Opening the Steampunk Toolkit

Emma Jane Holloway
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)

Dangerous Magic

Emma Jane Holloway
November 19, 2013  •  No Comments

The Baskerville Affair is a steampunk fantasy, with all the Victorian atmosphere, fantastic machines, and Sherlockian shenanigans that implies. But it also has a touch of the paranormal, and it’s that magic that plagues and defines the heroine, Evelina Cooper.


Evelina’s mother was Sherlock Holmes’s sister, and from that side of the family she inherits a quick mind and a taste for detection. But her father’s people come from the circus, and they carry a talent for magic in their veins. Gran Cooper taught Evelina the basics, but there wasn’t time for Evelina to learn everything before the Holmes family took her away and sent her to school. There is much Evelina still longs to learn. More than anything, she wishes she could reconcile the world of science and the world of magic, because then she might begin to understand her own dual nature. At the beginning of A Study in Silks, the first book of the series, she has her heart set on attending a women’s college in search of higher learning.


Unfortunately, Evelina can’t simply seek out other magic users. Magic is against the law, and anyone with talent is executed or sent to Her Majesty’s Laboratories as a guinea pig. All kinds of practitioners are treated with equal harshness—there is no difference between the gentle folk magic Gran Cooper taught Evelina and the death magic the sorcerers employ. The laws aren’t about right or wrong, they’re about destroying a power source the ruling Steam Council can’t control. If magic is gone, the common folk have no means to defend themselves or the land.


Folk magic borrows power from devas, or elemental spirits. Most are friendly, although some can be fearsome. Sorcerers don’t use devas, but they do use life force to power their spells—sometimes their own, but usually their victims’. Evelina rightly fears their kind, but before long a mysterious mesmerist named Magnus appears on the scene, wanting to teach Evelina what he knows. Her gut tells her he’s bad news—even if he might be able to give her the answers she longs for, she knows he is just the kind of sorcerer her Gran warned her against.


Unfortunately, knowledge is the one thing that tempts Evelina the most. And though her existing talents allow her to breathe life into Mouse and Bird, her cheeky mechanical spies, before the Baskerville Affair is over she needs stronger magic to defend those she loves. The question is what price she pays for dealing with the dark side of her powers—something Magnus is all too ready to help her to do. He knows she has a rare talent and in too dire a situation to ignore that advantage for long. The question is what—or who—will it cost her before the end?


(Originally published at As the Pages Turn)

The uses of macaroni in fantasy, at least sometimes

Emma Jane Holloway
November 17, 2013  •  No Comments


I’d like to claim that Gandalf visited me in my dreams and bestowed upon me the magic gem of Zod, and henceforth I wove enchanting tales of wonder. Sadly, no. It was more like the lack of enchantment in public school drove me to read under my desk while the teacher was talking. Short of (metaphorically) chewing off my own limb in search of escape, my best option was to stealthily slip away into everything from Alan Garner to Robert E. Howard. If a book had swords I liked it, and when I ran out of stories to read I started writing them. Needless to say, I turned in some curious English essays.

And while that inspired me to dream stuff up, I probably should have paid more attention during physics and chemistry. Then at least I’d be better prepared to write about blowing things up. What I didn’t understand was that even fantasy is made up of information, and one of the pitfalls of telling lies for a living is that there is a limit to how much one can fake it. Characters are inevitably bound by what their creator tells them to do, and if the author is clueless, sooner or later it shows.

For me, this came to a head while writing my trilogy, The Baskerville Affair. The first book, A Study in Silks, was relatively easy—there is magic and derring-do, but the young protagonists are in nineteenth-century Mayfair worrying about careers and courtship because that’s what young folks do. No problem. Book 2 is darker and the physical action ramps up, but we get through it fine. Book 3—the grand finale—was different, because it truly launched into fantasy territory. Major battle scenes. Death sorcery. Crashing steampunk monsters. Airships. Multiple armies. High magic. All very groovy, if you like things that go boom.

I confess, I stalled. It was the first time I’d really tackled battle scenes on such a large scale. Furthermore, I do not have direct experience with earth-shattering cataclysms, unless you count deadlines. So there I was, all my characters staring at me with “what now?” written on their faces. The answer was beer and macaroni, and a lot of patience. The beer was for me. The macaroni was for research purposes.

