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The Smiling Villain – Ms Morton shares her thoughts re bad guys

It is always a distinct pleasure to welcome Alison Morton to my blog. Not only is she an author I enjoy & admire, she also delivers insightful posts which I enjoy reading – and I hope you, dear peeps, do as well. Today, Alison has written a little something about that very necessary ingredient in most books: the bad guy (or gal).

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AM White WitchDamnèd, smiling villain

O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain—
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

(Hamlet, Wm.Shakespeare)

“And some that smile have in their hearts, I fear,
Millions of mischiefs”

Young Octavius, in Julius Caesar, Wm.Shakespeare)

Ah yes, Shakespeare’s smiling villains. Well, if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us. It also points to how we should portray the ‘bad guy’ in stories.

Undiluted villains like Fu Manchu, the White Witch, Dracula, Cruella de Vil, Mrs Danvers, Ernst Blofeld, are straightforwardly nasty, with a single goal of eliminating the ‘good guy’. We see only one aspect of them and apart from the ways in which they inflict pain on our heroines/heroes we find them a tad ridiculous and potentially boring. Proper villains are multi-layered, often with mixed motivations that sometimes they themselves don’t understand.

AM Apollodorous

Apollodorus, as AM sees him

In the Roma Nova thrillers I’ve written psychopaths (Renschman in INCEPTIO), sociopaths (Pertinax in PERFIDITAS , Caius Tellus in AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO) and vengeful children (Nicola in SUCCESSIO). And then there are characters who hover in between such as pragmatic criminal Apollodorus in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS whom we can’t decide is good or bad.

Some characters are weak and fall into bad company like Superbus in PERFIDITAS, some become temporary ‘bad guys’ (no spoilers here!), some are forced into ‘bad guy’ behaviour due to circumstances, some are merely opportunistic. And these grey areas are the most interesting…

How to write a plausible and interesting villain
All characters need a solid back-story, so it’s a good idea to sketch out when your villain became one, why and in what circumstances. Was it a single incident, a simmering discontent, envy, mistreatment or being a spoilt child? Did he or she fall into bad company or were they abandoned as a child or on the death of one or both parents?  Such events don’t always lead down the dark path, but they may nudge them that way.

A criminal mastermind who seems all-knowing and all-seeing with almost telepathic powers is not credible. Neither is a bumbler or a TSTL (Too stupid to live) fool. But villains should be intelligent or at least crafty. Our heroines (and heroes) need foes worthy of them, ones that will test their mettle.

Are villains ‘born bad’? We all differ in temperament and character. Some of us are laid back, others ambitious, some warm-hearted, others unemotional, some caring and holistic, others full of desire to dominate. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator is extremely useful for making up multi-layered profiles for all your characters. It’s a psychometric test system popular in business and government since the Second World War to indicate psychological preferences about how people perceive the world and make decisions. A gold mine for writers!

Villains’ dialogue should not lapse into stereotypes  or melodrama – they are people like other characters in the story and should speak normally, although irony, sarcasm and anger can be present when appropriate.

[From INSURRECTIO: After she is captured, Aurelia is taken before Caius who has usurped power in Roma Nova]

I was completely alone. With my nemesis. He went back to staring through the window.

‘I can’t decide what to do with you,’ he said. ‘You will undoubtedly try everything to oppose me under some delusion of duty, so it would be prudent to remove you permanently. And you caused me to rot in a Prussian jail for twelve years. I shall never forgive you for that.’

‘You murdered a Prussian citizen and permanently disabled another. You ran a silver smuggling organisation that threatened Roma Nova’s security. You got off lightly.’

He shrugged.

‘And let’s not forget your two attempts to kill me.’

‘You were being irritating, Aurelia, and I dislike that.’

‘Irritating!’ I raised my hands to vent my frustration but the steel grip of the handcuffs constrained them. ‘I was a Praetorian officer tasked to hunt you down. I’d hardly class that as irritating.’

‘“Was”. That’s the correct word.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘You’re finished. I’ve cancelled your commission along with that of every other female officer. You’re no longer a minister, nor a senator, nor head of your family. You have become an irrelevance in the new Roma Nova.’

I stared at him. Irrelevant? He couldn’t take away my identity like that.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t destroy the structure of such an old country just like that.’

He strode over to me. I took a step back, but he was too fast. He grabbed me by the throat, pressed his thumb and fingers hard, and squeezed. I could hardly breathe. He pressed harder. My head swam and my vision blurred.

‘Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.’ Then he dropped his hand and released me. I bent over coughing. Gods, his grip had been strong. I thought I was going to choke to death.
‘You have two options – adapt or go under. There is no release for you, Aurelia. You will be guarded and tracked, and if you attempt escape, I’ll execute one of your friends like Calavia. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, if only to motivate you.’

‘Only cowards let their friends take the punishment for them. Just call in the swordsman and I’ll kneel in the sand.’

‘Certainly not. You’re far too valuable a political asset. And you do have a certain amusement value.’ He smirked at me. ‘Perhaps I’ll keep you as jester, my own tame doomsayer. You’d look quite fetching in scarlet.’

I couldn’t speak. The humiliation of what he suggested – how dare he?

