World Building: A Steampunk Experience

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The best world building happens so far in the background, you don't even realize it.

The town was not a town, so much as a waypoint. People travelled through Upper Toppingsley to go somewhere more interesting.

I passed through the main thoroughfare – little more than a dirt path that ran between two neat rows of buildings. On one side a series of shops stood in a row. The local boutique with its wide windows displayed the fashions  that appealed to the ladies of the village. Large bustles were au courant, tightly laced corsets the ideal.

Between the boutique and the small bookseller next door I heard a steady hum. Tucked neatly in the narrow alley between was a small steam engine. The steady thrumming sound emanating from the device reminded me of the vibrations at the airfield. Despite my best efforts to put the thought of Constable Higglesby and the severed head from my mind, I wondered if there wasn’t some bit of information I had missed in the examination. Perhaps the second  murder could have been avoided if I had found some evidence on the head.

     This was an early victim of the slash and burn job I performed on my work in progress. Due to several changes I made to characters, as well as simply not being pleased with the passage, it was excised. The reason was simple. I attempted some world building while simultaneously trying to Advance a plot.
     I am not good at world building. There, I said it. It isn’t difficult, but I find it is often awkward to cram world building elements into a story. Besides just the physical world, I feel awkward when putting historical elements (real or fictional) into my projects. I find I am too often including too much information, bogging the story down.
     One of the central elements of my project is the development and use of the difference engine. Businesses within my story have begun to use these devices to run day to day operations, much like computers in the real world.
     With all of the world building details I am using, it often feels like I’m doing more telling than showing. Since I am only on the first draft, I won’t dwell too much, but it makes the editing process take much longer if I turn a blind eye to all of the rules I break while writing.
     I have been trying to learn from the authors I read. How do they create their worlds? How much information is shared with the reader? Are they using info dumps to share their world? Or do they spread the information throughout the story?
     As a reader, I don’t like info dumps. I forget information as soon as it is shared. I prefer to learn about the author’s world as I read. It helps the information to stick. If there is too much detail, I lose track. Sadly, it turns out I am a writer who info dumps.
     The solution: I act like the history is common knowledge. Anything too obscure gets an explanation; everything else is only explained when necessary.
     I do enjoy creating a history and civilization. When I work on a Science Fiction story, especially one that involves other planets and alien beings, I spend days creating their society. History, heroes and villains, and customs all help me to make a character feel more real. I know, realistically, that very little of that information will ever see the light of day, but it aids me in the writing process.
     My other area for improvement is consistency and accuracy. While my story is set in a Steampunk themed alternate history, certain elements must remain historically accurate. For example, a character in the story uses a form of wireless communication between his difference engine and his automatons.  Using radio waves to do this helps his automatons perform more actions without requiring larger processing capacity within each unit. The downside is that Guglielmo Marconi had not yet invented the radio, and radio waves were still considered theoretical at that point in history. What resulted was a long research session, extrapolations of possible what if scenarios to devise a possible alternate father of the radio.

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Why couldn't you have invented the radio 30 years earlier?

     Ultimately I decided a solution that works within the reality of the story. However, in doing so, I had to use an alternate naming scheme for radio waves. The result is the same, even if the characters’ understanding of the technology is incomplete. I just have to remember that I cannot use the word radio.  That is a difficult task.  So, my suggestion to other ambitious writers is, if at any point you are considering renaming technology or natural phenomena, consider the fact you may need to use that term frequently. Will you be able to remember to use it?
     For writers and readers, what are some world building elements that are difficult for you, whether you are writing or reading?
   

The Lady with the Lamp: Florence Nightingale

  

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Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp.

