December 9, 2013 • No Comments
Watch the steampunk panel from NY ComicCon 2013 here.
• 2 Comments
December 5, 2013 • 3 Comments
As A Study in Silks begins, Evelina Cooper and her best friend, Imogen, have recently left school and are about to embark on their first Season in high society. It’s 1888 and, while there are more options available to women than before, a young girl of good breeding was still supposed to find a respectable husband and provide an heir. So, between murder, magic, and troublesome automatons, Evelina and Imogen have to deal with suitors. Not that our young ladies are averse to dashing beaux, but it’s a little hard to find the time.
Even without adventures, the nineteenth-century debutante had a lot to cope with. The longed-for moment that marked the change from schoolgirl to young woman came when one was presented to the reigning monarch—in this case, Queen Victoria. This was an elaborate, invitation-only ceremony that usually happened around Easter. The importance of the presentation diminished over the century, but it was meant to be the sign that a young lady was admitted to Society and was fit to wed a gentleman. The current crop of debutantes was sure to receive invitations to balls, parties, and musicales and to be the focus of Society’s attention—and the prettiest (or richest) would be spoken for by the time the fashionable set retired from London for shooting parties in August.
As the Season drew near, the Lord Chamberlain carefully reviewed the list of eligible young women, striking those with any hint of scandal from the list. Once he was done, the queen would go over it again. Once she was satisfied, the invitations went out—but an invite was only the first requirement. A debutante also needed a sponsor, a lady who had herself been presented and could vouch for a young girl’s character. Usually this was a mother or aunt, but it could also be a friend of the family.
But once the sponsor was in place, there was shopping to do—not just for party clothes, but for the ceremony itself. The Lord Chamberlain issued a list of requirements for the proper attire, down to the dimensions of the dress’s train. The gown had to have a low neck, little to no sleeves, and should be white for unmarried girls. The regulation headdress was three white feathers—which were apparently difficult to keep in place. The presentee was required to curtsey just so and kiss the queen’s hand, then back away without tripping on her train. I’ve often wondered how many had nightmares about falling on their bustles in front of the entire royal court!
Needless to say, there was an industry dedicated to coaching young women through the ordeal. Fortunately for our heroines, their finishing school (zombies aside) would have covered the proper etiquette in their lessons.
But for Evelina the glitter and fluff of the Season only lasts so long, and then murder interferes. As A Study in Silks unfolds, the lure of a springtime of dancing and parties fades as her eyes are opened to threatening new prospects. The Baskerville Affair trilogy is a steampunk fantasy, in which fantastic inventions, sorcery, and romance all play their part. Evelina’s uncle, Sherlock Holmes, has his role as well—but not even he can protect her from the discoveries she needs to make before the game is done.
(originally published at Melissa’s Mochas and More)
December 3, 2013 • No Comments
Recently, another talented writer asked me how I went about plotting my work.
Okay, so I just heard the resounding thud of readers falling from their chairs, stunned insensible with boredom. I know there is nothing quite as obnoxious as writers going on and on about their craft, as if they actually thought about what they were doing instead of just geeking out at a keyboard and calling it art. This won’t be painful I PROMISE.
Yeah, right. Just bear with me.
Plotting. Sure, I own a host of books on the craft of writing. By virtue of owning them, I know I’m already smarter. Someday I’ll even read them cover-to-cover, and then watch me rock the metaphorical niceties of the Jungian subtext! I’ll be all over that next book.
But right, plotting. I’m a traditionalist, fond of a beginning, middle and end. As far as the theoretical framework around story structure—which is where writers start talking about Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery, the hero’s journey, saving the cat, and all the rest of those techniques—I like all of them just fine. They’re valuable tools, and I believe a good writer has a few at his or her fingertips. The trick is finding a good fit for your material and knowing when to use which model.
My story follows a more mythic structure, although it is more shamanic than strictly hero quest (and if you don’t know what that means, that’s okay because half the time I don’t either). I write character-focused books and tend to use more of an ensemble cast than just one or two main protagonists. The Baskerville Affair trilogy has a mystery/adventure plot arc that is resolved at the end of each volume, but the whole story unfolds over the entire series. Evelina, the heroine, has to face her shadow self and master that side of her nature. We see glimmerings of this in A Study in Silks, but it ramps up in A Study in Darkness. The fate of nations literally hangs on her choices, and the weight of it threatens to break her.
