Remarkable machines, feisty heroines and tea – 5 reasons why I love #Steampunk

With the publication of my first Steampunk novel, The Dirigible King’s Daughter yesterday I’ve been thinking about what first drew me to write steampunk. Like many people I suspect I came to it via Gail Carriger and then realised that I’d already read some steampunk books like The Golden Compass.  I’d also been to Whitby GothFest (as a spectator, not a participant – one day I may be brave enough to actually dress up and take part) and become increasingly fascinated by the sheer possibilities and inventiveness of steampunk. IMG_1557

I’ve joked that it was my obsession with tea that drew me into writing steampunk.  Here was a world where the characters seemed to share my belief in the restorative powers of a pot of Earl Grey.  But there is rather more to it than that and, in no particular order, these are the things that I love most about the marvellous world of steampunk.

Feisty Heroines

I don’t know about you but I find a lot of heroines in modern women’s fiction a bit limp.  I could kind of relate to Bridget Jones but the heroines that I have come after her seem to have taken Bridget’s insecurities to a new level.  How do they hold down jobs (even if they do only ‘fanny around with press releases’ to quote Daniel Cleaver) or actually make a decision about anything more serious than which pair of shoes to buy next?  It seems that most of them are incapable of knowing their own minds which I find deeply tedious.  But this is not a problem I’ve ever found with steampunk heroines.  They’re strong, capable women, entirely able to fly a dirigible single handed (Elle in Liesel Schwarz’s The Chronicles of Light and Shadow) or perform sorcery at the Queen’s behest (Emma in Lilith Saintcrow’s Bannon and Clare books).  Harriet Hardy, the heroine of The Dirigible King’s Daughter has been described by author and blogger, Barb Taub, as ‘a kickass, pistol packing Victorian feminist’.  I’m pretty sure that means she also qualifies as feisty.

Remarkable Machines

DSC01962I’d be the first to admit that I’m not hugely technically minded and I needed some help to understand the internal workings of steam engines or how dirigibles take-off but I found that I do love steam powered machines.  This may be my father’s fault for dragging me around steam fairs at a young age and taking me to the National Railway Museum every holiday but there’s something about the majesty of steam that just gets to me.  I’m quite capable of welling up on sight of a steam engine and cried buckets watching the programme about the refurbishment of The Flying Scotsman.  The great thing about steampunk is that I could take that and play with it.  Ask what if it did this as well?  What if that was possible?  I’m not promising that all of the machines that I’ve created would actually have worked but I had fun dreaming them up.

Manners

Not all steampunk books operate in world where manners matter but I tend to like best the ones where they do.  One of the things I like best about Alexi Tarabotti (from The Parasol Protectorate) is that she doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour from anyone, be they vampire, werewolf or human and she’s always ready with a witty putdown if necessary.  Having read much Jane Austen and Victorian literature in my misspent youth (misspent because I spent it reading Jane Austen and Victorian literature rather than down the pub or at parties) that kind of dialogue seems quite familiar to me.  I also work in a world where there’s a lot of protocol and procedures and so I’m used to having conversations and correspondence where you have to be icy polite to the other person. When I was writing the book it was fascinating to have characters who couldn’t say what they really meant because of their social code. As Harriet and Charlie come from rather different worlds there was a clash when their values came into conflict which Harriet was sometimes willing to exploit but mainly fought against.

A better world?

shutterstock_278293358There’s a sense in steampunk that society lost something fundamental in the move from steam technology to the modern world of computers and electronics.  It’s not just nostalgia for a world that’s gone but a sense that things could have worked out so much better if technology had developed down a different route and we’d remained dependent on steam power. Fewer wars maybe, perhaps a more equal society.  Of course some of those changes started with steam. In Full Steam Ahead (essential research for future steampunk novels) they said that the changes brought in by the railways accelerated the pace of life which has, of course, continued to speed up.  But I can’t be the only person who hankers after a slower, more elegant pace of life.

Clothes

WaistcoatIt’s fair to say that I wasted a lot of time looking at pictures of frocks from the 1890s and calling it research.  I love the dresses but I’m very glad I don’t have to wear one of those corsets to get in one!  By the 1890s it was becoming more common for women to work and the fashions reflect that in the adoption of quite masculine styles and the introduction of the shirtwaist.  I still don’t understand how a woman was supposed to hold down a job while wearing an enormous hat with the same kind of circumference as a tea tray but maybe she was allowed to take it off while using one of those newfangled typewriters.  Of course, steampunk has its own fabulous fashions and I’ve allowed little touches of that into my characters clothes.  As a working woman in Whitby, Harriet was not going to be at the forefront of fashion and I like to think she would have worn something like this waistcoat.

