Help Wanted, Steampunk Style

Emma Jane Holloway
November 29, 2013  •  No Comments

Once in a while I step back from a character I’ve created and wonder how they’d fare in the real world. The heroine of A Study in Silks is a case in point. Evelina is a capable young woman but she spends a great deal of her time prodding dead bodies and chasing monsters of both a magical and mundane nature. One side of her family is circus performers and the other is Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. It’s all very exciting, but hardly a practical lifestyle.


And while Evelina can spend all three books of The Baskerville Affair trilogy larking about with sorcerers, steam barons, lost princes and dragons, does she have what it would take to endure a desk job? What job could she hope to get if plucked out of her Victorian, steampunk universe?





Name:                         Miss Evelina Cooper

Address:         Hilliard House, London



  • Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies, recent graduate. Areas of special accomplishment include chemistry, botany, and returning zombies to the grave.
  • Spent several years learning clockwork repair and maintenance as an informal apprentice for grandfather’s business.

Current position:

  • Debutante


Previous work experience:


  • Ploughman’s Paramount Circus: tightrope, trapeze, tumbling.
  • Assistant to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.


Additional skills and accomplishments:


  • General magic with particular talents in communication with and manipulation of nature spirits.
  • Successfully achieved fusion of magic and mechanics.
  • Skilled in the waltz, quadrille, Schottische, and other ballroom dances.




The formal work experience is a bit thin, but there might be something out there for our girl. Sure, she has experience working with a master of detection, but as she rapidly discovers during her first murder investigation, the whole crime-fighting gig isn’t as neat and tidy as Dr. Watson makes it sound in his stories. Still, there’s always private security.


If that doesn’t work out, I suppose someone versed in combining magic and machinery would make an amazing barista, and I’ve always thought a touch of wizardry was essential for working with computers. Perhaps laying zombies to rest might come in handy for human resources?


Of course, I didn’t create my characters for the here and now, but for a larger than life universe filled with unimaginable wonder and steampunky goodness. Maybe it’s just safer to leave the door between fact and fiction closed. I wouldn’t want to find out one of my characters just became my day job supervisor. After all I put them through during the trilogy, I shudder to think what they might put on my performance appraisal.

(originally published at Smart Girls Love SciFi)

What don’t I write about?

Emma Jane Holloway
November 27, 2013  •  No Comments

Long ago I firmly decided against zombies, because they are unhygienic and terrible conversationalists. Furthermore, one cannot invite them to a book launch party because they drink all the champagne and then eat the serving staff. Writer friends of mine have had bitter experience with a number of celebrated hotels that will no longer take their calls. So no, I do not write about zombies. Much. If one does squelch onstage unbidden from time to time, I ensure it is tossed out before the canapés arrive.

Zombies might be about the only thing I refrain from writing about—much—since my mission as a writer seems to be raiding the genre supply closet to see what goodies I can find. In that regard, I’m much more a Frankenstein girl. I’ve never seen the problem with helping myself to whatever I need to create some brave new literary monster.

A scene at the supply closet might unfold in the following manner:

Author: Hand me that mechanical squid.

Editor:   Really?

Author: And the aether rifle. And the goggles.

Editor: (despairing tones) Why?

Author: I have a ballroom scene. Trust me, it’s all good.


Perhaps I am wearing (metaphorically speaking) mystery shoes, a fantasy handbag, and a hat from the comedy shelf—but never without purpose, and never without striving for style. If I introduce a loaded automaton, you can be sure I will employ it before the last page—though it might not be in the expected fashion. A Study in Silks is the first of the Baskerville Affair trilogy, and that means that there is room to develop a great deal of satisfying mischief.


Mixing it up is a time-honored tradition. Many books with a steampunk flavor cross genres, and authors writing before mass market was even a concept—Stevenson, Dumas, and Collins to name a few—just got on with the business of good storytelling. They were inventing genres, not trying to stay within self-imposed lines. Readers seemed to like that modus operandi well enough that now those works bear the designation “classic.” No arguments there.

For me, any successful story—whatever its elements—is driven by characters. I remember personalities—Milady or Monte Cristo or Mr. Rochester—and the more complicated they are, the better. A cast of blandly likeable people has no place on my reading shelf, nor does a universe that works like a dispensing machine, consistently matching right action with rewards. I’d rather have zombies! Or perhaps those likeable drones are the zombies?