Like reflections in a mirror, each of the other players faces their own dark side at different points in the tale—and this might happen literally, metaphorically, or magically. Some pass the test. Some stumble and redeem themselves. Some fail—with interesting consequences. While the outer conflict of political upheaval moves in lock step with the main character’s inner struggle, the other character arcs weave within the larger story of revolution and war. Add mystery, romance, steampunk armies, magic and things that go boom and splat. That’s the works in a nutshell. It’s a steampunk fantasy.
From a bird’s eye view, it’s a fairly simple construct. From the worm/author’s eye view, it’s less elegant. I make copious maps, sticky notes, charts, drawings with arrows and color-coded thingies, and usually I end up tacking a large piece of newsprint to the wall and covering it in scribbles and sticky notes. At some point I’ll probably transfer it all to a spreadsheet, give up and return it to the wall. Sadly, no plot survives unchanged after first contact with the keyboard. Quite a few chapters perished in the making of this trilogy.
I can point to the places where I followed this writing technique or another—or simply strode into the bog with more will than wisdom—but some episodes are better left behind the curtain. Only my editor knows, and let me tell you she does love her colored pencils. But really, despite how clever authors are trying to be, the only thing that matters is whether readers (and authors) have a good time.
(originally published at Ramblings from This Chick)
December 1, 2013 • No Comments
Temptation wears many faces, and the Victorians were quick to point out (rather gleefully at times) all the ways a young girl could go wrong. Reputations could be ruined in an instant, based on little more than a careless word or a minute spent alone with a man in a closed room. Ruin could mean anything up to being cast out penniless on the streets.
In A Study in Silks, my steampunk heroine, Evelina Cooper, is all too aware of what a misstep might cost her. Her position in Society is by no means assured, and the fact that she knows how to work magic—a crime punishable by public execution, if she’s is lucky—means she’s extra paranoid. But temptation keeps leaving her calling cards like a persistent salesman.
First, because she is a pretty young woman of marriageable age, there are suitors. One is Tobias—handsome, clever, rich, and heir to a title. He’s the flashy sports car model—breathtaking, but not really practical. And then there is Nick, her childhood sweetheart and a performer with the circus where Evelina spent her childhood. He has all the street-smarts and passion a girl could want, but whenever her magic and meets his, the results are about as subtle as a poltergeist on amphetamines. That’s all too dangerous when one is trying to hide rogue talents from the authorities.
But where Evelina can (mostly) resist the lure of romance, she has her future to think of. Security was a powerful motivator during a time when people literally starved in the streets. She may not be dazzled by money, but she’s been poor and knows all too well what hunger means. It was around this time that the Salvation Army was first established because the living conditions in some parts of London were so dire. Marxists, anarchists, and trade unions were active as well, each trying in their own way to alleviate the suffering. The streets of nineteenth-century London were a volatile place to be. They were, after all, the playground of Jack the Ripper.
But what she wants even more than pure safety is the kind of independence and intellectual freedom her uncle, Sherlock Holmes, enjoys—a faint hope for an unmarried woman of modest means. Lucky for her that this is a steampunk world, and she’s inherited dual talents for magic and science. And this is where Evelina does falter. When the sorcerer Magnus offers to teach her how to use her magic to full advantage, she wavers.
Unfortunately, Magnus is tainted by death magic and is exactly the type of practitioner she has been taught to revile. But he might hold the solution to all her troubles, if only she would consent to learn what he has to teach. The price wouldn’t be high—possibly just her soul. But in the end, what wouldn’t we pay for self-knowledge? For freedom and the chance to chart our own course in the world? The worst demons, the worst temptations, are always within ourselves. Over the three books of The Baskerville Affair, this is Evelina’s struggle.
(originally published at Urban Fantasy Investigations)
November 29, 2013 • No Comments
Once in a while I step back from a character I’ve created and wonder how they’d fare in the real world. The heroine of A Study in Silks is a case in point. Evelina is a capable young woman but she spends a great deal of her time prodding dead bodies and chasing monsters of both a magical and mundane nature. One side of her family is circus performers and the other is Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. It’s all very exciting, but hardly a practical lifestyle.