He laughed. ‘You should see your face, Aurelia. You always were quick to rise.’ Then his mouth straightened into a crisp line. ‘This is not a game. The old ways are finished, as is everybody associated with them.’ 

Handsome mature man.

Caius as per AM

Another technique is to put yourself into the villain’s place, to get into their mind-set. They are the strong one on the right path if they are like Caius or Pertinax, or are perfectly justified in what they do to make their way in the world if they are Apollodorus. They often care for, or at least reward, their subordinates and cannot see why others don’t see things as they do. And for an additional twist, the ‘bad guy’ may well demonstrate many of the qualities of the ‘good guy’ and share some values.

[From INSURRECTIO: Same scene as above, Aurelia speaks first]

‘I’d rather end my days in Truscium than lift one of my little fingers to help you.’

‘Always so dramatic. Phobius would throw you in there without hesitating after he’d had you and given his men a turn. Would you prefer that?’ Just for a second, something in his eyes united us as patricians, revolted at the thought of Phobius touching either of us.
‘Quite,’ he said.

In a series, the characters can overlap the books: Apollodorus, so prominent in INCEPTIO, returns in PERFIDITAS; Caius Tellus is the antagonist in all three of the latest books. The return of a bad guy must be carefully engineered. If the heroine is so competent, how come the bad guy keeps escaping? Eventually, a recurring villain has to disappear, but a writer can really enjoy themselves doing that and wring high emotion out of it for the reader.

And the grey areas?
AM stressedSometimes the heroine/hero has to show transgressive or even criminal tendencies and act on them. Does this make them a villain? Sometimes an upright character’s personality changes then they suffer a mental breakdown and they act unlawfully. Does that make them a villain? And occasionally ‘bad guys’ sacrifice themselves, ostensibly to save themselves from justice, but covertly for an entirely different reason. Putting one type of character into the opposite situation natural to them creates very interesting conflicts…

Finally, remote villains
A villain doesn’t have to be present in person or even still alive. In INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, the first three Roma Nova thrillers, the mere memory of Caius touches the characters who had interacted with him in the second prequel trilogy. Aurelia, Conrad and Silvia recount terrifying snippets from their contact decades ago with Caius to Carina in the present and thus to the reader.

In RETALIO, the Aurelia doesn’t encounter Caius in person until Chapter 19 and then only for moments. He doesn’t recognise her as she’s in disguise. And it’s many chapters later that they meet openly. However, he has attacked her and her colleagues physically, emotionally, mentally, legally, financially and politically. His reach is long and frightening.

[From RETALIO: Aurelia is in exile in Vienna with her lover and companion of fifteen years, Miklós] 

‘The exiles are hurt and frightened. I must help them. We can’t leave Caius to rampage and destroy everything.’

‘But if what Quintus writes is true, he’ll extradite or snatch you.’

‘I have you, and now Sándor to protect me physically and once I’m fit again, I won’t be such an easy target. I just need to put myself beyond Caius legally.’ I shuddered at the prospect of being dragged back to Caius and handed over to his sadistic assistant for ‘punishment’. And it would all be perfectly legal, from the New Austrian police arrest to deportation, handover like a package at the Roma Novan border and into the cells of the Transulium prison to await Caius’s pleasure. My heart pounded at the terrifying thought of facing Caius’s vengeance.

I hope I’ve given you some practical techniques for writing credible and three-dimensional villains. But whether viewed as a writer or reader, the most disturbing villains are, of course, the ones you find reflecting your own beliefs, fears and values, whether on the side of the angels or the devils.

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Thank you for that, Alison. And as always, I LOVE your dialogue. I also love the entire Roma Nova concept, so those of you who have as yet not discovered this excellent series (all six of them, although I would recommend staring with Aurelia and read that trilogy first) have quite an adventure before them.

AM RETALIO_800x520RETALIO blurb

Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century.

Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.

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From my review of Retalio: “As always, Ms Morton delivers a fast-paced adventure, very much driven by the excellent dialogue. The descriptions are vivid, the plot is compelling, and the main characters are easy to relate to, even if few of us would have the fortitude and courage of these Roma Novan ladies.”

Alison Morton bio 

AM Alison MortonAlison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

The first five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

En garde – with pens aloft!

IMG_0057I guess no one has missed out on the fact that it is March. Catkins, snowdrops and crocuses, the odd shy daffodil and afternoons that grow increasingly lighter herald the advent of spring. March is also the month many of us dedicate to highlighting women – whether it be historical people or present-day heroines.

Some weeks ago, Helen Hollick, Alison Morton and I were chatting about this and that (well, we were actually discussing what our fictional heroines would do if our equally fictional heroes were unfaithful. Became quite heated…) from which we segued into a discussion that resulted in Helen writing the post below. Seeing as we’re relatively creative (What can I say? Most writers are) we decided to publish Helen’s post simultaneously on our three blogs AND couple it with a giveaway – in honour of our fictional ladies! Which is why I hereby take a step back and ask you to welcome Helen – preferably with a round of applause 🙂

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Author Anna Belfrage, during a recent conversation mentioned a thought about the real heroines behind the fictional heroines. I wondered if heroes should also be included, but March is Women’s History month, so let’s stick to the ladies here. (We can spotlight the men another time to balance the books.)

