Saturday Spotlight: Alison Morton on Romans, self-publishing and the butterfly effect

We’re excited to welcome Alison Morton to the blog today.  She is the author of the Roma Nova series of alternative history thrillers.  As the first alt history writer we’ve had on the blog we thought we’d start by asking about that.  Over to Alison…

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What is ‘alternate history’ and why did you want to write it?

It’s where the historic timeline has split at a ‘point of divergence’ in the past and the new timeline follows a different path from the one we know. Classic ones are what if the Germans had won the Second World War, or the Spanish Armada had succeeded in 1588? I sometimes wonder how English history would have developed if Elizabeth I had married and had children…

Sometimes, the change in history could have been caused by something quite small, but which eventually had a huge impact – the ‘butterfly effect’. In my Roma Nova books 400 Romans trekked north in AD 395 to found a new colony; their descendants survived into the 21st century and their existence has changed the rest of the world.

And why I wrote my thrillers in such a setting? I didn’t know you could change or ‘alternate’ the historical narrative until I read Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Perhaps my idea of a women-led modern Roman society could turn into a real story…

What gave you the original idea for the Roma Nova series? 

I was 11 years old and on holiday in north-east Spain. Fascinated by the mosaics in Ampurias, 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 early feminism peeping out or maybe just a precocious kid asking a smart-arse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”

That idea bubbled away in my head until the novel writing trigger was pushed in 2009.

AMM Ampurias 1_sm

Have you always had a great interest in Roman history? 

Yes! I think I clambered over every Roman ruin in Europe with my parents, but I loved it. So much that was left was elegant and solid; their history so concrete and purposeful.

As I grew older and studied the Romans more formally, I appreciated what a complex, clever and determined society they had made. ‘Rome’ in the West lasted for 1229 years – that’s the equivalent of from AD 785 to today. It passed from mud hut tribal subsistence farming to the heights of the Pax Romana with its rule of law, art and literature, trade, engineering, and ability to learn; Romans set the template for the western nations that emerged over the following centuries.

I don’t want to sound too much like the John Cleese video, but you get the idea I’m impressed! However, we should remember not everybody lived well, especially at the lower end of the social spectrum, but the majority of people had a standard of living that wasn’t achieved again until the nineteenth century.

How much research do you do for each book?
In my stories, the standard timeline had diverged 1600 years previously in AD 395. This gave me a known baseline of the end of the fourth century so I researched the social, economic and political conditions of that time. By then, much had changed, even the everyday stuff like coinage; solidi had replaced sestertii and denarii, for instance. Regional government was localising with ‘barbarian’ warlords acting less like client kings of Rome and more like autonomous leaders. The late fourth century was much less secure and prosperous than in the golden years of Vespasian’s or Trajan’s rule.

I had to consider what would seem important to the Roma Nova colonists in those transitional times: security, food, and hope, ultimately survival. Their core Roman values would have bolstered them and formed a social glue while they struggled for existence. Thus, I had to be sure what those values were and what Roman history was to that point.

And finally, a good general knowledge of/addiction to European history came in very handy!

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Why did you decide to self-publish?

I was getting full reads and ‘good’ rejections; “fresh, intelligent writing”, tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”, from agents and small publishers. I even had a full read from a US agent! Most concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”.

My first book, INCEPTIO, had been through the RNA New Writers’ Scheme as well as other professional assessments. I was burning to get my stories in front of readers – they are the ultimate arbiters, so I investigated self-publishing.  I wanted my books to be have the higher possible production values and I opted for assisted publishing with SilverWood Books.

The main disadvantages of self-publishing are the terrible twins of visibility and discoverablilty, ultimately, of not being in the bookshops. The other one is bearing the cost of marketing. But the benefits are freedom, including the freedom to make horrible mistakes, but also to make decisions about your book at all stages, and the flexibility to choose timing to suit you and the proportion of your input into production.

What advice would you give any writer who is considering self-publishing?

Sleep a lot now because you won’t have any time once you start! Serious self-publishing is for the self-driven, but there is a lot of support out there whether you’re doing it completely DIY or using a publishing services provider. Two places to research options would be The Alliance of Independent Authors and The Independent Publishing Magazine.

Essentials include a properly designed cover, a thorough edit from an experienced and recommended editor and a well-formatted book. Readers hate trashy looking books and cannot abide bad formatting. Worst of all they are critical of overblown, ungrammatical prose, and rightly so.

As much as, or really more so than, traditionally published authors, self-published authors need to build a strong online presence. Even if you commission print books for local hand-selling or marketing purposes, the majority of your sales will be ebooks online. So start your blog now, open up a Facebook author page and get tweeting. I started my blog (www.alison-morton.com) on World Book Day three years before my first book, INCEPTIO, came out. When I launched INCEPTIO, I had a crowd of ready-made supporters to help me. But you may find you’re spending 50% of your time on promotion.

How do you go about promoting your novels?