And while Evelina can spend all three books of The Baskerville Affair trilogy larking about with sorcerers, steam barons, lost princes and dragons, does she have what it would take to endure a desk job? What job could she hope to get if plucked out of her Victorian, steampunk universe?
Name: Miss Evelina Cooper
Address: Hilliard House, London
- Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies, recent graduate. Areas of special accomplishment include chemistry, botany, and returning zombies to the grave.
- Spent several years learning clockwork repair and maintenance as an informal apprentice for grandfather’s business.
Previous work experience:
- Ploughman’s Paramount Circus: tightrope, trapeze, tumbling.
- Assistant to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.
Additional skills and accomplishments:
- General magic with particular talents in communication with and manipulation of nature spirits.
- Successfully achieved fusion of magic and mechanics.
- Skilled in the waltz, quadrille, Schottische, and other ballroom dances.
The formal work experience is a bit thin, but there might be something out there for our girl. Sure, she has experience working with a master of detection, but as she rapidly discovers during her first murder investigation, the whole crime-fighting gig isn’t as neat and tidy as Dr. Watson makes it sound in his stories. Still, there’s always private security.
If that doesn’t work out, I suppose someone versed in combining magic and machinery would make an amazing barista, and I’ve always thought a touch of wizardry was essential for working with computers. Perhaps laying zombies to rest might come in handy for human resources?
Of course, I didn’t create my characters for the here and now, but for a larger than life universe filled with unimaginable wonder and steampunky goodness. Maybe it’s just safer to leave the door between fact and fiction closed. I wouldn’t want to find out one of my characters just became my day job supervisor. After all I put them through during the trilogy, I shudder to think what they might put on my performance appraisal.
(originally published at Smart Girls Love SciFi)
November 27, 2013 • No Comments
Long ago I firmly decided against zombies, because they are unhygienic and terrible conversationalists. Furthermore, one cannot invite them to a book launch party because they drink all the champagne and then eat the serving staff. Writer friends of mine have had bitter experience with a number of celebrated hotels that will no longer take their calls. So no, I do not write about zombies. Much. If one does squelch onstage unbidden from time to time, I ensure it is tossed out before the canapés arrive.
Zombies might be about the only thing I refrain from writing about—much—since my mission as a writer seems to be raiding the genre supply closet to see what goodies I can find. In that regard, I’m much more a Frankenstein girl. I’ve never seen the problem with helping myself to whatever I need to create some brave new literary monster.
A scene at the supply closet might unfold in the following manner:
Author: Hand me that mechanical squid.
Author: And the aether rifle. And the goggles.
Editor: (despairing tones) Why?
Author: I have a ballroom scene. Trust me, it’s all good.
Perhaps I am wearing (metaphorically speaking) mystery shoes, a fantasy handbag, and a hat from the comedy shelf—but never without purpose, and never without striving for style. If I introduce a loaded automaton, you can be sure I will employ it before the last page—though it might not be in the expected fashion. A Study in Silks is the first of the Baskerville Affair trilogy, and that means that there is room to develop a great deal of satisfying mischief.
Mixing it up is a time-honored tradition. Many books with a steampunk flavor cross genres, and authors writing before mass market was even a concept—Stevenson, Dumas, and Collins to name a few—just got on with the business of good storytelling. They were inventing genres, not trying to stay within self-imposed lines. Readers seemed to like that modus operandi well enough that now those works bear the designation “classic.” No arguments there.
For me, any successful story—whatever its elements—is driven by characters. I remember personalities—Milady or Monte Cristo or Mr. Rochester—and the more complicated they are, the better. A cast of blandly likeable people has no place on my reading shelf, nor does a universe that works like a dispensing machine, consistently matching right action with rewards. I’d rather have zombies! Or perhaps those likeable drones are the zombies?
Give me real people. It’s possible to be heroic and still make a mess of things. The best efforts can still end in disaster. Villains might inadvertently—or even intentionally—show compassion. Give me a story where characters walk through hell before the end of the road, presuming they come through at all. Give me a story that makes me worry a little so that I’m eager to keep on reading.
