Friday, June 20, 2014

Love and emotion in an alternative environment

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternative history thrillers with strong heroines. A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. Both INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, which was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion.  Alison’s third book SUCCESSIO came out in June 2014.

Alternative history stories are based on the concept of the standard historical timeline splitting and going off in a different direction. In Kate Johnson’s The UnTied Kingdom her heroine’s adventures are set in a dystopian England that has developed into a war-riven and disintegrating state.  My own story’s timeline split in AD 395 in the Roman dusk when dissidents founded a new city state with Roman value systems but a feminist twist.


As an early survival strategy, women in the imaginary Roma Nova ran social, political and economic life based on family and tribal lines while men fought to defend the fledgling state. In the end, daughters and sisters had to put on armour and take up weapons. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers to defend their homeland and their way of life reinforced women’s roles through the centuries.  More at
In the 21st century, women in Roma Nova head families and organisations. Men marry into women’s families and inheritance is through the female line. And of course, a woman can take on any job, profession or task suitable to her talents and inclination...

How do heroine and hero meet in this setting? Is it through work, a family crisis, an inheritance, at a party or in dangerous, even criminal circumstances? Are they thrown together by an event, forced to work together by a third party or happy to meet? Any of these can happen, so plenty of room here for the personal and emotional conflict you typically find in romantic stories. So far, so normal.


But in Roma Nova, the complicating layer and additional dynamic for conflict is the social structure. My heroine belongs to a powerful family while her hero is a few steps further down the social food chain. But in their professional life as Praetorian officers, he is her superior in rank. They work hard to keep these two aspects separate but, of course, one day it all explodes in their faces.


Women in this society are used to making the decisions and leading action, but don’t lose their essential feminine nature; they just don’t feel limited by it. Writing this is not always straightforward; I sometimes catch myself writing ‘through the male gaze’ and switch the gender roles, thoughts and dialogue in my head to readjust. Try it sometime with your own writing. You may be fascinated by the result!

However alien or unfamiliar the setting, our characters must act and react like real people. In essence, we have to root for them, flinch with them and celebrate with them. Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Sometimes, they're expressed differently in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way. But a romantic relationship, whether as painful as in The Remains of the Day or as instant as Colonel Brandon when he sees Marianne in Sense and Sensibility or the careful but intense relationship of Eve Dallas and Roarke in J D Robb’s Death series set in 2057 New York, binds us into their stories.


Whether the story is pure romance, historical, paranormal or suspense, the core emotional relationship must resonate with readers and link with their own actual or wished for experiences. They want to smile and sigh at the heroine’s and hero’s tender moments and agonise when they argue or misunderstand each other. Readers love to watch the growth in commitment to each other, the characters’ realisation that they are made for each other, the bonds that hold them whatever else happens in the rest of their lives.  In my latest book, SUCCESSIO, the heroine and hero’s relationship is strained to breaking point. I was agonised writing it. Whether it snaps, you’ll have to read it to find out!


Connect with Alison on her blog
Twitter @alison-morton

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