How to build an alternative Roman future

PontduGard_medRomans in the 21st century? Possibly provocative, but a perfectly feasible venture into alternative history fiction. How do you do this with no historical foundation?

Setting a story in the past or in another country is already a challenge. But if you invent the country and need to meld it with history that the reader already knows, then the task is doubled.

Unless writing 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.

Norman Davies in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe reminds us that:

…in order to survive, newborn states need to possess a set of viable internal organs, including a functioning executive, a defence force, a revenue system and a diplomatic force. If they possess none of these things, they lack the means to sustain an autonomous existence and they perish before they can breathe and flourish.

I would add history and willpower as essential factors.

chaseSo these are the givens. How do writers weave them 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. But 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. Even though my book is set in the 21st century, 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 (Honey was important for the ancient Romans.) not chocolate digestives (iconic British cookie) or bagels in the squad room.

Inset in the map “The United States according to the definitive treaty of peace signed at Paris Sept. 3d. 1783. William McMurray, Robert Scot”

Inset in the map “The United States according to the definitive treaty of peace signed at Paris Sept. 3d. 1783. William McMurray, Robert Scot”

In my first novel, INCEPTIO, the core story of a twenty-five year old New Yorker who faces total disruption to her life when a sinister government enforcer compels her to flee to her dead mother’s mysterious homeland in Europe could be set anywhere. But 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 background details as the New World is only the setting for the first few chapters. 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.

So, how to do this? 
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.

Illustrating this with Roma Nova:
In AD 395 [fixing the POD], three months after the final blow of Theodosius’ last decree banning all pagan religions [political/legal set-up], over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods [religious background], and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia [geography]. Led by Senator Apulius at the head of twelve senatorial families [social/political background], they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law [cultural – intermarriage with non-Romans]. By purchase [land-management], alliance [politics] and conquest [normal Roman behaviour!], this grew into Roma Nova.

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.

Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk

Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk

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 and to 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 founders, had 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.

Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years [outside circumstances], eventually 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]. 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. 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.

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]. 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 [building on known historical person’s story].

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. Sometimes it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself…

5. Go visible
Obviously, an imagined country is pretty hard to photograph. If you can draw, then you have the tools literally at your fingertips, but if like me your artistic skills are limited to turning out sketches of pin-men, then it’s back to the camera.

green fields_smImages suggest tones, possibilities, and elements on which to base your ideas. Roma Nova is situated in the middle of Europe. I’m a European and have visited most countries, including a trip to Rome and Pompeii last year, so I have an idea of the countryside and cityscapes I’m looking for. The results are here; I refer back to them if I’m finding it difficult to visualise my characters in a particular location. Readers have loved them as well so it’s a double benefit.

In summary, alternate 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 master of their universe.

Based on a post I wrote in 2013 for Daniel Ottalini’s blog Modern Papyrus

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

Time and its alternative

Timeline divergenceTime, ah, that strange thing. Past time, which could be yesterday or fifty years ago, present time which we bumble through, and future time which fascinates and scares us. But what if time wasn’t quite what we think it is? What if we had made different choices at various points in our lives and our personal timeline had gone off in quite a different one from the one we’re in now?

On a grander scale, what if William the Conqueror hadn’t beaten Harold in 1066? Or Elizabeth I had married and had children? What if a piece of the Roman Empire had survived into the modern age?

Exploring ‘what ifs’ of history lies at the core of alternate history. Its two parents, history and science fiction, give a fiction writer the opportunity to take established history and speculate. Robert Harris did it in Fatherland, Kingsley Amis in The Alteration, Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Tales like Game of Thrones, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series are, however, historical fantasy rather than alternate history. Why? Don’t they give an alternative version of the world as it could have been?

Harold_deathWell, alternat(iv)e history (“althist”) has a definite framework with three elements.

Firstly, there has to be a trigger point when things changed. It could be “no arrow in the eye” for Harold (if that ever did happen!), or William the Conqueror not surviving his perilous childhood and youth. It could be a decision made in a Tudor council one stormy day when an essential person didn’t turn up to sway that decision because his horse stumbled in the mud, or as with the Roma Novans, when Christian emperor Theodosius issued the last anti-pagan edict, making worship of the old gods a capital offence. This precise moment of a change from the standard timeline is called the ‘point of divergence’ in alternative history.

Next, we need to know the consequences of that change, the “what happened next”. The change will have affected not just the person, but their family, community, town, country, continent and even the rest of the world – the “butterfly effect“.

Lastly, we need to know how things work in this new timeline. Do people have the same technology, how advanced or backward is their transport, what’s their standard of living, their law and order system, their culture and arts? Are ideas transmitted quickly or slowly, what part, if any, does religion play?

Oh, and althist proper isn’t steampunk, doesn’t have dragons, magic swords, spaceships, aliens or time travel. Neither is there any going back, i.e. temporal reversal, nor waking up and “it’s all a dream”. Once on the alternative timeline, you stay on it.