My primary goal is to write a cracking good adventure that will entertain. I want to summon characters that people will remember and care about long after the cover is closed. That is far more important to me than checking the boxes that say “this is mystery” or “this is romance.” All the reader needs to know is that I’m doing my best to keep them in their comfy chairs, book in hand, even though their tea has gone cold and the windows have darkened. Dinner can wait. Just throw another zombie on the fire and start the next chapter.
(originally published @ Suvudu)
November 25, 2013 • No Comments
I’m truly glad I’m in charge of a fictional universe, because even with the heady thrill of story-telling as a motivator, an entire world is a lot to keep track of. Like most writers, I fall between plotting and sailing into the mists, but I’ve found writing arcs that extend over several books has forced me to look at how I approach planning.
A common way of beginning any story is with a character. Someone walks into my head and starts pestering me to tell their story. Or, I get a flash of a scene that tempts me closer for a second look. If my interest is snagged, I then start building a story, then a book, and then more books. In essence, I’m working outward from a germ of an idea.
But this is certainly not the only approach. It’s also possible and sometimes more effective to work the other way around—from the outside down to the core idea—in order to maximize the story universe’s potential. I do this in three stages: the world, the conflicts, and the characters.
As soon as I get hooked by something, I take a breath and look at the big picture. It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid plotter or not—this is just a landscape check. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but it does pay to spend at least a little time here. Look at the world your character lives in, including all the usual points of setting: the time period, the geography, the way of life, and so on.
Then—and this is the layer at least I tend to forget—look at the specifics of your character’s environment. For instance, not just “Napoleonic France” but “the tiny village of XX just outside of Paris, at the south end of the street down by the river.” Note details such as the individual businesses right in your character’s neighborhood. Is there a school? A corner store? A factory? A church? A space station? You might think that it’s far too soon to contemplate details like this—you don’t need the church until a marriage scene in book three—but I think it’s worth putting a pin in the map just to note it’s there. After all, your character lives in a community, and a church or factory or school is significant to the people nearby. The type of factory, church or school says something about the place and the folks in it. Even if it isn’t important to them, that says something, too.
Why am I obsessive about this? Character psychology—and it’s far easier to think about this right from the beginning rather than retrofit later. The community your characters spring from says a great deal about their world view. They walk on stage with a set of assumptions about life that had to come from somewhere, and home and family are universal drivers for everyone—real or fictitious. And more than just their own family matters—what are the expectations of that small town they grew up in? Their in-laws? The snobby mayor? And if your character refuses to be influenced by the community he or she lives in, usually that means expending energy on denial.
It’s all grist for the story mill, and a novel takes a lot of milling. A series takes even more. If you build a really good, rich world with well-rounded characters from the start, a bit of care up front will build a detailed environment that will support as many books as you want to set there. After all, we could all name a few story worlds that readers love so much they read and reread stories just to visit. It’s attention to detail and layers of emotional complexity in the setting itself that makes these imaginary places concrete and satisfying.
Once I’ve familiarized myself with the world around my character, I start looking for lines of conflict. Every community has them—economic, ethnic, religious, familial, or political. Perhaps the school hates the factory, or the football team hates the lawn bowlers. Maybe the little green men despise the tall blue aliens—it’s up to you and your protagonists. Conflict drives every story, and it pays to know where those tensions are, even if they remain in the background at first.
Which brings me back to that first flicker of inspiration. If you’ve taken an evening to go through this exercise, when you sit down to talk to the character yammering in your head, or if you return to that vignette that popped up like a YouTube video in your daydreams, you have some context for it. At this point, what you’ve done does not have to be more than medium to broad strokes, but you should have a sense of (a) the world your characters came from and (b) the tensions driving that world.
This may seem like common sense, but it’s all too easy to skate over the surface during those early adrenaline-fuelled chapters. We might know, for instance, that during the time period of XXX war, King A was fighting King B over trade rights, but we’ve not drilled down enough to understand the salt merchants were upset with the brandy runners, and that tore our hero’s town apart along family lines. It might never have occurred to us to think that far until we got to chapter eight, and by then we’ve missed a dozen opportunities to crank up the story tension whether or not we’re writing from an outline. And, all too often, we run out of gas a few chapters in when we get past the introduction and stall at “what next?” Knowing the deep roots of your conflicts will get you through.
