Surprise and pleasure at a woman leading the action


Not, not me in ‘combat bookseller’ mode! But…

Last weekend, I attended a marché de Noël – Christmas fair – near where I live in southwest France. I chatted with local English friends, met real ones who had only been Facebook friends until then and made new ones. I had a fascinating discussion about Romans in France with a French philosophy teacher who also talked about the different English and French approaches to history. The hilarious thing was that he’d caught me with half a mince pie in my mouth. I was humbled when French mothers and grandmothers said they were buying a real English book signed by the author for their family members; I always feel so responsible.

Regulars who had bought a Roma Nova book each year knew how it all worked, and we were soon into discussing the exact nature of Aurelia’s relationship with Caius, Carina still feeling a stranger sometimes in Roma Nova and wondered together where Allegra was going with her life. And, of course, how those three generations (and the ghost of Marina) interconnected throughout the (two) series.

New readers were intrigued by the idea of a remnant of the Roman Empire surviving. Women mostly looked surprised and then delighted when I explained that the gender balance was tipped in favour of women; the men were slightly sceptical but interested at the idea of a 21st century Rome, then thoughtful. I’m used to these reactions so I’m ready with the answers. 😉

Then I started thinking about it…

Why is it automatically assumed that in a thriller/adventure story that the woman is usually the assistant, subordinate, girlfriend or sidekick? These days, she’s often the scientist, historian, forensic expert, or even the boss of the team, but rarely the chief mover and shaker of the action in the story. It’s mostly still James Bond rather than Jamie Bond.

I expect at this stage you might quote me an amphora-load of examples. Women running the show in police and crime fiction and their television versions such Scott & Bailey (Sally Wainwright), Vera (Ann Cleeves) and Rizzoli & Isles (Tess Gerritsen) seems to be increasingly common (Hooray!), and taken as pretty normal in the general reader’s or viewer’s mind. But in the thriller/adventure/spy  genres women in the lead role are still seen as the exception. Remember the enormous controversy when Doctor Who became a woman?

Why? I believe this perception goes quite deep.

In Real Life, surgeons, motor mechanics and firefighters are automatically visualised as men; midwives, childminders and personal assistants/secretaries as women. Female police are everywhere, even on patrol with weapons at, for instance, railway stations, but it would be interesting to know how many lead armed response or tactical units.

Women first became eligible to pilot Royal Air Force combat aircraft in 1989. The following year, they were permitted to serve on Royal Navy warships.The 1991 Gulf War marked the first general deployment of British women in combat operations since 1945.

The seizure of Royal Navy sailor Faye Turney in 2007 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard led to some media comments on the role of women and mothers  in the armed forces (not as persons in their own right!) which is a perfect illustration of the traditional views still prevailing in today’s society.

In 2016 a ban on women serving in close combat roles was lifted and in 2017 the Royal Air Force’s ground-fighting force became open to women for the first time. In 2018, women became eligible to apply for all roles in the British forces, although it should be noted that specialist units, particularly in the corps like medics and signals and in regiments like the UDR, had deployed women along with men for many years.

None of this equality on paper stops rude comments or sexual harassment. Women are often left out of office activities or squad bondings. sessions down the pub or after work drinks with other managers. This makes it difficult to make a connection with those they are trying to work and communicate with, especially in a team structure. For military and police this can also be very dangerous when they are out in the field since acceptance and trust has not always been built to a high degree.

Of course, it is always a matter of choice. Women are free to pursue their own career, to train for it and practise it without gender hindrance. But of course, they have to accept they must meet the required standards and qualifications without any allowance for their gender. It used to be said that a woman had to be twice as effective in order to be considered ‘as good as the blokes’. I hope that isn’t still true.

Until everybody loses stereotypes around what people – real or fictional, men as well as women – can do, we will always cause surprise whether selling fiction at a Christmas fair or in Real Life.

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

12 Days of Christmas – includes Saturnalia!

Well, I’ve managed to sneak Saturnalia in to two Christmas online book celebrations. It’s when authors have a bit of fun.

First is a video and I’d bet you’ve never seen or heard a ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ song quite  like this! Well, it’s ‘Twelve Books of Christmas’ if we’re being accurate. Look out for the eighth day… 🙂

Enjoy!

Links and more info about all of the featured books are at the site of Jean Gill, the wonderful organiser : https://jeangill.blogspot.com/2018/11/best-books.html

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

 

You have to know history before you can 'alternate' it

Roma Novan heroines, ancient and modern

To write alternative history with authenticity, it’s helpful to be as well-versed and researched as an author writing a more conventional historical novel.

