Sunday, 18 September 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down - Sunday chat with Alison Morton

Next up in my series of 1066 Turned Upside Down, alternative history author Alison Morton:

I began by asking her:~

In your Roma Nova novels you have created a whole new world. Are there rules that you have to abide by, having created this world? How do you make sure that everything happens within the framework and logic of that world? Or are you, as the author, able to bend the rules sometimes?

Alternative history definitely has “da rulz”!  

A trigger event causes a “point of divergence” (POD) taking our timeline, i.e. the history we know, in a different direction – an alternate timeline. Some things will seem the same as the ones we know; people, shops, work, even names or clothing. Others, including social structures and attitudes as well as politics and nations, may be disturbingly different. 

No aliens, no time-travellers slipping backwards in history to change it, no fantasy, dragons or magic are allowed in true alternate history. Nor is going back; time has been permanently diverted, but then it probably is every day in our timeline without us noticing it…

The geography and climate must resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. Roma Nova is an Alpine country lying in south central Europe, so winters are cold and snowy and summers hot enough for vines. No alternate history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. This sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour. So you have to work it all out, especially who holds the power.

Roma Nova
And breaking the rules? I write at the historical end of the “althist” scale so use historical logic to construct the framework for the stories. The setting has to be plausible and the events in the story consistent with that world. It would be silly to have laser weapons in the eighteenth century – that’s science fiction – but you could have an advanced type of musket. My Roma Novan military and close friends greet each other with the forearm handshake, which actually has no historical foundation but is immensely cool.

Roma Novan Triumphal arch
How did the idea for Roma Nova come about?

It was the long time bubbling of an idea that occurred to me when I was an eleven year old fascinated by my first Roman mosaic. I wondered what a Roman world run by women would be like. Only when I was older did I start building this world in my head. I read Robert Harris’s Fatherland  – a terrific thriller set entirely naturally in a 1960s Nazi dominated Europe – and saw you could alternate history… 

Alison as a child, fascinated by her first mosaic

Without giving too much away, can you set the scene for your 1066 story?

Galla Mitela has been dispatched by the Roma Novan imperatrix to intervene between Harold’s Saxon England and William’s Normandy. The Eastern Roman Empire is pressuring Roma Nova to stop the ‘Northmen’ growing in power and influence. Galla is a former warrior and senior councilor, used to command. Could she influence these tough, ambitious and determined men?

Was it difficult writing about a different period?

Ha-ha! Yes and no.  I had a general knowledge of the period, much as anybody interested in English history does, but I plunged into research straightaway. A few years ago, I did an MA in history, so had some techniques and methodology to hand. It was back to world building, to visualising what the northern French coastline and the Seine riverbanks would look like. When was the stone quay in Rouen built? Were there still signs of Roman presence even hundreds of years later? France was heavily Romanised, so there had to be. How would the Normans take to a woman in command? What was the state of technology and weaponry? What would Roma Novans wear in the medieval period?

Is there another event in history that you wish had had a different outcome, another "What if"?

Well, apart from a different outcome in 1066, I would have liked Roman emperor Julian the Philosopher (or ‘the Apostate’) to have survived the Battle of Samarra in AD 363. Sadly, he’s not well known but his death was a turning point. 

After gaining the purple, Julian started a religious reformation of the state, which was intended to restore the lost strength of the Roman state. He supported the restoration of polytheism as the state religion, i.e. the traditional Roman gods. His aim was not to destroy Christianity but to drive the religion out of "the governing classes of the empire”.  His early death stopped his reform and the empire became relentlessly Christian. 

His memory is revered in Roma Nova where the old Roman traditional religion has been retained; Julian is a favourite name for sons to this day.

Thanks so much for dropping by to talk to me Alison.

If readers would like to try writing an alternative history story, they can download Alison's FREE handout on tips and techniques.

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