Present day, alternate world, different rules


Alison Morton

Writing crime and thrillers with an
alternate history setting throws up twin challenges – to tell a tense, fast-paced
story with a punchy ending plus get the historical background right.
Historical? Well, yes. Unless a writer knows their history, they can’t alternate
it. Knowledgeable readers out there will be disappointed if a writer makes a
serious blooper when projecting history in a different direction. And disappointing
the reader is a writing crime.

Alternate history stories, whether packed
with every last piece of information about their world or lighter where the
alternative world is used as a setting with bare detail released only when
crucial, need to follow three ‘rules’: nail the point of divergence from the
real time line that has carried on in our world; show how the alternate world
looks and works; and flesh out the consequences of the split.
Writing crime,
mystery and thrillers in this environment ain’t easy, but it’s fun!

Readers can take cops being gentle
or tough, enthusiastic, intellectual or world-weary. Law enforcers are all
genders, classes, races and ages and stand in various 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.

In alternate history, writers draw
on history before the point of divergence as C J Sansom does in Dominion. But he then goes on to stretch
and distort the functions of the Special Branch we know into a Gestapo-like
force and the Special Constabulary into the Auxiliaries similar to the French Second
World War milice.
In my own earliest
story in the series set in the mid-twentieth century in a country founded
sixteen hundred years ago by Roman refugees, the town cops are still called
‘vigiles’ after the ancient Roman ones; then, they caught thieves and robbers,
put out fires and captured runaway slaves. They were supported by the Urban
Cohorts who acted as a heavy-duty anti-riot force and the even the Praetorian
Guard if necessary. The modern vigiles in my earliest alternate story carry out
the functions of a police force that anybody would recognise today. And there
is still a Praetorian Guard, but a very modern one. Both services have to deal
with the criminal mind whether rational, completely disconnected from societal
norms, opportunistic or terrorist.

Something to remember, especially
when writing a series, is to let organisations develop. My vigiles are
disbanded then re-formed as ‘custodes’ in the three later stories following a
catastrophic civil war.
They evolve in a similar way that London Bow Street
runners gave way to Sir Robert Peel’s Bobbies who in turn developed into the
modern Metropolitan Police.

Legal practicalities in alternate
history stories can be quite different to those in our real timeline, but they
must be consistent with history of that society while remaining plausible for
the reader. My alternate world has examining magistrates (echoing ancient Roman
practice) and a twenty-eight day post-arrest, pre-charge detention period which
police services in our timeline would probably love! Questioning is robust, but
there’s no gratuitous physical brutality – things have moved on since ancient
Roman times when
the punishment officer would take a criminal off into the corner and beat him into a pulp. In the 21st century, the approach is more psychological, wearing the detainee down, but the odd slap creeps in.

If writing in any foreign language
environment, whether in this world, off-planet or in a different time, using local
words for police, e.g. ‘Schupo’, ‘carabinieri’ or ‘custodes’ enriches the
But the writer has to explain in a non-obvious way. An example from my
earliest book:

He handed me his card.
“Kriminalpolizeikommissar Huber – GDKA/OK”. Juno, he was one of the German
Federated States organised crime investigators. We were in the big time here. I
glanced up at him, but he looked even grimmer, if it was possible. I decided to
play safe.
The same applies
for slang, which naturally peppers any thriller with police and military
‘Dear me,’ he murmured, ‘you
are a cross little scarab, aren’t you?’
I knew he was winding me up
by using scarab, the derogatory word for the custodes. I might deal with a lot
of shit in my job, but I was no dung-beetle.

Getting professional help? Do your research first! If writing a contemporary
police thriller, writers should at least read around the basics; detection and
arrest procedures, forensics, interviewing and case development. For political
or military thrillers, the same applies for structures, chain of command,
intelligence procedures and weaponry. Apart from watching television and movies
and reading other writers’ books, I find Wikipedia is an excellent place to
start if researching a specific force, police service or weapon. After that, most
libraries and bookstores will have real life accounts written by former members
of those services.
For legal background, you could start with the lawyers’
associations and see if they have any public education programmes, similarly
the probation and social services. If you ask reasonably intelligent, specific
questions (make a list!), serving and retired professionals will usually be
delighted to help you, especially if you mention them in the acknowledgements.

If you’re writing in a historical whodunit or
thriller, then as well as the reading, you are probably going to become good
friends with your county archivist and possibly the British Library staff.
you have no living professional to consult, you should find at least two preferably
three sources for your information. Law enforcement officers’ roles, powers and
practices varied hugely in the past and if policing existed at all in some past
eras, it was often carried out by the military. You soon get to know your
Tacitus from your Pliny or Caesar!