Maybe I hadn’t been at an apocalyptic battle lately, but I could recreate one in miniature. I needed a tactile, visual way to work out what was happening. Sure, I did some reading about actual battles (navy battles in particular—if you think vertically as well as horizontally, they work pretty well for airships) and the 1830s in Paris is a rich source of detail about nineteenth-century urban rebellion. But the whole thing came together for me when I spread out a map of London and slowly began plotting the action move by move. I’d been to the relevant parts of the city recently, and that helped, but I needed more since I wasn’t actually there during an attack by clockwork monsters. In fact, I’d avoided most of the tourist season altogether.

Beans, pasta, lentils, and chickpeas became my forces. By moving them around the map, I got a far better sense of how my scenes should play out, and especially what would go wrong. Just try getting all those chickpeas–er, steampunk death spheres–across a bridge fast enough to cut off the rebel macaroni.

2013-05-25 22.38.22

The point? Despite what I believed in school, good fantasy requires a lot more reality than one suspects. To make it good, I need plausible details. Sometimes that means research, and sometimes that means thinking a campaign through as if I was really going to fight it. I need to believe in the story, down to the smallest detail. It’s the only way my characters can figure it out. And until Gandalf shows up with some spiffy magic—or more lentils—finding the truth in my fiction will always require curiosity and a willingness to be both serious and absurd. And, occasionally, a lot of work.

So, given the importance of fact to fantasy, would I tell my younger self to get her nose out of that book and pay attention in class? Maybe some, but not completely. The other thing that any writer requires is a fierce desire that will carry a dream from page one to The End, and that doesn’t flourish without a little rebellion. So what if my memories of plane geometry are inextricably mixed with Conan the Barbarian? By Crom, it’s a consequence I’m more than willing to bear.

(originally published at Fantasy Cafe)

Letting go

Emma Jane Holloway
November 15, 2013  •  No Comments


There is nothing quite like looking at a stack of page proofs  and waiting for the courier to take it back to New York. They represent, well and truly, the final finishing touches on a book. I either want to boot them out the door ASAP or clutch them like a nervous parent—my mood changes from moment to moment.


I’m happy to wave bye-bye to the hours of nitpicking typos, but it’s hard to let go of the characters. Every one of them is flawed, but that’s what makes me so fond of them. They try, they fail, but they keep going because they all have heart. Each of the major characters has his or her arc over the course of the three books—and in a world of steampunk, rebellion, and magic, those are some pretty interesting journeys.


To capture the series in a nutshell, the Baskerville Affair begins with Evelina Cooper on the cusp of launching into Victorian High Society. She’s torn between her circus-born father’s world of magic and adventure and her mother’s legacy of wealth, gentility, and—as personified by Evelina’s uncle, Sherlock Holmes—scientific inquiry. Evelina wants the best of both worlds, but most of all she wants the ability to make her own choices. Her struggle to earn that right is the core of her story, whether she’s trying to get a seat in a boys-only chemistry class or duking it out with a dragon.


She has two suitors: Nick, her childhood sweetheart from the circus, and Tobias, her best friend’s brother. Both have huge hearts, but they have their own roads to travel, and Tobias in particular has much to learn. He’s bright, creative, and good looking, but he’s never had to shoulder responsibility.  How he finally comes to grips with the consequences of his actions is one of my favorite things in the series.


Which is why I say, if someone asks what the books are about, the Baskerville Affair trilogy is about people. It’s an ensemble cast far more than a solo act because each person’s quest weaves through the others, helping or hindering as they go. Sure, they have to cope with Queen Victoria and giant caterpillars, thieves, monsters, pirates, mechanical squids, steampunk armies and ballroom courtships—but personalities always make the difference.  One character’s choices—their friendship or their deceit—can make or break the world.


And now I have to let my imaginary friends go find their way onto bookshelves, real and virtual. I hope you find them as interesting as I have!


(Originally published on Literary Escapism)


The Sherlock Factor

Emma Jane Holloway
November 13, 2013  •  No Comments


In case you hadn’t noticed, Sherlock Holmes is back in style. Robert Downey Jr. is reinventing him in movies and there are successful TV revivals coming out of both Britain and the U.S. There are also Holmesian and near-Holmesian versions in the bookstores as well, often with a steampunk flair. The Baskerville Affair trilogy, beginning with A Study in Silks, numbers among them. The sudden onslaught of Sherlockiana does beg the question, why him, and why now?