Let me unpick that…
Alternate (or alternative) history is based on the premise that the standard timeline diverged at a certain point and followed a different path. In my Roma Nova stories, this is 395 AD when Theodosius I (Flavius Theodosius Augustus, reigned 347-395 AD), the last emperor to rule over both the Eastern and the Western halves of the Roman Empire, issued the final edict banning all religious practice except Christian, on pain of death.

This gave me a baseline of the end of the fourth century so I researched the prevailing social, economic and political conditions. Rome changed significantly during its 1229 year existence in the West. By 395 AD, solidi had replaced sestertii and denarii, for instance. Regional government was localising with ‘barbarian’ warlords acting less like client kings of Rome and more like autonomous leaders with delegated powers and full control over their regions.

Another prime example is the Roman senate. It had lost much of its political power as well as its prestige when the Republic morphed into the Principate under Augustus. Following the constitutional reforms of Diocletian around 300 AD, although maintaining influence, it became politically irrelevant. When the seat of government was transferred out of Rome, the Senate was reduced to a purely municipal body. This decline in status was reinforced when the Constantine the Great created an additional senate in Constantinople.

The late 4th century was a long way from the ‘golden years’ of Vespasian’s or Trajan’s rule. The Apulius and Mitelus families were remnants of those earlier days and still served the much reduced empire as soldiers, magistrates and even senators while holding to their core values. Apulius’s family still had a house in Rome, servants, a large farm in Latium. But as we see in The Girl from the Market, as pagans professional opportunities were shutting in their faces. After Theodosius’s final edict in 395 AD, their lives were in danger unless they accepted Christian baptism and renounced their faith in the traditional Roman gods. So they trekked north into the mountains to escape.

Into the mountains

Into the mountains

Into the historical void…
For the Roma Novan colonists in those transitional times the most important things were security, food, shelter and hope – ultimately, survival. Their core Roman values would have bolstered them and formed a social glue while they struggled for existence. Even when forced by circumstances to change their social structure and call on women to fight alongside the men, they held to their intrinsic ‘Romanitas‘.

My mantra has been ‘follow historical logic’. Although our real history often hangs on little things or accidents, the historic dynamic generally points in one direction and one that it will return to, even if it goes ‘off piste’ from time to time.

In our own real timeline, Britain very nearly quashed the rebellion in its American colonies in 1776. In my imaginary world, British rule in the New World didn’t end until 1865, but end it definitely did. The North American colonies banded together as the Eastern United States (EUS). There was an early notion of forming the ‘Western United States’ located between the original colonies and the MIssissippi River, but it failed to become autonomous and was swallowed up by the EUS. The southern part of what we call North America – California, Texas, and New Mexico – were retained by the Spanish Empire. Louisiane and Québec stayed French to this day. All perfectly possible in an alternative timeline…

In Europe, there was only one Great War which lasted from 1925 to 1935 and afterwards the allied nations split Germany back into its constituent states. ‘Greater Germany’ had only been united for less than seventy years beforehand. Although sharing a common German language and culture (as in our timeline), it has  strong local and regional identities such as Prussia and Bavaria within it so in my imaginary world this splintering seemed logical.

Keeping it plausible and consistent
Writing and reading in an alternative setting is like stepping into the void, so I use familiar anchors to prevent readers becoming alienated and throwing the book on the floor for being totally unrealistic. Yes, some things will be different – hopefully providing an intriguing, possibly exotic feel to the book –  but many things, both for the characters themselves and their environment, will be the same or similar enough not to jolt them out of the story. For instance, a blue uniformed figure driving a car with door markings and a flashing blue roof light will almost inevitably suggest modern law enforcement to the reader.

Praetorian Guards, old style

Another technique is to mine elements from the historical record. In my books, the heroine becomes a spy/special forces operative, so I reached back into history and plucked the Praetorian Guard forward into the 21st century. Not only does this build on the thoughts of toughness, a dash of ruthlessness, a sense of duty and glamour that we may already have about them, it uses their historical name to anchor them as archetype Romans guarding the ruler and the state. I’m aware they became corrupt in real history and eventually disbanded but as in all historical writing, in alternative history you can bend the rules a little. 😉

Things will have progressed through the alternative historical timeline, and you can use elements harking back to the original culture. My 21st century Roma Novans stand at the forefront of the digital technical revolution as an echo of their engineering, craft and organisational expertise in ancient times.

Having established anchors, then you can introduce your own speculative ideas such as given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions.

While the younger part of the population defended their state, older women ran families, kept farming and food supplies and trade going as well as raising the next generation. Inevitably, they had to organise systems, structures and governance. So it’s not too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries…

In essence, the characters must live in their world naturally. To them, their world is normal, just as ours is to us. Neither they nor the readers know what could happen next, which is part of the fun…

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Roma Nova’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be first to know about Roma Nova news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.