoint; there are no special powers, aliens, time slip, time travel, ghosts, or even gods directing the actions of mortals. My stories centre on people, their dilemmas and how they deal with them in the extraordinary culture they live in.

INCEPTIO Book Trailer

PERFIDITAS is available online in Kindle and paperback from your local Amazon, and in EPUB from other online retailers, or you can order the paperback from your local bookshop. 
Ditto for the first in series, INCEPTIO - the Amazon link is 

How to connect with Alison
Facebook PERFIDITAS page:
Goodreads author page:
Twitter:  @alison_morton


  1. Thank you very much for having me, Helen. I hope readers found it interesting and even provocative. ;-)


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