There’s probably a team of sociologists organizing a symposium on The Sherlock Factor, but I think the answer is fairly simple. Holmes represents rationality. He comes wrapped up in a complicated package that we love to poke at—as characters go, he’s delightfully flawed—but at the end of the day he delivers the bad guys and he manages to do so with a minimum of fuss and bother. He can mix it up when he needs to, but nine times out of ten he’s a scalpel where so many are sweaty, lumbering blunt instruments cluttering up the pop culture scene. He’s a refreshingly suave intellect with a pinch of deviltry and a bundle of interestingly self-destructive habits.

In my series, Holmes is the uncle of my main protagonist, Evelina Cooper. An orphan, Evelina is caught between her father’s legacy of the travelling performers and magic and her mother’s inheritance of wealth, education, and science. When I began writing this story several years ago, I chose the strange and fantastic milieu of the Victorian circus to represent her father’s people and Sherlock Holmes to represent her mother’s. I figured that they were easily understood shorthand for two equal but opposite impulses of the Victorian age—the drive to seek out inexplicable wonders, and the urge to put them under a microscope and make them surrender to rationality. Before her journey ends, Evelina either has to choose between these two paths or find a way to reconcile them. As such, Holmes represents one half of her central conflict—and one that she loves very much.

Although he is a secondary figure in my books, Holmes is an amazing character to work with and fun to see from a young relation’s point of view. He’s Evelina’s odd uncle and a mentor figure. She wants to solve mysteries, too, but she’s not brilliant right out of the gate. He helps her out in A Study in Silks, but eventually she learns to fly on her own. Her uncle is her touchstone and measuring stick and eventually they come to work side by side—although I’ll say right now these aren’t conventional cases. Holmes did say, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Here, Evelina’s talents include magic. The supremely scientific Holmes prefers not to deal with the supernatural, but in a world rife with spirits and spells, he doesn’t pretend it’s not there.

As I was writing this, I did go back and reread much of Conan Doyle’s original Holmes story. The interesting thing about the “real” Holmes is that he admires capable women and has no difficulty giving them a role to play in the investigation. Giving him a niece who is adventurous and smart wasn’t a huge stretch. But one thing that did cross my mind was how Evelina’s would-be love interests must have viewed him. Intimidating or what?

But I think this leads me back to the original question of Holmes’s resurgence in popularity. It’s not hard to make the leap from Conan Doyle’s detective to a modern sensibility. Though a man of his time, he was willing to see women as effective allies or enemies. He was willing to question everything, every authority, every institution to find the truth. Even his existential boredom between cases isn’t out of place in our time. Of all the Victorian icons, he may be the one that’s closest to us. It’s no wonder we’ve invited him into our living rooms again.

(originally published on All Things Urban Fantasy)

A word on A Study in Darkness

Emma Jane Holloway
November 11, 2013  •  No Comments

When you’re talking Victorian steampunk, London, and Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper is never far from the imagination. Fog, twisting alleyways, and one of the most compelling cases in crime history are inevitably bound together.

The second book of The Baskerville Affair trilogy—A Study in Darkness—sees the heroine, Evelina Cooper, go under cover in the worst parts of London only to encounter the famous murderer. She’s alone, trapped, and fighting to save those she loves with nothing but her wits and the scraps of magic at her command. Of course, her uncle Holmes is on the case, too, but neither of them begin to suspect the real identity of the villain—or that the Whitechapel murderer is hardly the most dangerous creature haunting London’s poorest streets—until their future hangs on the edge of the killer’s blade.

When I was writing Darkness, I went to London to see the Ripper’s hunting grounds near the Tower of London. Many of the sites are gone, but not all of them. The tavern where the ill-fated women drank is still there, as is Mitre Square—the scene of Catherine Eddowes’s death—and many of the old brick structures that stood back in 1888. At night, with the cool, damp autumn air nipping at fingers and nose, it’s not hard to imagine the past is a whisper away. And it was just not the story of the Ripper lurking in those shadows, but the thousands of other men and women—the match girls, anarchists, sailors, dock workers, and suffragettes that walked those alleyways. It was a dramatic age, filled with more stories than any author could ever hope to write.

