Steampunk Gadgets: Enhancements

 

Having spent the better part of the last three years reading, researching, and writing steampunk, I have seen a LOT of interesting steampunk themed gadgets. Everything from steampunk styled computers and USB drives, to ornately designed costumes and props. Many of them have given me some ideas, not just for stories, but for some creative projects, should I ever get some free time to begin pursuing hobbies.

I am focusing on devices that enhance, or replace, body parts. My first attempt at capturing this type of device on paper was with a pirate that had only one eye. The other was replaced by a device that was able to sense movement, and body temperature. The idea at the time was that the technology was still new, and was not without its problems. If someone moved too quickly or too slowly, the eye had trouble registering it. The idea came to me while doing some research online, and coming across several photographs like this:

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While not strictly Steampunk, photos like this inspired me to give Captain Drayton a dodgy artificial eye.

 

In a traditional historical adventure, my pirate would either wear an eyepatch, or simply allow the world to see his empty eye socket. But in a steampunk, or science fiction adventure, there are so many more options.  I am writing about a character in my WIP that ran afoul of some dangerous men, and lost a hand to them. Rather than accept a life without a hand, she now has an elaborate device that allows her close to full functionality of her old hand. The idea for that was inspired by the numerous costumes incorporating steampunk, or clockwork, prostheses. Depending on how the history of the world you create has developed, there is potential for some exciting replacement body parts for your characters.

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Just about everyone has seen this photo floating around online. It was one of my inspirations for a character in my newest project.

In another project, elaborate prostheses inspired one of my characters to develop advanced automatons, which then leads to questions about the morality of creating machines that closely resemble humans. Is it right? Do automatons think and feel? If one is destroyed, is it a murder, or destruction of property?

Tying into my last post, photographs can be a great jumping off point when coming up with ideas for writing projects. just putting yourself into the mind of the person in the photo, imagining what they are thinking. Perhaps figuring out the logistics of how the prosthesis functions. Does it operate through the muscular contractions of the remaining portions of the limb? Is it powered via other means, such as clockwork? Or does it require the owner to operate buttons and switches for it to work properly?

With a goal to do more than just create steampunk prosthetics, I wanted to learn more about how they work and what the actual abilities and limitations of the devices are. Below are a couple of the websites I found while researching. Hopefully those interested in the topic will find them as informative as I did.

http://science.howstuffworks.com/prosthetic-limb.htm

https://www.humantechpando.com/how-does-a-prosthetic-leg-work/

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Writing Setbacks: It’s Been Done Before

Writer

I sit at my laptop, typing merrily away. The story is humming along, characters are positioned and playing their roles. Everything is just where I want it to be.  Then the little voice appears. It whispers, taunting. “That bit you just wrote – yeah, the part where she is fighting valiantly when the sword is knocked from her hands – yeah, that part right there? It’s been done before. A lot. Oh how I hate that little voice. The voice of self-doubt.

I reread the chapter I just wrote. The voice is right. It has been done before. Much more eloquently by better authors. It isn’t identical, but it is familiar. Contrived.  Granted, the little voice is really all in my head, I know that. But it is so damned smug. So satisfied with itself for taking me down a peg or three. I scroll through what I’ve written and consider my options. If I was the same Jason of about five years ago, one of two things would have happened.

Option 1:  I would have read the passage again, shrugged my shoulders and continued on. There was a time when I didn’t care if something was cliché. Then, when I was finished with the writing project, I would have begun to edit, seen all of the same old, same old elements in the story, throw my hands in the air, and tossed the manuscript in a drawer, never to see the light of day again. I have packing box filled with these types of manuscripts, a source of great shame to me.

Option 2:  About two years ago, I would have panicked. It is too common. Every story about pirates has that moment in the story where the hero or heroine is overpowered or outsmarted, and momentarily all appears to be lost. Again, I would probably try, in futility, to salvage the moment, try to make it different, new, and exciting. I would inevitably fail, and frustrated, the manuscript would end up in my box of shame.  Either way, the result would be the same.