For fiction writers, this framework is a dream, but there are pitfalls. The world they build must be both plausible and consistent in order to engage the reader and gain their trust. Although Harry Potter is more fantasy or perhaps a “secret history”, when people asked J K Rowling about her magical world, she revealed that she had many notebooks crammed with every possible detail. In any speculative fiction you have to have it all worked out before you tap the first key.

Solidus, Theodosius I, AD 379-395

Solidus, Theodosius I, AD 379-395

Unless you are writing a pastiche, skit or just for fun, you have to do your research. This is particularly important around the point of divergence; it’s your jumping off point, the last documented point in time when you know (to the best of your research) how things were in the world. I researched the end of the fourth century AD until my eyes bled as this was the time of the society and environment that were going to colour the whole Roma Nova series. The Rome of AD 395 was a very different Rome from that of Caesar (d. 44 BC), Vespasian (d. AD 79), Marcus Aurelius (d. AD 180) or even Diocletian (d. AD 305).

Asterix cartoonThere has to be a reason for the point of divergence and writers must convey this without flinging a load of facts at the reader in one go – the infamous ‘info dump’. People in real life refer back to historical events, whether it’s parents or grandparents talking about ‘the war’, people seeing poppies on television and thinking about how Remembrance Day started, or this year, commemorating the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

In the Roma Nova books, people refer back to the founding legends, the Great Rebellion, the legal and social revolution in the 1700s and so on. This way, information drip-drips out to the reader. But it must get to them as it’s the foundation to the whole story. Channelling Asterix the Gaul, in INCEPTIO I used the device of the heroine laughing at little cartoon figures wielding swords in a Roma Novan children’s book as a way to slip in some back story.

Closely connected to this is the need for characters to live naturally in their world. Possibly weird to us, it’s perfectly normal to them, so they don’t go around explaining things to each other. Only when it’s a part of the story, something fundamental changes or a stranger is in town can a writer slide in some background explanation.

Like any other story in any genre, there must be a purpose to the book. It can’t be “Look at this new world I’ve invented, aren’t I clever?” Are we going to learn something, be entertained and/or encouraged to think? Do we gasp when the main character walks into danger? Are we rooting for her when the bad guy/system is against her? Or when her lover walks out? Do we care? If we don’t, then the clever althist world isn’t enough to save the book.

But the crucial thing for an althist story writer is to develop their world with historical logic. Jumping into the void with no factual framework would be quite scary. Armed with a general knowledge of history and some idea of the historical process, a writer can weave an entertaining tale. But like all speculative fiction and a fair bit of historical fiction, it may well reflect concerns of the time when it’s written. But that’s a whole other story…

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

1066 and all that, or not...

1066 TUDSuppose there had been a Roma Novan around trying to intervene in 1066 between Harold’s Saxon England and William’s Normandy? Could she have influenced either of these tough, ambitious and determined men?

No, I’m not veering off and writing a new book – I’m too immersed in drafting RETALIO, Book 6 of the core Roma Nova series. But I was invited by period specialist fiction writer Helen Hollick to take part in a collaborative venture, a collection of “what if” stories around the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. She and fellow author Joanna Courtney hatched up the whole idea of turning 1066 upside down. As a writer of alternate timelines, I leapt at the chance.

1066 is probably one date most British people know, even if it’s only from the comic spoof “1066 And All That” by Sellar and Yeatman, a beloved comic history published well before the Horrible Histories. More seriously, 1066 was a change point of massive proportions in English history irrespective of whether you support Saxon Harold or Norman William.

I was writing out of my comfort zone and had to undertake massive research on the minutiae. Helen Hollick’s own epic Harold the King was invaluable – highly recommended! But what fun it was looking at the 11th century through Roman eyes. Just wait until you read Galla Mitela’s opinion of the Normans!

Apart from Helen and Joanna, I’m very excited at working alongside authors are: Anna BelfrageRichard Dee, G.K. HollowayCarol McgrathAnnie Whitehead and Eliza Redgold with a foreword by C. C. Humphreys. Genius Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics designed the cover.

If all runs to schedule, 1066 Turned Upside Down will be out end July/early August. I’ll let you know the pre-order date. 😉

UPDATE! The 1066 Turned Upside Down blog is now open for business!

 

Alison Morton is the author of the alternate history Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

Historical fiction set in the ancient world

HNRCover_May 2016I was delighted to receive the quarterly jewel, the Historical Novel Review, May 2016 edition, published by the Historical Novel Society.  Even more delighted as my writing friend Judith Starkston had written a terrific article about ancient world themed historical fiction.

She asked several authors for contributions – Maggie Anton, Geraldine Brooks, Gary Corby, Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Margaret George, Libbie Hawker, Tim Leach, Rebecca Lochlann, Alison Morton, Kate Quinn, Elisabeth Storrs and Stephanie Thornton.

I was honoured to be included!

“Alison Morton carries an ingrained knowledge of Roman life forward into a Roman colonia that survives into the modern world.”

New and Old article_HNR

 

 

Read the full article(click on the icon below)
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But I was even more delighted to see the cover image for INSURRECTIO had been used as an illustration!

The HNS is a great organisation to belong to if you are a reader, writer or any kind of enthusiast for historical fiction. The quarterly print magazine sent to members is packed with reviews, often over 300.