In this instance, Anna was referring to the writer as the heroine – the author, the person tapping away at a keyboard or scribbling with a pen on paper (remember those?)

writer ec13c36cd139a922b728e78c2dd84892The fictional heroine usually goes through hell and back in a story, or at least some sort of trauma or disaster or romantic upheaval, or complication or… well, you get the picture. But what about the writer who is creating that character, that scene, that story? Is it a case of sitting down at a desk from 9-5 Monday to Friday, tapping out a few thousand words a day, Other Half supplying a cup of tea/coffee/wine/gin on the hour every hour? Those several thousand words flowing freely, the plot flashing along, scene after scene with no wavering? Novel finished, a dutiful re-write, check for the occasional missed blooper, then off to the editor for a quick once-over?

Oh I wish!

The only bit of the above that is mildly true for me personally is the tea/coffee appearing a couple of times a day in between countless re-runs of Westerns on the TV which my husband watches with avid fascination, apparently completely unaware that he watched the same John Wayne/Jimmy Stewart et al movie the day before. And the day before that.

Meanwhile, I struggle during the dark, miserable days of winter. Even the effort to get out of bed some dank, dark, damp mornings is hard work for those of us who suffer from S.A.D. (Seasonal Affected Disorder – basically a desire to hibernate during winter.) To be creative, to find the words to write when I can’t even remember the cat’s name (I am not joking!) is hard work.

Then there is the research, particularly for historical fiction writers who need to know the facts of a period or event before they can even start writing chapter one. All genres need a certain amount of research, even fantasy and science fiction – possibly even more so, because to make the unbelievable believable the facts have to be correct, otherwise all the believability goes out the window.

For writers, meeting our new characters – male or female – is not always a walk in the park, although for me, I did meet my pirate hero, Jesamiah Acorne, on a drizzly-day Dorset beach. Long story cut short: I was walking on the beach thinking up ideas for Sea Witch. Looked up and saw a vision of Jesamiah. Might have been my imagination, might have been a spirit from the past – no matter, I saw him. In full pirate regalia. And immediately fell in love.

Alison MortonNov16_sm

Alison Morton

Alison says hers have been swishing around in her head for decades ever since she trod on a Roman mosaic floor at age eleven!

As for Anna, she blames it all on her husband. It was all because of his family history, which involved fleeing Scotland in 1624 due to religious persecution. She started reading up on the 17th century and fell in love. One day, Matthew Graham stepped out of her murky imagination and demanded she tell his story, which she has done, over several books.

Our characters get under our skin, into our hearts, minds, lives and very being. When it is time to finish the book, or a series – oh, the heartache of saying goodbye and letting them go! To create believable characters, to bring them alive, to make them look, feel, behave, sound real, to do real (even if they are impossibly over-the-top real) things takes dedication, skill, determination and courage.

Yes. Courage.

Writing can be a hard taskmaster. We slog away in our studies, corner of a room, spare-bedroom or wherever trying to get a paragraph – a sentence – right. We edit, re-edit and edit again and again. We spend hours writing a scene, then delete it because it isn’t good enough. I have deleted entire chapters. We wake up with our characters, walk, live, play, think of, go to bed with them (no not that sort of ‘go to bed’!) They are there with us 24/7 because if these fictional people are real to us, then they will become as real to our readers. In theory.

hh-2-helen-medium

Helen Hollick

I am not being sexist here, but I do think women writers have a tougher time of it than do the men. Admitted I am talking in general here, but many women writers already have a full-time 24/7 job of bringing up children and organising the family, at least this was so thirty years ago when I gave up the ‘hobby’ of scribbling my ideas and got on with attempting to do it properly with the end goal of being published in mind. Usually (OK not always) it is the woman who gets the kids off to school, does the housework, the shopping, the laundry, goes to her own job, collects the kids from school, cooks the dinner, gets the kids to bed… We grab coffee breaks or the bliss of a quiet hour in the evening to get that next paragraph written. I’m not saying that the blokes in between work and chores also have to snatch those golden moments where they can sit and write, but I’d wager that many an established male writer wanders off to his study in the morning, saunters out at lunchtime, strolls back to his desk to emerge around six-ish to watch TV. Lunch, dinner, clean shirts and tidy house happening via the Magic House Fairy.

At least, now, women writers can create our stories under our own name. How many of our great female writers from the past had to invent a male pseudonym to be heard and published? I think the term ‘heroine’ definitely applies to these brave and determined ladies of the past.

So why do we do it? Why do we spend hours doing this darn silly job of writing fiction? It’s not for the money that’s for sure. Very few writers outside the top listers make enough to equal a suitable annual wage. So why?

Ever heard the answer to a question put to Sir Edmund Hilary when he had successfully climbed Everest in 1953? “Why did you want to climb it?”
His answer? “Because it’s there.”

Well, for us, for fiction authors, we write the words because they are not there…

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democracy-1280px-eugene_delacroix_-_la_liberte_guidant_le_peupleThank you, Helen! For some reason, the above has me thinking of this picture… (I know, a bit over the top)

As promised above, this post comes with a giveaway. I will be giving away one copy of whatever book the winner chooses, whether it be from my time-slip series The Graham Saga or from The King’s Greatest Enemy, my series set in the midst of the medieval mayhem that characterised the 1320s in England. All you have to do is leave a comment below, telling us who your favourite historical woman is 🙂 The winner will be presented on Friday next this week, so you have until then to enter.