But steampunk is more than history—it’s fantasy, too. As A Study in Darkness takes the action to the streets, it also sails into the clouds with the Red Jack and a crew of airship pirates. I’ll just say that the Indomitable Niccolo has found a whole new level of roguery, and you’d better hang on to your spyglass. He has another chance to win Evelina’s heart, and this time he has a ship and crew to his name. It’s a good day to be a pirate . . . until he lands in the midst of a rebel plot. There are nefarious villains, wicked devices, a sorcerer wielding death magic, and an automaton ballet. At last the players in the Baskerville Affair begin to step into the gaslight, and not all of them are human.

A Study in Darkness is packed with tricks and even more treats for the reader. I thought it was very appropriate that the release date for this book – October 29, was just two days before Halloween!  Could it be any more fitting?

(originally posted on Coffeetime Romance)

Is that a tentacle, or are you just happy to say hello?

Emma Jane Holloway
November 9, 2013  •  No Comments

When asked about the appeal of steampunk, it’s hard to give a serious answer. We’re talking about a group of ingenious folk who adore squids and octopi and parade around with their underwear on display, possibly wearing birdcages on their heads. I love steampunk and everything about it, but I don’t like overanalyzing the phenomenon or its participants. My head might combust.


Not that steampunk can’t be serious, but it’s enormously difficult to define beyond the standard answer of: it’s alternate history (typically Victorian) plus unusual technology (typically steam), often with themes of rebellion (which is where the punk comes in). To try and narrow it down any more than that wouldn’t be wise.


It’s that difficulty of definition that makes steampunk appealing to me. It is whatever you want it to be, and though it got its start in literature (classic authors include Jules Verne), it’s become an endeavor that spans everything from music to furniture making to fashion to iPhone apps. I maintain steampunk is an aesthetic, not a genre, but people tend to roll their eyes and tell me I’m talking like a professor.


So I can only tell you why steampunk appeals to me and let others speak for themselves. First and foremost, it’s cool. I’ve had a wardrobe of semi-Victorian clothing since I was in university and discovered Folkwear patterns (they’re still around at I also absolutely love the fact that so many in the steampunk community are reviving old craft techniques and making just about everything by hand. In a world of shopping malls and throw-away goods, I value quality, unique items made by a person I can name. Call it a rebellion against mass-market culture if you like, but I’m content thinking of it as nifty. I’m also very much in favor of the revived interest in good manners—let’s hope that one spreads!


But back to the storytelling side of things. I’ve steeped in history and literature pretty much since my parents gave me my first book to chew, so writing historical fiction feels like I’ve finally come home. I also love the fact that most steampunk stories are packed with adventurers, pirates, and mad scientists. I live for edge-of-the-chair stories with derring-do and heroism, and here I have the scope to write that. My books have adventure, magic and romance—and my heroine, Evelina Cooper, is Sherlock Holmes’s niece. Of course there is mystery, too!


If the word “steampunk” didn’t exist, I’d call the Baskerville Affair trilogy Victorian fantasy with an ensemble cast. My books are long, but I have four important character arcs to see through by the end of the series, and I don’t cheat readers out of the full ride. In A Study in Silks, my characters start out in the elegance of London’s Mayfair and end up by the time A Study in Ashes comes along as players in a war of magic and machines that tears the Empire apart. Along the way, they have to face the darker sides of their natures and decide just how much they’re willing to risk for the futures—and the people—they desire.


So what’s the appeal of steampunk books? In many ways, they are the same as any other books. There might be flying machines and automatons, historical settings and tea, but all excellent tales are about good and evil and the complexity of the human heart. If you’ve got that, and a few good chase scenes—romantic or by dirigible—what’s not to like?

(originally posted at Books ‘n Kisses)

Flashlight Commentary Interview

Emma Jane Holloway
November 1, 2013  •  No Comments

A really nice interview here:

I wish all interview questions were this thoughtful!

Fashion and the Mad Scientist: Guest post and contest with Shelley Adina

Emma Jane Holloway
October 31, 2013  •  1 Comment

Shelley Adina is the author of the wonderful Magnificent Devices series of steampunk novels. She’s also an excellent writing teacher, just in case you’re lucky enough to be at a conference where she’s teaching. Don’t walk–run to get a seat in the class. Anyhow, she and I observed the other day that we were in good company at the top of the steampunk list on Amazon–after all, we were with each other! And since the reading public has such good taste, we decided it made good sense to introduce ourselves on each other’s blogs.