But here’s the thing. I am older, and (marginally) wiser. Humans have been telling stories for as long as we have had the ability to speak. There are nearly no truly original moments left to tell. Everything is a variation on, or a twisting of other ideas, other stories. We have our ideas, we put them down on paper or disk, and give the old stories our own spin. Whether it is the hero’s journey, the haunted house, the thrilling tale of adventure, journeying across a distant land, The bones of the story have been laid bare hundreds of thousands of times. It is up to the teller of the story to make it new and exciting for the person listening to or reading the story. I have begun to realize this, and now I can look at my projects and decide if the element should stay in my story.

I kept that element once (Or, more accurately, a similar moment). It gave me the desired effect. Alright, it was a little clichéd, but I weighed the pros and cons and decided for the story I wanted to tell, the moment of pseudo-danger the heroine was in kept my interest, and I was pleased with the ultimate resolution.  In my new project, The “knocked-away sword” moment was a little too much. It didn’t advance the plot quite the way I needed it to, and my main character was not supposed to be in quite the same type of danger. Ultimately, I feel my story is better for the excision. I lost about two days worth of work, but the passage works now, where before I was not at all confident.

Writing setbacks happen. I have found that during my writing journey over the last several years, I have begun to deal with them in a more productive fashion. It is easy to lock the project away and tell yourself it was no good, or that it has been done a million times before. It is so much better to think about your project. If you really want to tell the story, there is a way to make it work. Your story will be so much better for it. Plus, the feeling of accomplishment when you write the closing words of your story is truly amazing. Then you take a breath and smile. Then you realize that only about half the work is done. Now comes the proof reading, editing, and rewrites. But I find that I am still smiling. One step closer to publication.

One step closer.

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

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I want to start by saying Happy New Year to all of you reading this post.  2015 is actually over (although it seems like it only started a few weeks ago).As I sit here writing this, I am reflecting on where the last year has taken me,  and where I want to be as we enter a new year.

I made some decent progress on not one,  but three writing projects.  One is basically done,  the other two are well under way.  My goal is to finish up the first drafts and start editing at least one of them by mid January. Then hoping further changes and edits on the most complete story will be done by February; then I can get it published and focus on marketing,  which I freely admit,  I’m terrible at.

So,  if I was one to make resolutions,  I would say that I want to go from just writing occasionally to getting these projects completed and out there for people to hopefully read. But,  I am not good at staying with my resolutions,  so all I will say is the I am going to keep writing,  but hopefully with more consistency than I managed last year. 

To that end I am going to sit down tonight and write up a writing schedule.  Everything else gets scheduled in my life,  why should writing have to be fit in around my brief breaks in my day?

I have a couple ideas for topics to use for the blog as well.  I think a couple are kind of neat,  so I need to do a little research into the lose topics and put together some ideas.  I’m looking forward to 2016 in a way I haven’t in the past.  There is a lot to do,  and only 364 days left in the year.

For the other writers out there I want to wish you all a productive and successful new year! 

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Steampunk and Monsters Part 2: Vampires

     So, I have made some good progress on my “short” story. As of yesterday, I have surpassed the 15,000 word marker. I suppose at this point, it is no longer a short story, but I still view my baby as a little page turner. Seriously though, for something that started as an image in my head that I wanted to get down on paper (Or on my computer’s hard drive), it has turned out to be a much bigger story than I originally thought possible. That said, Iam still having a blast telling the story, and seeing what my characters are getting up to.
     I am attempting to add a little bit of the supernatural into this story. Within the context of this story, it seemed to make sense. It was actually the reason that I wrote about zombies in my last post (No, there are no zombies in this story. I feel others have written about that particular brand of supernatural baddie much more effectively than I could ever hope to in my stories). I like the freedom in this setting to  experiment a bit, and try something a little different. 
     I am still deciding on the ‘rules’ of the supernatural in the little world I have created. Just like researching the historical aspects of my alternate reality Victorian Era England. I had some obstacles to overcome to make my world ‘work’. For example, I had to do a little research to learn more about radio communication, seeing as radio communication had not yet been invented in the real world 1860s.  I’ve been doing some research to learn some more about the supernatural beliefs that existed during this same time period. Then, I can exploit them and create some fun supernatural horrors to terrorize my unsuspecting victims – I mean characters.