Give me real people. It’s possible to be heroic and still make a mess of things. The best efforts can still end in disaster. Villains might inadvertently—or even intentionally—show compassion. Give me a story where characters walk through hell before the end of the road, presuming they come through at all. Give me a story that makes me worry a little so that I’m eager to keep on reading.

My primary goal is to write a cracking good adventure that will entertain. I want to summon characters that people will remember and care about long after the cover is closed. That is far more important to me than checking the boxes that say “this is mystery” or “this is romance.” All the reader needs to know is that I’m doing my best to keep them in their comfy chairs, book in hand, even though their tea has gone cold and the windows have darkened. Dinner can wait. Just throw another zombie on the fire and start the next chapter.

(originally published @ Suvudu)

Growing your story from the outside in

Emma Jane Holloway
November 25, 2013  •  No Comments

I’m truly glad I’m in charge of a fictional universe, because even with the heady thrill of story-telling as a motivator, an entire world is a lot to keep track of. Like most writers, I fall between plotting and sailing into the mists, but I’ve found writing arcs that extend over several books has forced me to look at how I approach planning.

A common way of beginning any story is with a character. Someone walks into my head and starts pestering me to tell their story. Or, I get a flash of a scene that tempts me closer for a second look.  If my interest is snagged, I then start building a story, then a book, and then more books. In essence, I’m working outward from a germ of an idea.

But this is certainly not the only approach. It’s also possible and sometimes more effective to work the other way around—from the outside down to the core idea—in order to maximize the story universe’s potential. I do this in three stages: the world, the conflicts, and the characters.

The world:

As soon as I get hooked by something, I take a breath and look at the big picture. It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid plotter or not—this is just a landscape check. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but it does pay to spend at least a little time here. Look at the world your character lives in, including all the usual points of setting: the time period, the geography, the way of life, and so on.

Then—and this is the layer at least I tend to forget—look at the specifics of your character’s environment. For instance, not just “Napoleonic France” but “the tiny village of XX just outside of Paris, at the south end of the street down by the river.” Note details such as the individual businesses right in your character’s neighborhood. Is there a school? A corner store? A factory? A church? A space station? You might think that it’s far too soon to contemplate details like this—you don’t need the church until a marriage scene in book three—but I think it’s worth putting a pin in the map just to note it’s there. After all, your character lives in a community, and a church or factory or school is significant to the people nearby. The type of factory, church or school says something about the place and the folks in it. Even if it isn’t important to them, that says something, too.

Why am I obsessive about this? Character psychology—and it’s far easier to think about this right from the beginning rather than retrofit later. The community your characters spring from says a great deal about their world view. They walk on stage with a set of assumptions about life that had to come from somewhere, and home and family are universal drivers for everyone—real or fictitious. And more than just their own family matters—what are the expectations of that small town they grew up in? Their in-laws? The snobby mayor? And if your character refuses to be influenced by the community he or she lives in, usually that means expending energy on denial.

It’s all grist for the story mill, and a novel takes a lot of milling. A series takes even more. If you build a really good, rich world with well-rounded characters from the start, a bit of care up front will build a detailed environment that will support as many books as you want to set there. After all, we could all name a few story worlds that readers love so much they read and reread stories just to visit. It’s attention to detail and layers of emotional complexity in the setting itself that makes these imaginary places concrete and satisfying.



The conflict:

Once I’ve familiarized myself with the world around my character, I start looking for lines of conflict. Every community has them—economic, ethnic, religious, familial, or political. Perhaps the school hates the factory, or the football team hates the lawn bowlers. Maybe the little green men despise the tall blue aliens—it’s up to you and your protagonists. Conflict drives every story, and it pays to know where those tensions are, even if they remain in the background at first.

Which brings me back to that first flicker of inspiration. If you’ve taken an evening to go through this exercise, when you sit down to talk to the character yammering in your head, or if you return to that vignette that popped up like a YouTube video in your daydreams, you have some context for it. At this point, what you’ve done does not have to be more than medium to broad strokes, but you should have a sense of (a) the world your characters came from and (b) the tensions driving that world.

This may seem like common sense, but it’s all too easy to skate over the surface during those early adrenaline-fuelled chapters. We might know, for instance, that during the time period of XXX war, King A was fighting King B over trade rights, but we’ve not drilled down enough to understand the salt merchants were upset with the brandy runners, and that tore our hero’s town apart along family lines. It might never have occurred to us to think that far until we got to chapter eight, and by then we’ve missed a dozen opportunities to crank up the story tension whether or not we’re writing from an outline. And, all too often, we run out of gas a few chapters in when we get past the introduction and stall at “what next?” Knowing the deep roots of your conflicts will get you through.


