April 07, 2017

An alternative blog about alternative history!

This blog is intended to throw a light on how crime and thriller writers put together their work. This week, in a change to my usual analyses, I've passed the baton and asked Alison Morton to talk to us about her processes when writing her highly successful alternative histories.

So far Alison has written 5 books in her Roma Nova series, with the sixth, Retalio shortly to be released.

For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, alt-history posits the idea that some actual historical fact didn't take place, or that it did, but in a different way or with a different outcome. So, for example, the recent television series made from Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle considered what might have happened had Germany and Japan won World War II.

So now let's get on with the questions ...

How do you go about beginning your novel – do you plot, or do you begin and then see where it takes you? Why do you do it that way?

As I write a series within one setting – an imaginary country called Roma Nova – I already have some idea of the environment and the characters within it. For the first three thrillers, I was burning to get the heroine’s story out, so just attacked the keyboard. The second three books centred round a prominent secondary character from the first three; I just wanted to know the secrets from her younger life and so I had to write the books to find out! 

I plot about 15% and write 85% ‘by the seat of my pants’. I know where the story starts and where it has to end. After sketching out a few essential story points, off I go.

What are your thoughts on ‘style’? Is it something you’re aware of while writing? Do you focus more on the story, or on how it’s told?
The story is the essential thing. Readers need enough detail to get the smells, sounds and sights of the setting but no more than absolutely necessary to the story. My aim is to write as tightly as possible and let the reader infer things.

How and when do you do research for the book? Before you start, or as and when you need?
Luckily, being a complete ‘Roman nut’ from the age of eleven, I have a reasonable background of Roman culture and life not to have to dive into a reference book or online site all the time. My six years in the military takes care of that side, although I do have to check up on precise details such as honeycombing on rifles and types of Glock. In the second trilogy set late 1960s-early 1980s I had to research forensic knowledge available at that time. You can’t use DNA profiling in 1968! Even though my books are set in an alternative timeline, I like to keep as near as possibly to contemporary technology.

How do you deal with Point of View? Do you always use First Person, or Third Person, or do you move between them? What problems are you aware of because of the choices you make?
I write almost exclusively in the first person. I like to know what’s going on in my protagonist’s head, her motivation and reactions and her emotions. Many writers consider it’s limiting to only have one view on events in the story, but I see this as a delicious way to set up conflict and misunderstanding. The narrator only truly knows what she sees, or senses herself; everything else is (her) speculation. 

How do you go about editing or revising the drafts of your book? What governs the choices you make?
I print out what I think is the final version of my draft, then carry out a harsh self-edit, red pen in hand, looking for overwriting, adverbs, wobbly dialogue, over-use of qualifiers like ‘very’, ‘rather’ and ‘quite’. I check the timeline for the main story, then for each character. Then it goes to my critique partner of many years who has the eye of an eagle and the instincts of a velociraptor. After any revisions, the manuscript goes to a (paid) structural editor who checks for story cohesiveness, plot holes, pace and voice. After the inevitable, but these days thankfully few, revisions it goes to the (paid) copy editor to be shuffled into a print-ready version. I explain more fully here.

Quality is essential for me and I owe it to the reader to make the finished book the best it can be.

Are you conscious of being influenced by any particular authors or genre-specific elements when writing? How do those influences affect your writing?
One of my first influences was Robert Harris’s Fatherland; it introduced me to alternative history. But more than that, to writing a pacey crime mystery within such an alternative timeline. There is no great exposition of their world; the characters live (to them) normal and natural lives within it. Alternative history has rules – a point of divergence from the standard timeline with no return, a properly built world, and writing the consequences of the divergence. These rules must be firmly planted in your head, but like the iceberg, not show in your writing. The thriller, crime or mystery is the most important thing, but the alternative world forms the framework.

Tell us about your latest trilogy, especially any challenges it set you. 
AURELIA is a crime thriller and sets up the rivalry between Aurelia Mitela, an ex-Praetorian Guard and Caius Tellus, an amoral but intelligent predator. I had to do massive research on 1960s technology and German courts, prisons and legal procedures! INSURRECTIO is more of a political thriller where a charismatic leader of a nationalist movement makes a grab for power. Of course, Aurelia tries to stop him. The last book in the trilogy, RETALIO, which is out on 27 April, is a story of resilience and resistance with plenty of doings by ‘the ungodly’ (as Simon Templar would describe them).

 Is there anything else you’d like to add? Please tell us how you’d like to be contacted via social media, and also where to buy your books. Please add a short biography, too.


A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison Morton continues to be fascinated by that complex, power and value driven civilisation. Armed with a masters’ in history, six years’ military service and the love of a good crime thriller, she explores via her award winning Roma Nova novels the ‘what if’ idea of a modern Roman society run by strong women. 

The sixth book, RETALIO, will be published on 27 April. In the meantime, Alison lives in France with her husband, tends her Roman herb garden and drinks wine.
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton

Buying link for all formats (paperback, ebook, audio) of all books:

Thanks, Alison! Very interesting stuff! I hope Retalio does as well as the other books have so far.

Finally, I'd like to point out that the new Paul Storey thriller, One Punch, is now available for pre-order. It'll be on sale on May 8th at a starting price of 99 cents or 99 pence. You can click on the link here, or the cover image at the top left of the blog, to be taken to your nearest Amazon site in order to pre-order it. Thanks!  One Punch Pre-Order


  1. Thank you, Keith, for letting me be your guest today. I hope your readers enjoyed a dip into an alternative timeline where some things are the same, but others very, very different...