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     Another one of the supernatural creatures I have been researching are vampires. Probably just barely edging out zombies in the history of representation in pop culture, vampires are quite possibly my favorite supernatural creatures. I’m not talking about the vampires as romantic heroes or objects of lust (but I have no problem if that is the type of vampire anyone else enjoys), I am talking about the vampires as horrifying monsters. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was my introduction to this type of monster, and from the admittedly too young age of 8, I was hooked.
     Although I have not yet included vampires in my stories, in a steampunk novel, they are an ideal monster. They reflect many of the base instincts and desires that humans have. They are, ironically, an excellent way to hold a mirror up to human society and show us the worst in ourselves.  They have been extensively used in horror, comedy, and romance, that they might be more cliched in the hands of inexperienced authors. In the hands of an expert, however, a new life has been breathed into them.

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    In Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, for example, vampires have taken over society. While they haven’t destroyed the human race, they are definitely in control of the destinies of the masses. humans become vampire groupies, essentially, offering their bodies and their lifeblood to the undead that have suddenly become popular. Newman’s vampires are mostly creatures that fulfill their every selfish desire. There is an air of gluttony about their feeding, their dealings amongst their own kind is often murderous. The few ‘good’ vampires spend most of their time attempting to  distance themselves from their desires. Their need for blood often treated like an addiction. Newman made vampires scary again in his books, allowing them to commit some truly heinous acts both against humankind, and against each other.
     On the other hand, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series also shows vampires as the monsters they should be. She writes them as beautiful, but their hunger reveals their true, dark nature. Their dark, voracious appetites put those humans that serve under them in constant danger. Carriger’s smart and snarky heroine, Alexia Tarabotti matches wits with the vampire queen in her city, and is good friends with another, despite his monstrous nature, he exists as an outsider within his own kind, much like Alexia.
     Vampires, like zombies, tap into our fear of death. To be sentient and aware of being buried. To be a human attacked and fed upon by a creature that looks like us, talks like us. As humans killed their way to the top of the food chain, they soon found that there were no more monsters out there to kill them. what could be more frightening to a primitive culture than a creature that looked just like your loved ones, but needed to kill humans to slake their thirst for blood.
     While a steampunk vampire wouldn’t look too different from a vampire in any other genre, I could see a whole line of vampire hunting tools that could be inspired by the genre. a quick internet search showed some promising items:

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The child within me is begging for this for Christmas. The adult me is wondering my parents didn't have a tighter rein on me...

    I can picture a seriees of stories about a group of monster hunters using steampunk-inspired weapons and gear to hunt and kill the bloodthirsty monsters attacking their community.  I’m sure this has been done, probably frequently. But I know that Iwould love to write a story like this at some point in the future.  Perhaps Mademoiselle Durand and her crew run afoul of a group of vampires, Or vampire pirates. Or, more likely, a new set of characters could discover an ancient coven of vampires have recently moved into their quiet little village. It will be up to the local blacksmith, the clockmaker, and a handful of locals to defend the village from the oncoming bloodbath. 
    For the writers out there: If your genre of choice is steampunk, do you include supernatural elements? Do vampires, zombies, or witches play a role in any of your stories? Or do you keep your stories strictly about the alternate history and the fantastic steampunk devices that are a staple of the genre? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Steampunk and Monsters: Zombies

