This week I’m delighted to welcome Alison Morton back to Virtual Book Club, my interview series that gives authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.
Alison Morton writes the award-winning Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.
All six Roma Nova full-length novels have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices. AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. SUCCESSIO was selected as an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller. CARINA is a novella set between INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS.
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds an MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.
Now she continues to write thrillers, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Q: Welcome back, Alison.
Thank you for inviting me to Virtual Book Club to discuss my new book, ROMA NOVA EXTRA.
Q: Which, I can see from the description, is a collection of short stories rather than a novel.
Readers of the Roma Nova series may be familiar with many of the characters. But if you’re new to Roma Nova, you can enjoy these eight ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses into Roma Nova for themselves and perhaps feel curious enough afterwards to find out more about the Roma Novans in the longer novels…
Q: Before we dig a little deeper into the differences between writing novels and short stories, can you tell where the book is set and how you decided on its setting?
Although the characters travel, the home territory is Roma Nova, an imaginary country in south central Europe that’s survived from the fourth century to the present. Its society is imbued with traditional Roman values and mores but there’s a twist – it’s female led. Quite how that happened, you can read here: https://alison-morton.com/roma-nova/roma-nova-history/
‘Central Europe’ has always been accommodating to fiction; witness one of my favourite stories The Prisoner of Zenda. Although I’ve given Roma Nova some neighbours (the Italian Confederation, Bavaria, New Austria, the free city of Trieste), I’ve been deliberately vague about its exact location.
When the Roman Empire finally collapsed in the West in AD 476, it had been dissolving for the previous century, eventually giving way to rump domains, city states and petty kingdoms all facing the dynamic rise of the new peoples of Europe – Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians and Alamans. So it was entirely logical for a group of Romans to trek into the mountains in AD 395 to find safety in a new defensible settlement.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
I’ve always tried to find Latin titles for the series that convey the theme of the book but stay intelligible to the reader whose mother-tongue isn’t Latin. Two have the heroine’s name – AURELIA and CARINA, but the others have caused me headaches across the series! This book started in my mind as ‘Roma Nova Shorts’ – not exactly elegant or Latin! Two months before finalising the manuscript I sat down with my Latin dictionary and a strong cup of coffee.
‘Extra’ in English means ‘additional’ or a ‘bonus’. Now ‘bonus’ is a solid Latin- sounding word, but its meaning to a Roman is ‘good’. Dead end. But ‘extra’ in Latin denotes ‘outside’; we still use it with that meaning in expressions such as ‘extramural’ (extra muros – outside the walls). My punning instinct flared up. ‘Extra’ would mean both ‘additional’ as well as indicating stories sitting outside the main novels of the Roma Nova series. Result!
The titles are capitalised, not out of vanity or any wish to ‘shout’, but to reflect the strong nature of inscriptions on Ancient Roman monuments. Yes, using the Trajan Pro font for Roman-themed fiction is a cliché, but along with the eagle graphic it gives readers a hint of the nature of the books.
Q: How do you get into the mind-set of your characters?
The eight stories in ROMA NOVA EXTRA range from AD 370 to 2029. Four of the stories are set in ‘the present’ or ‘present plus’ but four are historical. For the modern stories, I already had most of the characters established in my head; I knew their attitudes, fears and strengths and the world they live in. For the two new ones, Gillius, a thirteen-year-old boy, and Macrinus, a 29-year-old-man, I confess to modelling the core of them on my (now) 31-year-old son.
Now, the historical characters are less easy, especially the Romans (stories 1 and 2) and the eleventh century Roma Novan (story 3), but story 4 set in 1987 had its own challenges as I knew I couldn’t rely on my own memory for that period. Knowing the historical periods, their cultural and social values are givens, but the physical landscape, transport and economic development are as vital. People often had few clothes, a limited range of household items and days full of hard graft.
After factual research, I close my eyes and walk my character down a street in their setting. Next, I take them through their normal day and thirdly, their particular scenes. They have to give a running commentary on everything they see and feel. Yes, it takes time, but that’s what a rest on the writer’s sofa is for.
Q: Do you feel under pressure to make your main characters likable?
No. The characters are as they are and very like us: striving, failing, compromising, courageous, worried, anxious, happy, conniving, sunny-tempered, honourable, malicious, self-sacrificing. In fiction, we tend to exaggerate their qualities to make an impact, but we need to include a variety and all shades of that variety.
Historical characters are often far more robust or abject than our 21st sensibilities would like. Life for the majority was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ as Hobbes would say. Those in power enjoyed enormous and mostly undisputed privilege backed up by main force. My male protagonist in ‘The Girl from the Market’ (story 1) is a Roman officer from an aristocratic family. He’s considered honourable and generally decent in his time. He is second in command in the region, an experienced and respected powerful young man but has no compunction in designating a peasant girl for his sexual satisfaction. This was normal behaviour at that time. How he gets his come-uppance is for the reader to discover!
