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.

Fictional Yorkshire

sharon-cover-ebookI’ve just read a lovely novel set in ‘God’s Own County’ (which is what Yorkshire folk call the place where they live). It’s ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth which is set in the fictional village of Kearton Bay which is based on Robin’s Hood Bay on the North Yorkshire coast.  For me there’s something wonderful about reading about somewhere I know.  It adds another dimension to a novel as I get to see somewhere familiar through someone else’s eyes.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a fabulous place, a village built on a ridiculously steep hill with a history of smuggling.  The name is apparently a bit misleading as they say Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest fame never went there.   Reading Sharon’s book I could imagine the village that I know filled with the wonderful cast of characters that she’s created.  They’re the kind of warm, interesting people that I like to think live in such a wonderful location.

Barley Hall Interior

Setting is really important to me when I read and when I write.  ‘Sovereign’ by CJ Sampson is set in York in 1541 when Henry the Eight visited the city.  I know some people found the historical details a bit heavy handed but I loved reading about places that are familiar to me now through the lens of historical fiction.  In the acknowledgements CJ Sampson talked about how visiting Barley Hall in York had helped his research.  I used to be a volunteer guide at Barley Hall and as I’d read the book I’d thought that the lawyer’s house seemed a bit familiar. It was great to know that Barley Hall had been his inspiration.

However if you’re going to use this city or county then you have to get it right.  I’ve read a couple of books where authors clearly don’t know York very well.  Alleys mysteriously appear where they don’t exist, characters walk down the wrong streets to get to where they’re going.  I’ve been known to put books down and never pick them up again for errors like that.  A friend stopped read Danny Wallace’s ‘Charlotte Street’ even though she was enjoying it because, as a regular visitor to Whitby, she knew there wasn’t a McDonald’s and couldn’t forgive that mistake.

Robin Hood's Bay
Robin Hood’s Bay

As I have a ridiculously overambitious tendency to write about places where I don’t live (so far Glastonbury and Orkney) in I’m very aware of the risks of making those kinds of mistakes.  You don’t want to jolt your reader out of your fictional world by getting something like that wrong.  I’m starting to think that Sharon’s approach is the right one and I may be fictionalising all my settings in the future.  But then, if I’d made up a place like Glastonbury, who’d have believed me?

You can buy ‘There Must Be An Angel’ by Sharon Booth here and read my Goodreads review here.

Knitted Together

Last weekend I went to the Unravel, Festival of Knitting in Farnham in Surrey.  I’m an occasional crocheter (I used to do a lot more before I started writing novels) and am just about competent with a pair of knitting needles.  I saw some amazing hand-crafted garments, beautiful wool and yarn in every possible shade and came home with lots of lovely ideas.

IMG_0673But the most inspiring thing was also the most unformed and random. It’s a project called ‘The Blue Jumper’ which has been put together by an artist called Sarah Filmer.

As you can tell it’s not actually a jumper at all but a community knitting project.  Knitters are invited to join in and knit as much or as little as they like.  There’s only two rules, you must use blue yarn and you have to knit directly onto the piece.

While I was adding my few rows there were a group of about six ladies doing the same.  When we’d finished Sarah Filmer took our names so that she’s got a record of everyone who’s been involved and gave us a blue badge.  So far over 700 people have knitted part of the Blue Jumper and it’s been to art exhibitions, festivals, care homes and community centres.

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Sarah’s put together a little book about the project which includes copies of notes that knitters have written after they’ve worked on the jumper.  Some of them are hugely moving as people tell how it got them knitting again after a bereavement or helped them make friends in a new area.

I was involved in a community knitting project last summer when I helped knit a bike (yes,really) to celebrate the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire.  As the whole county went cycling mad it was fabulous to be involved in a small way in the celebrations and to help create something special that was displayed in one of the parks in York.

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As we all know writing can be a lonely business. The Blue Jumper made me remember how important it is to do other creative things.  So I’ve made a resolution to get out from behind my laptop and meet other people to chat about yarn and life.  And who knows what incredible stories might come out of that?

You can find out more about the Blue Jumper here  and some fabulous photos of the York knitted bike here

Deck the Halls

IMG_0610I tend to be a bit last minute when it comes to Christmas.  My tree goes up the weekend before, presents are wrapped on Christmas Eve and that’s when I really start to feel festive.  But this year things have happened to get me into the Christmas mood a little sooner.

At the weekend I went to Castle Howard which is better IMG_0613known to many people as Brideshead as it was the location for both the 1981 TV series and the 2008 film of Brideshead Revisited.  As it’s only about half an hour from where I live I’ve been many times. I’ve even been lucky enough to have been on a tour with the Honourable Simon Howard as our guide which took us into rooms which are not usually open to the public.

In December the house is dressed for Christmas.  We’re talking a Downtonesque type country house Christmas.  Imagine having a tree so large you need a small crane to get the angel on the top or owning beautiful Christmas decorations that have been in the family since the 1920s like these gorgeousIMG_0606 little birds with the peacock feather tails.

There’s trees in pretty much every room, from small gold or silver twig style affairs to the enormous fir in the Great Hall.  But the decorations don’t stop there.  The usually dour Greek statues are decked with holly and ivy; candles burn all over the house and amazing, extravagant flower arrangements fill mantle pieces and tables.  With a jazz band playing Christmas classics in the Long Gallery you’d have to have a heart like Scrooge’s before the ghosts started dropping in to not feel a warm and fuzzy glow of festive cheer.

IMG_0608Later that afternoon I went to a mumming play at the house of a friend.  This was my first ever mumming play which, as someone who’s fascinated by folklore and folk music, is a bit of an oversight on my part.  It was delightful in a homemade kind of way.  Saint George was killed in a sword fight by a baddy with snakes for hair (I think I’ve got that bit right – he was actually wearing a purple wig) and was cured by a slightly dodgy doctor who used holly and ivy to bring him back from the dead. Old Mother Mud’s son, Tom flew to the moon and came home with the nativity in a basket.  There was a very different kind of magic in it but a magic all the same.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas I wish you a very happy one. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog over the past six months.  It’s been great to have your company and to read your comments.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Alys xx

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