Posted in Travel, Writing

Travels with My Books #3: To Roma Nova and Across Europe with Alison Morton

Meet Alison Morton, thriller writer

Despite living in different countries, Alison Morton and I have been friends for almost ten years, each building our own worlds in our series of novels – mine inspired by my real life in the rural Cotswolds, and hers by her passion for Ancient Rome. 

Until her most recent novel, a contemporary thriller set in England and France, Alison’s fiction has been based around an alternative vision of how the modern world might have turned out if the Roman Empire had never entirely fallen. Alison’s love of all things Roman is addictive – she’s even inspired me to dust off my schoolgirl Latin and study the language further. (More about that here.)

I’m delighted to welcome Alison to my blog today to tell us about her gripping series of Roman-inspired thrillers, the first of which is Inceptio – and the start of her new contemporary series, which kicks off with Double Identity.

array of Roma Nova book covers
The chronicles of Roma Nova by Alison Morton

Hello, Alison, and welcome! Can you you please set the scene for us by pinpointing Roma Nova’s position on the globe? 

Ah, this is a bit of a problem as Roma Nova is an imaginary country! Let’s just say a semi-mountainous area in south central Europe.

Can you please give a brief introduction to the books you’ve set in Roma Nova. 

They’re thrillers featuring characters who are descendants of Romans who trekked out of Rome in 395 AD. Given the grim, bandit-infested circumstances of Late Antiquity and Early Medieval Europe they were forced to call on the fighting abilities of everybody, whether man or woman. Although retaining their Roman culture and values, in order to survive they changed their society radically and permanently. More below!

One set of four stories (Inceptio, Carina, Perfiditas and Successio) take place in the present day and revolve around Carina who was brought up in the ‘Eastern United States’, a slightly alternative version of the USA, and who seeks refuge in Roma Nova when an EUS government enforcer is hunting her. Carina’s mother was Roma Novan so it’s logical she flees there. She crosses cultures – never an easy process – but becomes well acclimatised to the more structured and straightforward society and is supported wholeheartedly by her grandmother Aurelia.

Winding back to the late 1960s, when Aurelia was a young Praetorian officer, to the early 1980s when she’s become Roma Nova’s foreign minister, the second set of four books (Aurelia, Nexus, Insurrectio and Retalio) tell the story of Aurelia’s battle with her lifelong enemy, Caius Tellus, and of her part in the great rebellion in 1980s Roma Nova.

Carina and Aurelia, while behaving courageously in their efforts to defend their families and their country, both find that the ‘path to true love’ is both uneven and full of potholes.

What makes this place such a great setting for your stories?

Well, mountains usually mean tough people, and that’s a prime characteristic for the Roma Novans whose society has survived through thick and thin for sixteen centuries. I needed a setting able to shelter and nurture a small group of semi-refugees yet be roomy and varied enough to support an expanding population over time. It had to be fertile and support mixed farming in order to feed everybody, yet defensible from most comers over the centuries. Alpine and semi-alpine landscapes are perfect for this, which meant somewhere in south central Europe like Carinthia/Slovenia was ideal. Alpine areas have well-defined passes and routes through them, perfect for modern transport such as trains and fast roads in the twenty-first century.

array of photos of people and places of Roma Nova
A glimpse of Roma Nova

What is your relationship with the setting for your stories and how much of your life have you spent there?

Well, nobody can spend time in Roma Nova, much as they’d like to, but I’ve enjoyed several walking holidays in Switzerland, Northern Italy and Austria so I have a ‘feel’ for this type of landscape, plus as a ‘Roman nut’, I have clambered over most of Roman Europe. Last year, I had a three-week trip to Carinthia and Slovenia planned including a tour of the Julian Alps and a private guided visit to Virunum near Klagenfurt where the founders of Roma Nova met. Sadly, it had to be cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. But I’ll get there…

What is special about the people native to Roma Nova?

Essentially, they’re direct, hard-working and inventive – pretty much like their ancestors. But just like the original Romans, there are corrupt, greedy and criminal elements. However, there is one outstanding difference to their society from most Western societies – it’s governed by women. This dates from earliest times when daughters and sisters had to heft a sword and fight alongside the men to fend off invaders; there just weren’t enough men in the tiny colony. Older women farmed, traded and ran families and society away from any fighting, and kept the country going. And this became entrenched over the centuries. This gender balancing does upset outsiders though – but that’s their problem, as the Roma Novans say.

array of headshots
Meet key characters from Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series

If your protagonist or other characters come from elsewhere, what challenges do they face dealing with the local people?