Suppose Roma Nova, the last remnant of the old Roman Empire, had struggled through to the 21st century – a tough little country with tough, resourceful people?
Compelling reading for fans of the Roma Nova series, or a teaser for those who have yet to dip their toes.
“Alternate history at its best. Carefully and logically thought out, peopled with well drawn characters that feel and speak and behave exactly as they should! Recommended.”
Click here to read a sample or buy.
Q: Have you ever become so attached to the characters in one of your short stories that you haven’t wanted to let go of them?
Ha ha! Yes. This is why the book I wanted to write in 2010 (INCEPTIO) expanded first into a trilogy, then a second trilogy, a novella and now a short story collection. As you write, you invest your emotions in these characters whether you love, hate, admire or despise them.
Q: When is a short story too long?
When the story seems to drag. A well-crafted story will dictate its own natural length. I’m not sure mine qualify ‘well-crafted’, but they are incidents, glimpses or emotional experiences set against a much larger background. In ROMA NOVA EXTRA, seven of the eight stories range from 2,850 to 9,250 words; the last is 17,500 words because that seemed its natural length. Nothing like an agonising story of two lovers making a complete mess of their lives!
The 1066 story was originally written to a prescribed length – 5,000 words – for a multi-author anthology, but when I revised it for my own collection it only grew by 115 words.
Q: Do you stick to the rule that there must be a twist at the end?
Oh, I always like to surprise my readers whatever length story I write. But I do like to resolve the story in some way – I’m not a fan of open endings.
Q: You’ve created an alternate history. Do you have a technique for keeping track of your fictional canvas and timeline?
Oh, call blessings down from the gods onto Excel! (Other spreadsheets are available.) I can track main characters’ ages from AD 370 to 2029 and ensure nobody has an eleventh month pregnancy or is six years old when they marry their spouse.
The other indispensable when writing longer fiction is a time grid for each novel. After working on a scene or chapter, I jot down notes of the main action/agreements/conflicts/outcomes and gradually form an index to the book. As I write thrillers with complex plots, I need to recall quickly and easily who knows what and more importantly, who doesn’t know what.
If you’d like to know more and download a sample grid, here’s the link: https://alisonmortonauthor.com/2010/04/helping-to-track-the-timeline-of-a-story/
Q: In previous interviews we’ve discussed the lengths that you go to in terms of research, but how do you make sure it doesn’t show up on the page?
It’s so tempting to put it all in! But put yourself in the place of your character. You wouldn’t explain how coffee is grown and processed in Colombia and distributed through the retail chain to your friend when you meet her for a latte. Research only matters in your story when it has an effect on your character and the plot. You can drip little bits in sparingly, but the essential question to ask yourself is: does inserting research take the story forward? If not, delete.
What the hours of research will do is immerse you in the mindset of the setting and enable you to write as if you were from that time and place. For instance, Roma Nova is in central Europe. A character can sweat either from the weather or from tension in August, they will have slush on their boots in winter, they slog through the traffic in the narrow streets by the forum to get to a vital encounter or check the magazine from their Glock in preparation for action.
Want to know more about Alison and her writing?
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison_morton
Alison’s Amazon page: http://Author.to/AlisonMortonAmazon
What’s ROMA NOVA EXTRA about?
Eight stories – four historical and four present day and a little beyond – but they’re all about the people of Roma Nova.
A young tribune sent to a backwater in 370 AD for practising the wrong religion, his lonely sixty-fifth descendant labours in the 1980s to reconstruct her country, a Roma Novan imperial councillor attempts to stop the Norman invasion of England in 1066, her tough 21st century Praetorian descendant flounders as she searches for her own identity and happiness.
Some are love stories, some are lessons learned, some resolve tensions and unrealistic visions, some are plain adventures, but above all, they are stories of people in dilemmas and conflict, and their courage and effort to resolve them. Oh, and there are a few surprises…
The Girl from the Market AD 370
Victory Speaks AD 395
A Roman Intervenes 1066
Silvia’s Story 1987
Conrad and Carina’s Roman Holiday 2019
Saturnalia Surprise 2027
Allegra and Macrinus 2029
Buying links for ROMA NOVA EXTRA
Paperback from 19 October 2018 from you’re your usual bookshop or online retailer.
If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Alison please leave a comment.
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Written on November 4, 2018 at 11:59 am, by Jane Davis
Categories: Author Interviews, Blog, Virtual Book Club | Tags: Alison Morton, Alternative History, Aurelia, behind the book, CARINA, Feminist fiction, INCEPTIO, New releases, ROMA NOVA EXTRA, Roma Nova Series, Roman Empire, Roman History, Thrillers
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