Anyone who drops by Ascroft, eh? regularly will know that historical fiction is one of my favourite genres. Today I’m going to dip my toes into a sub-genre within it that’s still quite new to me: alternative historical fiction. I’ve invited my fellow Alliance of Independent Authors member Alison Morton who is currently on a blog tour to visit and tell us about her latest novel, Perfiditas.
Welcome, Alison. Shall we get started?
Tell us about your novel.
First of all, thank you so much, Dianne, for inviting me here – I’m delighted to be able to share my particular vision of history and talk about PERFIDITAS, the latest in my series of alternate history thrillers.
We’re in Roma Nova, an imaginary country in present day Europe, the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century. It’s been seven years since Karen Brown fled New York (see INCEPTIO) to become Carina and take up her inheritance as the heir of a leading family and pursue a career as an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces.
But she’s in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating rebellion thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.
Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once she’s proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…
What prompted you to write about this historical event or era?
PERFIDITAS isn’t about one event, but a story set in an alternate timeline that stemmed from one point in the past. In AD 395, Christian Emperor Theodosius outlawed all pagan religious practice on pain of death. This edict prompted four hundred Romans to trek north to found a new colony where they could live in the way they wished free from persecution. Through staying tough and struggling through, Roma Nova, has survived into the 21st century. Roman in values and culture, their social system has changed through the centuries in that women now rule.
Why Romans? I’ve been deep-steeped in Romans most of my life. Here I am at age eleven fascinated with my first my first Roman mosaic floor. And I’ve never run out of curiosity…
And why the feminist angle? Well, at that same age, I wanted to know what Rome would have been like if women had been in charge. The idea stayed in my head over the decades and I knew I’d have to set the story in the 21st century to make it more plausible.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
Alternate history is by definition history that has diverged from the standard timeline, but which should follow historical logic as well as taking into account the social, economic and political development throughout that history. My imaginary country of Roma Nova tends to keep out of alliances and being sucked into wars, but it has interacted with the rest of Europe throughout its sixteen hundred years’ existence. For instance, remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople, Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe. More of Roma Nova’s history here.
What research did you do for this book?
Luckily, I have a general grounding in Roman history from reading classical texts, such as Pliny, Suetonius, Caesar’s Gallic Wars and modern history texts, plus my years of visiting Roman sites and museums throughout Europe. So much so, that it seemed perfectly normal to clamber over Roman aqueducts, walk on mosaic pavements, follow the German limes, pretend I was a Roman playactor in classic theatres all over Europe from Spain to then Yugoslavia, from Hadrian’s Wall to Pompeii. So I have a ‘feel’ for the Roman world. But I keep reading as there are new discoveries and new research appearing all the time.
You always have to keep connecting with cultural and historical roots of a society if you are extrapolating from them in your writing. My characters catch bad guys in the 21st century, but I wanted to find out if there had been special forces and spies during the ancient Roman period so I could bring in anything with a Roman flavour. I found Exploratio by Austin and Rankin about military and political intelligence in the Roman world. Perfect!
It turns out that there was no centralized intelligence organization and it was all chaotically arranged on a regional basis or by legion with a lot of infighting in Rome itself until near the later Roman period. Good to know…
Oh, and I spent six years in the reserve forces, which gave me experience of military life first hand and enabled me to write the military scenes in PERFIDITAS.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
All the characters are made up! I do refer back to historical characters (Theodosius, Caesar, etc. but only in passing) and I stick to information from accredited sources when I mention them.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
Crucial question! For me there are twin elements: the first is our old friend research. Knowing about food, costume and work, but also attitudes to crime, life, death, servants, masters, marriage, trade, property will give a writer a firm knowledge base against which to work.
Writing ‘into the void’ with alternate history, you have to be careful to keep it plausible or you’ll lose the reader’s trust. One way I did this was to infuse the story with corroborative detail so reinforced the narrative. Even though my books are set in the 21st century, the characters say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.’ And my characters still eat Roman honey cake…
Reaching into the past means not only researching a period in meticulous detail, but getting inside the heads of the characters, imagining what they see in their everyday world, what they smell, eat and touch. Writing a diary of your character’s typical day is a salutary way of showing yourself whether you have done enough research!
Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they’re expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way but they bind us into the story.
The hardest element is the conflict between projecting our timeline sensitivities and viewpoints on to people living in a completely different set of circumstances. The ancient Romans were very open about sexual matters as they regarded sex as allied to fertility and survival rather than embarrassment and guilt. And they would have given you a puzzled look if you’d suggested love was the main reason for marriage. In Roma Nova, women head the families and it is up to them to choose their partners and whether to marry them or not.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
In PERFIDITAS, the women run things! 😉 And that for me was a great motivation to sit down and write the stories. As the female characters are necessarily more assertive in this society I use a technique I call gender-mirroring. If I’m not sure how Carina, my heroine, should act in a certain scene, I think it through with a male character leading the scene. Then I substitute Carina for that character. It’s sometimes a revelation just how much we take the male point of view as the norm. And sometimes quite amusing.
I’m very happy to write male characters, though, and relish making them as diverse as the women characters: grumpy, heroic, sensitive, clever, nasty, loyal or any combination thereof!
Characters are characters whatever gender they are technically and they must be multi-faceted, complex and above all engaging. Of course, in historical fiction, the sexes live within the context of their times. On this note, I’m sure there are thousands of women’s stories in history waiting to be told – a rich seam we have yet to mine fully.
Thank you for answering my questions so well, Alison, and good luck with Perfiditas. Your novels have been receiving enthusiastic reviews from readers. Simon Scarrow, author of the Eagle (Macro and Cato) series said:
“Alison Morton has built a fascinating, exotic world! Carina’s a bright, sassy detective with a winning dry sense of humour. I warmed to her quickly and wanted to find out how she dealt with the problems thrown in her path. The plot is pretty snappy too and gets off to a quick start which made it easy to keep turning the pages. There are a fair number of alternative historical fictions where Rome never disappeared, but for my money this is one of the better ones.”
About Alison Morton: She writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband.
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…
INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award and awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion® in September 2013. The next in series, PERFIDITAS, published October 2013, has also just been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®. Alison is working on the third book SUCCESSIO which will be out in June 2014.