July 2, 2019 • No Comments
The selfie craze isn’t exactly new. Back in 1854, André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri, a photographer in Paris, patented a small type of photograph called the carte de visite. This was basically a piece of card with a slightly smaller photo glued to it. The card measured around 2.5 inches by 4 inches and frequently bore the photographer’s address at the bottom. The glory of this new invention was that it was more affordable than previous techniques. Those of modest means could have their picture taken for the first time. We get an intimate view of the working people of the era that doesn’t exist in such variety prior to this period. Many cartes de visites were made for soldiers during the American Civil War.
Here’s one of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1870s. Since pets were also popular themes, he might have also had one done of his raven. A search through the internet will turn up a vast number of cats and dogs, babies, and kids in fancy dress. People really haven’t changed that much.
The popularity of the carte de visite surged when Napoleon III had his card done. Soon all the cool kids were not only getting their own portrait taken, but also collecting the cards of the rich and famous. It was common to display one’s collection of cards and–always a trendsetter–Queen Victoria had an album for photos of her extensive family.
Here’s one of Victoria and Albert:
“[Carte-de-Visite Album of British and European Royalty]” by F. Joubert is licensed under CC CC0 1.0
In the early 1870s, a slightly larger format called the “cabinet card” replaced the carte de visite in popularity.
July 1, 2019 • No Comments
I’m still tweaking this slightly, but here is the first glimpse of Scorpion Dawn. It’s in the upcoming Rogue Skies box set and is the prequel novella to the Hellion House series.
When the prey becomes the hunter
Miranda Fletcher lives in a glittering world of aeronauts and artists, dance cards and dandies, but terror lurks outside the city walls. The countryside is infested with hungry abominations called the Unseen, and a single crack in the capital’s magical defenses invites disaster and death.
When Miranda witnesses a murder, she learns the gates aren’t as secure as the Conclave—the city’s protectors—claim. Despite the danger, it’s a secret the mages fiercely guard. When Miranda and her brother learn too much, the price of the family’s survival is silence.
No one is foolhardy enough to defy the Conclave, much less battle the Unseen. But when tragedy shatters her home, breaking apart bonds of blood and affection, Miranda refuses to turn the other cheek.
Sometimes the smallest creature carries the deadliest sting.
June 23, 2019 • No Comments
I do love this website – when I built it, I asked for a ton of features that the designers worked hard to provide. One key component is the Mooberry Book Manager (authors – if you’re building a website go get it). This allows me to add books as I please, update reviews and pub dates, and change covers as necessary. However, today I was adding books and discovered the latest update had exciting new features that changed the way it worked. Now it’s better and has more control over what appears where, except I had to figure it out. Mission accomplished and life is good but egad it took some poking and prodding.
June 9, 2019 • No Comments
So you want to be a necromancer. As jobs go, there are worse prospects. It’s a niche market with an exclusive but loyal clientele. Pay days may be less than regular, but that’s common with most freelance gigs. Plus, it’s still better than slogging it out as a laboratory assistant for the so-called scientific community. Just ask Igor, who is still trying to file his worker’s compensation claim after the last thunderstorm.
Necromancy is an old profession. The name comes from the Greek nekros, meaning the dead and manteia, meaning prophecy. In other words, necromancy is all about raising the dead and asking them for prophecies. This presupposes the dead are able to divine the future while they are quietly decomposing in their graves. That may seem a stretch, but why not? On one hand, they have nothing else to do. On the other—well, that one fell off. Yeah, there’s a reason necromancers aren’t out there killing it on Wall Street.
Necromancers also claim to have summoned demons to do their bidding. While there is no doubt that demons are more exciting than rudely awakened dead people, this is an expert level maneuver. To prepare for the arduous rituals, adepts practice for months summoning timely pizza delivery, cable TV installers, and teenagers to the dinner table. Only when they are able to command reliable customer service in under ten minutes do they move on to conjuring the forces of darkness. How many survive the attempt is unknown. No doubt a few end up as wizard origami. Those that succeed are definitely barred from doing show and tell at Grade Five career day.
Spoilsports claim necromancy went out of fashion along with witch burnings and the blunderbuss. After all, predictive data modeling looks so much better in an annual report. While that may be true, no software can beat the traditional necromancer for sheer style. Dark robes and glowing sigils are classic and definitely slimming. Custom detailing can be costly, but definitely worth the spend for branding purposes. All the same, choose carefully. Skulls are overdone and don’t get the raven unless you can afford constant dry-cleaning.
If you are serious about a future career in raising the dead, be prepared to entertain a wide variety of requests. Not every job is filled with zest and brimstone. Only fifty percent of clients will ask for a prophecy. Others just want one more conversation with the dearly departed, while a few hire an army of the dead for cinematic purposes. Price accordingly, and be prepared to subcontract cleaning professionals. Zombie armies are unhygienic at best.
