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
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
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
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. 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!