Social media, talks, library and bookshop events, local fairs, fetes, etc. and writing articles. And, of course, appearing on blogs like The Write Romantics!

What’s been your most exciting moment as a writer? 

Can I have three? I really can’t choose!
– The arrival of the box of my first book, INCEPTIO.

Box_of_INCEPTIO

–  Simon Scarrow agreeing to endorse PERFIDITAS, my second book

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–  Broadcaster Sue Cook interviewing me at the launch of my third book, SUCCESSIO.

Sue Cook_Alison Morton

You can check out the video of the interview here

What are your future plans?

Well, I’m finishing the first draft of book 4 in the Roma Nova series, set in the 1960s and 1970s. Romance does not run smoothly for our new heroine…

Then there are two more planned in my head.

Thank you so much for having me on Write Romantics – do feel free to ask me anything you like about Roma Nova, research or self-publishing here or via my site www.alison-morton.com

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband.

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®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants. INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS were shortlisted for Writing Magazine’s 2014 Self-Publishing Book of the Year Award. Alison’s third book, SUCCESSIO, which came out in June 2014, was selected as the Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014 and has also been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion.

Connect with Alison on her blog http://alison-morton.com/blog/

Facebook author page  https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

Twitter @alison-morton

You can buy the Roma Nova series as follows:

INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802

INCEPTIO: http://alison-morton.com/inceptio/where-to-buy-inceptio/

Perfiditas - Front Cover_520x800

PERFIDITAS: http://alison-morton.com/perfiditas/where-to-buy-perfiditas/

SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800

SUCCESSIO: http://alison-morton.com/successio/where-to-buy-successio/

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16 thoughts on “Saturday Spotlight: Alison Morton on Romans, self-publishing and the butterfly effect

    • Thanks, Helen. I finished the self-edits on Book 4 yesterday and sent it to my critique partner. Then it’s off to the structural editor and finally the copy editor. And then the deadly marketing early next year. 😉

  1. The whole idea of an alternative history really fascinates me. I must say, you certainly sound very knowledgeable about the Romans, Alison! Lots of sound advice regarding self-publishing, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to appear on the blog.

    • A lot of Roman-ing around when I was younger, Sharon! The alternative history setting gives me the chance to explore fresh ideas like women taking the leadership roles we usually see men in. But the books are about the characters, their lives and loves. But it’s a lot of fun as a writer, twisting things a little differently.

  2. Really interesting post, Alison, not only from the indie-publishing aspect but for the intriguing ideas you bring to your writing. It’s good to be reminded that as writers we need to keep our minds open to new genres and ideas all the time. Thanks.

  3. They say you learn something new every day and today my learning is the incredible length of time that Rome ruled. I had absolutely no idea it was that long. I didn’t study history at school as an option and the Romans were never a period we studied when I did take history. I love that you’ve had ideas brewing since childhood. Would you stick with self-publishing or would you accept a publishing deal if offered?
    Jessica

    • Rome was quite different from the beginning to what it was at the end, Jessica, but at all stages they all held on to the Roman identity and stuck very much to their core values from earliest days to the end. Well, it got a bit hazy towards the end! This may give you more info on this: http://alison-morton.com/2013/07/28/roman-doesnt-mean-one-thing/

      On your second question… Well, I have an agent for my subsidiary and foreign rights, but I’ve kept my UK book (ebook and paperback rights). I love the freedom of SP, but I never say never!

  4. Great interview, Alison. I just love the look on your face when you are opening that box full of your debut novels. They say a picture paints a thousand words and it’s certainly true in this instance – the culmination of a long-held dream is lovely to see 🙂

    • I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling, Jo! The only thing I can compare it with is when I first saw the INCEPTIO cover that SilverWood sent through. But holding the physical book in your hands with your name on and your story inside is a wonder. You stand there in a kind of time stasis, not believing it. And it was only slightly less for the third book!

  5. Until I ‘met’ you I’d never heard of alternative history but its a really interesting idea! I so wish the Roman’s had stayed, I might have had central heating as a child and been bought up on wonderful Italian food instead of what was in the 1960’s, dull English food!:)

    • Haha! I think you’re a secret Roman at heart, Lynne! Well, it would have been very comfortable compared to everybody else if you were from a landowning or patrician family. Even then, you’d be married off, often as a teenager, for a property or political alliance to a man fifteen to twenty years older than you. And you would have had no say in it. If you were a domestic slave, it would have been hard work plus you would have had to ‘service’ the male members of the household. If a field slave, then you’d do well to last to your 25th birthday.

      However, if you married reasonably and your husband died earlier than you you could start a small business, or run the farm, etc. and do reasonably well and retain your independence. Or, of course, you could be that ‘rara avis’ and find true love…

    • Thanks, Rachel. I just completed the first round of self-edits on Book 4 last Friday. It’s off on its editorial journey now; critique partner, structural editor, copy-editor. My target pub date is early May. I start book 5 on Monday… 😉

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