If you like some alternative history with your crime, Alison Morton’s exciting debut novel ‘INCEPTIO’ could be just your type of read. Blending alternative historical and modern settings, the story follows Karen Brown as she searches to uncover the truth behind her connection to the mysterious Roma Nova, and discover (before it’s too late) why government enforcer, Jeffery Renschman, wants her dead.
To learn all about it, I’m pleased to welcome to Alison Morton, author of ‘INCEPTIO’, who’s joining me today as part of her ‘INCEPTIO’ Blog Tour.
Alison, you’ve said that the idea for your new thriller ‘INCEPTIO’ came from your eleven-year-old self wondering What would have happened if women were in charge of the Romans? What was it that made you decide to write a novel along that theme?
Ever since my clever, ‘senior Roman nut’ father batted that question back at me by replying, “What do you think it would be like?” the idea has bubbled away in my mind. Ancient Rome morphed into a new type of Rome, a small rump state that survived the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire into the 21st century, but retained its Roman identity. And one where the social structure changed; women were going to be leading society. Despite a full range of life events keeping me busy (school, university, career, military, marriage, parenthood, business ownership, move to France), I couldn’t make the story go away.
But what actually started me writing INCEPTIO? One Wednesday I went to the local multiplex cinema with my husband. Thirty minutes into the film, we agreed it was really, really bad. The cinematography was good, but the plot dire and narration uneven.
‘I could do better than that,’ I whispered in the darkened cinema.
‘So why don’t you?’ came my husband’s reply.
The story that had filled my mind for years burst out through my fingers and ninety days later, I’d written 96,000 words, the first draft of INCEPTIO.
Your modern day protagonist, Karen Brown, is certainly up against the odds. What was your inspiration for creating her?
I had experience of living in different cultures and of serving in the military so could draw on both of those to seed some of the background of Karen’s story. But I wanted to take a modern Western young woman and not only make her contend with a nasty piece of work trying to eliminate her, but also unsettle her by having to adapt to a fundamentally different culture. She was going to be forced to change and grow, something I think readers like to see. More than anything, I wanted her to discover the person she was meant to be, something she certainly wasn’t going to do stuck in a city office.
With ‘INCEPTIO’ set in the alternate modern day and in the alternate historical setting of Roma Nova, what research did you do to ensure the two worlds felt so real?
The key to writing alternate history is plausibility. Firstly, it’s essential to know your history up to the point when the new alternate timeline diverges from the one we know. The next step is to work out in a historically logical way how the world would look after that divergence. Roma Nova’s existence couldn’t happen in a vacuum – in the course of sixteen hundred years it would have affected the rest of the world’s history.
New York is an Autonomous City in the Eastern United States (EUS) that the Dutch only left in 1813 and the British in 1865. Roma Nova had protected its New World trade interests in the late 1700s by brokering a political accord between the British colonies and the home government. The New World French states of Louisiane and Québec are ruled by Gouverneurs-Généraux on behalf of Napoléon VI, California and Texas belong to the Spanish Empire and the Western Territories are a protected area for the Indigenous Peoples.
These are only background details – I don’t develop them much further – the New World is only the setting for the first chapters. I only allude to it where necessary – nobody likes a long history lesson or an info dump in the middle of a pacey thriller – but I have it worked out in great detail in my head so I can live within that world while writing.
Secondly, you have to reinforce the settings with anchors to the reader’s own reality. 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.
Almost every story hinges upon implausibility. Readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. 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 the writer has introduced.
Even though INCEPTIO is an alternate history thriller set in the 21st century, the Roma Novan characters still allude to their past by saying things like ‘I wouldn’t be in your sandals when he finds out.’ There are honey-coated biscuits (honey was important for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives in the squad room. The Roma Novan family in the 21st century still includes not only the blood family but the entire household. This detail is where historic logic meets practical function of the roles the characters are playing.
If ‘INCEPTIO’ were made into a movie, which actors would you like to see playing your main characters?
A while ago, Meg Ryan and Val Kilmer (Carina and Conrad), with Judi Dench (Aurelia) and Alexander Siddig (Daniel). Today, probably Bryce Dallas Howard and Alexander Skarsgård, with Meryl Streep and Ben Barnes.
Tell us a little about your writing process, do you plot out the story events before sitting down to write, or do you drive right in and see where the story takes you?
I’m probably 20% ‘plotter’ and 80% ‘pantser’. I start with my characters, their values and motivations, then float some story ideas involving them around in my head. I like to interweave a crisis facing Roma Nova with a personal crisis between the characters and in their lives. Nobody comes out of the story in the same state they went in.
By then, I know where the story starts and where it has to finish. Maybe now is the time to confess that only one of the three books I’ve written actually has exactly the ending I first thought of! Next, structure. I’ve evolved a thirty-line system; Line 1 is the inciting incident, Lines 6, 14 and 22 (or nearabouts) the three crisis points, Line 27 or 28 the ‘black moment’ and Line 30 the resolution. I fill in some of the lines in between with likely scenes, but often leave some blank. It’s a process to imprint the plot on my conscious mind so that the unconscious or creative one has some hooks to hang the story threads on. All the rest in between just swirls around in my head and only emerges as I’m writing.
How do you organise your writing day: do you have a favourite time and place to write?
On a typical day I write most mornings after a short spurt on social media, and do domestic stuff in the afternoons or depending where I am in the book some research. In the evening, I’ll write a few more lines and dip into Facebook and Twitter.
If I’m editing, I tend to work straight through, with a short lunch break as I’m totally immersed. Strange, isn’t it? I can draft in paragraphs, but prefer to edit in long stretches. Proofing is another question – I do that in short bursts because of the concentration needed.
My books centre around a big conflict, dangerous assignment or saving the world story within the Roma Nova environment. 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 to start the story. I write the basic dynamics of a scene, then if I need to check a detail, I mark the text up in bright blue which gives me a visual signal to come back and research that item.
What have you learnt through writing this novel that you’d like to pass on to aspiring crime thriller writers?
Keep a really big surprise for the end, but make sure you leave some clues. Readers hate what’s known in SFF as ‘alien space bats’, more properly a deux ex machina where a surprise solution or resolution is parachuted in. Try to nudge the reader into thinking about what’s going on behind the characters’ motivation. In INCEPTIO, the heroine doesn’t know why Renschman pursues her with such persistence. We know he’s a bad guy, but why is he so vindictive? Read the book and you’ll find out!
Structure and keep track of time so you ensure that the right people know or don’t know about events or vital clues. The mobile phone has ruined many traditional opportunities for suspense and tension so writers have to be more inventive these days.
My last tip is to keep the reader in the loop. I love surprising and disconcerting the reader as the plot twists and turns, but I try hard to ensure the reader knows what’s happening. As a reader myself, I hate not knowing who’s speaking for pages and pages just to make the writing look clever.
And what’s next for you, are you planning your next novel, or already well into the writing of it?
I’m working on book two of the Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS (Betrayal). I drafted it a little while ago, but it’s been ‘in the drawer’ for several months. It’s a thriller again, this time the whole Roma Novan society faces collapse as well as pushing the heroine to a personal crisis. I’m looking forward to reading it again after many months away!
Thank you, Alison, for dropping by today and for sharing your writing secrets.
For more about Alison Morton and INCEPTIO hop on over to her website at: http://alison-morton.com/
INCEPTIO is the first in a series of exciting alternate history thrillers set in mysterious Roma Nova. Published by SilverWood Books, it is available now in Paperback and eBook.