Roma Novans are self-reliant but like to co-operate with their neighbours and are courteous with outsiders unless they attack or attempt to hurt Roma Novan interests. Then those outsiders had better watch out. The justice system is strong and fair and the police (vigiles, later called custodes), while polite, don’t stand a lot of nonsense. Roma Novans are generally well-educated and enjoy a very good standard of living. Although they speak both street Latin and the classical version, most Roma Novans are competent in English and Germanic and many know French and Italian, so visitors can be easy.

What are the distinguishing features of Roma Nova in terms of geography, geology, flora, fauna or any other detail you care to mention?

You probably have to like mountains, the smell of pines and snow! But you’ll also find fields of spelt, oats and barley, dairy farms, orchards, vines in sheltered valleys and lots of market gardens along the course of the main river. Of course, in the city you have public buildings, traffic jams, international retail, hospitals, schools, businesses as you would anywhere else, but also a forum, temples and senate house. But yes, the air is fresh and can get bracing up on the high alp pastures in early spring.

What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?

Keep an open mind, make sure you have the correct visa and be ready to enjoy a rich cultural life as well as many open air activities like climbing, horse-riding and walking.

“Only in Roma Nova” – name three things that could only exist/happen there!

  1. Games in the amphitheatres (sports competitions rather than fights to the death!)
  2. Wonderful public baths on the traditional Roman system (but with very high public health hygiene standards!)
  3. People in traditional tunics and sandals especially on warm summer days. The young tend to stay sweltering in tight jeans even in the warmest summers as they think it’s uncool and roll their eyes at their parents. The parents look at them cynically and think, “They’ll learn.”

Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?

Ha! As far as I know, none exist.

Where is your latest book set?

Double Identity is a departure from the imaginary Roma Nova as it’s set in the ‘real world’. Well, as real as any world in fiction is. We switch between London, Brussels, Strasbourg and Poitou in western France. Why? While Conn Iggulden, the distinguished historical fiction writer, was very kindly endorsing Insurrectio, he asked me why I didn’t take one of my heroines into the real world as a European agent, rather than as an ‘alternative’ Roman. I still had three books to write in the Roma Nova series, but how could I resist such a challenge?

I always wanted to write a heroine with a strong connection to Poitou where I live. Mélisende/Mel des Pittones, although she has an English mother, is like most French people very attached to her native region. Her family has deep roots going back centuries; even her name reflects the old Pictones tribe of pre-Roman times.

I’ve spent a fair proportion of my life in France, so I feel thoroughly at home in this setting. Like Mel, when I go back to London, it feels strange as if everything has shifted since I was last there.

But Mel, who has just finished serving in the French Army, has to buckle up and solve her fiancé’s murder which turns into a full-blown conspiracy, whereas I can sit and write peaceably in the clear light and fresh air of Poitou.

Where will your next book be set?

Ah, I have two ‘next books’. How daft is that?

  • One will be set in Roma Nova, back in the late fourth century when Carina and Aurelia’s founding ancestors meet.
  • The other, which I’m concentrating on at the moment, is another adventure for Mel which centres on Brussels, Poitou, Rome(!) and the mysterious and dangerous Sahel region of Africa where Mel did three tours during her time in the French Army. There is unfinished business there as well as a shadow game and an incredibly dangerous enemy intent on her destruction.

EXTRACT from Double Identity

The first in Alison Morton’s new series of contemporary Anglo-French thrillers

[Mel is in the family home in Poitou, waiting…]

 Every day since she’d returned from her assessment with her former unit, Mel had watched for the moment when the hands of the gilded Delettrez clock on the mantelpiece approached half past eleven. It was the third of January now and she’d heard nothing. She went to the kitchen, grabbed the yellow-fobbed key off the row of key hooks and jogged down the drive to the tall gates. Through the gate bars, she’d watch the almost silent electric La Poste van glide up the narrow, metalled road. The same woman had delivered letters and parcels for much of Mel’s life.

This morning, Marie-Anne pulled herself out of her yellow van and brandished a fistful of letters.

‘One for you, Mademoiselle Mélisende. From the minister himself.’

Mel doubted it. She unlatched the gate and pulled it open. After the obligatory kissing of cheeks, and a signature for the letter sent by registered post, Mel took the letter.