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And, don’t forget: Helen Hollick and Alison Morton are also doing giveaways, so pop over to their blogs to join in!

BoxA6-final_smFind Alison’s books here! And for those already familiar with Alison’s writing, keep an eye out for the next book in her Roma Nova series. Retalio will be out end of April. For those as yet unfamiliar with this excellent alt hist series featuring a modern day remnant of the Roman Empire, Roma Nova, and its people, what on earth are you waiting for?

All-Books-2017-768x595Find Helen’s books here! And no, Helen doesn’t only write about fictional pirates (although Jesamiah Acorne is intriguing enough to inspire like twenty books, IMO). Other than her historical fiction, she also writes non-fiction, and has recently released Pirates: truth and tales – an excellent intro to those real-life villains who made the high seas so unsafe during the early 18th century.

UPDATE! The happy winner is Richard Tearle!

One more in the gang of four

HNSIndieFinalist2016For those that have been following my blog over the last few weeks, you’ll have noticed I’ve spent some time promoting the four finalists in the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016. Why? Because these are very good books, historical fiction at its best – plus, of course, I’m one of the final judges. And I won the award last year, so I know just how much nail-biting goes on in secret among our four ladies.

AM LBF_0053_smToday, the turn has come to Alison Morton – the last of the four to be featured. Alison is a lady who lives in France, speaks French like a native and yet comes across as very English – with a whiff of the stern Roman. This is probably why she writes books set in a fictitious country called Roma Nova – Alison’s books fall in the alternate history category, which has its own challenges, primarily that of building a credible context. AURELIA is the fourth in the series – but it is also the first, at least chronologically. And for those who enjoy nail-biting, this is a one of those reads that has you doing just that – and staying up far too late. Anyway, let’s turn things over to Alison and hear what she has to say about her book!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your book!
While I was drafting the first three Roma Nova thrillers, particularly SUCCESSIO, I became increasingly intrigued by the heroine Carina’s clever and no-nonsense grandmother, Aurelia. Her public role was well-known – head of a powerful family, senator, businesswoman, imperial advisor – but she gave out strong ‘keep out of my past’ signals. I wanted to know how her story tied up with that of Caius Tellus, the traitor who’d grabbed power in the Great Rebellion, and who was the mysterious man who turned up in SUCCESSIO with a red rose, a flower that Aurelia hated.The only way to answer these questions properly was to write Aurelia’s story as a young woman.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The antagonism between Aurelia and Caius Tellus was set up as historical backstory in the INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO, as was the shadowy history of the Tellus family and the Great Rebellion. Secondly, silver, its extraction, processing and selling was and is Roma Nova’s lifeblood; anybody or anything threatening that was threatening economic survival. The third factor was to dig into Aurelia’s military career, discover how she became a government spy and of course, to unearth the identity of her life-long love… Throw all those in the pot and the story worked itself out.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I sweat the first draft out with cursing, tea and backache. The story is more or less there, but the first self-edit is where it twists threads, wrings emotions, ramps up the action and makes life nearly unbearable for the protagonist. It’s also where I look at the lighter moments and bring in a few quips and quirks about the characters, so it’s more fun.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
When the heroine feared her small daughter had been abducted.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tough, compassionate, impatient, intelligent, loyal

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
The sequel, INSURRECTIO, came out on 12 April – a few weeks ago! And I’m drafting the next (see curses, tea and backache above).

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
As for the first of the series, INCEPTIO. Alternate history stories from a debut author were a little quirky for the mainstream when I started in 2010, although the Roma Nova series has now secured me a top agent for a number of my rights. I love the control over design, production and timing that indie authors enjoy, plus the ability to use my previously acquired business skills. Once an entrepreneur…

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
We are extremely lucky to live during a publishing revolution, or is it evolution? I see myself as an author, full stop. Some rights I will retain and others I will sell for mainstream publishing if the occasion arises. But whatever choices I make, I will still be directing my own writing career. This is the essence of being indie.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
When the email with the news pinged into my inbox, I stared at it, let out a whoop of joy, then danced round the office. Finally, I celebrated with champagne. More soberly(!), I am deeply honoured. The HNS indie review scheme is unique; AURELIA being selected as an Editor’s Choice was wonderful, being shortlisted as one of nine for the 2016 Indie Award was unbelievable and now being one of the final four is dizzying. If AURELIA goes no further, I will be thrilled out of my socks that she has come so far. Of course, I hope she may take the ultimate accolade…

Thank you, Alison, and I imagine all the finalists are hoping for that ultimate accolade 🙂 If you want to learn more about Alison and her Roma Nova world, visit her website. And for those curious about AURELIA, here’s the blurb:

AURELIA_cover_image800x520Late 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 – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

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 known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers 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.

On Amazon US
On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Maria Dziedzan and Lucienne Boyce

Roma Nova – a place to visit in your head

Recently, Alison Morton released the fourth book in her Roma Nova series, Aurelia. Interestingly, this the fourth book is actually the first book as it details events that are already in the past when the first book in the series opens. Confusing? Not really. Book four simply moves fifty odd years backwards in time. Plus it means it is perfectly okay to start your acquaintance with Ms Morton with Aurelia – not having read the three previous books is not a drawback.