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The reanimated corpse of a Union soldier advances on a young woman.  She cowers in fear at the well,  a bucket of water lying on its side where she dropped it. She glances around,  looking for an escape route.  She is pinned between the revenant and the well,  with the farmhouse wall to her left,  and a tall fence,  intended to keep the undead out,  to her right.  As the creature approaches,  it’s arms outstretched,  the young woman does the only thing she can think of –  she let’s out an ear-piercing scream…
The paragraph above could be found in any one of hundreds of horror stories available for purchase in your local bookstore or online. The imagery is clear and conveys the terror felt by the young woman,  the hopelessness of her situation. It shows that the very feature that was meant to protect her (the border fence) has her trapped,  and,  quite possibly,  the next meal for the zombie shuffling toward her.
Horror follows a specific set of rules, and in all likelihood the young lady will a. Be eaten,  b.  Turn into a zombie herself,  or c. Be rescued or escape at the last minute. Straight horror offers a small number of outcomes, two of them  bleak.
Supernatural creatures, zombies in particular, have become a staple of the steampunk genre. And somehow,   they usually fit much more believably in the steampunk realities that we get to read,  than they do in straight horror stories. From the strange,  flesh-rot  victims of Cheri Priest’s Clockwork Century series (which I totally need to read again,  FYI) to the creepy steampunk zombie artwork all over the Internet, this particular brand of monster has become a bit cliché in film and television.  But in the steampunk setting,  zombies can,  and often do get a steampunk twist.
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The young woman in this scenario mat employ the use of a piece of steampunk technology,  such as a tiny, high powered pistol, or flame thrower that will destroy the zombie.  An airship arrives on the scene,  dropping a ladder for the young lady to climb.  As the ship flies high above the fenced in outpost, the young lady thanks the dashing young pilot and they fly off toward a new adventure.
     Perhaps your zombie isn’t fully reanimated,  and is simply a shell to some sophisticated clockwork device; or maybe there is a plague that isn’t outright killing people and turning them,  but instead,  the plague causes necrosis, increased strength,  and eventually rage filled attacks on others,  before an eventual horrifying death; or maybe,  there is the use of more folklore-accurate zombies in your story (cue the research potion of my post) :
Once upon a time, a zombie was a part of Haitian folklore. Fear was struck into the hearts of the public at the notion that a bokor, or practitioner of Vodou, would turn their deceased loved ones into zombies. These zombies were not of the flesh eating variety,  rather,  according to the folklore, they were supposedly used as personal slaves to the bokor. They existed somewhere between life and death,  with no free will.  Death was the only release.
Earlier than this,  the ancient people’s around the world told tales of the dead Rising from their graves and feasting upon the flesh of the living. The causes were invariably magical in nature. The person may have been punished by a powerful magician,  or committed evil acts in life.  Ultimately,  they would die,  only to rise from the dead and carry out gory rampages.
The twentieth century saw a decline in humanity’s belief in magic,  so the true belief in zombies dissipated. The Cold War and ensuing nuclear arms race led to the fear that radiation could lead to horrible transformations.  Thus came a series of giant monster movies, and eventually, with George
A.  Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The modern concept of the zombie was introduced.  Gone were the days of cursed souls,  instead radiation and contaminated waste acted as catalysts for the rise of the flesh eating menace. These new zombies showed how modern technologies changed us as people.  We would appear as monsters to our ancestors from thousands of years ago.  These zombies have become the standard: World War Z and The Walking Dead have become the modern face of zombies,  for better or worse. For the writers out there: Do you write zombies into your stories?  If so,  what type of zombie are they?

Writing About What You (Don’t) Know

    
     Write what you know. The cliché every budding author hears. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, at some point some helpful individual will share this pearl of wisdom with you, thinking it will somehow make you a better writer. Some defend this cliché by saying it doesn’t mean to just fictionalize your life, but to write about the emotions, the atmosphere, or mood you have personally experienced.

