February 7, 2021 • No Comments
Who doesn’t love a good coincidence, especially when it involves ghosts?
Recently I was blathering with a friend about contacting the dead (as one does while folding laundry). I’m stocking up on ideas for a new story, and it was an unplanned but fruitful topic. Literally minutes later, I got an email for a virtual event.
Cue Weird Homes Tour and Atlas Obscura featuring Brandon Hodge. Hodge owns an Austin, Texas residence stuffed with Spiritualism-related objects. For one very fun hour, Hodge took viewers through his collection of antique planchettes, Ouija boards, and other paraphernalia.
It was like a gift-wrapped package falling through the monitor and into my lap. Spiritualism fascinates me, and Hodge’s enthusiasm and fab website are an ideal introduction to the subject.
A Victorian Obsession
The Spiritualist movement gained traction in the mid-1800s. It gave us mediums, automatic writing, ectoplasm, spirit photography, and table-rapping.
Essentially, it’s summoning the dead for a chat. Believers included the rich and famous, from Lucy Maud Montgomery to Arthur Conan Doyle.
For a buttoned-up society focused on industry, cataloguing, and petticoats for the piano legs, it’s interesting how Victorians embraced the paranormal. Their enthusiasm can be seen by the many, many periodicals dedicated to the topic, such as The British Spiritual Telegraph.
Mediums achieved a kind of celebrity, like the Fox sisters in America. Some grew rich. Others were ingloriously debunked for coughing up gauze
“ectoplasm” or manipulating the seance props with wires.
The majority of mediums were women. This was one place she could take center stage without question. And, since the bereaved were willing to pay, she could also make a good living.
Spiritualism carried on—unsurprisingly—through the disasters of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic until fading in the 1930s.
I’ve used the highlights of Spiritualism before. In A Study in Ashes, Evelina and Tobias attend a séance. At the time, I’d wanted to delve more deeply into the subject, but that wasn’t part of Evelina’s story. She simply paved the way for more.
Now—thanks to a chance lockdown presentation—I’m anxious to do more research. After all, what’s more perfect than something that is Victorian, paranormal, and involves intriguing devices? I’m positive there is a role for a planchette or two in my Hellion House series.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
June 20, 2020 • No Comments
This first appeared in my newsletter, May 24/20
In strange worlds different from the Very Strange World we currently inhabit, work on the Hellion House series continues. I’d like to take this moment to address the notion that the series contains zombies. In a word, no. The forest beyond the walls of Londria contain many strange creatures, but not the walking dead. There are the Unseen, which are scruffy flesh eaters with shockingly bad social skills, but they are very much alive.
Then what are the Unseen and where do they come from? Can they be taught to use a napkin? Do they vote for a particular party? Those, dear reader, are the story questions of Leopard Ascending, the Hellion House installment currently under construction.
In the meantime, I’d like to offer some general advice for those occasions when one does have a zombie on one’s impeccably-gloved hands.
- For hostesses short a guest to make up the correct numbers at table, the recently-deceased might be pressed into discreet service, given sufficient repair. Of course, no one wants to admit that it was necessary to summon the dead to their party—it smacks of disinterest on the part of the living. As a precaution, instruct the footmen serving the meal to politely but firmly decline the revenant’s insistent request for brains.
- For committee work, whether charitable or in commerce, it is commonplace to send a proxy when it becomes impossible to manage every meeting. Many do send the dead for this purpose. If you have long suspected there were no signs of life amongst your fellow board members, now you know why.
- As a post-script to the above, employing zombies in any capacity is optimal where there is plenty of fresh air and discreet staff prepared for unusual emergencies. More than once, a garden party guest has been quickly disposed of among the rhododendrons, much to the gratitude of the greenery. Imagination and flexibility are key. So are a shovel and quick lime.
- Finally, while the care and feeding of the dead requires human brains, please do so sparingly. There appears to be a general shortage.
April 27, 2020 • 2 Comments
I started planning the series some time ago, as good worldbuilding (at least for me) needs time to mature. I wanted something that was a little more fantasy and less strictly Victorian than my previous steampunk books, mostly to provide scope for adventure.
I have a fascination with how people live under threat, whether that’s in gated cities or under strict social regulation. Crime doesn’t take a holiday just because everything else is turned on its head. Even dire circumstances, we still manage to form hierarchies, establish ceremonies, build a system and then cheat it. It’s the phenomenon that launched much of reality TV.
When I wrote the Baskerville Affair, I found inspiration in a map that marked the boundaries of various utility companies. This time, I went back to a 1572 map of London and then took a left turn. What if history had gone on as per normal until the Elizabethans, and then…well, science was in a different place back then. What we now regard as fact was mixed up with alchemy, astrology, and theoretical systems we don’t use in the lab these days. Burning witches at the stake was fine entertainment. What better time to unleash something that transmogrified the world?
Fast forward to my characters’ era, in what would have been Victorian London. Cities everywhere are fortified physically and by magic to protect the populace from the wilderness—now occupied by monsters. Airships and river boats are a necessary means of travel, because going by land is suicide. Agriculture is a harrowing endeavour, with private armies and mages on tap. There are dragons, huge wildcats, and the ever-hungry Unseen. Probably Nessie. Undoubtedly trolls. (Please note, there are no zombies, as they are smelly and prone to leaving their body parts in inconvenient places.)
However, because people are people, there are also Society events, fashion, slums, politics, crime, detectives, murder, whorehouses, gentleman’s clubs and newspapers. But civilization comes at a terrible price, as our protagonists discover.
And then there’s the River Rats, and astronomy, and the tarot, but more on that later.
Image by Comfreak on Pixabay
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.