So, all you wannabe wizards, are you interested in a profession with a long and fascinating history? Do you like to meet new people with unique (and occasionally demonic) perspectives? Are you a self-starter prepared to work flexible hours? Then necromancy may be for you. It offers the opportunity to work at the cutting and occasionally sacrificial edge. Be prepared to show group leadership skills with your freshly raised dead! Just fill out the attached application and be sure to sign in your own blood.
June 8, 2019 • No Comments
There are so many ways a lady could be deadly without wrinkling her gown. Forget the garter daggers and muff pistols and sword canes in the parasol—those are all terribly stylish but just scratch the surface of potential mayhem. Here are some juicy examples torn from the pages of yesteryear’s headlines:
1. A Fashionable Murder
The New York Times of March 1, 1898, reports that Barotholomew Brandt Brandner, a Parisian visiting Chicago, entered a saloon on State Street only to be murdered by an unknown assailant. Autopsy results showed a concussion, probably from a blow with a liquor bottle. But there was also a puncture that entered the left eye and extended far into the interior of the skull. This was assumed to be caused by a lady’s hat pin. Brandner survived for a week but eventually died from the injury.
Women’s hat pins, while pretty, were sharp steel and usually six to twelve inches long, depending on the style of the hat. Women were well aware of the pin’s potential for self-defence.
2. A Tried and True Method
A true Black Widow, Mary Ann Cotton (née Robson) was born in 1832 in a mining town in the northeast of England. Life in the laboring classes was hard, but enterprising Mary Ann discovered the modern miracle of life insurance. During the course of her forty years, Mary Ann had four husbands (two at once), several lovers, thirteen children, and lots of insurance claims. She was survived by one husband and two children. The estimated number of her victims was around twenty. She was hanged in 1873.
In the age of cholera, gastric fevers, and no refrigeration, stomach complaints were common. So were rodents, and arsenic was a common component of rat poison. Although the sale of arsenic was somewhat regulated, it was still available at the local chemist. Mary Ann brewed in tea, serving unwanted relations until a doctor noticed the body count. Too bad for her, tests for arsenic poisoning were available by the time her final victim was exhumed during the investigation.
Poison has a reputation—deserved or not—as a woman’s weapon. It’s true that the nineteenth century saw a number of cases with wives wishing to be merry widows. However, the amount of hysteria generated by the Victorian press regarding “secret poisoners” makes it sound as if every female forced into a corset and bustle was out for revenge. Then again…
For an excellent biopic of Mary Ann Cotton, check out the mini-series Dark Angel starring Joanne Froggatt.
3. Speaking of Exhumation
Back in the day, medical students had limited access to corpses for dissection. The law of supply and demand gave rise to “resurrectionists,” who dug up the newly dead and sold them to surgical schools. Needless to say, grave robbing is a tedious business and someone was bound to find a way to skip the muddy bits. Why bother with all the midnight shoveling when you could murder someone in the comfort of your own home?
William Burke and William Hare did exactly that in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828, when they killed sixteen people and sold their remains. These deaths gave rise to the term “burking,” or asphyxiating the victims by sitting on their chests. It was a low-tech and largely undetectable means of murder.
However, as so often happens in history, the women are often left out of the story. Helen McDougal, Burke’s common-law wife, and Margaret Hare, wife of William Hare, shared in the crimes. Incredibly, of the four, only Burke was eventually convicted.
4. Heavy Metal
There’s always someone in the crowd who goes for the direct approach. When it comes to lethal historical ladies, no one cuts (or chops) to the chase like Lizzie Borden. It’s a good reminder that a lady’s weapon does need to be dainty, just effective.
Lizzie Andrew Borden was tried and acquitted for the August 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts. Experts and hobbyists alike still debate her innocence and whether her gender impacted the verdict.
For fun, check out Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft for a fantasy interpretation of the case.
5. Fun with Corsets
Corsets or “stays” come in different configurations, depending on the fashion of the day. At the center front is the busk, a slender piece of bone, wood, or other hard material that slides into a pocket of material sewn into the garment. The function of a busk is to keep the corset rigid in order to shape the figure of the wearer. Busks were often highly decorated and given as sweetheart gifts—given the intimate way they were worn, one can only imagine the delicious banter involved.
There is also the suggestion that a small dagger could be slipped into the front of a corset in place of the busk. Although a popular trope, I’ve never been able to find an actual historical precedent for this—probably for good reason. One problem is the hilt sticking out of one’s bodice. Another is the awkwardness involved in drawing a stabby thing that close to one’s face. I leave the option here for consideration, but my money is still on the hat pin for wardrobe weaponry.
