Thursday, 20 November 2014

Author interview: Alison Morton - the road that led to Roma Nova

Today, I'm delighted to welcome Alison Morton to Literascribe. I've enjoyed meeting her at the London Book Fair and the Historical Novel Society Conference and she's a fellow member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Alison's a writer of alternative history, so I was interested in what led her to write about her imagined Roma Nova, where women are very definitely in charge of a country which preserves the customs and language of ancient Rome, but in the 21st century. I'm sure you'll find Alison's answers to my questions on her writing process fascinating.

 I often find that people attending my workshops or classes are already experienced writers, but that experience was gained writing reports or for professional publications. When they turn to writing fiction, they may feel challenged by the relative freedom it presents. What led you to embark on your fiction-writing career and did you meet with any problems as you made the transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I’d fiddled with words much of my life - playwright (aged 7), professional translator, article writer, copywriter and local magazine editor. As a translator and editor/project manager, I’d worked in every register, level of formality and voice you can imagine. My longest piece of work to date had been my history masters’ dissertation.

The novel writing  trigger was pushed in reaction to a particularly dire film in 2009.
‘I could do better that that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema.
‘So why don’t you?’ came my husband’s reply.
Three months later, I’d completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in my series of Roma Nova thrillers. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

I wasn’t particularly fazed by the idea of writing fiction; My method of writing is to see a picture in my mind then describe it; I’m very filmic! But in 2009 I knew less than nothing of the craft of writing novels – structure, genres, show don’t tell, narrative thrust, goal, motivation, conflict - and had to set about learning this new trade. I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, enrolled on an Arvon Foundation commercial fiction course and attended conference workshops such as at the Festival of Writing at York.

Writers are often advised to write the book they’d like to read – is that how it was for you?

That was exactly so! I’d found one book about an alternative modern Rome, Romanitas by Sophia McDougall, but it dealt with empires and was rather dystopian. I grew up on The 39 Steps, Dennis Wheatley, Leslie Charteris’s The Saint, and Anthony Hope’s Ruritania, not to mention Georgette Heyer. I wanted the ‘caper’ story with a strong, if cheeky, female protagonist, but in a modern, egalitarian Roman society. So I wrote one. Then a second, and a third…

Stories frequently start with the writer thinking ‘what if?’ When you started writing INCEPTIO, had the premise come to you first as a ‘what if’ moment and you had to come up with the characters and storyline to fit, or did Roma Nova and Carina’s story come about a different way?

I’d wondered about a female-led Roman society in my head since I walked on my first mosaics at the age of 11 in the heat of northern Spain at Ampuras, but it stayed a fantasy in my head until that cinema trip. Our creative brains are wonderful in that they can entertain scenarios light years away from reality without anybody else having the least inkling.

Two things had bubbled away in the same pot over the years: true female empowerment, and Rome. Being realistic, the ancient world wasn’t going to be the right setting for such an independent woman hero like Carina. But I couldn’t abandon my fascination for Rome, so I modernised it.

Readers enjoy entering an internally-consistent fictional world and that’s part of the appeal of your Roma Nova stories. I love the way you’ve meshed the ‘real’ world with your imagined alternative. What did you most enjoy about the process of invention? Did you come up against any particular problems when interlinking the real and the imagined? 

One of governing principles is to remember that people are people whatever strange environments they live in; they must appear to live naturally in their world whether it’s a futuristic colony on Mars or Medici Italy. Of course, people are the product of that environment and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. My Roma Novans keep the family structures, their engineering and technological skills, their robust attitudes and their ideas of service to their state which were key facets of ancient Roman life. 

Sandals, honey cake, senate and forum, keeping the gladius as a military skills training weapon, marrying in a ceremony with fire and water remind us of Rome, but their equivalents can be found in our normal 21st century life. However, it has to be plausible and always in context.

I confess to scattering some linguistic jokes like calling the cops ‘scarabs’; I’m a linguist that’s the sort of sad thing we do. If people spot them, that’s an extra level of enjoyment for them. If not, it doesn’t affect the story one whit.

You’ve said ‘although you don’t put it in the book you have to have worked it all out in your head’. Part of the power of good historical writing is the iceberg aspect – nine tenths is never seen. Did you ever find yourself having to edit out backstory and world-building aspects because they got in the way of the story and its pace? If so, did you find that painful or frustrating?

The story and the characters are the most important thing. The setting must interact and flavour the story, but not in an intrusive way. I have a total horror of the info dump and have been known to throw a book at the wall for that reason. Drip-drip is the best way; the character investigates, or information is fed in via conversation, the tutor/ingĂ©nue scenario, the ‘conflict because the character didn’t know’ scene, letters, reports, discoveries and of course a character’s wonderment at how different things are in a new environment.

I tend to concentrate on the story when writing and find I actually have to put backstory and world building elements in. I live in Roma Nova in my head, so forget sometimes that others don’t!

You belong to various writing organisations: the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Historical Novel Society and International Thriller Writers. Do you feel that, working as a self-publishing author, you have more freedom to go cross-genre like this?

Definitely! When I was submitting work to agents, many liked my stories, but didn’t know what genre to place them in to market them. I had just written the stories I wanted to write. Today, I realise I must look at genres if I want to sell books. Having a foot and/or hand in different camps is a big plus for marketing and visibility. The other benefit is that you learn what’s new in each genre and also learn to look at similar issues through different lenses which is enriching for your writing.

I see you have an agent for subsidiary and foreign rights. How fruitful has that been for you? Would you recommend other self-publishing writers to find an agent to represent them in this way?

Well, slow progress so far, but a lot of interest. I decided to seek limited representation, as I didn’t have the time or knowledge to pursue the sale of these rights. Having a book deal across the pond would be a bonus for me. I already sell in the US, but wouldn’t it be nice to be on the shelves in B&N?

You now have three Roma Nova thrillers out, so I would assume you’ve created a loyal –and hungry! – readership. Where to now? Will you write more Roma Nova stories, or are you going to be mulling over the ‘what if’s of other historical periods?

Book 4, AURELIA, has just gone to my critique partner for evisceration evaluation, then after those amendments, it goes to my structural editor for assessment (and no doubt amendments!), then copy-editor before going to SilverWood Books for production and publication in May. Books 5 and 6 are in the advanced planning stage and form the balance of the three-book cycle started with AURELIA.

I'm with Alison Morton and Anna Belfrage
 at the Historical Novel Society Conference
September 2014
At present, I’m settled in Roma Nova. As for future books, Juno knows!

Thank you so much, Lorna, for having me as your guest today. If any readers have questions, I’d be very happy to answer them.

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. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, the Historical Novel Society, the Alliance of Independent Authors, International Thriller Writers and the Society of Authors.

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, which was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS were shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Publishing Book of the Year Award. Alison’s third book, SUCCESSIO, which came out in June 2014, was selected as the Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014 and has also been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

Connect with Alison on her blog
Twitter @alison-morton

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