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2 May 2017

In a world of its own: Roma Nova and Alternative Fiction with Alison Morton

Two trilogies, six books, an entire world.
This is where your imagination can lead you if you’re not careful.

Alison Morton
My world of Roma Nova had bubbled away in my head for several decades. Don’t we all dream of ordering the world to our own wishes, even fantasies, as we go about our shopping, picking up kids, cooking meals, working at our desks to a tight client deadline?

It had started on a hot day in Spain when I’d been fascinated by my first Roman mosaic at age eleven. I asked my father, the senior ‘Roman nut’, every question I could think of about the people who’d left such beautiful patterns behind. He told me about senators and sailors, traders and slaves, soldiers and builders. I asked him what the women did; he hadn’t mentioned them. I was dismayed when he said they mostly stayed indoors and looked after the men and children. Stay at home? How peculiar! My mother was a head of department at a local school. I thought about this for a bit, then asked him what a Roman society would be like with women in charge. He replied “Well, what do you think it would have been like?”

That first mosaic...
I haven’t been able to loosen the grip of Rome ever since, nor of a woman-led more or less egalitarian society. When the novel writing bug bit, I had a world pre-built in my head.  A colonia established at the very end of the fourth century as the once great empire fragmented. In the mountainous country north of Italy the few hundred members of pagan senatorial families persecuted by Christian emperors would guard their treasured Roman culture.

But this was the time of the rise of the new peoples of Europe; Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards and the men of the tiny colony were hard pushed to defend it. So the young women of Roma Nova put on armour and hefted swords. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. Moreover, the pagan Roma Novans never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. Over the next sixteen centuries women developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life.

Service to the state was valued higher than personal advantage, echoing Roman Republican virtues, and the women heading the families guarded and enhanced these values to provide a core philosophy throughout the centuries.

Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three things: the discovery and exploitation of high grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology, and their robust response to any threat.  This is a potted history; you can read much more here.

Fast forward to the 20th century where Roma Nova is facing its worst crisis in sixteen hundred years. In RETALIO we see the descendant of one of those first families, Aurelia Mitela, attempting to dislodge a brutal tyrant who has seized power in Roma Nova.  More below!

This power struggle is set in the early 1980s, a period more difficult to write than one more distant. Why? Because we think we remember it.  As I discovered when researching the technology, memory plays terrible tricks so I ended up checking everything.

So how do you write an imaginary country or an alternative timeline?
Unless your book is post-apocalyptic, the geography and climate must resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. And no alternate history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. This sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.

How do writers weave these into their stories? 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. A flashing light and an oscillating siren on a police vehicle are universal symbols that instantly connect readers back to their own world.

Almost every story written hinges upon implausibility – a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created. Readers will engage with it and follow 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.

Some tips
1. Decide on your Point of Divergence [POD] from real timeline history 

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
If your story world doesn’t hang together, you will break a reader’s trust. You can have a fantastic world, such as Romans and steampunk but it needs to have reached that place in a plausible way. Writers need to provide motivation, whether personal or political or just forced by circumstances from outside. In my modern Roma Nova world, women are prominent, but I’ve provided a reasonably logic reason why.

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. Although most writers like to encourage the reader to work a little and participate in the experience, 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 of a tough soldier from an effective fighting force.

A modern Roman Legionary
4. Make the alternate present real
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 some story in a book(!). Character-based stories are popular; readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Often it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself…

Alternative history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling. As with any story in any genre, the writing must create a plausible world, backed by meticulous research, but the writer is, of course, the mistress of her universe.

Alison Morton

Alison Morton, writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books 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. The sixth, RETALIO, is out on 27 April 2017 and has received a Discovering Diamonds Review.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.

Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

Social media links
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site:
Twitter: @alison_morton
Alison’s Amazon page:

Buying link for RETALIO (multiple retailers/formats):


Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century.

Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.


  1. We have had a similar discussion before, but the key word is 'plausibility' and when I read Retalio - my introduction to the series - I found Roma Nova and its 'population' entirely plausible. It is a difficult task to maintain that level, but you have succeeded magnificently and kept the reader interested with a fine story and plausible plot!

    1. You've hit the nail square on the head Richard!

    2. Oh, wow!. *Blushing* Thank you, Richard.
      I tend to live in Roma Nova half my waking hours. and have done for years, so I suppose I've worked out every detail. As with any writer, a psychologist would keep busy for years trying to work out what's going on in my head...

  2. This series sounds amazing! I added the first one to my book wishlist. :-)

    I'm working on a historical dark fantasy right now, and one of my biggest frustrations is not being able to find certain details in my research. Since it's fantasy, though, I figure I can fill those in as long as they make sense to the time period and the world I'm creating.

    1. That's exactly it, Meredith. You have to work through why and how any element came about. Have you read any Anne McCaffrey? She has a whole eco system nicely worked out across her whole dragon series.

  3. Meredith that's what I do with my Sea Witch Voyages - make up the bits that can't be researched: the trick, though, is to thoroughly research the bits that can! For me I ensure that my sailing detail is as accurate as I can get it, so then everything else falls in to place. (If writing a series, keep minute notes of people/places/events because you must be consistent & by the time you get to book 6 its not always easy to remember things from book 1!)
    Alison: I LOVE the Pern books! OK Dragons, an alien world, an alien threat of Thgread - but my goodness isn't it all so REAL!

  4. What a great story about your father's question to you. "What do you think it would be like?" I love that. Lovely post, Alison.

    1. Absolutely! What a way to trigger imagination - and it clearly worked!

    2. Roma Nova bubbled away in the back of my brain for sometime... 'Real Life' was so busy. But when that trigger was hit, wham! There it all was waiting for me.


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