And then there is our cast of characters. Once you’ve identified the underlying conflicts in your story world, you’ve got a good start on the goal, motivation and conflict of your people. What issue is your protagonist facing? Are all your point of view characters on the same side? Are some double agents or tricksters? What about your love interest? This is a great place to start planning multiple books, because how you position your characters in relation to the story world and its conflicts—and how the characters clash with each other—is where you build your plot. Resolving one collision should lead to another, and another. Character decisions make stories, and how well you set up their challenges determines how easy the book will be to write. You don’t need to plan the whole game, but you do need to start with a really interesting chess board. The rest will follow.
Again, this is a zooming-in approach: world, conflict, characters. It doesn’t have to nail down all the plot or every last detail, but it should sketch in enough to give strength to your vision. Your characters aren’t moving against a blue screen but a Technicolor set, making choices that are integrated with the world around them. This inevitably adds layers and nuances that make a story memorable.
Which is only the beginning of the payoff. Everything I’ve talked about here can be done in an evening or a weekend, but the benefits are endless. Books are like journeys—the longer or more complex the road, the more effectively the author needs to pack. Multiple-book arcs are a case in point—that little glimmer of inspiration needs a lot of fuel to grow into a mighty series engine.
And if you’re writing a series, your story community and its dynamics will need to be all the more thoroughly fleshed out. Knowing where the conflicts lie enables the author to foreshadow future plot points, perhaps books ahead of time. There is plenty of opportunity to shape and control an extended story arcs, plant themes or objects for later use, and ensure new developments flow naturally from the landscape.
None of this negates that heady rush when a great idea pops into your mind, begging for attention. This is merely feeding that spark some kindling so that it catches hold and starts to burn steadily on its own. Establishing community, conflict, and character relations from the beginning will solidify and support a great idea through one or more books. Best of all, taking the time to build a compelling story world ensures that readers will want to return that neighborhood time and again. Why work up to being fabulous when you can be there from the start?
November 23, 2013 • No Comments
One might say that Dr. Watson made me do it.
The inspiration for A Study in Silks came to me years ago, long before I’d heard the word “steampunk.” It crept up the way stories so often do, unrolling in my mind like an impromptu movie. What made this episode different was that I actually wrote the scene down: Sherlock Holmes’s niece meeting Dr. Watson in a tea room and demonstrating a marvelous clockwork toy. I was thinking of a YA story at the time, but I never got around to finishing it.
Of course, ignoring these little inspirations can be asking for trouble. Left to their own devices, they come crawling out of the primordial ooze of the imagination much bigger and more insistent for being ignored. What began as a nice little YA mystery emerged as a full-blown adult steampunk trilogy, complete with murder, mayhem, and airship pirates—not to mention ballrooms, dance cards, and a bevy of suitors. The heroine isn’t a schoolgirl any more, but a young woman about to launch into her first Season.
What remained from my first draft is that Evelina Cooper is the niece of Sherlock Holmes. He plays a supporting role, but the focus is on Evelina and her friends. We’re still in the late 1880s—the era of bustles and top hats, not to mention Jack the Ripper. And Evelina is still a genius with clockwork, but now she’s equally talented with magic.
As the story grew and developed, so did the conflict in the stories. Evelina is caught between the impoverished circus of her youth and the glittering social world of Mayfair. She has enough brains and courage to guide her steps between the two, but her greatest vulnerability is her heart. Nick is a dashing performer from the circus and her childhood sweetheart, and Tobias is the clever, creative heir to a title and estate. Both tempt her, but both could destroy her future. And when Evelina’s suitors are forced to make their own life-altering choices, the depth of their love undergoes a painful test.
As the series progresses, the outbreak of war between sorcery and machine pushes their loyalties to the limit. None of the characters come through unscathed. The Baskerville Affair trilogy is an adventure filled with fantasy, magic, and, yes, mystery. One can’t bring Sherlock Holmes into the picture without puzzles to solve.
