Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So I regularly interview various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Alison. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us.
Thank you for having me on the blog!
How did you get into alternate history and what about the genre appeals to you? When I drafted the first Roma Nova story, I had no idea it was in the alternate history genre, or even what that was. It was just the story I wanted to write. I’ve been a Roman nut since I was eleven when I was captivated by my first mosaic in Spain. Even then, being the child of a historian and a feminist, I wondered what a Roman society it would be like if women were in charge. Triggered by a bad film several decades later, I sat down and typed 90,000 words in 90 days. I didn’t have a clue what to do with it, but that’s another story… My reading had always concentrated on historical, thriller, science fiction, crime, and a touch of romance. Robert Harris published Fatherland in 1992 and I’d adored it not only for the plot and the succinct writing, but also the whole speculative premise. When I stared at my own first draft years later, it suddenly connected – what I’d written was also set in an alternative version of history. I plunged into researching the alternate history genre and found on the way that it had alternative names.
Our founder, Tom Black, is fond of calling Alternate History a setting rather than a genre. You primarily write thrillers set in AH in the same way that someone like Katy Moran primarily writes romances set in AH. Have you found that your audience is mostly thriller readers, or do you get many readers who are into the AH more than the plot and would happily jump from you to Moran? I came from the historical end of the scale and was very active in the Historical Novel Society, so my first audience came from historical fiction readers looking for something different. The Roman writers ‘adopted’ me which was very kind of them! Many of my readers like thrillers per se, some like the feminist twist, others the ‘Romanness’ or even the romance, but many say they love the characters best. I think the idea of alternate history caught many readers by surprise and made them think – which is good! As a reader, I’m always attracted to any AH and am currently reading the first of Moran’s novels.
A lot of AH books are essentially crime thrillers. Do you think the format of a crime mystery, where people are asking questions and uncovering secrets, naturally suits AH because it makes the exposition easier to drop in? Stories need to have a purpose, and crime, mystery and thrillers have a strong ‘quest’ basis: solve the mystery, find the bad guys, recover the stolen thing, stop the corruption, right the wrong. Along with a strong central story, characters need to be well-rounded and relatable. Readers tell me they desperately want my main protagonists, Carina and Aurelia, to succeed, they flinch when the two of them stumble and cheer when they hold their own. But both story and characters must be woven into their setting, and that environment must show it’s the foundation of the characters’ values, traits and attitudes.
To them their world is natural, the place they live, so exposition must be light and focused – set the scene, illuminate the character or take the story forward, and in small drips. A flood of ‘let me tell you how this weapon works, Marcus’ type of exposition should be avoided; just tell Marcus to duck when the bullet whizzes over his head. Getting this right is a matter of writing technique (show don’t tell) which comes with training and practice.
Your most noted series of books is the 'Roma Nova' series about a surviving Roman successor state in the modern day. What makes 'Roma Nova' stand out versus a lot of surviving Romes is that your Roma Nova is about the size of Luxembourg, it's not Trajan's Empire. What was the reason for that choice? Ha! Here comes the historian… Rome didn’t ‘fall’ in the west in our timeline; it disintegrated.
Which happened due to a combination of internal factors such as disease, weakened civic solidarity and the challenges of a new religion, and external factors such as tribes migrating from the east, themselves pushed westwards. Added to this, by the end of the 4th century many areas, although technically Roman, were very much self-governing autonomous provinces people by ‘barbarians’. Rumour has it there were 257 reasons for Rome’s collapse! Many Roman populations literally ‘ran for the hills’ in the dusk of the Roman Empire, creating the forerunners of medieval independent city states and fiefdoms. Roma Nova came from that historical background, which is why it's a microstate. My Roma Nova timeline diverged in AD 395 when the Theodosian edicts against non-Christian religion and resulting persecution of ‘pagans’ made it impossible for a group of families to maintain their traditions, so they went to find themselves somewhere safe and remote so they could carry on their lives in the way they wished. Their (and my) aim wasn’t to hold the western empire together; it would have been impossible as it had gone beyond the point of being saved as a cohesive state.
The 'Roma Nova' series has two strands of books. One set in the 21st century and one that covers the 1960s to 1980s. Why did you pick those two eras, and do you have any plans to look at other points in the history of Roma Nova? The first book, INCEPTIO, is set in the ‘present’ (actually around 2010) with CARINA following on directly. The action in PERFIDITAS takes place six years later and SUCCESSIO nine years after that. I was halfway through drafting SUCCESSIO when I became increasingly absorbed by Carina’s grandmother’s story.
What was her role in the Great Rebellion which for Roma Novans was the formative and traumatic equivalent of the Second World War for our parents and grandparents? Who was the brutal tyrant behind it and what effect did he have on his nephew, Conrad, Carina’s partner? I knew then I had to write Aurelia’s story as a young woman. Halfway through drafting AURELIA set in the late 1960s, I realised I had far too much story to squash into one book, so INSURRECTIO and RETALIO, both set in the early 1980s came into existence. NEXUS, a story from the 1970s was dropped in later. I wrote all of them as stand alone stories as I dislike cliff-hangers at the end of novels, but they all interlink. I had fun with this aspect and readers have told me they love this! Other eras? I’ve dabbled with two short stories: Honoria’s Battle, the story of a Roma Novan at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 and The Idealist, in 1849 Italy, part of the Betrayal collection of historical stories.
