Posts Tagged ‘alternate history’

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.

Almost.

Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

Steampunk is a curious and often inconsistent thing, particularly when it’s the steampunk of Lavie Tidhar. I worked my way with interest through the oddity that was The Bookman. I read its sequel Camera Obscura with great excitement. And so at last I came to the final volume, The Great Game, eager to find out whether it would live up to its title.

First Class Characters

The Great Game is a story of spycraft and intrigue set in Tidhar’s Bookman world, a 19th century alternate history with lizard monarchs, alien devices and literary characters roaming the streets. That name – the Bookman – draws attention to the sort of characters we’re dealing with here – literary borrowings such as Mycroft Holmes and Victor Frankenstein, as well as archetypes such as The Bookman‘s Orphan and this volume’s retired secret agent Smith.

Despite their well worn familiarity, those characters are one of the absolute highlights of this book. In particular, the reluctantly re-activated Smith and current agent Lucy are vivid, well depicted characters who I found good company and excellent drivers for their strands of the story. They’re clever and determined, pressing on through the confusion and overwhelming odds of their circumstances. Though Camera Obscura‘s Milady remains my favourite protagonist from this series, these are good, and certainly better than Orphan, who as Dial H for Houston pointed out, suffered from passivity and dullness.

A Very Tidhar Plot

Smith and Lucy’s paths, and those of the other characters, take them through a journey that’s one part John le Carré tension, one part Bond-style action, and one part batshit crazy. That weird and wonderful world is a big part of the appeal of this series, and it plays off here in spectacular style. The spies are doubly spy-like, the crazy ten times what it was, creating a sense that both the characters and the story could be overwhelmed at any moment.

Therein lies both the beauty and the problem of this book. I know others have found this plot chaotic, though I thought it cleverly intertwined rather than rambling like the first book. But it definitely lacks coherence in places, most critically the ending. Without giving the great game away, I felt that the ending lacked the sort of closure a thousand page series left me wanting, while not giving me enough to instead ponder the possibilities of what would come next.

Good But Disappointing

Look at the book’s cover, the version I’ve used in this post. Isn’t it bold? Isn’t it dynamic? Doesn’t it fill you with a desire for retro, pulpy, genre-mashing action? That’s what I wanted, even expected at first, from these books, and it’s an expectation they didn’t deliver on. They’re fascinating but flawed, far stronger in their ideas than their narrative cohesion, the bit players often more intriguing than the protagonists.

I’m glad I read this series, and that I saw it through to the end. These are good books. I’d even go so far as to call Camera Obscura great. But they don’t deliver on what they seem to promise, and that, for me, was their downfall.

For me as a writer, it’s also a very important lesson. Make sure your book does what it promises to, or you’ll have some disappointed readers.

233849776_ca4a1b5497_zLady Joanna thought of herself as well-mannered, but there were times when the world tested her patience. Sending her servants to join Queen Mary’s army at Framlingham had been the just act of a woman aiding her friend, even if it meant having to dress herself. The possibility of raids from the pretender Jane’s supporters instilled fear in her, but pride that they might consider her a worthy target. Discovering that she had been sold a useless mummy, powdered fragments of its wrapping providing no power for her visions, no way to tell how the struggle went? That was beyond the pale.

“A pox on Simon of Ipswich,” she muttered as she reached inside the upright sarcophagus. She should have known that a man that obnoxious would sell false goods.

Scraping pieces of mummia from the wrappings into her mortar, she ground them, tipped them into wine and downed the gritty, bitter results. But no vision came as it had in the past.

A noise made her spin around, eyes wide and staring at the mummy. Something was amiss, but what?

That noise again, a low groaning. Then the mummy’s arms rose, and it stepped slowly out of the sarcophagus, bandaged feet thumping on the tiled floor.

Joanna’s heart pounded – this was not how a corpse was meant to behave. But she was determined not to let her fear show. She straightened her shoulders and looked the creature in the eye.

“I don’t know what you are playing at.” She waved a finger in its face. “But I am having none of it. Your time of moving around has passed. Get back in your coffin so that I can take more mummia.”

Taking another step forward, the mummy reached out toward her.

“I said back.” Glaring did no good.

Joanna was all out of gentlewomanly options, but then serving her own breakfast had been an ungentlewomanly act. The line had been crossed, and there was no sense worrying about it now. Placing both hands on the mummy’s chest, she tried to push it back into the sarcophagus.

“Back I tell you!” It was no good. The creature was far stronger than her, and completely unmoved by the assault.

The thunder of hooves and rattle of gravel announced new arrivals at the house. Rushing to the window, Joanna peered out through the leaded pains. Four ruffians were dismounting and making for her door, swords drawn.

