How to mix comedy into your writing

Alison Morton

Why do we laugh, giggle or grin? Or even give a little smile?

Perhaps it’s nervous relief we’re not in the other person’s dilemma and feeling their pain or maybe an instinctive reaction to being in an awkward situation ourselves. Sociologists, linguists and biologists say that our ability to laugh and desire to do so isn’t all fun and games, but actually serves two essential life functions: to bond with members of our “tribe,” and to lessen tension and anxiety. And let’s not discount wishing to look clever or impress somebody or to look like part of the cool crowd.

Unlike stand-up comedy, written humour is often subtle. Some may smile, but most people don’t laugh out loud when they’re reading. A stand-up comic has a huge advantage over writers; a comic can incorporate facial expressions, body language, gestures, and vocal inflections to reinforce their delivery. Writers only have wit, words, and the rhythm of the language. But if well-written, humour enhances how much we like what we’re reading and how well we remember it afterwards.

So how can writers do this?

Juxtaposition – Dragons getting smashed out of their minds and flying with a hangover the next morning, the tarty-looking girl speaking with an upper crust accent, a trucker quoting Hamlet.

Timing – As important on the written page as in stand-up. Don’t let the joke, witty remark fall into the scene until the end; string it out as long as you dare, but don’t let it lose its snappiness. Remember how effective punch lines are. And try to arrange the sentence so that the funny word or phrase falls at the end. If it’s the last thing readers see, a funny sounding word strengthens the memory of the joke in their mind.

Characterisation – Remember your characters are real people and why people use comedy in real life. This will round out your characters, make them far more human and let the reader connect with them more easily. Nobody likes poker-faced, hundred per cent driven and serious people – they’re rather boring…

Appropriateness and tone – Is your story the place for dry humour, wittiness, exaggeration, euphemism, understatement, knockabout, sarcasm or misdirected dialogue? Decide on the comic tone appropriate to your characters and, importantly, to your reading audience.

Integration – Weave the humour into the dialogue, speech tags, description and thoughts. Make it reveal something about the characters or push the story forward. These four lines immediately build an impression of the characters and their relationship, then lead to the next scene with anticipation of danger.

Crafty bastard. I gave him a dirty look. Lurio would never let me forget it if I gave in now. I also wanted to have the edge over Conrad.

‘You know full well I’ll do it,’ I grumped. ‘Just don’t get me killed.’

Lurio laughed. I smiled back in a sour way.

(Extract from INCEPTIO)

Avoiding author interference – Let the characters and situations be funny, don’t try and inject ‘funny’ e.g. ‘he laughed uproariously’. Use reaction in others as one of the main reflectors of the humour, e.g. how a wittier person reacts to the words of somebody suffering from a humour bypass, such as Lizzie’s reaction to Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

Hard sounds are funny – It’s an old cliché, but comedy writers as a rule don’t search their brains for ‘K’, ‘G’ or ‘C’ sound words to end their jokes, but their minds instinctively choose words with those consonants. What’s not funny about ‘pumperknickel’ or ‘chicken’?

Don’t fall into the ‘joke first, scene afterwards’ trap – Tempting as it is, don’t wrap your scene around the hysteria-inducing joke you’ve thought up. Readers will spot that one. Let the humour arise naturally out of the scene’s action. If there isn’t anything funny, then fine. On to the next scene…

When to use humour and comedy?

If you are writing a rom-com, comedy is integral. If your story is a saga or a relationship-based contemporary novel, then wry humour or a laugh to relieve an embarrassing situation will engage readers even more. Sci-fi and historical work can vary as much as any genre from the witty male buddy-to-buddy, master/mistress to servant/robot, girl-to-girl banter to full-on insanity at every level (Thinking of Hitchhiker’s Guide and Discworld here).

Crime, thrillers and mystery are different as the grim events, whether written in a gritty or cosy style, need some relief as do the characters in them.

