Thursday, 9 May 2013

Guest post by author, Alison Morton

INCEPTIO: a novel of Roma Nova

Writing history “alternately”

Stepping into a book’s world is always the start of an exciting adventure, especially going back to the past to hear the clash and smash of Agincourt, admire the frocks and pelisses of Jane Austen’s Bath or even smell the stench of Victorian slums.

But what if that past is an “alternate” one where history developed differently?

What if King Harold had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Or George Washington had failed to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776? Or that firm favourite, if Hitler had won the Second World War?

More intriguing is when something that seems obscure at the time turns out to have a massive impact, e.g. the thought not occurring to Tim Berners-Lee to link up hypertext and the embryonic Internet to ease CERN scientists’ daily working lives or if hadn’t rained the night before Agincourt.

Alison Morton, author of INCEPTIO
So what defines alternate history?
A story can take place can take place in the past, present or future, but the point of divergence (POD) from the standard timeline must be in the past. The diverted timeline can’t be changed back by some clever plot development, time machine or technical gizmo (or waking up and finding it’s all been a dream, or possibly a nightmare!). And lastly, the narrative should show some of the consequences of the change and describe how the alternate world works.

In my Roma Nova thrillers, the trigger in the past was the final brutal suppression of paganism by Roman emperor Theodosius in 395 AD which sent four hundred non-Christian Romans north to find a safe place to live.

 Over the following sixteen centuries, the late fourth century colony battled its way through history to become Roma Nova, a high tech, financial mini-state which retained and developed Roman values, but with a twist.  And Roma Nova’s very existence has altered the world’s history.

Stories with Romans are usually about famous emperors, epic battles, depravity, intrigue, wicked empresses and a lot of sandals, tunics and swords.

But imagine the Roman theme projected sixteen hundred years further forward into the 21st century where thriller story of INCEPTIO takes place...

What is the most difficult thing about writing stories set in an alternate history timeline?
Reaching into the past means getting inside the heads of the characters, imagining what they see in their everyday world, what they smell, eat and touch. For stories set in a different country, writers can visit the places the characters would live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky, or freeze in a biting wind.

But if a writer invents that country, then the task is doubled; no sources and no research visits.

Not only history, but geography and social, economic and political development must be worked out carefully; this sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. And to keep the story plausible, it must develop in a historically logical way.

I firmly believe you must know your history before you attempt “alternating” it!

As with all history-based fiction, research should be worn lightly and not dumped on the reader. One way to stay plausible and keep the reader engaged is to infuse, but not flood, the story with detail which reinforces the original setting the writer has introduced.

Even though INCEPTIO is mostly set in the 21st century, the Roman characters still say things like 'I wouldn't be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.'

And there are honey-coated biscuits, not chocolate digestives, in the police squad room.

Above all, when writing in an unfamiliar setting the characters should display normal emotions and behaviour. Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar needs, hurts and joys, often expressed in alienating or (to us) peculiar ways.  But the emotions of a romantic relationship are the same whether set in ancient Rome, the reign of Henry VIII or the 21st century.

Ultimately, alternate history allows your imagination to explore outside the confines of the set timeline and to introduce conflict and challenges to history in your own terms.

And that’s a lot of fun!

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at
or on Facebook:  
and Twitter: @alison_morton


  1. Hi Victoria Hi Alison

    Alison I've already 'seen' you on Sally Quilford's blog and find the concept of alternative history quite fascinating. I'll certainly be looking out for it and when time and work allows me to read around a bit more, I'll certainly look out for your book.

    1. Maria, my apologies for replying so late - mea culpa!

      I hope you have been able to read INCEPTIO in the meanwhile and have enjoyed it.


Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.