In addition, we’re running a wee contest. To enter for Shelley’s prize, sign up for her mailing list. The contest will stay open until midnight Pacific Standard Time, Guy Fawkes’ Night (November 5).

Visit Shelley’s blog here.

Fashion and the Mad Scientist

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of a competency is likely to spend some part of it on clothes.


In writing about the steampunk era, one would be remiss in omitting certain aspects of life—such as fashion—even if our female characters are up to their batiste-clad elbows in chemical fluids and bombs. Which my characters often are. In the Magnificent Devices world, society is divided along general lines formed by Wits (those who make their way through intelligence and mechanics) and Bloods (those who inherit their fortunes and who want to keep the status quo). While it is an inescapable fact that the ladies in the latter category do spend the occasional afternoon doing nothing but going to the dressmaker and taking tea, I find that my Wit ladies are possessed of a feminine appreciation for fashion also. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the cut of a well-made skirt or a pretty embroidered waist, even if you are in the laboratory building a firelamp (an incendiary bomb hung beneath a steerable, remote controlled balloon).

I’ve been a costumer since the age of five, and the language of clothes has fascinated me since long before I was able to articulate it. Even then, I knew there was a difference between a blouse with lace insets down the front and a checkered one with a plain shirt collar. The woman who wore one or the other was saying something about herself and her approach to the world.


So, Lady Claire Trevelyan, Alice Chalmers, and the Mopsies (street sparrows Lizzie and Maggie) are very different characters, but their personalities are emphasized on the page by the clothes they wear. In Lady of Devices, book one, Claire forgets to go to the dressmaker altogether, and has to appear at her graduation in a hastily made-up dress that is too low in the décolletage and makes her very uncomfortable. By the end of her four-book cycle, she is wearing ballgowns with confidence, ease, and an eye for detail. Why this change? Because she has gained confidence in other aspects of her life—her mind, her talent for engineering, her ability to approach others as an equal—and this shows in her confidence in her own femininity.

Alice Chalmers is an engineer with a hardscrabble childhood in the deserts of the Texican Territory. She spends most of her time in overalls and a flight jacket, and her first experience with a corset is, shall we say, not the best. She has been hiding her femininity for years, and in future books will have to develop the same kind of confidence in herself that will allow her to embrace that side of her personality.

In steampunk, we give women a voice—and in using fashion both inside and outside of the laboratory, that voice may be subtle, but it is every bit as distinctive and assured as our characters are.


About the author

RITA Award® winning author and Christy finalist Shelley Adina wrote her first novel when she was 13. It was rejected by the literary publisher to whom she sent it, but he did say she knew how to tell a story. That was enough to keep her going through the rest of her adolescence, a career, a move to another country, a B.A. in Literature, an M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction, and countless manuscript pages.

Shelley is a world traveler who loves to imagine what might have been. Between books, Shelley loves playing the piano and Celtic harp, making period costumes, and spoiling her flock of rescued chickens.

Latest release:


You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family … or can you?

Now sixteen, the twins Lizzie and Maggie are educated young ladies who have not been called “the Mopsies” in years … except by their guardian, Lady Claire Trevelyan. With the happy prospect of choosing their own future, the girls can leave their dodgy past behind, and Lizzie can bury her deepest childhood memories where they can do no harm. Upon her graduation from school, Lizzie is awarded an enormous honor—but can she pay the price? Is she ready to be separated from Maggie and become the woman she believes she was meant to be—or will old habits tempt her into defiance and plunge her into disaster?

On a dare, Lizzie picks the wrong man’s pocket and nearly loses her life. But these frightening events bear unexpected fruit: The dream Lizzie holds closest to her heart comes true in a most unexpected way. But this dream, too, comes with a price. Lizzie must decide whether her true family is the one she was born to … or the one she chose that long-ago day when the Lady of Devices steamed into their lives …


Talking about A Study in Darkness

Emma Jane Holloway
October 26, 2013  •  2 Comments

I’m over at Coffeetime Romance chatting about A Study in Darkness (and giving away some really cute earrings)