INCEPTIO, the first of my series of Roma Nova thrillers that was published last week, my aim was to produce a cracking story full of suspense, mystery, heroism, humanity and the odd touch of humour. The characters had to be well-defined and realistic, true products of their societies.
The core story is of a twenty-five year old living in New York who faces total disruption to her life when a sinister government enforcer determined to eliminate her pursues her to Europe. Add in a spy from her dead mother’s homeland who can’t make up his mind whether he likes her or not. And the strange country that she feels at home in, but hasn't adapted to. And the killer’s still after her...
That sounds as if it could be set anywhere, but New York is an Autonomous City in the Eastern United States (EUS) that the Dutch only left in 1813 and the British in 1865. The New World French states of Louisiane and Québec are ruled by Gouverneur-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 as the New World is only the setting for the first chapters. But as J K Rowling knew with Harry Potter’s world, although you don’t put it in the books, you have to have worked it all out in your head.
So, where did the Roma Nova in my books come from?
In our own timeline, the Western Roman Empire didn’t ‘fall’ in a cataclysmic event as often portrayed in film and television. It localised and dissolved like chain mail fragmenting into separate links, giving way to rump states, local city states and petty kingdoms all facing the dynamic rise of the new peoples of Europe particularly the Franks, Visigoths, Burgundians and Alamans - see my post on the Domain of Soissons. The Eastern Roman Empire survived, albeit as the much diminished city state of Byzantium, until it fell in 1453 to the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
Some scholars think that Christianity fatally weakened the traditional Roman way of life and was a significant factor in the Western Empire’s collapse. Emperor Constantine's personal conversion to Christianity in AD 313 was a turning point for the new religion. By AD 394, his several times successor, Theodosius, banned all traditional Roman religious practice, closed and destroyed temples and dismissed all priests. The sacred flame that had burned for over a thousand years in the College of Vestals was extinguished and the Vestal Virgins expelled. The Altar of Victory, said to guard the fortune of Rome, was hauled away from the Senate building and disappeared from history. The Roman senatorial families pleaded for religious tolerance, but Theodosius made any pagan practice, even dropping a pinch of incense on a family altar in a private home, into a capital offence. And his ‘religious police’ driven by the austere and ambitious bishop Ambrosius of Milan, became increasingly active in pursuing pagans...
The alternate Roma Nova timeline
In AD 395, three months after Theodosius’ last decree banning all pagan religions, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area in the direction of Raetia/Noricum. Led by Senator Apulius at the head of twelve senatorial families, they established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’ Celtic father-in-law. By purchase, alliance and conquest, this grew into Roma Nova.
Norman Davies in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe reminds us that:
…in order to survive, newborn states need to possess a set of viable internal organs, including a functioning executive, a defence force, a revenue system and a diplomatic force. If they possess none of these things, they lack the means to sustain an autonomous existence and they perish before they can breathe and flourish.I would add history and willpower as essential factors. Roma Nova survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures.
Ancient Roman attitudes to women were legally repressive, but towards the later Imperial period women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Although adultery could be fatal, divorce was easy and step and adopted families were commonplace. The leader of Roma Nova’s founders was married to an influential Celtic noble from a society in which although Romanised for several generations, women in her family made decisions, fought in battles and managed property. Their four daughters were amongst the first pioneers so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles over the next sixteen centuries.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first hundred years, eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Driven by the need to survive, service to the state was valued higher than personal advantage, echoing Roman Republican virtues. Women heading the families guarded and enhanced these values to provide a core philosophy throughout the centuries.
Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high-grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology, and their robust response to any threat. Remembering their Byzantine cousins’ defeat in the Fall of Constantinople, Roma Novan troops assisted the western nations at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 to halt the Ottoman advance into Europe. Nearly two hundred years later, they used their diplomatic skills to help forge an alliance to push Napoleon IV back across the Rhine as he attempted to expand his grandfather’s empire.
Prioritising survival, Roma Nova remained neutral in the Great War of the 20th century that lasted from 1925 to 1935. The Greater German Empire, stretching from Jutland in the north, Alsace in the west, Tyrol in the south and Bulgaria in the east, was broken up afterwards into its former small kingdoms, duchies and counties. Some became republics. There was no sign of an Austrian-born corporal with a short, square moustache.
Twenty-three years before the action of INCEPTIO in the early 21st century, Roma Nova was nearly destroyed by a coup, a brutal male-dominated consulship and civil war. A weak leader, sclerotic and outmoded systems that had not developed since the last great reform in the 1700s and a neglected economy let in a clever and ruthless tyrant. But with characteristic resilience, the families’ structures fought back and reconstructed their society, re-learning the basic principles of Republican virtue, while subtly changing it to a more representational model for modern times. Today, the tiny country has become one of the highest per capita income states in the world.
How to write in an alternate history setting
Setting a story in the past or in another country is a challenge. But if you invent the country and have to meld it into history that the reader already knows, then the task is doubled. Unless writing post-apocalyptic, which is too fantastic for me, the geography and climate must resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. I’ll make a confession: I ‘borrowed’ Slovenia as the model. And no writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. This sounds dry, but every living person is a product of their local conditions. Their experience of living in a place and struggle to make sense of it is expressed through their culture.
The key is plausibility. Take a character working in law enforcement. Readers can accept cops being gentle or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers come from all genders, classes, races and ages and stand in different places along the personal morality ruler. But 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 may differ significantly from those we know, but they must be consistent with that society while remaining plausible for the reader. But a flashing blue light, or an oscillating siren on a police car, is a universal symbol that instantly connects readers back to their own world.
Almost every story hinges upon implausibility – a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created. 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 my book is set in the 21st century, the Roman characters still say things like 'I wouldn't be in your sandals (not shoes) when he finds out.' And there are honey-coated biscuits (honey was important for the ancient Romans) not chocolate digestives (iconic British chocolate-coated cookie much favoured by police officers) in the squad room.
Another way to connect to readers when writing from an unfamiliar setting is to ensure the characters display normal behavior Human beings of all ages and cultures have similar emotional needs, hurts and joys. Of course, they're expressed differently, sometimes in an alienating or (to us) peculiar way. But we can identify with a romantic relationship, whether painful, instant, careful or intense - it binds us into the characters’ stories.
To sum up, I approach the alternate history aspect from a historian’s viewpoint; there are no special powers, aliens, time slip, time travel, ghosts, or even gods directing the actions of mortals. My stories centre on people, their dilemmas and how they deal with them in the extraordinary culture they live in.
So what’s INCEPTIO about?
New York, present day. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.
Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus who rescued her in America, isolates her.
Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it...
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