“I will deal with you later,” she said to the mummy as she tried frantically to plan her next step. Could she flee? Probably not, without the stable boy to saddle her horse. Could she fight? She had never used a sword, but how difficult could it be? Except that there were no swords in the dining hall, and the men’s footsteps were already coming close.

The door burst open and the ruffians stomped inside, leaving muddy footprints all over her floor.

“You’re to come with us.” Their leader walked past the stationary mummy and straight toward her.

“Most of this stuff, too.” Another of them started grabbing silverware off the sideboard.

“I will not.” Joanna folded her arms and prepared to argue, but two of the men grabbed hold of her. “Unhand me at once!”

“Not a chance.” The leader’s laughter was as ugly and brutish as he was.

Determination turned to nauseating fear in Joanna’s stomach. She had heard terrible things about what happened to women in times of civil war, even noblewomen.

But the laughter was cut short as a bandaged hand descended onto the ruffian’s shoulder. He jumped six inches into the air and spun around, sword stretched out toward the mummy. It stumbled toward him with slow, steady steps, groaning once more.

“Get back!” The man thrust his sword a few inches into the mummy’s chest, where it became stuck, not budging as he wrestled with the hilt.

The man next to him screamed in terror, dropped a pair of candlesticks and ran from the house. His companions followed suit, the leader sticking around just long enough for the mummy to lunge at him again before he ran, pale and shaking, out onto the drive.

They galloped away in a spray of gravel.

“I’m sorry about that.” Lady Joanna placed one hand on the mummy’s chest, grabbed the protruding sword with the other, and gave it a twist. The blade quickly came free. “I would never normally allow such riffraff into my house, but these are trying times.”

The mummy tilted its head, apparently looking down at the sword and then back to Joanna’s face. It raised a hand, and after a moment’s hesitation patted Joanna slowly on the shoulder.

She sagged with relief, and then offered the mummy a smile.

“Fine, I won’t keep scraping away your wrappings.” She poured a new goblet of wine, this time without any gritty additions. “I could do with some help around here anyway.” She took a sip, and a thought crossed her mind. “I don’t suppose you know how to prepare dinner, do you?”

* * *

This story was inspired by a whole bunch of different little details. I learned about mummia, the dust taken from the wrappings of mummies, while visiting a museum in Dorchester last week. Considered to have magical properties, it was genuinely consumed for medicinal purposes in the sixteenth century, doing far more harm than good.

Lady Joanna is named after one of my incredibly helpful beta readers – huge thanks to that Joanna for her help. Given that ‘Visions of Joanna’ by Bob Dylan is one of my all time favourite songs, putting visions in with that name was almost inevitable.

As for Queen Mary and the pretender Jane, I’ve been doing some freelance work about the Tudors this week, so they were on my mind. The Duke of Northumberland’s attempt to stop Mary Tudor inheriting the crown and instead put his daughter-in-law Jane on the throne was a complete failure, and there was never even a war. Northumberland’s men did do some robbing and burning though.

If you enjoyed this then you can read more of my fantasy stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus, available as an ebook through Amazon. You can read more of my flash fiction for free here, and get my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring for free by signing up to my mailing list.

If you’ve got any thoughts on this story I’d love to hear them, and if you’ve got a suggestion for a future Friday story then please leave it below – I can always use fresh ideas!

Picture by a2gemma via Flickr creative commons.

Once again, I’m sharpening my writing skills with the exercises from Writing Excuses’s year-long writing course. This week was their last episode on character. The episode was a Q&A, and covered such interesting topics as how to work with character flaws and how to write characters with offensive views without alienating your readers – it’s well worth a listen.

This episode’s writing exercise builds on the previous two, which used a scene of a dead-drop to illustrate character. It also provides a bridge from discussing character to developing story structure:

Sketch out the events before and after your dead-drop scene from last week and three weeks ago.

In doing this exercise, I’m also going to think about how those events expand on the central characters in this fantasy western – Sarah, an escaped slave; Marcus, her Underground Railroad contact; and the local sheriff, our antagonist.

Before the Dead-Drop

Sarah’s pre-dead-drop narrative is the one that comes closest to writing itself. She escaped from the plantation where she was held, with the help of a man named Seneca, who also gave her instructions for contacting the Underground Railroad. This sets up the dead-drop.

To show more about her character, and how she copes on her own, I also want to add in a scene where she’s almost caught the night before the dead-drop. Sarah’s smart, but because of what she’s suffered in slavery she’s also timid and lacks self-confidence. Her response to being pursued isn’t to run or fight back, but to curl up and hide in a ditch. She uses her smarts to hide pretty well, covering herself in stinking mud to try to hide her smell from the sheriff’s dogs, but they almost find her. Fortunately for her, she doesn’t know that she has some magical power (I’ll work out how later) using the system of magic through games I’m using in this setting. The simple prayer she frantically mutters in the ditch is also a rhyme from a childhood game and taps into that magic, and that’s enough to send the dogs and sheriff in another direction.