Crime, mystery and thrillers are
one of the most popular genres in our bookshops, whether online or bricks and
mortar. Whether you have a historical, contemporary or alternative setting,
research and meticulous accuracy are the watchwords for keeping on the right
side of the writing law.
Author Alison Morton

Alison Morton has a
master’s degree in history, has served time as a translator and soldier, and is
a deep-steeped ‘Roman nut’. 

Currently living in France, she writes Roman-themed
alternate history thrillers and her first novel, INCEPTIO, will be published by
SilverWood Books in March 2013.

Watch this space!

The Doctor, The Plutocrat, and the Mendacious tells the story of 1940s England

 Glyn Pope’s re-telling of the post-war era takes you backwards in time to England with a stark reminder of what is was like for millions of people back in the 1940s.

DOCTOR LATYMER arrives on a council estate in Leicester, England, full of hope after the dreadful experiences of the war. He happily settles into life on the estate trying to forget the nightmare images in his memory. The young doctor quickly becomes the local miracle worker when he cures the attention-seeking hypochondriac Reginald, and takes the time to befriend a sad little boy who has lost his Mother.
However, when food poisoning strikes the estate residents, Doctor Latymer sets out to right injustices that he doesn’t fully understand. He tangles with Sir Brian Britley, the Plutocrat, and Sir Henry Norrington, the Mendacious Minister for the British Government. In the process, he unravels the delicate balance between rich and poor, and the struggling economy still reliant on rationing and the black market.

Glyn Pope grew up on a council estate in England. He studied theology at Nene University. In addition to writing short stories and novels, Glyn interviewed Bob Marley the night before Marley canceled his UK tour and went back to the warmth of Jamaica. Glyn has published articles for both Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan ‘fan’ magazines, and has won a short story competition in the magazine ‘Devon Life.’ He has two novels published. A few years ago he and his wife and daughter moved to France where he pursues a full time writing career.

Due to popular demand I have been informed that you can download The Doctor, The Pluocrat and The Medacious Minister from Smashwords: 

Reviewed by Stephen Butt of BBC Radio who wrote ” Rich in atmosphere and the colour of the time, all the characters in Glyn Pope’s novel are alive. This is a true reflection of life in a certain suburb of Leicester in the English East Midlands, but the themes are universal. This could well be your neighbourhood facing the challenges of a changing world at the end of the 2nd World War. Enjoyable and challenging.” 

Click below for the interview:

Tell us about your current book?
The title is ‘The Doctor, The Plutocrat, and The Mendacious Minister.’ – from now on known as The Doc! Set in 1948 the novel is a simple accessible story written in authentic British English, adding to the richness that brings the local characters to life as the reader is whisked back to 1948 post-war Britain.

The Doctor, The Plutocrat, and The Mendacious Minister is now available as an iPad as well as Kindle (Amazon and Smashwords) and at the Cactus Rain site or from me if you live in Europe at £9.99 or 11.50euros inc. postage.

Why that genre?
Simple really, I like history.

Have you tried to write in another field?
Yes, I’ve written two other novels and I’m writing a third all three of which are different, contemporary fiction. The novels were ‘The Fall’ and ‘To The End of Love.’ These novels are no longer available, though I did find one in a second hand shop the other day. I haven’t plans to republish them in their present format. I may do a rewrite for ‘To The End of Love’ one day.

Is your book a stand-alone or part of a series?
The Doctor will be part of a series. I have in mind up to the late sixties Britain so far.

Have your characters or writing been inspired by friends/ family?
I think your are almost bound to use characters you know and exaggerate or simply use their traits. My wife and I read avidly and talk about books, so I suppose there is some influence there. But she won’t read what I’ve written so there is no feedback. The plot for The Doctor came about by something my daughter told me about food poisoning and a fact I read from a book by A.N Wilson. Two quite simple ideas but the story took off, nothing very complicated about it.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel ‘The Accused.’ This is quite contemporary. It tells of a teacher who is wrongly accused of sexually abusing two of his pupils. The reader knows he is innocent and we follow his downfall which he has no control over.