INCEPTIO the first book in the 'Roma Nova' series, follows an outsider from New York entering this pagan monarchy, which is a familiar story beat. It's what something like The Princess Diaries does. Except in INCEPTIO, the New World is also very different, and Karen's New York is not our New York. As a writer how do you choose how much change you make to the outside world without it becoming too alien and there being no familiarity for the reader to grasp onto? In a sense of naughtiness, I wrote a piece of dialogue where Karen says just that. It was to illustrate her gaucheness, but I thought I’d also better get that one out of the way. ;-)
‘To be honest, it’s disorientating. I thought I was an average person living a normal life. Now I’m some kind of elite being, but I don’t know the rules.’ I smiled from one to the other. ‘Shades of The Princess Diaries.’ They both looked at me with blank stares.
To be serious… Roma Nova’s very existence was going to have altered the rest of the world. My mantra has been to follow historical logic. Although our real history often hangs on little things or accidents, the historic dynamic generally points in one direction and one that it will return to, even if it goes ‘off piste’ from time to time.
In my imaginary world, the rebellion in North America in the 1770s was a ramshackle affair and the leaders squabbled too much to form a united movement. Wisely, the British granted parliamentary representation, full trading and civic rights equal to those in the mother country. British rule in the New World didn’t end until the mid 1860s, but end it definitely did (although later than in our timeline).
The British and Dutch co-ruled Manhattan and the surrounding area, from the 1600s, with Britain the junior partner. But due to economic and political problems at home, the last Dutch Governor-General sailed out of New York in 1813, leaving the British to rule solo for another fifty years. (In our timeline, it was 1674 when the Dutch left, but they did leave.)
In the 1860s, the North American colonies banded together as the Eastern United States (EUS) with Georgetown (later Washington) as their capital. There was an early notion of forming the ‘Western United States’ located between the original colonies and the Mississippi River, but it failed to become autonomous and was swallowed up by the EUS. The southern part of what we call North America – California, Texas, and New Mexico – were retained by the Spanish Empire. Louisiane and Québec stayed French to this day. (Both these build on realistic possibilities.)
In Europe, there was only one Great War which lasted from 1925 to 1935 and afterwards the allied nations split Germany back into its constituent states. ‘Greater Germany’ had only been united for less than seventy years beforehand. Although sharing a common German language and culture (as in our timeline), it has strong local and regional identities such as Prussia and Bavaria within it so in my imaginary world this splintering seemed logical. (Splitting Germany after the First World War was indeed an idea put forward at the Versailles conference but didn’t gain any traction.)
You contributed a short story to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down which got a glowing review on this blog. How did you come to be involved in that project? I was browbeaten persuaded by the project organiser, historical fiction writer Helen Hollick, as she considered me to be the alternate history ‘expert’(!) in our group of authors. She helped me get over the hurdle of writing in a short form, something which I doubted I could do. But it was a transformative experience. I loved researching the eleventh century but best of all, I could project a (somewhat wicked) Roman view of how backward everything had become since Rome had left Gallia… One of the interesting things about AH writing communities I find fascinating is how ghettoised it often is. 1066 managed to attract some really talented writers but they're not the same writers who might reply to a call for stories by Sea Lion Press or Inklings Press. For a start the gender ratio is very different, 1066 is primarily female writers. Do you think that as a woman writer, if you see an anthology edited by a man, published by a man and with mostly male writers, you're less likely to want to join that project or is it more that you're less likely to see it because that call for stories would be shared in different spaces? Do you know, the gender (im)balance never struck me until now? The 1066 TUD writers are exclusively historical fiction writers, bar one of the male contributors who writes science fiction. The year 1066 presents the classic ‘what if’ scenario that writers always want to speculate about. At least half of them are nostalgic about the Saxons. I don’t mind whether the other authors in a group are male or female. For RUBICON published by Sharpe Books (male CEO), we were six male and four female writers I think that answering a call for stories depends very much on where you hang out especially on social media and on what networks you you participate in. In the information swirl, opportunities can be easily missed. Today, a member of a writers’ group I belong to on Facebook highlighted a call for stories that I hadn’t seen myself.
You have a writing blog on your website, which is full of advice for new authors. What would you say is the most important thing you've learned as a writer that you'd want newer less experienced writers, like myself, to know? My original blog dates back to 2010; it split into in 2015 – my thriller blog where I highlight my own books) and the writing blog where I entertain guests and highlight (hopefully helpful) things I’ve learnt on my writing journey. My tips? Persist. Refine/hone/polish your writing until you’re sick of it. Learn to take criticism/advice. Assemble a quality team of editor, cover designer, formatter, beta readers and reviewers.
What can we expect to see from you next, either within AH or in other genres? In 2021, I published two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. There will be a third one, probably next year, but currently I’m 60,000 words into a 4th century story where the founders of Roma Nova meet twenty-five years before the timelines diverge. A follow up novel describing events in 395 AD when the first Roman set foot on the ground that would become Roma Nova is very likely. Time will tell!