So in one scene I’ve shown her character, foreshadowed a character arc of learning magic, and had a chance to characterise the sheriff through his dogged and foul mouthed pursuit of escaped slaves, as well as how he interacts with the other pursuers as they close in on Sarah – he’s jovial with those he likes, but vicious towards others.

Meanwhile, Marcus is meeting to plan for Underground Railroad activities. I’d have to do research to write the planning, but what I’m mostly concerned with right now is characterisation and plot driven by the characters. The meeting is a way to show the magic of the setting. Marcus himself can’t use the magic, but is a leader who has magic users working for him. Like so many Railroad activities, their use of magic has to be subtle and low key, and though he works within these limitations it frustrates Marcus. He’d like nothing more than to be part of a full-on uprising against the slave owners of the southern states.

Though he’s not present in Marcus’s scene, the spectre of the sheriff hangs over all their decisions. They know that he’s looking for proof of their activities with growing ruthlessness. They recently lost a friend to him. Like so much else, not being able to punish the sheriff frustrates Marcus.

After the Dead-Drop

Now I get to bring Sarah and Marcus together. As they seem to be my central characters, I want to make things more interesting by developing a conflict between them, one that stems from their personalities.

Having received the note at the dead-drop, Marcus finds Sarah and takes her to a safe house. Waiting there, Sarah players chequers with Meredith Brown, one of the magic users from the dead-drop scene. In doing this, she inadvertently displays magical power, and Meredith realises that Sarah could be a huge asset for the local Underground Railroad. She tells Marcus, who obviously wants Sarah to stay – his whole motive is to grow resistance against slavery.

But Sarah’s scared, and she just wants to run away north to freedom. This leads to an argument with Marcus, who’s frustrated at her not wanting to help, and doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t. Because of her subservient, non-confrontational personality, Sarah backs down. But now she sees this potential ally as another bullying enemy, and is thinking about how to escape him.

Then news arrives that Old Sam, the other local Underground Railroad magic user, has been lynched. This ups the tension and creates an opportunity to show how the characters present react to this – Marcus with anger, Meredith with sorrow, Sarah with fear. We also get to hear about the sheriff’s reaction, which reveals more about his character. He’s furious, and now hunting the perpetrators of the lynching. Because while he might be a racist villain and antagonist of the story, there’s more to him than that. He really hates law-breakers.

On this issue at least, all the characters will be on the same side.

Reflecting on the Exercise

A lot of what I put into the characters wasn’t planned in advance, it emerged through outlining these few scenes, and I’m really pleased with the results. I think it’s a good illustration of what Robert McKee says in his excellent book Story – that plot and character aren’t really separate things, at least when they’re done right. Characters drive the plot, and the plot helps to show the characters.

Take the argument between Marcus and Sarah. That didn’t occur to me when I was developing their characters in the scenes before the dead-drop, but it made perfect sense based on those personalities. It adds a whole new plot strand, a conflict between them over Sarah’s fate, and it’s one that’s all about these characters and what motivates them.

Often, putting your character in a situation is a good way to develop them. I’m pleased with where these characters are heading.

If you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or had a go at it yourself and feel like sharing the results, then please leave a comment below. Next week, on to plot structure.

I’m really enjoying doing the recent Writing Excuses exercises. I used a couple to develop Friday’s story, and with it a whole world for future stories of magic in the Wild West. So, skipping over a wildcard week to let me catch up, it’s time for the exercise from episode 10.7:

Pick one of the dead-drop characters from the exercise two weeks ago, and turn them into a secondary character. Now take one of the characters with whom they interacted, and write the same scene again, but from this new character’s POV.

Of the characters from the previous exercise, I’ve since used the most popular one in a story, so I’m going to use the other character who drew some favourable comments – Sarah the escaped slave. Here’s the original version of her journey through the market:

Rough cloth chafed at the raw skin of Sarah’s wrists and ankles, cheap clothing concealing the places where her manacles had been. Fighting the urge to glance around, to give herself away in her anxiety over not getting caught, she stopped at the third stall along, just like Seneca had told her to, and dropped the note he had written her into a tin cup. The man behind the stall whistled a few bars of a spiritual, and as Sarah joined in she felt her spirits lift.