HNS16logoAnd the conference in September promises a meeting of enthusiasts as well as a rich package of talks and panels. Find out more here: https://hnsoxford2016.org

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

The Roman way

Roman road, Ambrussum

Roman road, Ambrussum, Via Domitia, France

Yes, this is a Roman road. And yes, it does eventually lead to Rome, the centre of the world at that time. It was part of a superhighway network that replaced mud tracks with paved, drained and fast roads which not only facilitated conquest but also economic expansion through the Roman world. Imperial couriers raced along the roads out of Rome, commandeering changes of horses from different cities and provinces, with orders from the centre of power reaching governors and commanders hundreds of miles  away within days.

One of the most evident expressions of Roman power was through infrastructure – roads, bridges, aqueducts, theatres – and town planning – forums, temples, markets, grid systems, water supplies and baths.

Roman bridge from 76BC

Roman bridge from 76BC

Wherever Rome went, so did all the paraphernalia of Roman urban life. Villas were built, mosaics laid, walls painted, fountains set playing. Farmland was cultivated, trees felled, minerals extracted. Rome was nothing if not efficient and consuming. At one stage, its mineral extraction and industrial activity was so intense the pollution shows up today on geological ice bore samples.

So how did they do it? We know of military conquest; for the British Isles, we know Caesar boasted ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ although it was actually under Claudius that serious conquest began. Feature films have graphically, if not always accurately, given us the idea of an effective,  disciplined, state-financed military organisation advancing through Europe, Asia and North Africa. But what happened afterwards?

Seduction.

garden.smRome offered inclusion and prosperity, ruling through local power holders by making them part of the Roman success story. These leaders were granted Roman citizenship which gave them civic rights, their children were educated in the Roman way, albeit sometimes as semi-hostages, and resplendent villas were built for them; they sometimes received significant gifts of money. Their men of fighting age were drafted into the Roman army with the possibility of also attaining citizenship with land grants at the end of their service.

With such enticements, local leaders  bought into the Roman style of gracious living, the ideas of the rule of law, culture and literacy and the considerable increase in trade and prosperity.  Of course, the iron fist of Roman military might was ready to retaliate in the event of rebellion, which it did.

People travelled, emigrated and worked throughout the Roman administered world using one system and one currency. Personal evidence  like pottery, jewellery, coins, messages and graves as well as skeletons show that people of all races and backgrounds, whether free or slave, highborn or plebeian, male or female, circulated within this world.

Rome last over 1200 years, but didn’t break out from village status until after fierce local wars in Italy, sacking by Celts and near annihilation by Hannibal. But once out of the Italian Peninsula, they evolved a colonial system that pushed the Roman ‘brand’ throughout most of Western Europe. Love it or loath it, Rome brought complexity, literacy and an approach to life that still resonates in Western life today.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.

INSURRECTIO is Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice!

INSURRECTIO_HNS Editor's ChoiceTalk about unexpected! You write a book, possibly the fifth in a series, launch it, get some lovely reviews, some friendly blog guest posts and general congratulations then you go back to writing the next one. Imagine when an email pings into your inbox saying this book has been reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and chosen as an indie Editor’s Choice!

Juno!

To be chosen for an HNS review is the first step; not every book gets past this stage. To receive a good review from this well-respected society is wonderful. To be selected as an Editor’s Choice means a rush for the champagne bottle. Now, this is the third time this has happened – SUCCESSIO and AURELIA have been thus honoured and AURELIA  is one of four finalists in the 2016 HNS Indie Award – but it’s no less exciting the third time than the first time, believe me!

So what did they say?

Ms Morton returns to the world of Roma Nova in her series about an alternate history of Europe, where the Roman Empire survives as a small alpine country.

Aurelia Mitela has retired from her former military career and is a politician charged to serve, protect and guide the new Imperatrix, Severina – who is not the woman her mother was, and her weakness proves fatal.  Aurelia must fight against the enemies of Roma Nova, to do what she knows is her duty even if it goes against everything she believes in.

Roma Nova does not exist, but from Ms Morton’s portrayal you are in doubt that this little state is not real. It is perfectly portrayed, perfectly explained, without feeling like a politics lesson.  With a deft touch, Ms Morton gives us a matriarchal society that is not in any way a feminist stronghold, but just is.

Aurelia is a character the reader cares about.  We smile when she smiles, we flinch when she flinches.  Her progress through the story is not easy, and the reader is there every step of the way with her.  She is surrounded by people that you have to feel something for, be it respect, liking or loathing. Love them or hate them, they are real, rounded and believable.

Technically not falling into the HNS boundary of a novel set pre-1960s, this story does have a firm place among the more straightforward idea of historical fiction because books such as this cannot be recommended highly enough. As long as you can accept the ‘what if’ premise of history, and that Ms Morton will put you through the wringer and your journey as a reader will not be easy, you will love this.

https://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/insurrectio/

Thank you, Historical Novel review team, and thank you, Fortuna.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITASSUCCESSIO and AURELIA. The fifth in the series, INSURRECTIO, was published on 12 April 2016.

Find out Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways by signing up for her free monthly email newsletter.