The Dirigible King's Daughter by Alys WestThanks for taking the time to read my post.  What to you love about steampunk?  Which steampunk books do you like best? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to find out more about The Dirigible King’s Daughter then please click here.  It’s now available to purchase as an ebook on Amazon here  You can also see my steampunk inspirations for the book (and lots of gorgeous frocks) on my Pinterest board.

Putting steam into steampunk

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When I decided I was going to write a steampunk novel I rapidly realised that I had a bit of a problem on my hands. You see, I don’t really understand how steam works.   I get the elegance of it, the wonderful glamour of steam.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched ‘Brief Encounter’ or ‘The Railway Children’.   But they don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of how a steam train works. And suddenly the nitty gritty was what I needed.

Now I know that many very successful steampunk writers don’t worry too much about all of that and merrily make things up with scant regard for the laws of physics.  But sadly, especially as I don’t even have an O’ level in physics, my brain refused to work that way.  Apparently if I was going to make stuff up, it had to have a basis in some kind of fact.  The only problem was that I didn’t understand the facts.IMG_0345

Fortunately I know a man who does.  My Dad loves all things steam and, having been taken to the National Railway Museum more times than I can count as a child, you’d have thought that something would have sunk in but no.  Which is why the last few months have found me doing things I’d never expected, reading books about Zeppelins, watching ‘Locomotion’ on BBC2 for a reason other than to look at Dan Snow and going to a steam fair.  I was dragged to these events when I was a kid and was bored to death.  Little did I think that many years later I’d be there asking questions and really trying to understand.

DSC01941Unfortunately the understanding part didn’t go too well.  You see, we were starting from a very low base. My first question, when we’re stood on a makeshift platform looking down on a traction engine’s engine, was something like ‘So the coal heats the water and that makes the steam?’  Fortunately, my Dad managed not to laugh and, with much pointing and hand movements, tried his best to explain. I got some of it but then my brain simply refused to co-operate.  Somehow when I hear words like ‘torque’, ‘pressure’ and ‘propulsion’ it just drifts off to thinking about something else like cake or books or Aidan Turner.

DSC01913So in the end, when it came down to the writing, I still had to get on and make stuff up. I’m not one hundred percent sure it works yet but I have found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the world of steam.  Which I guess is what’s really important if you’re going to write steampunk. Just don’t tell my Dad or I’ll never hear the end of it!

I’ve got a Pinterest board for my steampunk research for my new novel which you can find here and has more photographs of all things steam related and some absolutely gorgeous frocks (honest, looking at them was research too!)

Photo of train wheels by Maynard Case http://www.maynardcase.co.uk

My turn on the Lovely Blog Hop

I’ve been asked by my fabulous friend, Jessica Redland, to take part in the Lovely Blog Hop where writers talk about some of the things which have shaped their lives and their writing.  Jessica lives not far from me in Scarborough and we often meet up for cake and to talk about writing.  Her first novel, Searching for Steven, a charming romantic comedy set in a fictional town on the Yorkshire coast is out on 3rd June and is available for pre-order here.  You can read Julie’s blog here

Now as anyone who knows me well is aware I’m not all that good at sharing information about myself so the Lovely Blog Hop is a bit of tough one for me as it involves talking about myself. A lot.  I’ll do my best but if I wander off a bit then I apologise in advance!

First Memory

IMG_0780My first really clear memory is from when we moved to York when I was nearly 4.  The day we moved into the new house our new next door neighbour walked up through the garden and knocked on the back door.  It seemed like she was completely surrounded by girls and my Mum said ‘Are these all yours?’  Only two of them belonged to our neighbour.  The other six or seven lived around and about.  Our neighbour said, ‘does she want to come out to play?’ (I must have been too little for people to actually ask me a question) and Mum must have said ‘yes’ because that was it really.  My parents say that I really only came home for meals and to sleep for the next five years or so.  I spent the rest of my time out playing with the girls I met on that first day.

Books

I’ve always loved books and my parents said that I was never hard to entertain once I’d learned to read (that could also have been because I was hardly ever at home!) I read Enid Blyton, as many pony books as I could get my hands on and all of the Swallows & Amazons series.  My Dad still had his copies of those and they now stand proudly on my bookshelf waiting to be handed on to my nephew when he’s old enough. IMG_0782

In my twenties I read the classics and actually waded through War & Peace which took me almost a year.  I adore Jane Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favourites.  These days I rarely have the energy for serious literature and read entirely for entertainment.  At the moment I’m reading Stoner by John Williams for my book club and Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham for a bit of light relief.