In my own Roma Nova series, kidnapping, attempted murder, psychotic villains, rebellion and heartache are balanced by my heroine’s tone; historic novelist Simon Scarrow, called it ‘a winning dry sense of humour’ when he endorsed the second in series, PERFIDITAS. Raised in the States, but forced to flee to Europe in the earlier novel, INCEPTIO, Karen has used her humour to keep herself secure and stable after a difficult childhood and adolescence. In both these books, her character voice is distinct by the use of her down to earth attitude and humorous remarks.

Of course, wonderful jokes and exciting, original humour or comedy can’t carry a book on their own; the underlying story must be solid and strong. Above all, it must be tightly-edited. As the Prince of Denmark said, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’.

Happy writing!

 second in the series of Roma Nova thrillers 
Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces is in trouble – one colleague has tried to kill her and another has set a trap to incriminate her in a conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Founded sixteen hundred years ago by Roman dissidents and ruled by women, Roma Nova barely survived a devastating coup d’état thirty years ago. Carina swears to prevent a repeat and not merely for love of country. 

Seeking help from a not quite legal old friend could wreck her marriage to the enigmatic Conrad. Once proscribed and operating illegally, she risks being terminated by both security services and conspirators. As she struggles to overcome the desperate odds and save her beloved Roma Nova and her own life, she faces the ultimate betrayal… 

“Sassy, intriguing, page-turning… Roma Nova is a fascinating world” – Simon Scarrow

Alison Morton grew up in Tunbridge Wells, a former spa town in South East England, and worked in the City of London, dealt in coins and antique jewellery, head-hunted chief executives, served as a reserve military officer and owned a translation company. She completed a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics and several years later a masters’ in history. She now lives in France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

A wordsmith much of her life – playwright (aged 7), article writer, local magazine editor and translator – she came to novel writing in reaction to a particularly dire film.

‘I could do better that that,’ she whispered in the darkened cinema.

‘So why don’t you?’ came her spouse’s reply.

Three months later, she had completed the first draft of INCEPTIO, the first in her series of Roma Nova thrillers.

INCEPTIO was shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award and awarded a B.R.A.G. MedallionTM in September 2013. The next in the series, PERFIDITAS, was published October 2013. Alison is working on the third book SUCCESSIO.

(function() {var s = document.getElementsByTagName("script")[0],rdb = document.createElement("script"); rdb.type = "text/javascript"; rdb.async = true; rdb.src = document.location.protocol + "//"; s.parentNode.insertBefore(rdb, s); })();

A character interview with Karen Brown from Alison Morton’s novel

Alison Morton

New York, present day. Karen Brown, angry and frightened after surviving a kidnap attempt, has a harsh choice – being eliminated by government enforcer Jeffery Renschman or fleeing to the mysterious Roma Nova, her dead mother’s homeland in Europe.Founded sixteen centuries ago by Roman exiles and ruled by women, Roma Nova gives Karen safety and a ready-made family. But a shocking discovery about her new lover, the fascinating but arrogant special forces officer Conrad Tellus who rescued her in America, isolates her.

Renschman reaches into her new home and nearly kills her. Recovering, she is desperate to find out why he is hunting her so viciously. Unable to rely on anybody else, she undergoes intensive training, develops fighting skills and becomes an undercover cop. But crazy with bitterness at his past failures, Renschman sets a trap for her, knowing she has no choice but to spring it…
A character interview with Karen Brown from Alison Morton’s novel INCEPTIO:

Who are you? Tell us about your background. What makes you you?
First interview with subject. Note on record: She is still in the Eastern United States.
Me? Karen Brown? I’m nothing special, just a normal twenty something, living in New York in the EUS. That’s the Eastern United States, north of Louisiane and south of Québec for those of you who are foreigners. My Mom, who was from Roma Nova in Europe, drove herself off a cliff when I was three and my Dad – I loved my Dad so much – he went when I was twelve. I cried when my cousins made me leave my beautiful New Hampshire home and live with them in the Mid-West. I ran away to the city the day after I graduated high school. I have a boring job, but love my weekends of fresh air in Central Kew Park where I volunteer. But last week, I had to give a presentation for a new foreign client. When I shook hands with his interpreter, who didn’t seem like any interpreter I’d ever met, my world shifted and not only because he was pretty hot.

what are your likes or
dislikes? What do you think of the interpreter you met recently?

