Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She gained a BA in French, German and Economics and thirty years later went back and bagged a masters’ in history (with distinction!).
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…
Six years in the UK reserve forces (where she rose from private soldier to captain) not only reinforced her sense of common purpose and self-discipline, but provided her with experiences and opportunities no civilian would ever touch. Oh, and travel and fabulous mess evenings.
Setting about her novelist education with the persistence of a Roman road builder, she joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, studied with the Arvon Foundation, joined the Historical Novel Society and attended numerous specialist workshops and conferences. Thanks to her independently published book sales figures, she has recently qualified as a full member of the UK’s Society of Authors. She has recently been accepted as an author member of International Thriller Writers.
Alison talks and writes about alternative history at conferences and workshops including for the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Historical Novel Society and in Writing Magazine. She also writes a monthly column in the local English language magazine and has published a collection of these as The 500 Word Writing Buddy: 25 Inner Secrets for the New Writer.
Stephanie: Hello, Alison! I am delighted to be chatting with you today about your book, SUCCESSIO, which has been honored the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Praise indeed, and congratulations are in order. As I understand it, SUCCESSIO, is the third book in your Roma Nova alternate history thriller series. Could you please tell your audience the titles of the first two and how you came about to write this thrilling series?
Thanks for inviting me, Stephanie! It’s always a pleasure to be your guest. The first two books in the series are called INCEPTIO (the beginning) and PERFIDITAS (betrayal).
Their origin goes back into my own ancient history! I was 11 years old and on holiday in north-east Spain. Fascinated by the beauty and extent of the mosaics in Ampurias, a former Greek then Roman sea-port, I asked my father, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe early feminism peeping out or maybe just a precocious kid asking a smart question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”
That idea bubbled away in my head until the novel writing trigger was pushed in 2009.
In one paragraph please tell your audience what SUCCESSIO is about.
Roma Nova – the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century – is at peace. Carina Mitela, the heir of a leading family, but choosing the life of an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, is not so sure. When a blackmailing letter arrives from a woman claiming to be her husband Conrad’s lost daughter and Conrad tries to shut Carina out, she senses danger crawling towards her. Trying to resolve a young man’s indiscretion twenty-five years ago turns into a nightmare that attacks the imperial family itself. With her enemy holding a gun to the head of the heir to the imperial throne, Carina has to make the hardest decision of her life…
I absolutely love the idea of “the last remnant of the Roman Empire that survives into the 21st century” and how this concept is woven into the modern world in your books. Alternate history is a new favorite of mine and there is so much a writer can do with this concept. To make it believable were there any challenges you faced in the history aspects of this story and what advice would you give someone who wants a hand at writing alternate history?
Briefly, the tools for writing alternate history are similar to regular historical fiction, plus an overactive imagination and a good overall sense of how history ‘works’. I have written whole articles on this! Readers might like to visit my blog for the detailed handout I provided for my recent talk on alternate history (here), but
My top tips:
- Identify the point when your alternative timeline diverges from the standard historical timeline and make it logical;
- Research the divergence point thoroughly so you can set the scene accurately;
- Anchor the divergence point story with references to the past;
- Use elements from the historic record carefully, but not fearfully;
- Think through the setting that has formed your characters;
- Make sure your characters live naturally within their world.
Why alternate history?
Good question! ‘Althist’ is based on the idea that the historic timeline split at a ‘point of divergence’ in the past and the new timeline follows a different path from the one we know. And there’s no going back. Classic ones are what if the Germans had won the Second World War, or the Spanish Armada had succeeded in 1588? I sometimes wonder how English history would have developed if Elizabeth I had married and had children…
The writer can exercise her imagination outside of the confines of known history. What would our world be like if X or Y had or hadn’t happened? I think we’ve all experienced events in our personal lives we’d like to have gone differently. I didn’t know you could change or ‘alternate’ the historical narrative until I read Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Perhaps my early idea of a women-led modern Roman society could turn into a real story…
What part of the Roman history fascinates you the most and how long have you studied the culture….
The first of those is very difficult to answer as Rome lasted in the West over 1229 years; it’s like stretching from AD 785 to today. I’m fascinated by all of it. My favourite emperor is Vespasian as he brought stability to Rome in AD 69, but I also admire the trio of Augustus, the first emperor, his wife Livia, and friend, supporter and ‘fixer’, Agrippa. I first ‘met’ Rome at age 11 and haven’t stopped since. I clambered over most Roman ruins in Europe with my parents, but I loved it. So much that was left was elegant and solid; their history so concrete and purposeful. As I grew older and studied the Romans and Latin more formally, I appreciated what a complex, clever and determined society they had made. With sheer force of will, they had progressed from mud hut tribal subsistence farming to the heights of the Pax Romana with its rule of law, art and literature, trade, engineering, and ability to learn; Romans set the template for the western nations that emerged over the following centuries. I don’t want to sound too much like the John Cleese video, but you get the idea I’m impressed! However, we should remember not everybody lived well, especially at the lower end of the social spectrum, but the majority of people had a standard of living that wasn’t achieved again until the nineteenth century.
…and please tell me a little about your research.
Roma Nova has strong roots in Roman culture, attitudes and values. I ‘mine’ the late Republican/early Empire period for those that I transfer to Roma Nova, but with an eye to how the situation was in AD 395 and the conditions that impelled the colonists to leave Rome and found Roma Nova.
Some sources are scarce but detailed, others are plentiful but frustratingly general. I use the methodology I learned while doing my history masters’: check everything three times. And then you can project that forward in a historically logic way.
As your series goes….do you write in new characters or do you pretty much keep the same ones throughout?
I mix and match! Conrad and Carina are central to all three books. Some secondary characters like Aurelia, Flavius and Lurio are in every book, others pop in and out. Like many readers, I love meeting familiar characters again, and seeing what’s been happening in their lives, but new actors bring in an extra dimension.
How would you describe Carina’s and Conrad’s relationship with each other?
Fraught! Conrad is a bone-and-blood Roma Novan and does not allow sentiment to interfere with his job as a senior Praetorian officer. Until one terrible day… He has a strong sense of duty and honour, but also hidden problems dating from his childhood as we discover in SUCCESSIO. But his sense of humour and his love for Carina let us see another side of him. Sometimes, he is driven mad by Carina but feels a visceral bond with her. He cannot imagine his life without her. She just loves him, and fights for him with all her strength. But she has her own set of values that don’t always chime with the Roma Novan ones…
Was there a particular scene in this story that was a challenge to write?
Not particularly. The one I had to do most research on was about illicit drugs – not an area I knew much about. But I have a friend who was a prison officer, so I grilled her!
When you are done with this series, what is next for you?
Well, I have just written book 4 – that’s gone to my structural editor and I’ve drafted part of book 5. These two, plus book 6, form another three book cycle based in 1960/70s Roma Nova, and tell the story of Aurelia Mitela, Carina’s grandmother. I think I’ll be immersed in Roma Nova for a little while longer!
Where can readers buy your book?
Online as an ebook at Amazon, B&N Nook, iTunes, Kobo, plus as a paperback at Amazon and Barnes and Noble online; all the direct links are HERE
Alison, it has been a pleasure chatting with you and I would like to say thank you for being such a big supporter of indieBRAG, self-publishing and for sharing your wonderful and thrilling stories. The world needs more people like you. Please come back to Layered Pages again soon!
A message from BRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview Alison Morton, who is the author of, SUCCESSIO, our medallion honorees at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, SUCCESSIO, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.