RomaNova booksI am a Roma Nova fan. Ms Morton writes characters I can relate to (and once you’ve read the books, how about mulling that one over…I clearly relate to kick-ass women who excel at deadly combat) and to her characters she’s added an intriguing alternative history angle, in that Roma Nova is a remnant of the former Roman Empire, tucked away in a corner of the alps. In Ms Morton’s world, Hitler never happened, the French never sold Louisiana to the US, and the Spanish retained hold of California and other territories. As to Roma Nova, Ms Morton breathes life into her invented little country, this very much thanks to her obvious familiarity with Roman traditions. In fact, Roma Nova has become my next “to-go-to” destination, which was why I was thrilled to discover this little article recently. What? Roma Nova doesn’t exist? Pshaw! Details, schmetails. Use your imagination, people.

Roma Nova is trending as one of the must-see destinations this year. Sol Populi travel journalist Claudia Dixit reports on what’s on offer for visitors.

Visiting Roma Nova? Well, you won’t find too many orgies – such a myth! – but you will receive a very warm welcome. Roma Novans love showing visitors round their city and countryside, and many of them speak English. Here are my top places to visit and things to do.

ArchConstantine_v.smFor history buffs, there is the forum with the colonnaded public buildings and the Arch of Maia Apulia. Not quite on the scale of ancient Rome, but some of the oldest columns date back to the sixth century. Don’t miss the smaller temples, especially that of Mercury Esus which may look tiny, but like Mercury himself, is deceptive!

You can book a guided tour around the Senate house including the famous Altar of Victory, saved by the first ruler, Apulius and his friend, Mitelus, in the late fourth century. For tickets to sit in the public gallery and watch a lively debate, ask at the information desk. You’ll have to brush up on your Latin, though!

The Golden Palace, which you can see halfway up the hill behind the city, is not open to visits as it’s the imperatrix ‘s private home, but there are guided tours of the gardens.

You’ll probably hear about the Twelve Families, but at present, no tours of their historic homes are available. But as many of their members work in high profile government posts, you might see them speaking in the Senate debates or on the news…

Rome walkabout - 22And shopping? Don’t miss the little shops in the Macellum among the international brands. You’ll find the famous Roma Novan silver jewellery, every electronic gadget you could wish for, plus fine glass and the modern version of Samian ware. A must-see is the daily produce market – you’d be surprised at how many different types of olives and olive oil there are!

Pons Apulius – A treat for engineers to appreciate and the rest of us to gaze at in wonder! The unique design with a single row of three towers and network of support cables is a practical but breathtaking piece of modern design. You can walk or cycle along it in a dedicated lane on the south side. Would it be immodest to mention that Romans have a long history of bridge building?

Learn to sail at the marina basin next to the river port or take a canoe out on the river. Do keep to the designated lanes whatever you use – you don’t want to get boarded by one of the imperial navy’s patrol boats!

Although Roma Nova has an excellent public transport system, you may want to hire a car to explore on your own. Car rental is easy and as long as you can present a points-free licence and a valid ID, you’ll soon be driving on Roma Novan roads. Take a moment to study the speed limits or you’ll hear the siren and see the blue flashing light of the custodes, the Roma Novan police. They can be strict and issue spot fines if you exceed them!

Fancy yourself as a gladiator? Most Roma Novan gyms are happy to issue day passes and several run beginners’ classes. They do blunt the weapon edges for visitors, though! And don’t forget to chill out afterwards in the traditional Roman baths!

For excellent service and fine dining, visit Dana’s in the Via Nova. It’s retained the charm of its origins as a simple bar, but now offers high quality Roma Nova and international cuisine.

Further afield, Castra Lucillan wine is tops – visit one of the vineyards south of the city for a tasting session. You may well be seduced by the fruity, but subtle, white wine – my favourite!

green fields_smBe sure to bring your walking or hiking boots – a complimentary map showing all the paths and trails is available from city tourist centre. Serious climbers will need a permit (35 solidi) to climb the twin Gemini Peaks in the north. You’ll also need to show a certificate of adequate insurance. Contact the mountain watch centre at cust.mont@improm.com for further details.
Roma Nova has one of the lowest crime levels in the world; the public CCTV and restorative justice system make this a very safe environment for law-abiding residents and visitors alike. A word to the wise: do sample the delights of Roma Nova to the full, but please note that using or dealing in illicit drugs is prosecuted without exception.

And lastly, you’ll see a lot of women and men in uniform, not the stereotype Romans in films – that armour must have scratched – but modern military. They are there to guard the safety and integrity of Roma Nova. I know they can look intimidating, but they’ll be happy to talk to you and answer questions. However, do please remember they are usually on duty.

This is just a quick round-up of things to do and see in Roma Nova. Drop the tourist centre at turista@improm.com a mail and they’ll be delighted to send you a full information pack and answer any specific questions.

Happy touring!

********************************

Well, that was that – Roma Nova in a nutshell. For more information about Alison Morton, why not visit her website or her Amazon page?

And as to Roma Nova – it lies just a book away.