That leaves me with only two other characters mentioned, one of whom isn’t in the scene, so I’ll move the viewpoint to the stall-holder. Same scene, different point of view, and more words this time…

A contact

Marcus could see the sheriff and his deputies eyeing him across the marketplace. Most white folks didn’t like to see a black man with a business of his own, even if that man’s business was a ramshackle market stall selling cheap pots and pans to folks who couldn’t afford no better. If they’d only known Marcus’s real business, they’d have hated him a whole lot more. That hate made Marcus proud.

A woman walked across the marketplace, huddled in a ragged dress and a heavily patched shawl. Her wrists and ankles were carefully covered, and Marcus reckoned he knew what sort of scars lay underneath. Chains weighed heavy and manacles scraped skin.

Stopping at the stall, she looked at his wares without really seeing them, eyes darting nervously. Then she dropped a slip of paper into a cup at the corner of the stall, and Marcus recognised Seneca’s writing on the outside. Just like he’d thought, another fugitive making for the railroad – not the one of cold steel, but the one of warm hearts and desperate hopes.

The sheriff was approaching, casting a suspicious glance toward the oblivious young woman. As she walked away Marcus whistled a hymn. At this signal, Old Sam and Meredith Brown started again on the game of chequers they had going in the shelter of the stall. As they moved the chipped pieces, folks around the market took sudden sidesteps they’d never expected to. A butcher and a labourer knocked into each other, exchanged angry words, and a fight broke out. The sheriff turned to break it up, as the young woman disappeared from view.

Marcus took the piece of paper from the cup and slipped it into his pocket for later.

Reflecting on the exercise

I originally meant to make this as short as the original scene, but once I started I felt I needed more words to do a different character justice, to show both what was distinctive about him and what’s distinctive about the setting. I can see these two characters taking a story of escaped slaves in very different directions – one putting her effort into escape, the other into keeping things moving while evading the law. And both clearly have a place in that story.

What was also interesting was how this exercise in shifting perspective generated other characters. I needed someone to represent the threat of the law, and someone to work the magic at the end. Showing character required a story, which generated more characters, filling more of the niches discussed in this episode of Writing Excuses.

Did anybody else try this exercise? How did you get on? These are really interesting exercises to do, and if you aren’t already I really recommend giving them a try. You can find all the exercises and related episodes over at Writing Excuses.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionFor Ubu, the gladiator life is short and brutal, but in the shadow of the arena there is a chance for something more.

I know that a lot of people like to listen to their books rather than read. And as it happens the first story in By Sword, Stave or Stylus is already available to listen to. When Wily Writers originally published ‘Live by the Sword’ they included an audio version. So if you’d like a chance to listen to the first short story in my new collection, or just to read a bit of the collection before you buy, then you can check it out over on Wily Writers.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still only 99c for the next week, and the Wily Writers recording is free, so why not give them a go?

 

And while I’m pointing you towards other reading, I’ve had a couple of guest posts this week on other blogs. Over at the Steampunk Journal I’ve written about moving buildings in steampunk stories, while at Alt Hist I’ve written some more about the challenges of world building for alternate history. If you have time please check them out.

I love Warren Ellis’s comics. The wild and vivid settings, sharp dialogue and fascinating characters make for a great read. Transmetropolitan is a fabulously pointed piece of science fiction as crazed social commentary. Planetary is a great exploration of popular culture through its own story forms.

Last week I wrote an article for The Steampunk Journal on some of Ellis’s retro-futurist comics, and it starts like this…

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Author spotlight: Warren Ellis

Though he’s probably best known for his work on superhero stories such as Astonishing X-men, writer Warren Ellis has dipped his comic-scripting toe in a wide range of genres, from history to crime to science fiction. So it’s hardly surprising to find that he’s written some steampunk, and that it’s really rather good.

Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Captain Swing is the most completely steampunk of Ellis’s books. Illustrated by Raulo Caceres, it tells the story of Charlie Gravel, a policeman in 1830 London who finds himself on the trail of a criminal with baffling and powerful technology.

This is steampunk living up to punk’s anti-authoritarian roots…

 

You can read the whole article here, but I realise now that I missed out one of the best examples – Ministry of Space*. This mini-series explores an alternate history in which the British won the space race. It has a Dan Dare-inspired aesthetic which I love, but beneath its hopeful exterior lies something darker, a balancing of achievements and costs. If you’re interested in 1950s science fiction or alternate history or just great comics then I really recommend it, along with the other comics mentioned in that spotlight article.

Other comics fans – do you have any recommendations for comics that dip into steampunk or reinvent the past? Or favourite Warren Ellis works? Leave a comment, share your recommendations with the rest of us.

 

* For some reason Ministry of Space is reasonably priced on Amazon.com but insanely priced on the UK site. So UK readers, try a comic shop instead, because this is a good comic, but not hundreds of pounds good.