I’m pretty easy going, I don’t like or dislike
anything in particular. No, that’s not right – people being unfair or unkind
bugs me. Why do they do that?
I jog, drink coffee, laugh with the kids in the park at weekends, but I often feel
I’m in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. That interpreter turned out to be
a spy and incredibly arrogant, which really irritates me. I was pleased when he
said he was going back to Roma Nova. Okay, I wasn’t 100% pleased…

What is your main goal in life?
Who knows? I have a vague thought I’d like to do
more than be a junior ad exec but at present, I have a safe job and one or two

How do you see yourself?
Hey, are we going psych here? You sound like the
student counselor at high school and she was lousy.

How do other people see you?
You think I go around asking them that? I don’t
think so.

One year later . . . (Note: Subject is now generally adjusted
culturally to Roma Nova)

Who are you? Tell us about your background. What makes you you?
You are obviously aware of the identity rules for undercover operatives. Let’s call me Officer B. I’ve recently completed a major assignment and am awaiting debrief. I’m satisfied it went well. Okay, I’m not too sure about the aftermath.

Before I started this operation, I undertook a period of intensive training that developed my skills and abilities as well as helped me establish my personal life choices. And that’s all you need to know. Are we finished?

So what are your likes or dislikes? What do you think of your immediate superior? 
My personal likes and dislikes are not relevant; my professional ones include being harassed by admin people who have nothing better to do. My immediate superior is a clever and effective senior officer. Hey, are we totally on the record with this? Or do you want the truth? Okay, he’s good, very good, but he’s a royal pain in the fundament.

What is your main goal in life?
To have this over. To go home and see my family. To stop having to act out someone else’s identity so intimately. Trouble is, I’d really like to be her sometimes…

How do you see yourself?
Maybe somebody who’s been useful, who knows right from wrong, who can make a judgement call. You tell me, you’re doing the interview.

How do other people see you?
Juno knows. Right now, they think I’m a cross between a criminal, a cowgirl and a law officer. Nobody knows which, least of all me.

Confidential note attached to interview report: Subject highly promising operative, just finished a long undercover operation. Independent-minded, relaxed manner, flexible attitude to authority, but stable moral compass and highly motivated.

Despite family background, we consider her well suited to this type of work.


Author Alison Morton, hello and welcome again to WWBB. The last time you visited you spoke about alternate history stories. Let’s dig deeper . . .

How did you find your publisher? How do they treat you? Would you recommend them?
After a lot of research! Although I’d had some encouraging replies and had full manuscript requests from agents and publishers, even from a US agent(!), I’d received replies like ‘If it was a straight thriller, I’d take it on’ and ‘Your writing is excellent, but it wouldn’t fit our list’. I was (am!) passionate about my stories so I decided to self-publish with bought-in publishing services. In the three years I’d been mixing with writers and publishing people, I knew I didn’t know enough to self-publish DIY.

SilverWood Books have been fantastic. They’re real book people, not merely a publishing services company. Apart from editing, registrations, typesetting, design, book jacket, proofing, etc., they provide superb support, advice and continuous consultation, often by return. They offer a community and many opportunities for contacting and networking for their authors. I ran a professional services company for over fifteen years and know the level of customer service required. They exceed my expectations.

Do you start your projects writing with paper and pen or is it all on the computer?
It all starts in my head! The characters come first, then the plot. INCEPTIO has had a long gestation. I was eleven and fascinated by the mosaics in Ampurias (huge Roman site in Spain). I asked my father, “What would it be like if Roman women were in charge, instead of the men?” Maybe it was the fierce sun boiling my brain that day, maybe it was just a precocious kid asking a smartarse question. But clever man and senior ‘Roman nut’, my father replied, “What do you think it would be like?”

Real life intervened (school, uni, career, military, marriage, motherhood, business ownership), but the idea bubbled away in my mind and INCEPTIO slowly took shape.

When I had the story vaguely (and I mean vaguely) outlined, I attacked the nearest unsuspecting PC keyboard. Three months later the first rough draft was finished.
What/who do you draw inspiration from?
Too many adventure and Roman-themed books when younger! Seriously, despite the male-led aspect of much of ancient Roman society, I’m attracted to their notions of honour, service, rule of law, their civic motivation and sheer engineering genius (See excerpt from Monty Python’sLife of Brian!)