The follow up to ‘The Doctor, The Plutocrat and The Mendacious Minster’ has a working title which I just don’t want to give at present. I think the earliest it will be published will be Christmas 2011, but I have attached an extract: Reverend Adams opened the front door of the Vicarage, entered and closed it carefully behind him. It was bitterly cold outside, and he felt a positive pleasure at the warmth of the house. The anticipation of a roaring fire, wife and child, tea, and a meal. He had been dreaming of toad in the hole all that morning with mashed potatoes and lashings of gravy. His gloves he put safely in his pocket. His hat he hung on a hook; likewise his coat and scarf. Looking in the mirror he flattened his hair. He wasn’t particularly a vain man, but he like what he saw and as he met more women becoming himself worldlier he subscribed to the idea that some found him attractive. He formed a self satisfied smirk at himself, turned from the mirror and crossed the hall, opening the door to the kitchen. In the room he recognised domestic bliss. Benjamin sitting in his high chair, sucking on a Rusk, bounced up and down at the sight of his Father. Anne turned from her workbench and smiled.

‘Husband,’ she said, ‘did your morning go well?’

He went over and lightly brushed his lips against her cheek. He felt a physical attraction, perhaps when the child was having an afternoon nap…’It did, my dear.’ He brought himself back to earth, to where the pleasures of the flesh would wait an hour or two. ‘And for you, did you pay your visit to the Police Station?’

‘I did.’

‘Did you meet with the murderess?’

‘If you wish to call her that, I did.’ Anne was beginning to feel angry, but knew she held the ace, so behaved very amicably.

‘And at court, Anne, did she plead guilty to the stygian crime. Resipiscence! Locus paenitentiae, the repentant saving time and money for the courts of our land! Is she now awaiting her retributive justice, sent to her last account, judicial murder,’ his voice went to almost a whisper, ‘quietus, coup de grace awaiting in her final hours for execution when the Lord comes to jugdeth all?’ He took respite as if exhausted with his speech,

The child Benjamin was looking at his Father his eyes wide in amazement, the Rusk trapped in space halfway to his mouth.

The Reverend Adams began his rant again, ‘I must set forth, after dinner, with my staff in my hand, to be her comfort in her final hours, helping her to salvation as she awaits her punishment. It will be a grim time, but I will do my duty when the Lord calls.’

Anne stood looking at her husband, standing still with a hint of a smile on her lips.

‘There’s no need for that,’ she said.

Benjamin looked at his Mother and laughed.

Disappointment crossed Adam’s face.

‘Miss Harshaw is sitting by the fire with a cup of tea. Through there.’ She pointed as though he didn’t know the layout of his own house and he looked at the door. ‘The last time I saw her she was reading the Leicester Mercury.’

‘A cup of tea? Adam was appalled. ‘Drinking a cup of tea from our rations?’

‘Miss Harshaw will be having a lot than that,’ Anne told her husband. ‘She is on bail staying at our house for at least a week. She may not leave it.’

‘Will she have her ration book with her?’

‘You or I will go and get it. Adam, go and speak to her. She needs comfort.

Do you have an agent, or have you gone alone?
I had an agent, but with failing of companies it no longer exists. I publish with Cactus Rain, a proper signed contract which after years and years of trying I’ve framed! See:

Thoughts on self-publishing?
My first two novels were self published. I kidded myself that I’d published a novel. I don’t think you have until you have a contract. My first two novels weren’t edited properly. I have withdrawn them until I can work on them properly. That doesn’t mean that all traditional published books are the best. Not by any means. In my opinion Dan Brown doesn’t write very well, JK Rowling’s books, my daughter tells me aren’t very well edited.

How long does it take you to write a book?
I don’t know, probably from the first word to holding it in my hand 2 years.

Which comes first for you – characters or plot?
Plot, though I love my characters. It is one of the strong points of The Doc, see for reviews.

How did you get into writing? Did you always want to become a writer?
My family were great readers. Once I truly realised people wrote, at the time it was Enid Blyton, then I wanted to become a writer. After I’d read Camus’ work I saw that there was quality as well.

What mistakes do you see new writers make?
When they’ve got to the end of a novel thinking they are finished. There’s a lot of rewrites to do.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Either it’s a hobby, or it’s a job. I can afford not to have a day job, so I call myself a writer. Treat it as you would going to work. I write for at least three hours each day seven days a week. When I go to visit people I take paper with me to write. I always write long hand first.

What is your view of the world of publishing.
A)Authors have to remember that they are tins of beans, a commodity to be sold. Too many believe that because they’ve written a great piece of literature agents and publisher swill fall over them selves to publish them.

B) In the UK the competition to sell a book is unfair. There is far too many offers, three for the price of two etc. this not only makes it difficult to break into them market but destroys independent book shops as well. Glance through the best sellers lists in the Times and the names hardly change from year to year. In France it is illegal to have these kind of book offers. All books are around £9.99 to £12.99 or over. At least when I place my book in a shop Dan Brown and the rest don’t have one over me price wise.

Site where The Doc can be bought in the UK –