October 25, 2019 • No Comments
I’m fascinated by cosmetics from past ages and cultures. Since the Georgian Age is one of my particular interests, I’m naturally intrigued by their makeup. The sensibility is so distinct, it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. It’s not that I want to replicate the look. To me, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Goth and Barbie.
Rather, the attraction lies in the conflict between beauty and corruption. In the eighteenth century, painting one’s face was an artifice that only the wealthy could indulge in. The major exception was the demimonde, who catered to the appetites of the monied class. Needless to say, most of their careers burned bright and brief, until drink, pox and hard living had their way.
The white and pink face was meant to capture the unspoiled looks of youth. Sadly, the cosmetics of the day were poisonous. The more a person painted, the more their natural good looks would be damaged. Some of the ingredients in common use were lead, mercury, and arsenic. Eventually, that stuff could kill you.
Here’s a thankfully toxin-free version of “the look” from a respected source:
October 18, 2019 • No Comments
Almost every historical novel has a scene set around the local coaching inn. Because people came and went there, it was a natural place to meet an exciting stranger. Like a train station or a harbor, it’s filled with the possibility of far-away places.
Similarly, important characters drive signature vehicles, whether they’re rakes or rectors. No Jane Austen dowager is complete without her smart carriage.
It’s important to get vehicles right when creating a historical novel, so I was very happy to find this video about old coaches:
October 9, 2019 • No Comments
The Hellion House series (the first installment, Scorpion Dawn was introduced in the Rogue Skies box set) involves a great many floating objects. The plot centers around the Fletcher family, who own one of the largest and wealthiest airship fleets in the city. Besides being nifty, the airships serve an important purpose in their adventure.
Don’t leave home without one
Haunted by hungry creatures, the wilderness is extremely dangerous. Humanity has been driven into walled enclaves. No one dares to travel outside the city on horseback, much less on foot. The only options are by water—which is extremely risky—or by airship.
How does humanity retake the countryside from lethal foe? The only way to find allies and solutions is to look outside the city, and the only way reach new friends is through the clouds.
There’s money in the sky
The patriarch of the family, Norton Fletcher, wields considerable social influence. Fletcher Industries has made the family rich and respected even though the founder is a commoner who came from nothing. But every success comes at a cost. Who will pay it?
October 8, 2019 • No Comments
Break out your saucepans, drill bits, and knitting needles—the latest trend is to do-it-yourself like our grandparents did. With so much information online, it’s easier than ever to find instructions on everything from dollmaking to drywall. Or for those seeking to connect with actual humans, knitting circles and crafting afternoons are trending. Still others may not dive into fray themselves, but appreciate the individual craftspeople and small businesses in their local community. And then there are those—like Ren Faire and Steampunk enthusiasts—who take the entire business to extraordinary lengths. The reasons for embracing DIY vary, but there are common themes: environmental concerns, stretching a dollar, and personal creative expression.
Ever heard of a repair café? This is a growing trend where, for a few hours, the public can bring everything from wonky toasters to ripped shirts to a room full of volunteers. There, crafters will teach the skills needed to make their wounded possessions whole again. Besides providing a boost in confidence, learning basic repair skills is good for the pocketbook and the landfill.
The DIY philosophy doesn’t stop with repairing zippers. These days, “artisan” or “craft” products are in vogue, along with farmer’s markets, pottery shows, and fancy micro-brews. As with all trends, results vary from delightful to silly, but the movement speaks to a need. Consumers want options beside the anonymous experience offered by the big box store.
Why? For some, the pull is purely emotional. With the move toward mass production, we lost the experience of having a unique item made just for us. There’s a world of difference in a custom-knit sweater versus something bought at a warehouse store. On the flip side, there’s the creative experience of making something for another person—every stitch or stroke of the brush is an expression of pride, affection, and the personality of the giver and receiver. Family recipes and workshop war stories are made of this.
For others, DIY is a simple way to protect the environment. Our throw-away culture has generated mountains of waste, so whatever can be repaired, reused, or created without tons of packaging is better for the planet. Along the same lines, whatever food we grow or make from scratch is tastier and more nutritious than a frozen meal shipped across the planet in a plastic tray.
And while DIY saves money by extending the life of a toaster, that’s not the only economic impact. Buying from other local independent crafters means supporting the economy close to home. We can stretch our dollars by learning to do things ourselves, but when we do shop, we can vote for quality, creativity, and our home community—so go ahead and buy the delicious cinnamon rolls at the farmer’s market. You’re preserving someone’s job.