AURELIA_cover_image600x385Late 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 – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

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 known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova…

Hearing it from the writers

It has probably not escaped your notice that I’ve been doing a series pf posts about publishing, reading and writing. Today, I’m opening my doors wide to welcome Helen Hollick and Alison Morton, two very different ladies that have one characteristic in common: they are both equipped with enough driving force to create a gale. They also have in common that they write very good books – Alison’s latest book cost me all my fingernails, while Helen’s books about Jesamiah Acorn generally have me wishing the bloody man was real – and with me.

Right; with introductions out of the way, let’s jump straight into the interview. The ladies have expressed a predilection for tea, and Helen has made sure my homemade scones are accompanied by Devon cream. (Mmm. No need for you to sit on the side-lines and salivate as we dig in, so no further descriptions will be given)

Right; now that we’re all comfortably seated, I’d like to start by welcoming you to Stolen Moments and asking you to briefly introduce yourself as authors. What do you write, what do you plan to write?

AM INCEPTIO_front cover_300dpi_520x802AM: I write Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. It was marvelling at the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) when I was 11 that started me wondering what a Roman society would be like if run by women… I’m a feminist, too, more ‘lite’ than bra-burning (see here) , so I developed the writing technique of gender-mirroring. In an action scenario, you swap the typical roles of the men and women seen in other thriller stories. Interesting consequences… (Anna says: Too right!)
And the future? Now that Carina Mitela’s story in (dare I say award-winning?) INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO has mostly been told, it’s back to the 1960s. We find the redoubtable Aurelia Mitela as a young woman, lonely and unsure of her way in the world, but confronted by an enemy who not only wants to destroy her but her beloved Roma Nova. That’s the next three books taken care of!

Helen Large

Ms Helen Hollick

HH: I write two different Historical Fiction genres: my ‘serious’ historical fiction comprises an Arthurian Trilogy, set in the fifth century – the ‘what might have really happened’ story of King Arthur. In my trilogy there is no myth or magic, no knights in armour, no Lancecelot – no Merlin, just the story of a man who fought hard to gain his kingdom, and fought even harder to keep it; helped, and occasionally hindered, by the love of his life, Gwenhywfar. (The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner, Shadow of the King)
I have also written two Saxon novels, one about Emma of Normandy, who became Queen of England to two different Kings, and was mother to two more, (A Hollow Crown (UK title) / The Forever Queen (US title) and a story about the people and events that led to the most famous date in English History – 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. (Harold the King (UK title) / I Am the Chosen King (US title)
My other books are a pirate-based nautical adventure series – The Sea Witch Voyages. I wrote them for fun – hopefully readers enjoy them for the same reason! There are four published at the moment. Sea Witch; Pirate Code; Bring It Close and Ripples In The Sand. On The Account will be published soon. (Anna says: YAY!)
I also have an adventure series planned as a spin-off from my Arthurian Trilogy – The Madoc The Horseman Series. Not written yet though!

Helen, I know that you have made an active choice to re-publish your backlist through self-publishing – and to self-publish your new titles. What were your motivations behind this?

Harold Chosen KingHH: I was dropped simultaneously by my (ex) agent and publisher, William Heinemann because historical fiction had taken a bit of a downturn and the publishers did not want to re-print my backlist. I had the choice of giving up being a writer or obtaining my copyright back and going Indie. I chose the latter. While I was about it I decided to also bring out Sea Witch. I was repeatedly told (by agents and publishers) that Sea Witch was good but because there was a cross-over of genres – historical fiction and fantasy – they would be difficult to market, and besides, “pirates are not popular”. I still cannot understand this last statement – pirates have always been popular! I might add, I have no trouble marketing my books.

And are you still happy with your decision?

HH: Yes. Definitely. Although I do have the advantage of being traditionally published with my serious historical fiction in North America; I am what they call a “hybrid” author.

Alison, did you ever consider attempting to publish the traditional route? If yes, what made you decide to go for a self-publishing alternative?

AM bild

Ms Alison Morton

AM: I did indeed and was getting some full reads and ‘good’ rejections; “fresh, intelligent writing”, tight dialogue”, “good action sequences”, etc. Most concerns were about how to market “such innovative, high concept stories”. But both Helen Hart of SilverWood Books and my agent, Annette Crossland of A for Authors say they cannot understand why the Roma Nova stories weren’t snapped up by a mainstream publisher.
Anyway, I wanted my stories to reach readers – they are the ultimate arbiters, so I investigated self-publishing. I wanted my books to be have the higher possible production values, so I decided to go for assisted publishing.

What would you say are the main drawbacks for a self-published author?

AM: Ah, the terrible twins of visibility and discoverablilty; ultimately, not being in the bookshops, and bearing the cost of marketing.

HH: The only disadvantage of being Indie: I would very much like to have my books published in foreign languages in different countries, but it seems you need an agent for this. Also the current trend is for audio books, it would cost a hefty sum for me to produce all mine in this format. The marketing is also very hard work – I visit social media every day.  And I would like to point out that Helen expends a sizeable part of her time and energy on promoting other indie authors.

And the benefits?

HH: You are in charge of your own books. No agents or publishers insisting on changes – or awful covers. ( I speak from experience.)

AM: a) Freedom! A freedom that includes the freedom to fail, to make horrible mistakes, but also to choose and make decisions about your book. b) Flexibility and ability to set timing to suit you, and the high proportion of input into production, which is another way of saying control.