June 7, 2019 • No Comments
Here are some truly fascinating clips of real nineteenth-century street life.
This is Manchester in 1901. It looks like rush hour to me.
This is a trip through Paris in the late 1890s. Partway through is a horse-drawn fire truck and a moving pedway!
June 6, 2019 • No Comments
So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?
Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.
This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”
While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.
The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.
Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.
How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.
That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.
As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.
June 5, 2019 • No Comments
Jack the Ripper is a favorite subject for fiction writers for many reasons and the notion that the sinister drama is true ranks high among them. However, we don’t know the killer’s name or occupation, if there were one or several killers, and even the exact number of victims. The number of suspects is staggering. Despite the amount of ink spilled on the subject, the undisputed facts of the crime fill only a slim volume. So why, in a time and place where murders were common, did the Ripper case garner so much public attention?
One might say the media co-created the crime, both intentionally and by reflecting the Zeitgeist of the era. While the residents of Whitechapel were justifiably terrified by the murders, the wider public was served up the villain their imaginations demanded.
The dark side of London fascinates those able to view it from a safe distance. By the time of the Ripper, public hangings, complete with printed confessions sold for a penny, had long been entertainment. Relics of famous crimes were sold in the streets, tourists went to the mental hospitals to gawk, and Madame Tussaud created her waxwork Chamber of Horrors, depicting the true crimes of the day. Plays and novels followed where the newspapers led, presenting melodramatic versions of famous murders—or entirely bizarre urban legends, like Spring-Heeled Jack. On top of this was a fascination with the duality of the human psyche—just before the Ripper’s arrival came Stevenson’s smash hit Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By 1888, the public appetite for Gothic drama was prodigious.
A climate of social unrest underscored this mood. The Ripper murders are generally agreed to begin in April or August of 1888. Scant months before, soldiers mounted a bayonet charge against jobless protesters in Trafalgar Square. In simplistic terms, the incident reflected the deep division between the prosperous ruling class, who lived mostly in the West End districts like Mayfair, and the impoverished areas of the East End, such as Whitechapel. The East End also housed the migratory population of the docks, abused factory laborers, and immigrant populations. Is it any wonder the bogeyman of the day sprung from those desperate streets? The Ripper was a personification of middle-class fears.
And then there were the police. They had been increasing their numbers over the past few decades, but rather than increasing a sense of safety, public attention was fixed on a series of scandals that undermined their credibility. Missteps during the Ripper investigation gave the public ammunition to criticize, and the press lovingly documented every moment of the train wreck.
As mentioned above, one of the difficulties with the Ripper case is knowing when it began and ended. Prostitutes were frequently murdered, and despite general indignation at police inaction, not much ever got resolved. Were Emma Smith and Martha Tabram Jack’s victims, or those of another? They both had violent deaths—Tabram was stabbed 39 times—but were not mutilated on the scale of later victims. It was those breath-taking excesses that signaled something new was afoot, and the press got to work.
Delicious Gothic horror. Simmering social anxiety. An excuse to air grievances against whoever came to hand—corrupt officials, suspicious radicals, unionists, foreigners, and an unpopular and inept police force. Jack the Ripper’s crime spree was an editor’s dream moment, ripe for endless titillation. Crime sells papers, and the presses ran around the clock during peak carnage. With improved printing technology, illustrated depictions of crimes could be reproduced in greater detail than ever before. Concerned citizens worried that such graphic displays might unbalance the minds of readers, much like the complaints about modern video games. Such quibbling stopped no one—the papers kept the Ripper Murders in the public eye as long as they possibly could.
Much of what we know about Jack the Ripper–including the name–came from a series of notes written by Jack to Scotland Yard and the Central News Agency. The true origin of these letters is doubtful, and their timing perhaps calculated to revive public interest during a slump. The grammar and word usage suggest a forger attempting to appear uneducated. Did the press write the letters themselves? It’s a popular theory, and if that’s true, the version of Jack we carry in our imaginations—taunting, cannibalistic, almost cheeky—is a pure fabrication. The media put a face on the most famous serial killer of all time to boost circulation.
Is that what actually happened? As with so much of the case, we don’t know the truth. There is even some uncertainty over who was the last victim—Mary Jane Kelly, or another murdered prostitute. What we do know is that sometime around 1889 the murders stopped and Jack’s audience moved on. In 1890, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared, summing up the public’s troubled self-reflection.
Popular attention is fickle, and even Jack the Ripper couldn’t hold center stage forever. Another fascination was pushing Gothic melodrama aside—the clear-eyed rationality of the consulting detective. While the genre was not new, its popularity rose, giving readers the opportunity to solve crimes from the comfort of their firesides. Times had changed and, after the Ripper’s confounding chaos, certainty, justice, and the ever-increasing power of science held appeal.
