Hello everyone and welcome to event number ten in the Put it in Writing Virtual Book Festival. Today I’m thrilled to welcome author Alison Morton who kindly agreed to do an interview. As I’ve said at other festival events I mainly read contemporary romantic fiction and crime fiction with a bit of non-fiction thrown in from time to time. But a few months ago I stepped out of my reading comfort zone – something I would encourage all readers to do occasionally – and discovered Alison’s series of alternative history thrillers. And I LOVE them. But enough about me – let’s hear more from Alison herself.
Welcome Alison, and thank you for taking part in the festival. Can I start by asking you why and how you became a writer?
I’ve always written one way or another – translation, academic theses, commercial copy, government papers, military reports, small business paperwork and marketing materials – but not fiction since I’d left school.
The trigger was a bad film in 2009; although beautifully photographed and co-starring Ewan McGregor, it was full of terrible dialogue, higgledy-piggledy continuity and implausible plotting. I whispered to my husband that even I could do better. He replied, “Why don’t you?”
For the next 90 days I bashed out 90,000 words of a story that had been bubbling in my mind for decades. That first draft was rubbish, of course; multiple revisions and strong editing followed along with much reading, courses and classes about the craft of novel writing.
Anne: Well, it’s safe to say all your readers owe your husband a debt of gratitude for challenging you 🙂
What genre do you write in and why did that hold a particular appeal for you?
Thrillers, alternative history thrillers (pinching James Bond’s intro format).
Why? Firstly, a lifelong fascination with all things Roman from the day I stepped on my first mosaic in Spain when I wondered what a Roman society would be like today if it were run by women; secondly, after reading Robert Harris’s Fatherland discovering you could change history; and thirdly, decades of reading multiple genres especially sci-fi , thrillers, Georgette Heyer and any historical fiction I could get my hands on.
Alternative history lets you explore the ‘what ifs’ of history, small or large, personal or national. And what a fascinating journey it is…!
Anne: It certainly is fascinating. I love the whole premise – the what-if idea – what if the Roman state and society had persisted and survived to the present day. And you set it up and develop it so well.
Your books are written as a series. Tell us more about them and the progression through the series.
Roma Nova is a small (imaginary) country ‘somewhere in south central Europe’, founded by pagan Romans at the end of the fourth century. It’s battled its way through history to survive into the modern age but has one vital difference to the Ancient Roman Empire – although very Roman in character, it’s governed by women. (Find out why and how here.)
Each book in the Roma Nova series is a complete story – I dislike intensely stories that end in a cliff-hanger – but they are all interconnected. I began with a trilogy set in the ‘present day’ then went back to the late 1960s/early 1980s for another three. The second trilogy grew out of my curiosity about one of the main secondary characters in the first, Aurelia. I knew she had secrets in her past and I needed to know about them! Next, I added novellas and a short story collection, so it was getting muddled. Time for restructuring and a new look!
Carina’s strand in the series includes INCEPTIO (‘the beginning’) when Karen Brown is forced to flee from a killer in New York to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland. She takes her place in her Roma Novan family and adopts her true name, Carina Mitela. But before she comes into her own as an intelligence operative, she has to deal with an arrogant, but attractive, Praetorian special forces captain… CARINA, a novella, takes her back to North America on her first mission ‘abroad’. Of course, it doesn’t go smoothly. PERFIDITAS is the story four years later of betrayal – personal, professional and political. Nobody comes out of that completely clean. SUCCESSIO (what happened next/the next generation) nine years later sees a lot of chickens coming home to roost with blackmail, family breakdown and a nemesis from the past.
Aurelia’s strand begins with AURELIA, a crime thriller set in the late 1960s where our heroine engages in a bitter rivalry with her lifelong nemesis Caius Tellus, an amoral and privileged opportunist. Twelve years later, the traumatic eruption of Roma Nova’s Great Rebellion sears Aurelia’s personal and political life in INSURRECTIO. RETALIO is a classic story of resilience and resistance.
However, in all Roma Novan books our tough heroines do find love, although it does run a rocky path for both Carina and Aurelia.
Oh, and those titles? Yes, they are Latin words, each descriptive of the theme in the book, but words that I hope make sense to readers. How I chose them (aka sweated over them until my brain burst) may intrigue you – if so you can find out more here
Anne: Yes, I like how each story is complete in itself – that definitely works for me. And of course I like that there’s a romantic thread there too :-).
Tell us about a typical writing day? (Do you have a writing routine, is it planned in advance, is it strictly adhered to).