As a follow-up to my last post, I thought about highlighting individual 19th century women who made important contributions to society. There are many women who fit this description in the 19th century, and over time I plan to highlight as many as I can. Today I begin with my first subject.
   Picture yourself in the 19th century. You are a member of a family with means. Money will not be an issue in your life, you will have people in your life to take care of your needs, and you have the means to make any whim a reality. Imagine you wanted to use your means to do something to better your community, in the medical field. Imagine that you have the drive and desire,as well as the ability to achieve your dream.
     Now imagine you are a young woman. Even at the best of times, achieving the dream of working in any type of profession would be frowned upon by hour family. As a female in the 19th century the expectation is that you will marry and have children. Working, especially in a profession where you will be facing illness and death is unthinkable.
     For most women of the time, this was their reality, and they had no choice but to accept it. However, there was a small number of women that were not going to stand for that. The fight for equality between the sexes began with a small number of women that felt they should be able to determine how to spend their lives. Florence Nightingale is arguably one of the most recognizable names.
     Her determination was at odds with her family’s more traditional expectations for their daughter. She turned down a life of courting and marriage to pursue a career in medicine. As a nurse, she was able to directly affect the lives of others.
     In a time when medical procedures were almost as likely to kill you as cure you, due to infection, Florence set out to make changes. Hygiene is key to preventing infection. Knowing this, Florence worked to maintain a clean hospital. Her work ethic impressed her superiors enough to promote her.
    The outbreak of the Crimean War brought Florence to the gates of hell on earth. With thousands of British soldiers fighting, the number injured increased at an alarming rate. Florence and a contingent of nurses under her command arrived on the Crimean battlefront to help the injured heal.
     The state of the hospital when she arrived was deplorable. Vermin infested the hospital, many of the wounded were lying in their own filth. Infections ran rampant. The process was gruelling, but Florence and her crew cleaned the hospital, and administered proper care to the wounded.
     Though her initial attempts to offer aid were not entirely successful (The hospital had been built over a sewer, contaminating the water used each day).  Once the British government intervened and did a massive cleanup, the death toll dropped significantly.
     Following her participation in the was effort, Florence turned her attention to applying what she learned during her time in the war. With the discovery that bacteria and viruses were the cause of disease, her belief in hospital cleanliness was vindicated.
     The remainder of her life postwar was dedicated to improving the state of healthcare in England. The Florence Nightingale School of Nursing was founded. Her legacy lives on, as nurses received training and scientific education. Women were able to receive an education and gain employment as nurses, following in the footsteps of one of the first modern nurses.  These women were among the few that proved women could do much more than be a wife and mother. These first steps toward gender equality paved the way for the fight for women’s rights in the 20th century.

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Florence Nightingale's efforts resulted in well-trained nurses with the ability to administer care to the sick and injured.

If you would like to learn more, check out
this article from the BBC website.

Or this informative article.

The Florence Nightingale Museum Official Website

Strong Female Characters: Or How I Completely Changed the Tone of my Writing

  

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Florence Nightingale revolutionized nursing

  I am on a small writing roll as of late. I get a little time and I manage to sit down at my laptop. The miracle lately is that I actually get to write. The process is still slow going for me, but at least I feel like I may be getting somewhere with my projects.
     I’m currently working on three writing projects (well, four, if you count this blog); the first is a direct sequel to Mademoiselle Durand and the Pirates, no real final title yet, but I have a couple potentials; A mystery set in the same reality as Mademoiselle Durand, but with some different characters; and a Science Fiction piece that I have been alternately writing and abandoning since about 2007.  All three projects have a couple things in common: First, they are all progressing so slowly. Second, I rewrote several sections.
     To be fair, it was actually Mademoiselle Durand and the clichéd that received the rewrites, not so much with the current story featuring Bernadette. The final story bears almost no resemblance to the original story I had outlined and partially written.
     The reason is not a good one. In the original outline, Mademoiselle Durand was a damsel in distress; the main character in the piece was younger male character that resembled Monsieur Mercier, and the story was a straight up pirate adventure. Steampunk was not at all a part.  The story itself was pretty standard – pirate invades ship, kidnaps young lady, heroic captain saves the day and wins the heart of the damsel. But it felt too clichéd. 
     I did what I used to do all the time; I set the story aside and waited for some other form of inspiration to strike. It struck much sooner than expected. It also pushed me to finish a project. I was going through my to be read list on my Kindle, and started reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. I had read some steampunk before, but this story actually gave me some ideas. Why did Mademoiselle Durand have to be a damsel in distress? Why couldn’t she be a tough, ass-kicker?  Soon after I began reading more Steampunk books, including Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series. I realized that I could change the story around a bit, and make something  different of my pirate story.
     Reading these two authors helped me get over one of the problems that had been plaguing this particular story. Bernadette had potential to be interesting – a french expatriate with a mysterious past. The big questions I had as the author were why was she on the ship? And how could I make her a more active part of the story?
     The Steampunk genre helped me to craft a story around her. I found her more interesting than the male lead, anyhow. A heroine in a Steampunk story can do things that were frowned upon in actual 19th century society, while still holding on to many of the trappings of “proper female behavior” that was expected of them at that point in history. I hold this idea with me even as I am working on my current projects. To prepare myself, I knew that I would need to learn more about some of the actual women of the 19th century, and how they rebelled against the ideas of what a woman should be capable of doing.