Libraries

IMG_0781Mum and Dad took me to the library from a very early age and for a while in my teens I wanted to be a librarian.  Somewhat to my regret, I grew out of that idea but I still think it would be a lovely job.  The libraries in York have always been very good and have survived relatively unscathed from recent cuts.  I’m extremely grateful for the huge range of books that they’ve been able to lend me whilst I’ve been writing Beltane and Lughnasa.  From books about witchcraft and druids (which generated some interesting looks from the library assistants, I can tell you!) to tomes on the history of Glastonbury and the islands of Orkney they’ve hardly ever let me down.

What’s your passion?

Writing is my greatest passion but I’m going to talk about that later so I’ll have to find another one.  Would Ross Poldark sound too shallow?  Yes? Alright, I’ll try again…

Loch of Stenness at sunset
Loch of Stenness at sunset

I love folk music and going to folk gigs.  I’m pretty obsessed with Orkney at the moment, does that count?  Oh and I’m passionate about Yorkshire and will bang on about how amazing ‘God’s Own County’ is even though I’m not strictly speaking a true Yorkshire woman as I wasn’t actually born here.

Learning

I was a bit of a girly swot when I was younger.  I got decent O’ levels, rather embarrassingly good A’ levels and a competent degree.  I’ve always enjoyed learning and these days I get to impose my love of learning on students as I tutor at the university one day a week.  The thing I’m really loving at the moment is seeing how my nephew and godson learn about the world.  Nephew’s favourite word is currently ‘why’ and he simply will not give up.  If you answer a question and he’s not happy with the reply then he’ll say ‘why’ again and again until you come up with something better.  To be honest, he’s tougher to please than the undergraduates.  At least with them I’m allowed to tell them to go away and look it up for themselves!

Writing

IMG_0024 (2)I tried to write my first novel when I was eight.  It was a Famous Five type adventure with added ponies.  I’m absolutely sure it was terrible but it was the start of my desire to write and I’ve known since then that I wanted to be a writer.  I started writing seriously five years ago and I absolutely love it.  I’m a much happier person since then.  It’s a wonderful thing to have something in my life that I’m absolutely passionate about and makes me happy and it’s got me through some very testing times in the past few years.  I’m currently taking a break from my second novel, Lughnasa to write a steampunk novella set in Whitby.  With luck that will be ready to be published in the late summer.

This is the point where I’m supposed to hand over to another writer to take the Lovely Blog Hop forward but everyone I know has either already done it or is too busy.  Instead I’m going to suggest that you might like to read Sharon Booth’s turn on the Lovely Blog Hop which you can find here.  But if you’re reading this and thinking ‘I’d like a go at that Lovely Blog Hop’ then do please let me know and I’ll pass the (metaphorical) baton to you.

Ghostly Whitby

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In the days around Halloween, English Heritage transformed Whitby Abbey with light and stories.  The ruins were bathed in coloured lights. Turning the west end a glorious shade of purple, drenching arches in ghostly green and lighting the pillars blood red.

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In the darkness we gathered to hear stories. Burke and Hare told us tales of grave robbing and dissection.  Calling themselves ‘Resurrectionists’ they took bodies from churchyards and sold them to a surgeon who used them in his anatomy classes.  They demonstrated not only how to get a corpse from a grave without anyone realising but how to kill someone without leaving a mark on their body.  Apparently the secret is to get the victim blind drunk and then chloroform them (definitely not one to try at home!)  Although I knew their names, I hadn’t been aware that they lived in Edinburgh, the enormous amounts of money that they earned from body snatching or that they eventually turned to murder in order to get fresher corpses.

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At the opposite end of the abbey, was Catherine Eddowes the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.  She warned us that her talk wasn’t for the faint hearted and she was right.  She told us about living in Whitechapel in 1888 and how she’d been arrested for drunkenness that evening.  She thought that as the Ripper had struck once that night she’d be safe as she walked home.  She was wrong.  She explained in explicit detail what happened to the other victims.  I had to look up when I got home how she died and it made a shiver run down my spine.

Of course, I know that they were talented actors telling these stories.  But when you’re listening to the tales in the dark with a bitter wind whistling around the ruins and half the audience dressed in period costume (it was Goth Weekend in Whitby) it was impossible not to get caught up in the moment and feel like I’d, just for a few minutes, wandered into another time.

A Steampunk Winter’s Tale

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Last Saturday was launch day for the short story anthology, Winter Tales – Stories to Warm Your Heart.  As one of the Write Romantics I’ve been working on this since February when we first came up with the idea.  You can read more about the anthology and why we decided to publish it here.

Thomas with nebuliserAbsolutely every penny we get from sales of the anthology will go to two amazing charities, the Teenage Cancer Trust and Cystic Fibrosis Trust.  My nephew, who is 3, has cystic fibrosis and the fact that we’re raising funds to help him and other children like him means an awful lot to me.  You can find out more about the work of the CF Trust here.