Then there’s independence. It’s one thing to opt for convenience, and quite another to be helpless because we don’t know how to sew on a button or hang a picture. Surprisingly—or maybe not—there have been a number of recent reports about a loss of manual dexterity in young people who don’t grow up measuring ingredients, sewing, or building things in their dad’s workshop. This is causing problems for those entering the trades or even medical school.
So call up Grandpa and ask about learning to tie flies, or get some bread-baking lessons at the local community center. We don’t just want to learn how to DIY—apparently, it’s good for us.
September 5, 2019 • No Comments
The members of the Rogue Skies box set were asked to provide a dream cast for their books. This is always tricky because actors are by nature chameleons and they may match the character in one role but not in the next. I therefore put a disclaimer on this assembly–these folks match the characters in this photo. That being said, here we go for Scorpion Dawn and the series that follows:
Clockwise from top left:
- Emily Blunt as Miranda Fletcher – a rebel just finding her feet
- Natalie Dormer as Sidonie Fletcher – pretty but with a generous helping of mischief
- Jude Law as Detective Palmer (because Jude Law appears in every movie ever)
- Aidan Turner as Gideon Fletcher. It was the disgruntled eyebrows that sold me.
July 29, 2019 • No Comments
Today I sent the final draft of Fortune’s Eve to the copy editor. This is the prequel short story to the new Hellion House steampunk fantasy series. Because I’m so excited, I’m posting an appetizer here!
“If we don’t find the wreck soon, we’ll be obliged to turn back,” Norton Fletcher said.
Gideon glanced at the sky, calculating the remaining daylight. His father was right. No one risked traveling outside the city after dark. “That’s death for the crew of the wreck.”
“But not for us.” Fletcher’s face was rigid. “Don’t get caught up in the emotion of these missions. It’s a quick way to die.”
Gideon gave a low laugh to hide his resentment. His father never let go of the impulse to instruct his grown son. “I have compassion.”
“A waste of energy. Everything breaks and everything mends,” Fletcher said. “Live long enough, and you’ll understand.”
“Do you truly believe that?” Gideon asked, heat creeping into his words.
“Yes,” his father replied, “and no. It’s what old men tell themselves to stop the ache of fear in their bellies.”
The words were terse, a bitter blend of the flippant and the true. Questions crowded Gideon’s mind, but Fletcher’s expression closed like a door banging shut, the Dragonfly’s captain replacing the father. Not that the difference was pronounced on most days.
Gideon studied his father, who stood at the pilot’s station with feet planted wide and back ramrod straight. Fletcher wasn’t a large man, but his stocky figure and lined features, weathered by decades of sun and wind, made Gideon think of petrified oak. Fletcher eased a lever forward and the Dragonfly dipped closer to the river, twin propellers thwop-thwopping through the mist. Autumn fogs trailed ghostly fingers around the dirigible as if they meant to snatch it from the sky.
A flare had gone up two hours ago, according to the report of the watchmen who scanned the forest from the great towers that flanked the city gates. Fletcher Industries—one of the premier airship firms in the city—kept half a dozen rescue craft on standby, but the last week had been busy. When word arrived, only the Dragonfly was still at the airfield and the crews were shorthanded. Norton Fletcher—owner, designer, and still one of the best pilots in the sky—had taken the job himself. Of course, Gideon went with him. He was heir to the Fletcher empire and familiar with the day-to-day operations, but he still took pleasure in watching his father work. Or he had. As the afternoon wore on, that first thrill darkened to anxiety. They weren’t finding any trace of the wreck.
Gideon peered over the edge of the gondola, estimating the distance to the dense treetops. Ash, birch, oak, chestnut, and the occasional conifer grew in a lush tangle. They called this area between settlements the Outlands. After the population had fled the countryside, Nature had thrown a party. The result was the beautiful but deadly forest that grew up, covering every trace of civilization. Gideon leaned out another inch, one hand on a sturdy cable. There was still plenty of clearance before they risked scraping the branches, but distance made it hard to see the river. Unfortunately, closing the gap would be unwise. That was the gamble with rescue missions—risk all to save the innocent, and risk becoming a victim oneself.
A trio of dragons soared above the branches as the ship passed overhead. Their population had grown with the forest, but the city dwellers paid them no heed. Few of the creatures grew larger than a goat, and humanity had far more to worry about than an invasive species of lizard.
For the hundredth time that afternoon, the broad silver swath of the river emerged from the encroaching trees. The Dragonfly had followed a zigzagging path, searching both sides of the water. They had seen a fleet of River Rats—clans of wandering thieves and magicians who lived aboard their crafts—and once a smuggler’s ship with gun ports open. Both had probably been bound for the walled farms to the east. There was gold in river business, for those brave enough to risk it. Gideon would take the sky any day.