And where there is Holmes, we find Dr. Watson. He’s still smirking at me for finally finishing this story so many years later, so much bigger and more complex than I’d ever imagined. I can see him jotting on his prescription pad: take three volumes and call me in the morning.
(originally published at Romantic Times)
November 21, 2013 • No Comments
With steampunk, the answer to everything is “maybe.”
Is steampunk set in the Victorian era? Yes, unless it’s not.
Does steampunk include the paranormal? No, unless it does.
Is it full of futuristic technology? That depends on what you consider “futuristic.” If you’re in 1888, the answer is probably yes.
What I can say with certainty is that writing steampunk requires a broader toolkit than some other genres. Not only is one dealing with the usual considerations of a good book—fascinating characters, a tight plot, and so on—but there is typically more worldbuilding, more technology, and a historical element to cope with. But happily, steampunk is new enough that audience expectations are wide open. It mixes science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and adventure stories with wild abandon. If you enjoy coloring outside the lines, this is a great place to play.
Despite all the “maybes” above, steampunk usually involves a nineteenth century setting showcasing alternative clockwork or steam technologies. Often there is a theme of social rebellion involved (hence the punk part of steampunk). And just as a paranormal story needs to explain its supernatural elements, among the first questions that need to be answered for the steampunk reader is where the technology fits in and/or who is rebelling against what and why. In many cases this sets the backdrop for the overarching story conflict.
If an author is going to include steampunk AND a paranormal element, they need to bring both onstage in an organized fashion, as well as individual conflicts, romance, character arcs etcetera. This procedure can be equivalent to stuffing an octopus into a teacup, with story tentacles going every which way. The only encouragement that I can offer is that the more thoroughly the worldbuilding is worked out, the easier these various elements can be integrated. This is one of those cases where some work up front designing your story world in detail will pay off once you start typing. Good planning is everything. As my trilogy, The Baskerville Affair, has a number of tentacles both steamy and magical, I speak from the heart on this one!
In a world where technology is showcased, the author is obliged to talk tech in order to integrate it properly into the story world. I found this by far the hardest leap. How would a mechanical squid work, anyway? Anyone who knows me is well aware I’m hopeless around mechanics, going cross-eyed and hazy when confronted with automotive emergencies. Anything more complicated than a zipper gives me pause.
I confess, gentle readers, that I cheated horribly in some places. Airships in particular are tricky beasts to justify in terms of actual physics, and in order to do what I wanted I think I would have needed a hydrogen balloon the size of a small city. The magic airship I introduce in the second book, A Study in Darkness, was an easy way around the problem. However, I didn’t want to fudge every piece of steampunkery I invented. This meant research, asking people who understand those strange greasy shaped under the automotive hood, and just thinking about how steam technology could have actually been used. Truthfully, a lot of it wasn’t very practical but its shortcomings are great fun to explore, too. And I actually learned some nifty things. Ever heard of a Faraday suit?
And then there is the history part of steampunk. Here I’ll speak out as Emma the Reader, who like any consumer has her quirks and bugbears. When I’m reading any book with historical elements, I can slide past a few factual hiccups—I’m basically a nice person, and I try not to be a snob about these things—but a host of history faux-pas and clichés will throw me out of a book. The late nineteenth century is not the Regency. The two eras had some things in common but they were no more the same as 2013 is the same as 1943. If I get frustrated enough, I need to stop reading.
Historical accuracy is an area where it’s easy to shine. It’s one of the few areas of writing where there is a definite right or wrong answer. Take the easy win! And if you’re going to veer away from fact to enrich your steampunk worldbuilding, do it in a way that fits logically with the rest of your story premise. Your readers will love you for it.
It’s possible to drone on and on about this stuff (and I’m sure folks will tell you that I do), but I’ll stop there. First and foremost, steampunk is fun to read, and so it must be fun to write. For me, that means adding a dash of comedy to the mix—because how can a genre that has taken the octopus as its mascot take itself too seriously? And, it means reveling in the sheer energy this new genre has going for it. Steampunk—mystery, romance, and all the rest—is more than the sum of its parts. I feel absolutely privileged to be able to dig in and enjoy the ride.
(originally published at Reading Urban Fantasy)