Hahaha! It depends where I am in the book writing cycle. Running up to a launch and for the few weeks afterwards, I spend almost all my time marketing; social media, guest posts, blog tours, etc. When that ebbs, it’s back to the writing. But that time away can be productive as the brain is running in the background developing the next story.
When I get cracking on a new book, I aim for about 1,000 words a day and I work best in the morning and evening. However, if I need to research something, check facts, read some background, the wordcount may not be so impressive that day…
Other activities like writing posts for my own and other blogs, arranging visits, event talks, and formatting books or liaising with suppliers have to be fitted round all this.
Anne: Indeed! Being a writer isn’t only about writing a book – it involves a whole lot more.
Do you plot your novels in some detail before you actually start writing? Why or why not?
Early on, in 2012, I evolved a rough and ready system which I called ‘How to write a novel in 30 lines’: see more about that here. I plot the main events – inciting incident, three turning points, black moment, climax and resolution and the rest is free-flow.
It’s a 3D wire frame rather than a skeleton and provides enough structure to hang the story on without constraining it to a formal outline. In figures, I’m a 30% ‘plotter’ and 70% ‘pantser’. (note from Anne, a pantster, in case you don’t know comes from the expression ‘to fly by the seat of your pants’)
Anne: Oh, I love the idea of the 3D wire frame as a story structure!
What comes first for you – characters or plot? Why is that?
Characters! My plots centre on the characters, their conflicts and their challenges, both internal and external. As with any story in a historical or sci-fi genre, there must be a purpose to an alternative history story. It can’t simply be “Look at this new world I’ve invented, aren’t I clever?” As a reader of fiction, I want to be entertained by a ‘cracking yarn’, to learn something and be encouraged to think. The most important thing when writing is to be immersed in the mentality of the characters, their time and their culture. After all, characters, like people, should be products of their time and place.
Anne: I’m not surprised by your answer. Your characters are fascinating and definitely come across as at the heart of the story and engage us readers from the start.
Where do you get your ideas? How/when do they come to you?
I wish I knew! It’s a deep pot, stirred well over many years: combine being a ‘Roman nut’ since I was eleven, ingrained but unstrident feminism, six years’ military service, an MA in history and an insatiable curiosity about what motivates people. Chuck in an urge to show a competent, strong, but all-too-human woman leading actions and making decisions as a natural right. Oh, and a provocative sense of irony especially when gender-mirroring.
My best ideas emerge when I’m in the shower, but probably best not to go into that!
Anne: Haha! Yes, ideas don’t always happen at the most convenient times.
Have you got a favourite character out of the all the ones you’ve created?
That’s an impossible question to answer! Writing different types of characters is the joy for any writer. I love them all for different reasons. Well, probably not Caius Tellus, Aurelia’s nemesis, nor his distant relation, Nicola.
Anne: Yes, it’s an unfair question – like being asked to pick a favourite child. But as a reader I’m allowed a favourite and it’s Carina for me.
Can you share some of the feedback/reviews you’ve had from your readers?
Readers have been very kind over the past six years with their comments and reviews – as have those who endorse my books (Conn Iggulden, Kate Quinn, Elizabeth Chadwick, Helen Hollick, Adrian Magson, JJ Marsh, Ruth Downie, Douglas Jackson, Sue Cook to name a few).
The six full-length novels have all been awarded the prestigious B.R.A.G. Medallion for indie literature and AURELIA was one of four finalists in the 2016 Historical Novel Society Indie Award out of a field of 400(!). Writing Magazine placed both INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS as runners-up in the 2014 Self-published Book of the Year competition and The Bookseller made SUCCESSIO its Editor’s Choice in its first indie review.
One the most succinct reader comments is ““Eve Dallas meets Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective Falco meets The Hunger Games.” (INCEPTIO)
“As always, Ms Morton delivers fast-paced adventure, very much driven by the excellent dialogue.” (RETALIO)
“INSURRECTIO – a taut, fast-paced thriller and I enjoyed it enormously. Rome, guns and rebellion. Darkly gripping stuff.” – Conn Iggulden
”PERFIDITAS is an alternative history adventure thriller that will delight crime fiction readers, but may also be enjoyed by Roman fans as Ms Morton has very cleverly blended into a modern tale the ‘what-might-happen’ had the Roman Empire survived to present day.” (Historical Novel Society)
“There are two things I love about Ms Morton’s ‘world’: one is that it is all so plausible and the other is that Roma Nova has a lot to teach us about the sheer equality of the sexes in this mythical country. The characters are well rounded and, impressively, are fallible.” (Discovering Diamonds Reviews)
Anne: Wow! What a fabulous collection. And well deserved too.