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Nellie Bly exposed injustices through her investigative journalism.

     I read up on 19th century women and the contributions they made to society. The suffragists and their fight for equality. I read about Florence Nightingale, and her contributions to medicine and the nursing profession.  Nellie Bly, whose investigative journalism brought about change not just in the world of mental health, but for women’s rights as well as the rights of the working men and women. Marie Curie, though she was born a bit outside of the timeframe of my story, and her contribution to our knowledge of radioactivity. These women were all raised in a society that told them their place in the world was as a wife and mother. They each fought back, in their own way to show that they, and indeed all women, are so much more.

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Marie Curie helped shape the study and use of radioactive materials

     I tried to imbue my main female character with some of the aspects that made each of these women great. Granted, there is only so much you can accomplish in a 28 page short story, but these ideas have spilled over into my other stories, as well as my in progress sequel.
     I may end up doing a post or two on some of these ladies, as they served as inspiration for all of the female characters in my upcoming stories. I find their place in their respective society and in history to be quite fascinating. For the writers, when you are creating strong characters, male or female, do you look to any real people, either in your own lives or through history as inspiration?

Fantastic Devices to Improve Your Steampunk Reality Part 3: The Automaton

Cold metal hands; glassy, unseeing eyes; beings with an intelligence, but without reason.  Automatons are another staple of the steampunk genre, and they are as varied and unique as the worlds their creators have brought into existence. These pieces of technology are often put into stories as adversaries, faceless enemies, or in some cases, they are put into stories as love interests.

Science Fiction and Steampunk have done their part to advance the notion of the automaton as an independently functioning device. Some have created automatons to be soulless beings whose sole purpose is to carry out the will of their creator or master. Gail Carriger created frightening examples of this type of automaton in her Parasol Protectorate series. In this series, Mindless automatons pursue Alexia Tarabotti as she attempts to solve a mystery while attempting to avoid the affections of a randy werewolf. These types of Automatons are good for a scare, or persisting sense of dread, as their motives are nonexistent; they exist only to serve another.

The downside to this type of automaton is that once the reason for their existence is explained, they are not quite as scary. We as the readers know that once we discover their purpose, the main characters in the story will also likely make this discovery, and solve the problem, thereby removing any of the threat that these creatures once posed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the self-aware, feeling automatons. These automatons are usually in service to a human master, or are on the run from their former masters. Somehow, these automatons become complete characters, capable of independent thought and emotions. How they managed to break their programming is often left a mystery, as the interest is in what would happen to a subservient group, if they began to develop a desire for freedom. At what point does an object stop being just an object, and become a person in its own right?

This is a question that interests me. In much of Science Fiction and Steampunk, the automaton tends to fall into one group or the other: Mindless drone, or feeling, thinking individual. At what point does the object begin to become a person? In my current project, I am attempting to explore this gray area where the automatons are able to make decisions, and respond in a logical manner, but have not quite grasped the concept of emotion yet. Humans that see this are beginning to see both the promise of a brighter future with smarter automatons, as well as the danger of a future overrun with mechanical men that could overpower their masters with ease, even lead a revolution to liberate all mechanical people.

Of course, the reality of automatons is a bit more mundane. Simple automated devices have existed for hundreds of years. Mimicking human behaviors like writing and praying, the mechanical beings were often small in stature and fit to be a conversation piece at a party, rather than a viable tool to make society a better, safer place. Automatons like the Dulcimer Player, though a tad creepy in their near human appearance, is a neat little musical marvel – not something one would need worry about revolting against humanity.

dulcimer player

Right?

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Ummm…right?

In all seriousness, automatons are an interesting way for a steampunk/alternative history writer to explore notions such as inequalities between individuals, the development of consciousness, and even the ethical repurcussions that come from creating intelligent beings only to force them into servitude.  For the writers:  Have you ever written automata into your stories? If so, what purpose did they serve in the plot? Did you write mindless drones and workers? Or did you write emotional, rational beings that just happened to be mechanical, rather than biological.  I am interested to hear your stories.