It was time to invent a new avatar.
June 4, 2019 • No Comments
June 3, 2019 • No Comments
What do you do when your assassin is supposed to sneak across the rooftops wearing a corset, a bustle, and high heeled boots? Setting stories in historical (or historical-like) settings opens the door to any number of head-scratching issues, and wardrobing is just the start.
Since I’m a history nerd, I want to understand the era I’m drawing from both in terms of events and how people saw the world. The characters who walk through our stories are individuals, but individuals are shaped by the world around them. At the same time, a storyteller needs to find their particular sweet spot between an authentic historical setting and a tale that thrills modern readers. When it comes to creating a strong female protagonist, bridging that gap takes some finesse.
Finding role models for our heroines takes a bit of homework, but it’s possible to find female painters, composers, explorers, scientists, activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, doctors, and everything else in most time periods. All the same, despite some exceptional examples (Anne Bonney, anyone? Elizabeth Tudor? Joan of Arc?) women in past centuries were frequently banished to a supporting domestic role.
In Western European history—I use this as an example as I’m most familiar with it, but it is far from the only source material available—females were legally under the control of their husband or closest male relative, with little agency of their own. Even worse for the novelist, unmarried women of respectable families were not allowed to be alone with a man who was not a relative—certainly not behind closed doors—and never stirred out of the house without a chaperone. This makes it desperately difficult to have your protagonist spy, sneak, or otherwise get up to mischief. There is a reason widows are common in fiction—it was one circumstance that gave women a degree of freedom. Depending on the marriage contract, a widow might inherit an independent income and property of her own. For the first time in her life, she openly enjoyed a degree of self-determination—but only if she had money. Otherwise, marrying again was better than the alternatives. According to some scholars, during the Georgian era one in five women were in the sex trade just to feed themselves.
Find out what challenges a woman would face in a particular time period and to make good use of those barriers. Showing a heroine navigating constraints builds tension and demonstrates how clever she can be. Whether she outwits Society’s gatekeepers, crushes the opposition, or intentionally blows off convention, pushing back against the world around her will show her character. If there are serious consequences for failure, so much the better for the story.
I’ll add one safety tip: when pitting a protagonist against the conventions of her time, zero in on the exact decade if possible. The definition of socially acceptable behavior changed over time, and sometimes more rapidly than one assumes. Most associate the nineteenth century with an elderly and unamused queen, but the 1800s stretched from the Napoleonic era with its see-through gowns and ribald Prince Regent through the corseted and moralizing mid-century and onward to those shocking Edwardian suffragettes. The differences are as acute as those between Carolyn Lamb, Charlotte Bronte, and Emmeline Pankhurst. Masked balls went from scandalous affairs to something holiday-makers did for fun. This all makes sense—we have different attitudes than our great-grandparents, after all. We would expect someone looking back on our own century to know the difference between generations, and so would our protagonists.
Once the time period is nailed down, the next question is how faithfully a story will stick to it. A fast-paced adventure will undoubtedly take the heroine out of the drawing room, possibly with a loaded weapon. How the story world is portrayed is entirely up to the author. If the desire is to paint an environment that grants females more agency than was the historical norm, go for it as long as it makes sense with the rest of the society and culture in the book. If this is historical fantasy, are we talking dragons, dirigibles, or full on wizardry? How action-oriented will our heroine need to be? What are the rules of engagement? Is she alone, or are all the cool girls shooting zombies? These factors become the new normal for the heroine and need to be treated just like every other element of setting and backstory. People are shaped by their environments, their circle of loved ones, and the ideas they’ve absorbed over their lives. No maidenly miss is going to wake up one morning and think, “Yeah, I’m going to go kill people” without a LOT of context. But given the right approach, we’ll believe in her.
A really good example comes from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Brienne of Tarth is a female knight and utterly at odds with her culture’s concept of womanhood. She’s physically capable of combat, trains hard, and walks the talk. But however competent she is, she is ridiculed. Her dream comes at a cost and it’s hard. One reason she works so well as a character because we fully understand what’s expected from her, how she’s departed from that, and what it’s cost her. Although she’s unique, she is entirely consistent with the historical setting Martin has created. As with many of his female characters, Brienne believably checks all the action-adventure boxes, but it’s a bumpy road.
To recap, when writing a heroine who is going against the norms of her historical period, tell us why she’s doing it, what the consequences are, and how she justifies her behavior to herself and others. Most of all, be consistent with her background. If she picks up a steam-powered aether gun, how does she know how to use it? Why does she think it’s okay? Has she done it before and will she do it again? How does she feel about the episode afterward? Is she forced to redefine who she is once the adventure begins? Most of all, tell us her story with as much emotional truth as you can. Then stand back and let her shine.