Which part of the book business do you find most challenging? Personally, I find the promotional aspect difficult, do you agree?

AM: The first draft! After the delights of research and thinking up the main plot structure, sitting down and giving physical form to the story running around your head is hard.

HH: I miss the input of a publishing editor when it comes to decisions: what should be left in or out of a novel, what cover to use? I always used to discuss the plot and way forward with a next novel with my agent and editor – now I am on my own. Decisions are sometimes hard when you are grubbing in the dark for good ideas. Promotion yes – I enjoy Facebook and Twitter but sometimes I feel it to be a bit of a burden (even though my internet friends are all lovely!)

AM: I don’t find promotion difficult – I’m an extrovert – it’s just a huge time-suck and you never know what works best. But I do know that if I stop promoting, sales go down. I favour soft promotion – blog writing, interviews, chatting, social media, but sometimes you do just have to go on Twitter and remind people about your book… And here I’m chuckling: to say Alison is an extrovert is a major, major understatement, wonderful woman that she is!

One of the comments made about self-published books is that the quality is deficient when compared to traditionally published books. What are your comments?

AM SUCCESSIO cover300dpi_520x800AM: I used to get that thrown in my face, but when I put my books in people’s hands, that changed. Now I get, ”Well, we know yours are excellent, but most are terrible.” And I can’t deny it. I’ve read some real shockers some starting with reams and reams of description and not getting to the action, some that are grammatically dreadful, some dripping with purple prose and some just not edited, neither structurally nor copy edited.

HH: Traditionally published books can also be bad. I do wonder, sometimes, how some managed to get published. Quality – in the writing style and in the production – can be poor in self-published books, I agree, but standards are getting higher now that writers are realising that the look of a book is also important.

How can one go about improving the quality of self-published books? What can you – well, we – as writers do?

HH: To be taken seriously as an author in the Indie world you have to make sure that your book is produced to a high quality level, that includes having it professionally edited and proof read, using a professional to design the cover, and ensuring the final product is of good standard – no comic sans font with text left-justified, for instance. Surely, after all that hard work of actually writing the thing you want to send it out into the world looking its best?
I am amazed at how many books do not come up to standard. It is so simple to check – compare your proof copy with a mainstream produced novel and ‘spot the difference’. Is the font clear and a reasonable size? Are the margins too wide, too narrow? Are they properly aligned? Are there any ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ (a single word or sentence on a page, usually at the end of a chapter.) Do the last lines on the page align with the page opposite – did you use white paper instead of cream, which can make the pages ‘glare’ quite a bit thus making an uncomfortable reading experience. Did you use great swathes of italics (so very hard to read). Did you put the author and title on the spine and the front cover? (You would be surprised at how many authors don’t!) Are there any typos? Check and double check – and do not rely on a spellchecker to edit, words such as their/there hair/hare get missed!

AM: Well, my number one bugbear is editing. If an author isn’t willing to invest in themselves enough to commission a professional edit then I think they should ask themselves why they self-publishing. The other thing I feel strongly about is a need for a quality mark or standard across the whole self-publishing industry. Now this is quite going to be quite hard to get off the ground, but systems like the BRAG Medallion and Ascribe, a new one, and Awesome Indies are paving the way.

 I agree regarding BRAG and all that – and sometimes I wonder just how many traditionally published books would have made it through the BRAG process… not as many as some think, I believe!

There are a number of self-publishing providers out there who offer excellent comprehensive services to aspiring authors. Do you think that over time these providers will become far more selective as to what they actually choose to publish under their imprint, i.e. will self-publishing providers turn away prospective customers because they don’t quite meet the required standards? If yes, is this a development you applaud?

AM: That’s an easy one: yes, and yes. The good providers have a reputation to keep up and with the growing self-publishing market they need to be selective, for business reasons alone.

Helen JesamiahHH: It would be a wonderful ideal to aim at, but unfortunately is unlikely to happen especially with the larger companies. Small ‘personal’ companies wishing to make a respected name for themselves are already doing this, mainly because they have only a few staff members and a smallish client list. Therefore, they can turn away the non up-to-standard authors and concentrate on the better ones. Larger companies have more staff and are in a profit from business scenario – authors pay for what service they want, which may or may not include editing etc. I would hope that the better quality companies do reject the poorer quality submissions though.

Interesting: Alison seems to be of the opinion that it will help business to be selective, while Helen doesn’t believe the business constraints allow for such a development. I guess we will have to ask a publisher to comment…

Finally, let us assume the two of you end up on a deserted island – and aren’t you lucky to have each other under such dire circumstances? Anyway: the boat you were on sank, and together you could only salvage three books. Which three books would you agree on saving, and why?
Well, dear people, that didn’t work out AT ALL, as the two ladies ganged up on me and insisted they be allowed three books each. I, being a polite hostess, caved in…

AM: My nominations include Restless by William Boyd – Best spy book ever and with two strong female leads; The Prince by Machiavelli – for dealing with reality and keeping the brain exercised and Julian by Gore Vidal – The absorbing story of one of the most enigmatic Roman emperors and written by a master storyteller

HH: I would save a Rosemary Sutcliff – probably Mark of the Horse Lord or Frontier Wolf because Rosemary’s books are beautifully written and these two are my favourites. I wish I could write half as good as her!
Sharon Penman’s Here Be Dragons because this is the novel that led to me becoming a published author; I wrote to Sharon thanking her for writing it and added that I wanted to write books. She answered, “If you can write such an interesting four-page letter – I can’t wait to read the book.”
My third book would be The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. It is an inspiring fantasy novel and many of its scenes stay firmly with me. The story has been an enormous influence on my life and my writing.
I’d not worry too much about being stuck on a desert island, though, because I’m sure my Jesamiah Acorne would come and save us in Sea Witch!

