Roma Nova - a thought experiment?

Four images of 'Roma Nova' arranged as a postcard

Travel in the mind is a very popular concept at present as the Covid-19 global pandemic has put a stop to the great flow of personal physical travel. But even before that it was an idea familiar to writers. Indeed, blogger and podcaster Joanna Penn invited me to talk about Roma Nova as a place that my imagination took me to and a place that readers seem to enjoy visiting. Some even want to book a ticket on Air Roma Nova or even go and live there!

So what goes on in a writer’s mind when they build a completely new world and people it with characters who have adventures, emotional journeys and quests? is it a calculated construction or something that’s emerged over years, or triggered by an event?

One of the most familiar alternative universes is that of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter.  She put a seemingly uninteresting boy into a realistic and consistent world that was a mixture of the familiar and fantasy. She wove in magic, the teenage world, good guys, bad guys, friendship, mystery and self-discovery. Oh, and saving the world. We probably all have a different idea of what she was saying underneath all the action and magic.

Now I’m not comparing Roma Nova to the world of Hogwarts. However, the process of building a different universe is the same. It should be realistic and plausible, consistent and dynamic. But where does it all come from?

Whatever genre they write in, writers have some kind of bee in their bonnet. It can be an urgent message to give to the world, a burning desire to explore a transgressive idea or perhaps a way of working through a problem, consciously or unconsciously. Or perhaps it’s escape to a safer or more exciting place and/or with more interesting and idealised people. I suggested in another post that we might still be attracted to the idea of a Ruritania for that very reason.

Roma Nova began as a fantasy version of an idealised world in a very young mind. It grew over the years and became darker and sharper and moderated by more mature ideas of relationships, politics, failure yet retaining ‘noble quests’. The message behind the characters’ motivations was always ‘doing the right thing.’

In the real world, we can try to do this, but we are often let down as reality bursts in on us. I’m not being cynical, but Real Life is a lot messier, interconnected and unpredictable than a fictional world. Even if that world is chaotic or dystopian, we are still the master/mistress of that universe and can exercise control over the story and characters (or delude ourselves we can do it.)

Roma Nova is, if you want to be fancy, a thought experiment: suppose women ran the place; suppose it had a strong historical heritage, say the Romans and suppose the characters had a strong sense of purpose? Throw in switching of roles – Jamie Bond rather than James Bond – gender-mirroring that was so inherent and natural to the characters that it was instinctive and you do have a thought experiment, hopefully a subversive and provoking one.

Roma Nova is fun, challenging, a research dream/nightmare, but it does carry a message: what if the thriller stories were set in a world of unconscious equality where its inhabitants didn’t even think about gender roles? it simply wouldn’t occur to them to assign them. The world of Roma Nova pushes it further with the natural bias toward women. It’s not far past that equality mid point but it does switch natural succession in favour of women. There I go again, trying to illustrate a point.

You’ll be relieved to know that men form nearly half of my readers; they know a thriller when they see one and seem to enjoy the alternative timeline. Plus it’s well-known that women are the major buyers of crime and thrillers, and which female reader doesn’t like the idea of women running things?

While I’m trying to provoke thought, my main aim is to provide several hours of solid entertainment and a bit of escape from the real world. But Roma Nova does try to discuss serious themes of self-empowerment, betrayal, breakdown, loyalty, fear, rebellion and liberation within its stories along with the banter, friendships, pratfalls and love.

Happy reading!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA, a new Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, is now out.

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