The other inspiration is my own six years as a Territorial Army officer. Apart from learning our trade, keeping fit and training hard, going on overseas exercises and deployment, I think the greatest gifts were the camaraderie of a common purpose. That sounds a bit pious, but we had fun along the way and I discovered that soldiers drink as hard as City workers.

Do you have a critique/editor partner?
Oh, yes! And she has the eye of a Roman eagle and the application of a velociraptor. Denise Barnes, who is going to be published in April for a non-fiction book Seller Beware (Biteback Publishing) has been writing a trilogy of novels dating from the 1910s to 2005. A completely different genre, which I think helps both of us. We were nervous Nellies that first time we handed over our babies to each other, but we have gained so much from editing, discussing, support. Now we’re quite brutal and our friendship has deepened.

A word to the wise(!): finding the right critique partner takes a while. It’s like a courtship. Denise and I had been fellow chamber of commerce members for nearly twenty years. When we both ‘confessed’ in her office to writing novels, she invited me to her novel writing group. It was several months later than we did the full manuscript swap.

We have agreed guidelines: honesty, giving guidance from a wish to improve the other person’s work, giving reasons, suspending your own ego, taking it like an adult when it’s your turn.

Promoting is something ALL authors struggle with. How are you managing yours?
The period leading up to publication date was like working in a full-time job! I’m lucky in that many author and non-author friends are supporting me, for instance with a series of blog guest posts on 1 March, publication day.

I started my own blog nearly three years ago on World Book Day knowing I needed to (brace!) ‘build a platform’. But I enjoy blogging and wanted to chart my writing journey so it was huge fun. I have a combined website and blog – a blogsite – which I think is more dynamic and immediate. WordPress lets you add pages for more static information.

Yes, of course, I use Twitter and have a Facebook author page, both of which are essential to promote your book. BUT they are social media, not a promotional channel, so 90% of tweets should be chit-chat/ posting interesting and informative articles and supporting other Twitter friends. On Facebook, you need to have a page for your writing life separate from your main personal account. On the author page, you can be more promotional, but readers mostly like to hear about your writing life, so mix it judiciously.

I have also emailed people direct who have given me their addresses, used our Christmas card list and contacted all my business friends from my hometown. Many have bought tickets for the UK launch. I’ve also had a launch here in France in a local bar (where else!) for the English-speaking expat community and will be doing a mini book tour. As I write for the local Anglophone magazine, my name is already out there. 😉

For me, the principle is to build steadily. Yes, the various launch events and blog tours in March and April will be a terrific start, but ongoing promotion, whether physical or online, will mean ongoing sales.

Why did you write it? (What was the spark that made you put pen to paper?)
This is tricky! The Romans in modern times and my protagonist had been floating around my head for years and years, but as a pleasant daydream/fantasy. I’d played with words most of my life – storyteller, playwright (aged 7), article writer, local magazine editor and translator.

The trigger clicked in my brain one evening in the darkened auditorium of our local multiplex on half-price Wednesday. We were watching a particularly dire film. The photography was gorgeous, the story total crap.

‘I could do better than this,’ I whispered in the dark to my other half.
‘So why don’t you?’
Three months later, I had completed the first draft of INCEPTIO.

Author Alison Morton

Alison Morton grew up
in West Kent and worked as a civil servant in the City of London, dealt in coins
and antique jewellery, head-hunted chief executives, served as a Territorial
Army officer and owned a translation company. She completed a BA in French,
German and Economics and thirty years later an MA in History. She now lives in
France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age
11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started
her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

Excerpt from  INCEPTIO

The boy lay in the dirt in the centre of New York’s Kew Park, blood flowing out of both his nostrils, his fine blond hair thrown out in little strands around his head. I stared at my own hand, still bunched, pain rushing to gather at the reddening knuckles. I hadn’t knocked anybody down since junior high, when Albie Jolak had tried to put his hand up my sobbing cousin’s skirt. I started to tremble. But not with fear – I was so angry.One of the boy’s friends inched forward with a square of white cloth. He dabbed it over the fallen boy’s face, missing most of the blood. Only preppy boys carried white handkerchiefs. Aged around eighteen, nineteen, all three wore blazers and grey pants, but their eyes were bright, boiling with light, cheeks flushed. And their movements were a little too fluid. They were high. I dropped my left hand to grab my radio and called it in. Passive now, the second boy knelt by the one I’d knocked down. The third one sat on the grass and grinned like an idiot while we waited. If they attacked me again, I had my spray.

