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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

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 setting. 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 characters:
‘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. As 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!

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