République Française, Ministre de l’Intérieur on the upper left edge of the envelope and addressed to Sergent-chef des Pittones. Marie-Anne leant over, excitement plain in her eyes, but Mel slipped it into her pocket.

‘Thank you, Marie-Anne. Don’t bother to put the rest in the box. I’ll take them. Bonne continuation.’ Thus dismissed and disappointed, the postwoman trudged back to her yellow van, executed a perfect three-point turn and disappeared into the fog.

Dodging round Madame Blanc, the cook, as she prepared lunch, Mel made herself a coffee and settled on the pale green sofa in the drawing room. She glanced at the envelope. Somebody must have used the wrong one for her posting letter. It should have come from the defence ministry. Maybe it was some kind of extra security check on re-enlisting. She ripped it open.


Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough, but compassionate heroines. She blends her deep love of France with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical, adventure and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.

Grips like a vice – a writer to watch out for” says crime thriller writer Adrian Magson about Roma Nova series starter Inceptio. All six full-length Roma Nova thrillers have won the BRAG Medallion, the prestigious award for indie fiction. 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 Bookseller selected Successio as Editor’s Choice in its inaugural indie review.

Alison now lives in Poitou in France, where part of Double Identity is set and is writing a sequel as well as continuing her Roma Nova series.


Connect with Alison on her thriller site:

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Twitter: @alison_morton

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Next month: join Carol Cooper for a trip to Egypt with The Girls from Alexandria – a cracking new novel, hot off the press, that I’m enjoying reading right now! 

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Posted in Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Adventures of Jennings – with Alison Morton

array of Jennings books
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories – an addictive series

In this last of my series about favourite school stories, which I launched to celebrate the publication of my own school series for grown-ups, Staffroom at St Bride’s, I’m delighted to welcome thriller writer Alison Morton to talk about her choice: the Jennings series by Antony Buckeridge. These hilarious books were my personal favourite when I was growing up, although they seemed dated even then.

Alison Morton with Jennings books
Alison Morton shares her love of Anthony Buckeridge’s school stories

Set in a traditional English boys’ boarding school, and written by a former prep school teacher, the series revolves around the spirited, well-intentioned Jennings and his cautious best friend Darbishire. What I liked most about it was the humour, and it came as no surprise to me to learn recently that one of Buckeridge’s writing heroes was P G Wodehouse. (One of mine, too!)

I especially adored the language, peppered with posh schoolboy slang that I’d never come across in real life – a “wizard wheeze” for a good idea, and so on. (More on that in a moment from Alison.) But I could never use those terms in conversation, as only fellow Jennings fans might understand them. Which is why I was especially pleased to hear that Alison Morton was on the same wavelength.

Over to Alison now to tell us more…

Please give title, author and a brief description of the book.

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge.

It’s (John Christopher Timothy) Jennings’s first term at Linbury Court prep school. He befriends clever, but socially inept vicar’s son Darbishire, foxes into town in disguise, accidentally kicks the Archbeako (headmaster) on the kneecap while practising his football-skills, displays too much (or not enough) initiative during fire practice, and has a hair-raising incident with a poisonous spider. The expression ‘getting into scrapes’ must have been invented for Jennings, but he has such a genuine sense of honour it’s hard to be cross with him!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

photo of Alison in school uniform aged 11
Alison first “met” Jennings when she started secondary school

Ha! I think I was eleven, as I remember borrowing it from the library in my new school when I was in the Lower Thirds (equivalent of Year 7 today). I re-read it recently, and let’s say it’s several decades on from when I was first enthralled by Jennings and Darbishire.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

I was surprised to find myself still chuckling. Either author Anthony Buckeridge was a very clever man or I still have an infantile sense of humour. Actually, I probably laugh at different places today. And although Jennings is impetuous and sees the world in a very specific way, I still find him endearing and, in his own way, logical. I probably don’t find him as exciting as eleven-year-old me did as I have done more exciting things during my own life!

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The humour (and there is plenty of it) rests on misunderstandings resulting from Jennings’s literal-mindedness and impetuosity. In the earliest novels in the series there are some Latin puns; these were often omitted from later reprints which is a pity, but times changed from the 1950s and few children now learn Latin. Comradeship, behaving fairly and a desire to ‘do the right thing’, even though the school staff might not agree with the boys’ view of what that right thing was, runs through the books.

The earlier novels including Jennings Goes to School present an idealised version of small town, middle-class English life in the 1950s and mid-1960s which is the period I went to school in Tunbridge Wells, so a lot of the environment was what I considered ‘normal’.

