Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Novelist Alison Morton Chats About Alternative History and Her New Novel

We're back with Part Two of the interview with novelist Alison Morton. Her bio follows the interview.

For our readers who are writers, what advice do you have? Anything you wish you’d known when you first started in the business?

I wish I’d realised how bad my first draft was! But at least I had a complete novel, something I could work on and improve. That’s the crucial point – finish the novel.

The next important thing is to work on it and seek advice. No first draft is good and bestselling authors confirm this. Buy recommended books, such as Stephen King’s On Writing, join a writing group, save your pennies and go on writing courses (after researching them, of course!) and go to writers’ conferences.

And the third thing, especially for historical fiction writers, is not to become so enthralled by research that you don’t get the writing done. I was looking something up about food and found a whole section on Roman herbs. Two months later, I had made a Roman herb garden in the back yard but only half the progress on writing the novel…

For our readers who are readers only, how did the germ of the idea for your latest book develop?

I developed my heroine in the first book, INCEPTIO, from a 25-year-old girl anybody might know to a resilient, tough and determined woman who had coped with change to a different culture, a complex lover and an enforcer trying to kill her. In PERFIDITAS, which means betrayal, she’s established in her new military career, but it’s all about to fall apart.

Apart from the historical and feminist themes running through PERFIDITAS, there is a strong streak of betrayal on personal, professional and national levels. But who is betraying whom and what ideals are coming under strain? Exploring motivation, flaws and conflict are very much in the front of my creative mind.

What is your favorite way to research a novel?

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. My father had introduced me to history and especially to the Roman world. 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.

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.

The thing that really keeps me digging is the determination not to give up. My characters catch bad guys in the 21st century, but I wanted to find out if there were special forces and spies during the ancient Roman period so I could bring in anything with a Roman flavour. I searched for sources and came across 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 with a lot of infighting in Rome itself until near the later Roman period. Good to know…

How do you make sure you portray historical characters, whether real or fictional, accurately for the time they lived in while still captivating modern readers?

Ha! That’s the 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.

The second element is plausibility. The writer has to maintain the reader’s trust. One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the plot and narrative. Even though my book is set in the 21st century, the Roman characters say things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.’

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 a romantic relationship, whether as painful as in The Remains of the Day or as instant as Colonel Brandon when he sees Marianne in Sense and Sensibility or careful but intense relationship of Eve Dallas and Roarke in the Death series binds us into their stories.

The hardest element is the conflict between projecting 21st century sensitivities and viewpoints on to people living in a completely different set of circumstances. And it’s not always people today being more open and enlightened than those in the past. 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 they main reason for marriage.

Are your books available as ebooks? How do you personally feel about ebooks?

My books are available as ebooks in a selection of formats - Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBook - and at a wide range of retailers. Ebooks are here to stay and ever more people are reading on the move using smart phones and tablets.

I’m an early adopter - I have a Kindle Keyboard 3G - and find it especially brilliant when travelling. But… I do love physical books – the feel of a cover, the smell, the physicality of turning a page to see what happens. I’m always delighted to hand one of my books to a reader as they are objects of beauty as well as a good read.

Do you participate in author book signings or events? Where can readers find you?

I live in France, but travel back to the UK a lot to give talks, take part in conferences, book fairs and events. I have a launch party in the UK for each book, plus a local one here in France, but most of my presence is online on my blog, on Facebook and of course Twitter!

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, a combination of history and mythology about Greek hero Aeneas’ third wife who becomes the ancestress of Rome. Beautiful writing!

What can we expect from you next?

The third book in the Roma Nova series, SUCCESSIO, will be out in June and readers may be in for a few surprises! Each book in the series brings out more of the Roman theme and flavour, but our heroine and her hero are threatened by a nemesis so cunning and persistent they may not be able to defeat it…

Thanks again for joining us!

I’ve loved being here. If readers would like to keep in touch, I have a monthly email newsletter that I send out with news, pictures, quirky pieces of information and updates about my books. Here’s where to subscribe:

To be entered into a drawing to win a copy of Perfiditas answer Alison's question in the comments along with your email by this Friday, 8am EDT.
Question: What would you like to have happened differently in history?

Alison Morton 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.

  Connect with Alison on her blog Facebook author page Facebook page Facebook page Twitter Goodreads UK author page: US author page:  Buying links (multiple retailers):


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

My serious answer to this question would be quite complex and take hours to type! But my short answer would be: Women's fashion design of US & Europe remaining unchanged {since late 1800's} so I could wear those beautiful dresses that are only in the movies now :-)
btw - I appreciate this interview and the insight into the concept of alternative history. Thanks.

Cindy Thomson said...

Kathy contacted me with her email, so she's still eligible. :)