Successio, the third book in my Roma Nova alternate history thriller series, is out in the world. But as I raise a glass of bubbly with friends, fans and fellow writers to celebrate, I can’t help but smile.
When I started my first novel, Inceptio, I had no idea what I was doing – writing it was an impulse, a reaction to a dire film and thinking I could produce something better. But not even halfway through the first draft, I realized I had a far bigger story and a far more complex imagined world than I’d anticipated. So I did the classic thing – I decided it was going to be a trilogy.
While I was scribbling book 1, my focus shifted to planning book 2, which was going to be the pivot for books 1 and 3. Some trilogies develop from book 1 and the original story can widen out into an impossible sprawl in order to make each book more exciting than the previous one.
Although I saw it differently at the time, the eighteen months of rejections of book 1 gave me an invaluable period in which to plan, draft and hone the whole trilogy. I blush at what Inceptio would have been like without that maturation.
So what did I learn, and what are my tips to pass on to other AH writers?
1. Know your backstory
All three of my books are set in an imaginary country, Roma Nova, which was founded 1600 years before the ‘present’. The point of divergence was in AD 395, when the final edict by Christian Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religious practice; the sacred flame of Rome that had burned for over a thousand years was extinguished, temples ransacked, and priests and Vestals thrown on to the street. 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…this really happened.
In my alternate timeline, over four hundred Romans loyal to the old gods, and so in danger of execution, decided to trek north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia. 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.
2. Work out the entire plot in advance
My books follow the adventures of the same heroine, Praetorian Carina Mitela, from when she (and the reader!) discovers Roma Nova to sixteen years later. Of course, she will save the world and hopefully herself. But that’s too vague. Each book needs its own separate and distinct story, but one which contributes to the plot arc of the trilogy.
Crudely speaking, apart from the individual thriller story, book 1 sets the scene, introduces the world, the ‘rules’ of that world and the main characters. Book 2 consolidates, widens and sets the ground for the final reckoning in book 3. But remember that a reader may pick up book 2 first and while they may be eager to find out what went before and what happened afterwards, they must have a satisfying read from the book they bought. Writers need to drip in enough backstory to bring the new reader up to speed without boring the established fan.
3. Know your characters in advance
Adding a raft of new characters in each book is tempting. I confess to a fair number, but Roma Nova, like ancient Rome operates on collectivities like families, military, even criminal organisations, so I need a support group for my protagonist.
As for Carina herself, I've had in-depth conversations with her. In fact, her life, attitudes and feelings would be my specialist subject on the Mastermind TV quiz show! Here’s an early interview with her from the time of Inceptio and a later one, fifteen years (in book time!) after the first.
Recycling characters in each book not only helps eliminate ‘character creep’, but is a pleasure for both writer and reader as we see each individual develop his or her own story. However, you do need new people now and again and however reluctantly, you should kill off one or two or you risk making your world too much like Shangri-La or Pleasantville.
4. Work out big secrets in advance and scatter little ones throughout all the books
As a reader, I like a good, heavy surprise or a grand dramatic showdown at the end of books, or at least a ‘twist in the tale’. Hints about this should pop up throughout the book. As a writer, I love laying ‘Easter eggs’ in one book that hatch in another. I was lucky that I was able to do this with Inceptio, Perfiditas and Successio as I had all first drafts written before Inceptio finally went to print.
5. Intrigue by revelation over a longer stretch
With a trilogy, you have the advantage of being able to reveal backstory and other facets of your characters over a longer span. This needs to be done carefully and not be an excuse for padding. In an epic, saga or high concept story, we all love ‘deep lore from the past’, hidden family secrets or a forbidden passion. Timely revelations also strengthen the bonds between the books.
6. Keep to ‘da rulz’
Make the point your alternative timeline diverges from the standard historical timeline logical – nobody likes contrived plot points. Linked with this is the need to research that point thoroughly so you can set the scene in your current story accurately and project it forward without losing the reader’s trust. Anchor the POD in your narration if it takes place a while afterwards (mine is 1600 years afterwards!) through references to the past (battles, heroes, traitors, pivotal events, ties with other nations). And finally, use elements from the historic record carefully, but not fearfully.
Your head may be stuffed with information about your setting, you may have notebooks or files full of research or you may just live in your books’ world. But you need to have consistent information to hand on the internal values and culture, governmental, societal and economic structures, geography, history, sources of income, education, food, religion and, of course, language.
I don’t have a map, but I do know where Roma Nova is and that Castra Lucilla in to the south of the city and Aquae Caesaris and Brancadorum are to the west and east respectively.
I maintain a list of characters for each book, remembering to update it in the next as characters change job, get promoted, married, or move on. Something I've found indispensable is a spreadsheet of ages, tracking who is what age when something happens and preventing character X being older that his mother.
The very worst thing?
I’m speaking as a reader here. When something or somebody pops up like a deus ex machina (aka alien space bat) in a sequel or directly contradicts something in a previous book and there has not been the least hint about it. Even if you, as a writer, think up the cleverest idea in the world for book 3, but you haven’t mentioned it before, don’t do it! Star Trek fans will cringe at the memory of the controversy over the changed Klingon physical appearance. In an episode where Captain Picard and team went back to Captain Kirk’s time, all that distinguished Klingons from humans were bushy eyebrows and bad attitude. Modern Klingon Lieut-Cdr Worf growled at the humans, telling them not to ask – it was a Klingon-only secret – and hinted it was due to a terrible disease in the past. Hmm.
The trilogy in evolution?
Well, Successio, the third Roma Nova thriller, sets off into the world this month. But the books don’t end here – readers are clamouring for further Roma Nova stories and I have plenty more in my story box. So now I've turned the trilogy into the start of a series. But the golden key is that I have my world well and truly built, from the weapon the modern Praetorians practice with to hone close combat skills to childcare provision, from the solidi coins and notes to the grape and olive harvest times, from the imperatrix’s collecting hobby to the Twelve Families legal code.
I have at least three more books planned around a significant secondary character – also a Praetorian special forces officer – and then, who knows?
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