You have a new novella coming out on 12 September and we have an extract from it below. But first – what’s it called and please, tell us a bit about it. Where does it fit in the series?
NEXUS, which in Latin means a binding together or interlacing, sometimes an obligation; in English, a connection or series of connections or a central or focal point which is perfect for this story! It fits in between AURELIA and INSURRECTIO and aims to show readers what Aurelia’s been up to in the twelve interim years. And also, why Harry Carter feels under an obligation to help Aurelia in RETALIO fourteen years later…
From the Back Cover
Mid 1970s. Ex-Praetorian Aurelia Mitela is serving as Roma Nova’s interim ambassador in London. Asked by a British colleague to find his missing son, Aurelia thinks it will only be a case of a young man temporarily rebelling. He’s bound to turn up only a little worse for wear.
But a spate of high-level killings pulls Aurelia away into a dangerous pan-European investigation. Badly beaten in Rome as a warning, she discovers the killers have kidnapped her life companion, Miklós, and sent an ultimatum: Back off or he’ll die.
But Aurelia is a Roma Novan and they never give up…
Roma Nova London Legation, mid 1970s
‘I’ve lost him, Aurelia.’
Harry Carter’s voice was low, toneless, but I could hear the despair in his restrained British voice. Given the time of day, he must have been calling from his panelled office at the United Kingdom foreign ministry.
‘Are you absolutely sure?’ I said. ‘He could just be on one of his walkabouts.’
‘His tutor at Cambridge said he hasn’t been in college for six weeks.’
Hades. What could I say? I stared at my yellow office wall and tried to compose a tactful answer.
At seventeen, Tom Carter had been a classical surly teenager. Harry had invited me to dinner one evening five years ago when I’d been posted to our London legation as political officer. It was a third level posting in the Roma Novan diplomatic hierarchy, but a restful one for me after a very fraught intelligence operation in Berlin. I’d taken to Harry immediately not only for his connections as a senior spook – that was part of my job – but for his friendliness to a newcomer on the circuit and for his sense of uprightness.
Over an after-dinner brandy Harry had confided that his son Tom had been away for three days with no contact. During the evening, he’d kept looking at the hallway.
‘Do you want me to go, Harry?’ I’d said eventually.
‘No, please don’t. I’m probably fussing.’ He’d changed the subject, but fidgeted, glancing at his watch when he thought I wouldn’t notice.
‘He always comes back, usually broke. Young men, eh?’ He attempted to laugh.
Just as I stood to go ten minutes later, the sound of the front door opening echoed from the hall and Tom had shuffled in; dirty, dishevelled, eye sockets brown with exhaustion. He shrugged as his father hugged him, grunted and went upstairs with without a word.
That was five years ago. I’d been home and then taken a posting in the Eastern United States since then. Now I was filling in here in London for our UK nuncia, our ambassador, who’d been taken ill.
‘Have you informed the civil police?’ I winced as I asked such an obvious question.
‘You know I can’t do that.’
‘Harry, it’s no shame. For a government functionary like you, they would be discreet. ‘
‘Don’t bet on it. One of those bloody tabloids would get hold of it if they paid enough.’
‘That’s a bit cynical.’ But he was right. Their press here in the UK was outrageous. But then so was the Sol Populi at home in Roma Nova.
‘Can’t you use your people in your security services to get somebody to take a look?’
‘Completely off the record, Aurelia, I had two retired officers nose around, but they found nothing.’ He coughed. ‘Not a trace, which was odd. I can’t use anybody active. Imagine the stink if the parliamentary oversight committee got wind of it.’
I smiled at his schoolboy half-pun. But I knew he was desperately trying to cover his distress. Under that gruff exterior his heart was breaking.
Anne: Thank you so much, Alison for being a guest here at the festival today. I’ve enjoyed finding out more about you and your writing and I feel a pre-order coming on. And thank you too, to everyone who has attended today’s event. And you can find out a bit more about Alison and how to connect with her below.
Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova series – “intelligent adventure thrillers with heart.” She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service, an MA in history and an insatiable curiosity about what motivates people.
Apart from the six full-length novels CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, add to the Roma Nova story. Alison has contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down – an anthology of nine alternative outcomes to the Norman invasion – and to RUBICON, an Historical Writers’ Association collection of Roman short stories.
Now she continues to write thrillers, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Connect with Alison:
Roma Nova website: here
Facebook author page: here
Twitter: here @alison_morton
Alison’s Amazon page: here