But for me, who loved playing with words, spoke passable French and was learning Latin, the coolest thing (although we didn’t say cool then) was the invented language.

Post-war slang ‘wizard’ generally meant ‘good’ or ‘very good’. ‘Ozard’ that the boys use derives from ‘Wizard of Oz’ and was used to describe anything the boys disliked or dreaded.

It was also used to describe the anger of Mr Wilkins, Jennings’ form master, which could be ‘ozard’. ‘Ozard squared’ and occasionally ‘ozard cubed’ implied the direst of occurrences!

I have to confess that we still use ‘bish’ in our family to describe a mistake and will often ‘square’ or ‘cube’ something that’s very unfortunate.

Which character did you identify with?

It has to be Jennings, but I do sympathise with Darbishire on occasion. As an adult, I can sympathise with ‘Old Wilkie’ being completely unsuitable in temperament to deal with a class of bright, lively little demons.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

Even though it was written about boys, this and the other Jennings stories were set in a children’s world where exciting things happened. I was extremely fortunate to be brought up by a mother who was determined to treat her son and daughter equally and my father agreed. I couldn’t see why girls and boys shouldn’t have the same adventures.

Jennings’ world was one I could escape to when my school had been particularly insistent on me behaving like a young lady rather than just a child.

How did it affect your writing?

Hm, interesting question. Perhaps it gave me a wish to read books only with snappy dialogue and a succinct style and plenty of action. And as we write what we would like to read, I hope I have passed this partiality onto the readers of my Roma Nova series.

In that equally imaginary world, my first heroine Aurelia’s child is home-schooled in the 1960s with a tutor although she did attend a private girls’ school in London when Aurelia was posted there. In her early days, Carina, my second heroine, and still Karen went to the local state school in rural America. Her children in Roma Nova went to school in the 2010s after initial nursery education at home.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

A Church of England primary school which actually had an unofficial admissions policy. My mother, a teacher herself, had sussed this out and revealed this to me years later. It had an 80% pass rate of the 11 Plus (the national school exam that determined what kind of senior school you went to) and highest entry into grammar school in the area. Talk about hothouse! We didn’t know anything about that – it was just school.

I went on to one of the local grammar schools – Tunbridge Wells County Grammar School for Girls (as it was called then.) Famous alumnae include comedian Jo Brand and tennis player Virginia Wade. It was at TWCGS that thanks to Latin classes I discovered the rude poetry of Catullus, a book of which I actually gave to Carina, the heroine of Inceptio, my first Roma Nova novel!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Oh no, Jennings was definitely my private world!

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I think so. Anthony Buckeridge was still writing the stories in 1994, although he changed some of the content with the times while keeping the basic concept intact. The themes of interacting with others in your group, acting equitably, trying to make your way through the bewildering business of school and growing-up are universal even though expressed differently today. My son went to a local prep school for a while in the 1990s before transferring to grammar school, and there were definitely some resemblances to Jennings’ Linbury Court!

It was a (surprising) pleasure to re-read Jennings and thank you, Debbie, for nudging me to rediscover that world.

Thank you, Alison, for sharing your passion for the Jennings school stories. I hope our shared enthusiasm will encourage more 21st century readers to discover his joyous world. 

About Alison Morton

cover of Double Identity by Alison Morton
Available to pre-order before its 7 January launch

After tearing round Europe clambering over Roman ruins, serving six years in uniform and collecting an MA in History on the way, Alison settled down to write the award-winning Roma Nova alternative history thriller series of nine books. Her first psychological thriller, Double Identity, will be published on 7th January 2021 and is now available to pre-order here.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site:

Introduction to Alison’s Roma Nova series,  via the first series, Inceptio:

cover of Inceptio by Alison Morton
The first in Alison Morton’s alternative history thriller series set in Roma Nova

“It’s about blood, survival and money. Mostly yours.”

New Yorker Karen Brown is running for her life. She makes a snap decision to flee to Roma Nova – her dead mother’s homeland, and last remnant of the Roman Empire in the 21st century. But can Karen tough it out in such an alien culture? And with a crazy killer determined to terminate her?

Store links for Inceptio:
Order paperback here
Order ebook here

That’s all from my Favourite School Stories series for 2020. Next year, I’ll be introducing a new monthly guest post series to my blog: Travels with my Books, exploring books set in other countries and times.