Keeping my eyes fixed on them, I circled around to the slumped figure lying a few steps away on the grass. Their victim. I laid two fingers on his neck and thankfully found a pulse. After a glance back at his tormentors I bent my face sideways and felt his breath on my cheek. He groaned and his body tensed as he tried to move. A battered, brown felt hat lay upside down by the side of his head of long silver and black hair stiff like wire. He opened his eyes. Dull with sweat and grime, the red-brown skin stretched over high cheekbones showed he had to be an Indigenous. Well, damn. What was he doing this far east, away from the protected territories?
I heard path gravel crunching as Steff appeared through the cherry blossom cloud, driving his keeper’s buggy with Tubs as shotgun.
‘One with a bloody nose, and all three for banning. Tell Chip I’ll do the report as soon as I finish here.’

They herded the three delinquents onto the buggy. Before theyleft, I helped myself to dressings and swabs from the emergency kit in the buggy trunk. I had to get back to their victim. He sat up and put his hand to his head. He shrank back, his eyes full of fear when he saw me. Maybe it was my green uniform, with its park logo and ‘Autonomous City of New York’ stamped on the shoulder.My hand started to throb, but I managed to unscrew the top of my water bottle and gave it to him.

‘C’mon, old guy, drink this.’He lifted his face, grabbed the bottle and drank it in one go. His Adam’s apple bounced above a grimy line on his neck around the level of his disintegrating shirt collar. And he stank. But, right now, he needed my swabs and Band-Aids. Under a diagonal cut on his forehead, a bruise was blooming around his eye to match the one on his jaw. His hand was grazed, with bubbles of blood starting to clot. I cleaned his wounds, speaking calming words to him as I bandaged him up.

‘Okay, let’s get you to the nearest hospital,’ I said, but, as I lifted my radio again, he seized my wrist.‘No,’ he said.

‘It’s okay, there’s a free one, the other side of the park in Kew Road West.’ Which was just as well, as he plainly couldn’t pay private.‘No. Thank you. I’m well. I can go now.’

The anxious look in his dark eyes swung between my face and the safety of the tall trees. I’d have to call in for the Indigenous New York Bureau number. As I spoke to Chip, I looked over the lake at the old wood boathouse on the far side. Beyond the trees behind it, the windows in the red-brick Dutch highhouses along Verhulst Street threw the full sun back. When I turned around, the old man had disappeared.

‘You did okay, Karen,’ Chip said later in his office. ‘Little shits. They’ve been processed and taken to the south gate. I checked with the Indigenous Bureau for reported wanderers, but they had none listed.’ He grinned at me. ‘Jeez, the woman there was so prickly and made me feel like Butcher Sherman.’

Every kid knew from school the Indigenous had been more or less protected until the British finally left in 1867, but that, almost as the door shut, a rogue officer in the new American army ordered the massacre of Sioux and Cheyenne on an industrial scale. A hundred and fifty years on, the Indigenous Nations Council in the Western Territories still reacted like it was yesterday. I was more than pleased I hadn’t had to make that call.

I filed my report among the pile of paper in Chip’s in-basket and thought nothing more of it until, after a tedious week shut in my office at my regular job, I was back on duty in the park the next weekend.That Saturday morning, I changed into my green pants and tee in the locker room and pinned on my team leader badge. The May sunshine would bring out people in droves. I picked up my volunteer’s folder from the wall rack. Hopefully, I was back on meet-and-greet supervising, instead of patrol. I could walk all day in the fresh air, greeting visitors, giving directions, answering park- related questions, laughing with the sassy kids, and helping the lost and crying ones find their parents. I knew every corner of the park from north to south, the history back to Vaux and Olmstead, who’d founded it with a huge grant from the Royal Kew in England.