Quite eclectic in their tastes, these ladies. Here be Dragons is definitely on my list as well, and I have obviously been remiss in not reading Julian. Oh dear; there went another book onto my TBR pile…

Thank you so much for stopping by ladies! It has been quite the pleasure to have you here with me – even if I am now totally out of scones and homemade blackberry jam!

If you want to know more about my guests, I recommend that you visit their websites and blogs:

Helen Hollick can be found at her website or her blog

Alison Morton has a combined website and blog,

 

Putting a new spin on Roman Women

AM PerfiditasToday is a first for me. So far, everything posted on this blog has been written by yours truly, but today I’ve thrown my doors wide to Ms Alison Morton, author of the alternative history books Inceptio and Perfiditas (just released). These books are set in a Roman Empire that survived its downfall, and interestingly enough, in Ms Morton’s remodeled Roman world, women are not relegated to the role of wife and mother – most definitely not. So, without further ado, I give you Alison! (Sound effect: loud applause)

 

Girl power?

In August, I was reminded at a conference about the Bechdel test which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. Many contemporary works fail this test of gender bias.

In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf observed about the literature of her time what the Bechdel test would later highlight in more recent fiction:
AMVirginiaWoolfAll these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. So much has been left out, unattempted.  And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. They are confidantes, of course, in Racine and the Greek tragedies.  They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.

The Bechdel test has developed since its origin in 1985 to include the depth of the female characters’ stories and the range of their concerns. Several variants of the test have been proposed—for example, that the two women must be named characters.

AMWomenEuroHistorySo in an age still stumbling towards equality, it’s a good test to apply to one’s own writing. Are the women instrumental in pushing the story forward? Do they make decisions at the critical points in a novel? Historical writing should always be in context; societal dynamics of history cannot be altered by parachuting in a 21st century feisty young miss against all those norms even when writing a subgenres such as romance, historical fantasy or alternative history.

But as we know, writers write in the context of their own societal mores; we can’t help it, that’s what we are immersed in from babyhood. I remember the rather twee Ladybird history books of the 1960s; by our standards sexist and paternalistic, but at the time perfectly normal. Writing the same children’s history books now a historian would, I hope, take a startlingly different point of view. Maybe today we still can’t have feisty Roman empresses ruling openly, but we can explore the sources containing information about them and their influences with a more open mind-set. Berenice, the queen of Judea and Livia, the wife of Augustus, would be splendid examples of women of power to investigate.

In our modern historic fiction, we can transfer this openness into our stories and make connections between women characters that are unknown from the sources, but wouldn’t be impossible. Women acting together could become agents in the plot rather than the token ‘love interest’ or mother/daughter/sister of the male protagonist.

In my alternate history thrillers, I’ve taken this much further and developed a society descended from Roman dissidents where women rule, but men are not disadvantaged. Life in Roma Nova is much more nuanced than that. My female protagonist’s story starts in INCEPTIO in a standard Western society. When she is compelled to flee to her dead mother’s homeland in Europe, Roma Nova, she finds the Roman-infused culture unnerving, but in a strange way liberating. Other strong female characters surround her; her grandmother, cousin, female colleagues and friends all drive the action. The ‘love interest’ is male and an integral part of the story, unlike many female love interests in historical thrillers. Holding an alternate historical mirror up to the standard produces very interesting reflections.

AMCarina_illegal_smIn PERFIDITAS, the second story, our heroine is well-integrated into her new society and takes a leading role. But treason is in the air. Tough as she is, she is floored by the betrayal of both Roman values and her emotional core. Whether she has the resilience to pull herself out of it and save her country is something you’ll have to read the book to find out…

Alison’s second book in the Roma Nova series, PERFIDITAS, was published a week ago in paperback and ebook formats. She’ll be launching it at Waterstones Tunbridge Wells on 6 November. Do go along!

 What’s PERFIDITAS about?

Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country.

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal…

What others have said

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning…  Roma Nova is a fascinating world” – Simon Scarrow

Powerful storytelling, vivid characters and a page-turning plot”
– Jean Fullerton

Scenes and characters are sometimes so vividly described that I felt I was watching a movie.” – Sue Cook

And here’s a trailer with some exciting music:

http://alison-morton.com/blog/perfiditas-book-trailer/

AM photo Alison Morton is the author of INCEPTIO, an alternate history thriller published by SilverWood Books in March 2013
Shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award   B.R.A.G. MedallionTM honoree
Next in series PERFIDITAS due out on 17 October 2013

PERFIDITAS is available through your local bookshop (paperback), on your local Amazon (paperback and ebook) and on other online retailers.

You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com

or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor

PERFIDITAS page: http://www.facebook.com/Perfiditas

Twitter: @alison_morton

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