A double dose of delights this Monday as I welcome author Alison Morton in my series ‘Author Interviews’. Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She grabbed a first degree in French, German and Economics in the mid-70s and went ‘back to school’ for an MA in history thirty years later. A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has clambered over sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But the mosaic pavements in Ampurias (Spain) started her wondering what a modern society based on Roman values would be like if run by strong women…
All four Roma Nova thrillers – INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO and AURELIA – have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. The first two were finalists in Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Published Book of the Year Award and the last two selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices and longlisted for the HNS Annual Indie Award in 2015 and 2016 respectively. AURELIA has now been shortlisted. Alison’s third book, SUCCESSIO, was featured as Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just sent INSURRECTIO, the fifth Roma Nova thriller, to the copy editor; it will be published in April this year. It’s the fifth in the Roma Nova series and the second of three in the AURELIA cycle which starts in the 1960s.
What has inspired your most recent novel?
The Roma Nova novels combine my fascination with Ancient Rome – a civilisation that lasted 1229 years in the West – with my own military service, feminism and a love of thriller novels and films.
But underneath the adventure thrillers, I write to explore serious themes: female empowerment and self-realisation (INCEPTIO), betrayal (PERFIDITAS), and reconciling abuse in the past with obligations in the present (SUCCESSIO). AURELIA is a crime thriller, but whose central character has to over come her fear and loathing of her childhood nemesis while torn between duty to the state and to her child.
How much do you think fiction intertwines with real life?
Hm, that depends on your own life and the fiction you write. I’m sure most writers bring in elements from their own lives. Writing a novel is an emotional experience and we tend to reach inside for what has affected us and how we dealt with it, or didn’t. And sometimes, life events and people we meet have such bizarre aspects that the only place for them is in a book!
Could you give five tips for aspiring writers?
Five dialogue tips
- Work out the objective of the conversation – it must take the plot forward in some way, build or reveal something about the character, or introduce suspense or it’s not earning its keep.
- Work through the scene in your head. Make the characters have the conversation several times before you write/type it out. Don’t expect even that rehearsed dialogue to be completely right. You may well come back and change it when you have written more of the story and go through the editing process.
- Do not use dialogue to give the reader an unnecessary lump of information. ‘Well, as you know, Angela, if you speed on a motorway you will be fined and may even lose your licence.’ is boring. If you have Angela defying her mother and flouncing off, keys in hand, saying, ‘I don’t care. You can’t stop me. I’ll even pay the fine. Goodbye, Mother.’ it’s much more dramatic and tells us a good deal about the relationship between mother and daughter.
- Use ‘she said’ rather than she exclaimed/retorted/expostulated/protested, etc. The plainer this speech tag, the more invisible it is. Sometimes you do have to gasp, shriek or murmur, but use these sparingly and they will make more impact If your dialogue line ends in a question, you don’t need to use ‘she asked’ because the question mark shows that she asked! Sometimes you can do away with a speech tag altogether by using an action, e.g. ‘Come and help me with the jigsaw?’ She pointed to another table.
- Learn how to punctuate dialogue correctly and do it as you go. The copy editor will pick it up, but it’s good craft discipline to get it right first time.
How would you describe your writing process?
I’m not sure I can call it a process! The first set of characters had been maturing in my head for years so I had them nearly fully formed when I started to write the stories. Although I have a general outline of each plot, the detail tends to evolve as I go along. The characters’ quirks and interactions dictate how the story emerges to fit the overall outline. Sometimes, the characters take over the show! But I have a little talk to them and we agree on a compromise and I nudge them back into the story.
I’ve developed a tracking grid which keeps the timeline straight and where I can jot down the main actions in each chapter – a kind of index to the book. After the first rough draft, I leave the file in a folder and ignore it for at least six weeks and work on something else.
When I open it again, I carry out the first edit with my red pen. Then the manuscript goes to my critique partner who is eagle-eyed, caring and scrupulously honest; she’s been a sounding board as well as critic all along. After taking her comments on board, it’s off to the structural editor who looks for plot holes, character failings, extraneous or awkward scenes and inconsistent dialogue but more than anything cohesiveness and whether the story grips. Without page-turning quality, the book won’t deliver a good read and that’s the writer’s duty.
After final revisions, the super-polished manuscript goes to the copy-editor. After all this, then it’s off to the publishing house to turn it into a book… Oh, maybe it is a process after all.
What helps you to write/what gets in the way?
The number one distraction is the Internet – Facebook, Twitter, etc. The problem is that the Internet is also a rapid source of information and resources as well as an excellent promotion platform. It’s a perfect place to chat about writing and history. (Sigh)
What kind of research do you do & how do you go about it?
The biggest trap is thinking that you know when something was invented or who married whom, when the rake was introduced or fingerprinting first used in a crime. I double, sometimes triple, check everything! Reading, travel and study have given me a wide general history knowledge, especially Roman, which helps me place events in context, but elements like germs, weather and geography can sometimes trip us up. And I recommend investigating what the plant life in your setting is doing during the season you are writing your story. I combine Internet and book research with asking experts. Although Wikipedia is despised, searching through the references at the end of an entry on your research topic can give you some excellent sources.
Why did you choose the indie publishing route? What are your five tips for would-be indie authors?
I chose this route because I had faith in my stories. Alternative history pushes beyond the boundaries of traditional genres, so although my writing was praised, many agents were wary of the market potential, which is fair enough.
After many classes, courses and professional assessment I realised my work was of publishable standard so I looked for a route that combined high production values, but left me with complete control. And, luckily, the readers think so too. And I have recently signed with the prestigious Blake Friedmann Literary Agency who will represent me for foreign and subsidiary rights – the best of both worlds!
My five tips for indies:
- Be prepared to work hard, not only in writing but in promoting your books.
- Connect with other authors in your genre, however they are published, and join writers’ associations, groups, circles.
- Persist, but remain pleasant, dignified and tactful.
- Ensure you have a terrific, professionally designed cover and your manuscript is edited by a qualified editor to within an inch of its life.
- Research every single way to indie publish from DIY to fully assisted; different routes suit different people.
How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
My novels and background articles are on the Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com/
For writing topics, musings and guests: http://alisonmortonauthor.com/
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
And here’s what Alison’s latest book, AURELIA, is about:
Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead. Forced in her mid-twenties to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer, she is struggling to manage an extended family tribe, businesses and senatorial political life.
But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a suspected smuggler, and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.
Aurelia suspects that the silver smuggling hides a deeper conspiracy and follows a lead into the Berlin criminal underworld. Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she realises that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles. She pursues him back home to Roma Nova desperate now he has struck at her most vulnerable point – her young daughter.
You can watch the book trailer here: https://youtu.be/K5_hXzg0JWA
More information on AURELIA, including buying links: http://alison-morton.com/books-2/aurelia/