I hummed a little tune and anticipated the sun on my skin. But all there was inside the folder was a note to report to the park director. What was that about? I’d met him twice before when I’d been awarded commendations, but never seen him around the park itself. Not on weekends.

The sour expression on his face told me I wasn’t here for an award. Chip stood with his back close to the far corner, no sign of his usual jokey grin. I was not invited to sit on the green-padded chair this side of the director’s desk.

‘Miss Brown.’ The director frowned at the sheet of paper in his hand. He looked up. ‘Show me your right hand.’ He spoke in a hard, closed tone.He took hold of my hand and twisted it over, not caring when I winced. He glanced at the purple and yellow skin around my knuckles, grunted and let go.

‘You are dismissed from the Conservancy Corps, with immediate effect. Hand your uniform, ID and any other park property to your supervisor and leave within the next thirty minutes. You have become an embarrassment to the Autonomous City of New York. We cannot stop you as a member of the public entering the park, but you will be watched. That is all.’

I couldn’t believe it. I took a deep breath and grasped the back of the chair.‘But why are you kicking me out? What have I done?’

‘Assaulting a respectable member of the public as he and his friends were quietly enjoying a walk is completely unacceptable. Even more so when drunk.’

‘Drunk? How dare you!’ I was hot as hell with fury. ‘They were all high as kites and attacking a defenceless old Indigenous.’ I took some deep breaths. ‘I did what the training said. I remonstrated with them. I attempted to mediate. I placed myself between them and their victim. It’s all in my report.’ I threw an urgent look over at Chip, desperate for his support. He looked away.

‘Have you quite finished?’ The director looked at his watch.
‘No, I haven’t! The lead one took a swing at me. I ducked. He went for me again, so I hit him on the nose. You know I’m within my rights to defend myself.’ But this was the first time I’d ever had to do it all the years I’d volunteered here. Unlike others, both volunteer and regular, I’d chosen not to carry a nightstick when I was assigned patrol.
‘This interview is finished.’ He nodded to Chip who stepped forward, took me by the arm and ushered me out with a murmured, ‘C’mon, Karen.’
‘What the hell happened there? How can he do that? And I wasn’t drunk. Ask Steff and Tubs. It was eleven in the morning, for Chrissakes!’ I threw my folder on his desk. ‘If it wasn’t so stupid, I’d kill myself laughing.’
Chip shifted his weight from one foot to the other, no grin, his easy fidgeting gone. ‘You bloodied the nose of External Affairs Secretary Hartenwyck’s son. He’s fuming. And Mrs Hartenwyck’s not only on the board of trustees, she’s a major patron of the park.’

I sucked my breath in. Hartenwyck, the second most powerful person in the country. My heart pounded with fear. I closed my eyes and shook my head. He was from one of the old Dutch families, a privileged class who still called the shots even two hundred years after their last governor had sailed out of the harbour in 1813. Even though the British had stepped up from number two position and taken everything over for the next fifty years, the ‘Dutch mafia’ still ran everything today. And I had a British name. I didn’t have a chance.

‘Then they should make sure Junior doesn’t take drugs,’ I said. ‘Or beat up old Indigenous in a public place. The Indigenous Nations Council would wipe the floor with him.’

‘But you can’t produce him to testify.’

‘Steff and Tubs saw him.’

‘They’ve been told to shut their mouths if they want to keep their jobs.’ He looked at me, almost pleading. ‘They’ve both got families, Karen.’

I walked back and forth in front of his desk, waving my arms around, but I sensed it was no use. The decision had been made and Chip was stuck with executing it.

‘So, my four years’ volunteer service and two commendations aren’t worth jack-shit?’

He fixed his gaze on the scuffed door panel directly over my shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’

Heat prickled in my eyes, but I was not going to cry. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I walked out, shut the heavy oak door with supreme control, changed back into my jeans and tee in the locker room and left the staff building, my head up. I threw the green park uniform and ID in a public trashcan. Childish, but satisfying.

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!