The characters:

And then there is our cast of characters. Once you’ve identified the underlying conflicts in your story world, you’ve got a good start on the goal, motivation and conflict of your people. What issue is your protagonist facing? Are all your point of view characters on the same side? Are some double agents or tricksters? What about your love interest? This is a great place to start planning multiple books, because how you position your characters in relation to the story world and its conflicts—and how the characters clash with each other—is where you build your plot. Resolving one collision should lead to another, and another. Character decisions make stories, and how well you set up their challenges determines how easy the book will be to write.  You don’t need to plan the whole game, but you do need to start with a really interesting chess board. The rest will follow.

Again, this is a zooming-in approach: world, conflict, characters. It doesn’t have to nail down all the plot or every last detail, but it should sketch in enough to give strength to your vision.  Your characters aren’t moving against a blue screen but a Technicolor set, making choices that are integrated with the world around them. This inevitably adds layers and nuances that make a story memorable.

Which is only the beginning of the payoff. Everything I’ve talked about here can be done in an evening or a weekend, but the benefits are endless. Books are like journeys—the longer or more complex the road, the more effectively the author needs to pack. Multiple-book arcs are a case in point—that little glimmer of inspiration needs a lot of fuel to grow into a mighty series engine.

And if you’re writing a series, your story community and its dynamics will need to be all the more thoroughly fleshed out. Knowing where the conflicts lie enables the author to foreshadow future plot points, perhaps books ahead of time. There is plenty of opportunity to shape and control an extended story arcs, plant themes or objects for later use, and ensure new developments flow naturally from the landscape.

None of this negates that heady rush when a great idea pops into your mind, begging for attention. This is merely feeding that spark some kindling so that it catches hold and starts to burn steadily on its own. Establishing community, conflict, and character relations from the beginning will solidify and support a great idea through one or more books. Best of all, taking the time to build a compelling story world ensures that readers will want to return that neighborhood time and again. Why work up to being fabulous when you can be there from the start?

The Original Idea

Emma Jane Holloway
November 23, 2013  •  No Comments

One might say that Dr. Watson made me do it.


The inspiration for A Study in Silks came to me years ago, long before I’d heard the word “steampunk.” It crept up the way stories so often do, unrolling in my mind like an impromptu movie. What made this episode different was that I actually wrote the scene down:  Sherlock Holmes’s niece meeting Dr. Watson in a tea room and demonstrating a marvelous clockwork toy. I was thinking of a YA story at the time, but I never got around to finishing it.


Of course, ignoring these little inspirations can be asking for trouble. Left to their own devices, they come crawling out of the primordial ooze of the imagination much bigger and more insistent for being ignored. What began as a nice little YA mystery emerged as a full-blown adult steampunk trilogy, complete with murder, mayhem, and airship pirates—not to mention ballrooms, dance cards, and a bevy of suitors. The heroine isn’t a schoolgirl any more, but a young woman about to launch into her first Season.


What remained from my first draft is that Evelina Cooper is the niece of Sherlock Holmes. He plays a supporting role, but the focus is on Evelina and her friends. We’re still in the late 1880s—the era of bustles and top hats, not to mention Jack the Ripper. And Evelina is still a genius with clockwork, but now she’s equally talented with magic.


As the story grew and developed, so did the conflict in the stories. Evelina is caught between the impoverished circus of her youth and the glittering social world of Mayfair. She has enough brains and courage to guide her steps between the two, but her greatest vulnerability is her heart. Nick is a dashing performer from the circus and her childhood sweetheart, and Tobias is the clever, creative heir to a title and estate. Both tempt her, but both could destroy her future.  And when Evelina’s suitors are forced to make their own life-altering choices, the depth of their love undergoes a painful test.


As the series progresses, the outbreak of war between sorcery and machine pushes their loyalties to the limit. None of the characters come through unscathed. The Baskerville Affair trilogy is an adventure filled with fantasy, magic, and, yes, mystery. One can’t bring Sherlock Holmes into the picture without puzzles to solve.


And where there is Holmes, we find Dr. Watson. He’s still smirking at me for finally finishing this story so many years later, so much bigger and more complex than I’d ever imagined.  I can see him jotting on his prescription pad: take three volumes and call me in the morning.


(originally published at Romantic Times)

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)