My short story for the anthology is called A Pistol for Propriety. It’s set in Whitby and was my first, but hopefully not my last, attempt at steampunk.  Whitby is one of my favourite places and it was great fun to set a story in some of the places that I love visiting like the 199 steps to the abbey and St Mary’s church.

Goth girlsIf you’ve ever been in Whitby during Goth Weekend then you’ll have seen people in steampunk costumes.  Steampunk is a tricky thing to define. Wikipedia goes for ‘a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century’. I can’t say I felt much wiser after reading that.  My favourite explanation comes from Liesel Schwarz, author of A Conspiracy of Alchemists, who described it as ‘what happened when Goths discovered brown’!Steampunk

So here’s a little extract from A Pistol for Propriety:

Moving over to the piano, Harriet stared at his back. He stood, long strong legs planted squarely on the Axminster carpet, staring out of the window, apparently more interested in the view than the décor.  What was it about the way he spoke which took her back to those last lazy days in York?  Careless, summer afternoons of tennis parties and glorious evenings dancing in the elegant Assembly Rooms.  The young men she’d known then had that same casual confidence, same easy charm.  

She shook her head slightly. No point dwelling on the past.    

“Is there any information you would like to know?” she asked.  Her tone was more pointed than she’d intended.  “My lord,” she added, more quietly.

“You can stop tripping over the title for one thing.” He turned to give her a quick glance over his shoulder. “I’ve only had it for a few months and as I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony it’s been hard to get used to.”

IMG_0024 (2)“If you wish,” Harriet said carefully.  She’d not had many dealings with the nobility but this kind of behaviour seemed as unconventional as his clothes.

“I’ll be visiting with my mother and two younger sisters.  Amelia’s been ill and mother thinks some sea air will do her good.  As they’re mad for this Dracula book they wouldn’t consider going anywhere else.”

“Mr Stoker’s book has caused quite a sensation in London I understand.  Your sisters are not the only ones who want to see the places they’ve read about.” 

“I’m just grateful they haven’t taken it into their heads to want to go to Transylvania,” Lord Ripley said a little grumpily.

“May I enquire as to the ages of your sisters?” Harriet found herself drawn to join him at the window.

“Eighteen and twenty one.” As if he’d suddenly became aware of it, his hand rubbed at the soot marks on his trousers.  “I don’t think they have a sensible thought between them from one day to the next.”

Harriet smiled.  “I’m sure I was no different at their age.”

Lord Ripley raised his eyebrows.  “That I cannot believe, Miss Hardy.”

DSCF1932His gaze held hers.  She blinked and turned away.  “Shall we view the dining room?” she asked hastily.  Not waiting for his reply Harriet swiftly returned to the hall and opened the door to the dining room. 

Trailing her hand along the lengthy expanse of the mahogany table, Harriet felt a little flushed.  It had been a very long time since a man had looked at her like that.

If you want to find out what happens to Harriet and Lord Ripley then you’ll find the rest of their story in Winter Tales.  If it’s not your cup of tea then there’s 23 other stories which are not steampunk but are wonderful, heart-warming stories (generally involving an awful lot of snow) so there’s plenty of good reasons to buy the anthology and help support the work of these two incredible charities. Winter Tales is an absolute bargain at £1.53 for the next few days and it’s available here

Thanks for reading

Alys x

Steampunk Research at Lanhydrock

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I love visiting stately homes and grand country houses.  There’s something about these glimpses into long gone lives that I find really fascinating. I’m also a sucker for costume drama and historical novels.

Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen
Copper kettles and pans in the kitchen

However when I started writing a steampunk short story for the Write Romantics charity anthology I realised that I’d not learned as much as I’d thought from all of this.  Suddenly, every detail became important.  Although steampunk is an alternate history I didn’t want to get it wildly wrong so I found myself researching when men started wearing wristwatches, wasting hours looking at photos of ladies fashions from 1890 (the hats are incredible – I will never know how anyone did anything in a hat that size!) and trying to get my head around steam technology.

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When I visited Lanhydrock House in Cornwall, a beautiful late Victorian country house, I was determined to pay more attention to the details.  Especially the innovations that were state of the art at that time.  The National Trust have done an amazing job with Lanhydrock and it feels like a home which is still lived in, almost as if the inhabitants have just walked out of the rooms.

Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Rack for draining dishes in the scullery
Dairy - I'm told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Dairy – I’m told that they would fill the channel with hot water when they were making clotted cream.
Lady's travelling medicine chest
Lady’s travelling medicine chest
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.
Picnic basket with small kettle. My Mum told me that her uncle had one that was a bit like this (but not as posh) and the kettle was powered by meths.

The Write Romantics charity anthology which includes my steampunk story, A Pistol for Propriety, will be out in early November.  You can find out more about it at here