The foliage slipped from view, and the water gleamed directly below. His heart skipped as he saw what the Dragonfly had come for—the wreckage of a mid-sized sailing craft.
“There!” Gideon cried, pointing over the side with one hand while he fumbled for his spyglass with the other. “Bring the ship around again.”
The crew—four hands besides the Fletchers—jumped to obey, hauling on the lines that adjusted the auxiliary sails. Boilers hissed, feeding the engine that drove the propellers. Slowly, the Dragonfly, with its twin gray and white silk balloons, pivoted in the sky.
“Sir, we dare not go lower,” said Higgins, the grizzled senior airman.
“Then get your gear on,” said Norton Fletcher, guiding the ship into position above the wreck. “We’ll go down for a look, although it’s not promising.”
Hopeful or not, it was still their duty to search for survivors. Gideon grabbed his own equipment, wondering what they’d find. Fools had a way of getting what they deserved.
The river—cold, fast, and often foggy—was riddled with ruined weirs and the stumps of old bridges. Wise travelers took a River Rat who knew the water’s tricks. According to the harbormaster’s records—all crafts were required to declare their routes before they cast off—Mr. Joseph Ellery, esquire, had not. On some level, Gideon wasn’t surprised. He’d met the weedy banker at parties and the theater and had been consistently underwhelmed.
By the time the Dragonfly was hovering in place, Gideon, Higgins, and Crewman Yale were ready to descend. Flight crews typically wore supple leather suits as protection from wind and weather, along with high boots and close-fitting helmets. Gideon added a weapons belt and a rifle in a sling across his back, as well as long knives strapped to his thighs.
“You’ve got an hour of good daylight,” said Fletcher. “Don’t waste it.”
Gideon tried to catch his father’s eye, but the goggles that protected his eyes against the burn of the wind made it impossible. He wasn’t sure why he bothered to grasp that last moment of connection—he should need no reassurance, and emotional displays were not the family way. Still, the unknown that lurked below left a hollow in his gut. When Higgins offered him a flask of smuggled French brandy, he accepted it gratefully and took a swig for luck.
A square metal plate, about five feet across, formed part of the Dragonfly’s main deck. Once unlocked from thick steel hasps, the platform could be raised and lowered with steam-powered efficiency. Cables spooled onto four large wheels that moved on a single automated crank calibrated to keep the plate perfectly level—a key feature of Norton Fletcher’s design. The rescue crew mounted the platform, crouching low and grasping the lines for balance while Fletcher himself released the brake. With a whir of well-oiled gears, they gently floated the forty feet to the river’s shallows.
A breeze caught the platform, swaying it slightly. Gideon didn’t mind. The scent of greenery and rich mud was a novelty, and he inhaled with gratitude. His home stank of smoke and too many bodies crowded close for protection. The Outlands might be deadly, but at least they were clean.
The men jumped the last few feet, boots splashing in shallow water. The wreck was in the middle of the river, but there wasn’t enough of the ship left for survivors to take shelter. The crew would have struck out for dry ground or been carried off by the current. As this was the closer bank, it made sense to begin the search here.
“By our calculations, that’s where the flare was fired,” said Higgins, pointing a dozen yards ahead. “Anyone hoping for rescue wouldn’t go far.”
Gideon nodded agreement and scrambled up the bank, not wasting time. He pushed up his goggles, needing his peripheral vision now. As the September shadows lengthened, the fog was already misting above the water. It would be dusk here long before the sun actually set.
Unholstering his rifle, he strode onward, using his nose as well as his eyes and ears. Death had a smell, as did blood, but the wind was off the river and gave him no clues. A rustle in the trees caught his attention.
Gideon raised the rifle and turned slowly, realizing there had been birdsong a moment ago, and now there wasn’t. Somewhere in the treetops, a dragon squawked and flapped in seeming fury. He began to sweat, soaking the shirt beneath his jacket. He was still on the bank, the bush and trees a dozen yards distant and hiding who knew what. Countless ruins lay buried along the riverside, evidence of a world before walls and the terror of the Unseen.
Gideon swept his rifle in a slow arc, his nerves alive with dread. “Ellery?”
The woods to his left exploded with movement and sound. He swiveled toward it, but was a beat too late. He had a swift impression of rags and bony limbs, but his senses failed. A long shriek of rage split the air as the thing hurtled through the air, arms extended. Gideon had no chance to aim.
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 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!