Friday 9 August 2013

Alison Morton - author of Inceptio.

First of all, thank you for having me as your guest today, Fenella.
 Tell us about yourself …
I’ve been a wordsmith much of my life – storyteller, playwright (aged 7!), article writer, local magazine editor and professional translator. After a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics in the mid-1970s, I was back ‘at school’ in 2006 to do a masters’ in history and now live in France with my husband.
 I came to novel writing in reaction to a particularly dire film; the cinematography was good, but the plot dire and narration jerky.
‘I could do better that that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema.
‘So why don’t you?’ came my other half’s reply.
Ninety days later, I’d completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in my Roma Nova thriller series.
 What are your favourite novels?
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That varies so much, but I love anything by William Boyd (Restless, Waiting for Sunrise) and Robert Harris (Fatherland, Pompeii, Lustrum), plus all of Jane Austen. Other favourite authors include Ann Patchett, Rose Tremain, Margaret Attwood, C J Sansom. I could go on forever! Basically, I like engaging characters and a cracking good story with a dose of history and a dash of romance added in.
 What can’t you live without?
Tea! I think wine would be a close second...
 What do you watch on TV?
Currently, I’m watching The Americans , a drama about undercover KGB agents in 1980s USA and Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. I love anything Mary Beard does on Romans and most Horizon documentaries. My guilty pleasure is watching New Tricks.
 What is your favourite quote?
“There is no such thing as a free lunch.” It’s a saying supposed to date from the 1930s and was popularised in Robert Heinlein’s 1966 sci-fi novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Although it intrinsically means you have to pay for everything in some way, it’s motivating as it means it’s up to you to put something in and make the effort if you want to succeed.
 If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?
I’ve already done that one! I live in France, just south of the Loire Valley – something my husband and I dreamed about. I’ve lived, studied and worked in France so I know the language and am familiar with, even if I don’t always understand, the way things are done here. Crossing cultures isn’t for everybody!
 And why? The usual suspects; wine, cheese, fresh, fresh food, the markets, cafés and restaurants. And the Loire Valley is the home of that alternative (often better) to champagne, the famous Crémant de Loire. Did I mention I was now on a diet? But it’s the tranquillity and the slower pace of life here, the taking time to talk to people, the friendliness and good manners. Of course, there are exceptions...
 What is it about the idea of an alternative rather than standard history that attracts you so much?  
This goes back into my own near-historical past!
An eleven year old fascinated by the mosaics in Ampurias (huge Roman site in Spain), I asked my father, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain, maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smart question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”  It bubbled away in my head for years until that fateful cinema evening.
 Alternate history is based on the idea of “what if”? What if King Harold had won the Battle of Hastings in 1066? Or if Napoleon has defeated Wellington at Waterloo? Sometimes, it could be little things such as in the film Sliding Doors, when the train door shuts and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character splits into two; one rides away to an alternative life, the other is left standing on the platform.
 In my book, the country of Roma Nova battled its way from a small colony somewhere north of Italy in the late fourth century into a high tech, financial mini-state which retained and developed Roman Republican values, but with a twist. The thriller story then takes place against this background.  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!
Alison with her book.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Probably a hybrid, say 20% plotter and 80% pantser.
I start with imagining the main character, where she is now, what her concerns are and what problems she could have. Then I repeat this for the principal secondary ones. Next, I write thirty lines of plot points, taking the main character from the bombshell or mystery that has landed her in the first chapter to the resolution of her story. Those thirty lines will have three pivot points, a black moment, then a resolution. This sounds very stern and serious, but this is my wireframe, or blueprint. It’s only as I write and listen to the characters developing in front of my mind that I start weaving in the scenes based on these points. As the story develops and the characters interact and come alive, the plot details may well change, but I always keep in mind my original main story goal.
 How do you research for writing stories set in an alternative 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. If you set your story in a different country, you can visit the places your characters would live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky, or freeze in a biting wind. But if you invent that country, then your task is doubled.
 You have to get the geography and history of your imagined country right as well as the social, economic and political development; this sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions.
 Luckily, I’ve breathed in history since I was a kid. I even ‘went back to school’ to take a history masters thirty years after my first degree. So I have enough of a grounding in the aspects of Roman history I want to draw on before I start the story. As I’m a ‘basher-out’, I write the basics of a complex scene, then if I need to check or investigate some aspect in deeper detail, I mark the text up in bright blue square brackets which gives me a visual signal to go back and research further.
 The key, though, is plausibility. Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. And whether corrupt or clean, they must act like a recognisable form of cop; they catch criminals, arrest and charge them and operate within a judicial system. Legal practicalities can differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader.
 One way to do this is to infuse, but not flood, the story with corroborative detail so that it verifies and reinforces the original setting already introduced.  Even though my book is an alternate history thriller 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 (honey was important for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives in the squad room.
 A vital way to connect to readers when writing in an unfamiliar setting is to ensure characters display normal behaviour. Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys, often expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way. But a romantic relationship, whether painful, instant or intense but slow-building, binds us as human beings into a story.
 What characteristics should a hero have?
The most important characteristic of both heroes and heroines is that they engage the reader. Although the heroine Karen, narrates INCEPTIO, the hero, Conrad is a joint main character. He’s a special forces soldier, so physically he’s fit (in every way you wish to imagine that), strong, decisive and able to endure. He keeps his distance at first and tends to go by the book, unlike the rather more flexible attitude Karen adopts. But he had a rotten childhood which has made him reserved towards others. However, like the best heroes, some things knock him off balance and we see the rawness underneath. Heroes should have both strength and weakness, including a moment or two of helplessness, but I think as readers we like to see the strength prevail. A sense of humour, even if it’s a little robust, is essential.
 I like to have some visual signals to appearance – hair and eye colour, and height, plus a slight flaw, a limp, a broken nose, something that shows a bit of life experience.  Body language mirrors a hero’s inner emotions; this parallels the way we as humans act in the real world.
 What is your biggest distraction when it comes to writing?
Facebook! More accurately, the supporting promotion that all authors have to do in a fiercely competitive market. But from my readers’ comments and book groups I belong to, there seems to be a voracious appetite out there for good stories.
 What are you working on now?
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just sent the first proof amendments back to the publishing services company that prints my paperbacks and have approved the designer’s first cover proof for PERFIDITAS, book two in the Roma Nova series. It’s scheduled to come out in autumn.
 Book three, SUCCESSIO, is next on the list and re-visiting the first draft I wrote about nine months ago will fill my work time up to the end of this year.

New York, present day, alternate reality. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.

Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus who rescued her in America, isolates her.

Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it... 

You can find INCEPTIO on your local Amazon  here:

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here:
Twitter: @alison_morton

Thank you, Alison, for that insite into your working life. I invited Alison to my blog after reading her book, Inceptio. It's one of the best books I've read this year and I know it's going to be be a best-seller.


  1. I have to agree with you, Fenella, Inceptio is a brilliant book. I very much look forward to the next one.

  2. Thank you, Jean! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Working hard on the proofs for book 2, PERFIDITAS...