I am absolutely delighted to host Alison on my blog today as part of her current book blog tour. Alison kindly gives us some insights into writing ‘alternative’ historical fiction, which I am sure you will find as fascinating as I do. World building is such an integral part of historical fiction.
Alison’s latest book, JULIA PRIMA, was published recently. You can find the details of this book and her back catalogue at the end of this post.
You can find out more about the blog tour for JULIA PRIMA here:
I’ll let Alison take it away from here!
Writing historical fiction ‘alternatively’
Setting a story in the past, or in another country, is already a challenge. But if you invent the country and the timeline diverges from our own one at a point in the past, then things become complicated!
Alternate history stories usually stay in the world we know geographically speaking, i.e. Planet Earth. Once you’ve decided on the approximate region of the world (in my Roma Nova books, south central Europe), you need to think about whether it’s mountainous, near the sea, by a river, has sweeping plains and/or upland hills. What’s the weather like? How advanced is the society? What would you see in their towns and cities? How do people earn their living and who holds the power? And importantly, what is their history? Every living person is a product of their local conditions and their country’s history. Their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.
How do writers weave all this 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. As with stories set in the past, legal practicalities in the alternative timeline may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader.
Almost every story written in any genre 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 series is set in the 20th and 21st centuries, 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.
In my first novel, INCEPTIO, the core story of a twenty-five year old who faces total disruption to her life when a sinister government enforcer compels her to flee to another country could be set anywhere. But in the Roma Nova timeline, 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.
1. Decide on your Point of Divergence [PoD] from real history
Research the political set-up, religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, geography, economy, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups current at the time of the PoD. These are the building blocks for your alternate society.
Illustrating this with Roma Nova: in AD 395, three months after the final blow of Theodosius’ last decree banning all pagan religions, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia. Led by Senator Lucius Apulius at the head of twelve senatorial families, they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law. By purchase, alliance and conquest, 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. The world of your imaginary timeline needs to have reached that place in a credible 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. This seems a long way from the ancient world where Roman attitudes to women were repressive. But by Late Antiquity, women had gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Divorce was easy, and step and adopted families were commonplace.
In the late fourth century, the then tribune Apulius met Julia Bacausa, the tough daughter of a Romanised Celtic princeling in Noricum. Women in Julia’s mother’s family made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Apulius and Julia’s daughters were amongst the first pioneers of Roma Nova so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years when new peoples were invading Rome’s territory and radically changing Europe, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. 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. But writers shouldn’t bewilder readers. Earlier, I mentioned how to drop in details to make the world being created believable. Anchors to our world are equally important. For example, if you say “special forces soldier”, “forum”, “cop” or “rush hour”, most readers have an idea of these concepts already.
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 a story in a book! 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. Be visual
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.
Images suggest tones, possibilities and elements on which to base your ideas. Roma Nova is situated in the middle of Europe. I’ve visited most of the real versions of my settings such as the Alps and Rome, so I have an idea of how the imaginary countryside and cityscapes should look like. The results are here; I refer to them if I’m finding it difficult to visualise my characters in a particular location. Readers have loved the photos which I’ve used in my blog posts – a double benefit.
In summary, alternate history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling to maximum stretch. As with any story in any genre, the writing must create a plausible, consistent world, backed by meticulous research, but the writer is, of course, the master of their universe.
Why have I gone back to “real” history with JULIA PRIMA?
This new book is a prequel to the modern stories and is set in AD 370, before the divergence into the alternative timeline. Modern-day characters in the rest of the Roma Nova series often refer to their legendary ancestors – Julia Bacausa and Lucius Apulius – so when readers urged me to tell the story of how they met and the mysterious threat against Julia, I knew I had to get typing! Then the “rules” of standard historical fiction applied.
JULIA PRIMA by Alison Morton
“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”
AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.
Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.
Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.
But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. But a vengeful presence from the past overshadows her perilous journey. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…
Universal Link: https://books2read.com/JULIAPRIMA
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0B5LX41B7/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0B5LX41B7/
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0B5LX41B7/
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B0B5LX41B7/
A Little Bit about Alison …
Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.
She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.
Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her latest two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.
Social media links:
Alison Morton’s World of Thrillers site: https://alison-morton.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
Alison’s writing blog: https://alisonmortonauthor.com
Alison’s Amazon page: https://Author.to/AlisonMortonAmazon
Newsletter sign-up: https://www.alison-morton.com/newsletter/