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     Rubbish. For inexperienced writers, this can be a bit of helpful advice to get the creativity flowing. But it soon too easily becomes a crutch. Writing characters and transposing your thoughts and feelings onto them is lazy writing; and worse, your writing will often not read true. If you want to have believable, relatable characters, obeying this “rule”
     Strive to write what you don’t know. Write from perspectives that differ from your own. Staying within the safe cocoon of what you know may make you feel comfortable, but if you want to become known as a writer, this will not likely help you get noticed. “But how do I write what I don’t know?” One might ask. The idea of writing from the perspective of someone whose emotions and life experiences have differed from your own is daunting. The solution is simple.
     Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t think about maybe doing it one day, once you have a little more writing experience. Do it now. Talk to people that have different views from your own. Create characters that challenge your viewpoints. Create a pacifist who opposes all acts of aggression. Create a devious liar who is hiding amongst your heroes, plotting to destroy them from within. Then, just as you are really starting to hate the character, give the reader insight into the character’s psyche. Show them why this antagonist is trying to sabotage the heroes. Research for your story. Learn about your topic. If you have a wild west gunslinger in your story, learn how a gun works. Learn what types of firearms were in use during the time period.
     This is one of my longer term goals. I have stayed within my comfort zone for too long. My challenge is to make a likeable villain. I am trying to get inside the head of someone willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to achieve their desired goal. It is easy to create an over the top villain. I want to make the character believable, and on some level, a little sympathetic. I’ve been brushing up on my psychology, learning more about the way the mind works. Research is a rough, tedious,and completely necessary part of the writing process.
     So, challenge yourselves. Don’t write cookie-cutter characters who all think, feel, and react in the same way. Make your cowardly confidante, your acrophobic hero. Defy the well meaning nay sayers that think writing what you know will help you be a better writer. Tell the stories you want to tell – but tell them believably.

Fantastic Devices to Improve Your Steampunk Reality Part 2: The Airship

     So, as an extension of my previous post, I am taking a look at another essential piece of technology to the Steampunk genre: Airships. They have been a staple of both the steampunk genre as well as alternative history in general- and with good reason. The images conjured up when a description of a sky filled with airships of all sizes and shapes fills your page are often indescribable.

     Often the images that fill her head resemble flying versions of the traditional water bound vessels, such as this:

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Who wouldn't want to fly in one of these?

     Some with propellers, others with sails, with crews of men and women that appear to have been pulled from high seas adventure stories. These images and others much like them have existed in our minds since Jules Verne first put pen to paper. Amazing machines capable of things that were once only possible in the wildest of imaginations.

     These devices seem tailor-made for the steampunk genre. Steam powered engines fuelled by coal and the sweat of the crew belching black smoke into the heavens. The vision is both romantic and a bit Stark, with the realization that many of these stories involve at least on a subconscious level, the darker side to the progress. With pollution, thick smog, and poor health as side effects of the push for progress.

     The reality of airships is slightly less beautiful but no less majestic:

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     Real dirigibles were less elegant, but inspiring. In these real pieces of flying technology, people were able to break free of the earth below. Machines like these helped to inspire the imaginations of the first modern Writers of science fiction

     Within the reality of the world I am writing, I have a combination of real-world dirigibles and the more fancifully designed airships. The blimp-style tends to be chosen for function, while the ships based on their nautical counterparts are purchased more for vanity.

     A look at some of the available photographs of some of the airship interiors has helped me to better understand not only how these vehicles were built, but it gives me a clearer picture of where the different sections of the ship are in relation to each other, as well as what controls and communications Devices were used.

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Control room

     There is so much to learn about the airships of the past. My focus is on flight control and procedures. I have a confession: I am a learning nerd. One of the things I love about writing is that it gives me a reason to research different topics. Whether it is about the History of flying machines or the life of a 19th century pirate, I get to learn things I might never have thought to research, if not for the project in progress at any given time. But, as usual. I find myself over-researching. I start out looking for specific information, such as the altitude of flight or amount of time it would take to travel via airship from England to the U.S; then before I realize it, I have pages of notes. then I have to hunt through those notes for the information I actually need.

     For the writers: when you research, do you look for specific information, or do you find yourself going more in-depth with the research?

Links

http://www.airships.net/

http://io9.com/the-most-astounding-airships-dirigibles-and-zeppelins-1515616128