Posts Tagged ‘Epiphany Club’

DSC_0152 - Copy“That was delicious.” Isabelle McNair placed her cutlery carefully on the empty plate and peered around the flat. “Should I call for a servant?”

“You’d be lucky.” Dirk Dynamo leaned back and lit a cigar off a wall mounted gas lamp. “Once they’ve experienced a couple of Tim’s inventions going wrong, staff never stick around.”

“I’m afraid Dirk’s right.” Blaze-Simms grinned as he looked at his guests. “But I have turned the problem into a solution.”

He took a box from the bureau behind him and pushed a button on the top. With a hiss of steam, a mechanical arm extended from the cabinet and took hold of the nearest plate. More followed it, grabbing wine glasses, leftover pudding and empty plates.

Isabelle applauded. It was one of the most marvellous machines she had ever seen.

“Wait for it…” Dirk raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t know what you-” Blaze-Simms was cut short by a crash of shattering glass as the port decanter exploded in the device’s grip. His face fell. “Oh dear.”

He pressed the button, and then another one next to it, but the machine kept going. A frantic look spread across Blaze-Simms’s face as the machine flung a chair across the room and then grabbed hold of the table.

“I’ve got this.” Dirk stood. “Where’s the power source?”

“Steam engine in the linen closet.” Blaze-Simms kept hitting buttons to no effect. “There’s a pipe feeding into the left side of the machine.”

Dirk leapt toward the pipe and the steam trickling from its joints. But as he vaulted forward the machine lifted the table, swung it like a cricket bat and knocked Dirk flying. The window exploded as he hit it and went tumbling into the street.

“Are you alright, Mr Dynamo?” Isabelle shouted, her heart racing in alarm.

“I’ll live.” The distant reply was almost a groan. “Ain’t gettin’ back up the stairs anytime soon though.”

“Then I’ll deal with this.” Isabelle glared at the machine. She was not going to let a glorified cupboard be the ruin of her. “Sir Timothy, how can I-”

The machine swung the table and Isabelle darted back, dragging Blaze-Simms with her into the corner of the room. Half a dozen mechanical arms were flailing around, turning the whole space into a whirl of deadly, determined metal.

“Terribly sorry.” Blaze-Simms had a screwdriver in his hand and was fiddling with the control box. “I overlooked certain limitations that would have told it what wasn’t mess.” He ducked as one of the arms tried to grab his collar. “I’ll remember next time.”

“Lets worry about getting through this time.” Isabelle looked around. There was almost nothing left in the room around them, and five out of six arms were busy yanking books off of shelves, trying to cram them into the same recess as the dirty dishes. Just one hovered in front of her like a snake, its pincered end snapping open and shut, ready to tidy her away the moment she came near.

“Dash it all, this isn’t working.” Blaze-Simms frowned in exasperation at the controller.

“Then maybe this will.” Isabelle grabbed the controller and waved it in front of the arm, then flung it on the floor a few feet away. As the arm reached down to tidy the mess, she darted past it. The others turned to stop her as she stood by the side of the cabinet and the hissing metal pipe. One lunged down and she leapt out of its way. The pincers slammed into the pipe, which burst open, filling the room with steam.

Its power cut off, the tidying machine ground to a halt, limbs crashing down on the floor.

Isabelle righted a toppled chair and sat down, fighting the trembling that now threatened to take over.

“Maybe if I pay more I could find a tolerant cleaner,” Blaze-Simms said from the far corner of the room.

“Maybe,” Isabelle said. “Or maybe you could just learn to wash the dishes.”

* * *

This brief story is set after Suits and Sewers, the second book in my Epiphany Club series, available now on Amazon and Smashwords. If you enjoyed this then you might like to give that a read, or to start with the first book, Guns and Guano, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.

If you’d like to receive stories straight to your inbox every Friday then just sign up to my mailing list, and get another free book while you’re about it.

I’ve been making Lego models of my books again. This week, a scene from Victorian steampunk adventure Guns and Guano, available for free from Amazon and Smashwords.

Governor Cullen throws a party welcoming the adventurers of the Epiphany Club to his island.

Governor Cullen throws a party welcoming the adventurers of the Epiphany Club to his island.

Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms entertains the guests by making an engine out of a napkin and a wine bottle. Don't forget, Sir Timothy, you're hear on a mission!

Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms entertains the guests by making an engine out of a napkin and a wine bottle. Don’t forget, Sir Timothy, you’re here on a mission!

Governor Cullen tries to get Dirk Dynamo into the party spirit, while Isabelle McNair chats with Braithwaite and his impressive beard. Look how much Dirk loves a party!

Governor Cullen tries to get Dirk Dynamo into the party spirit, while Isabelle McNair chats with Braithwaite and his impressive beard. Look how much Dirk loves a party!

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

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?

bookdesign345Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.

This week’s exercise was:

Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…

My New Beginning

Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.

Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

What I’ve Done

So what did I do there to try to add extra leads into this story, which will be the fourth in my Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware?

The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.

I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.

Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.

The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.

Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.

What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.

Oh, and if you like the look of these characters then the first in the series, Guns and Guano, is free from most places you can get ebooks, including Amazon.com.

Riding The Mainspring - High Resolution“Excuse me.” Isabelle strode across the yard of the stable, skirts held up out of the manure that littered the place. “I would like to speak with the manager.”

“That’s me.” The man had the narrow smile of a nervous weasel and a thin moustache that had never been in style. “Thomas Nathaniel Watkins, Speedy London Carriages, at your service.”

He extended a bony hand, which Isabelle reluctantly shook. Just because she was angry was no reason to abandon good manners.

“I wish to complain.” She stared Watkins in the eye. “Yesterday I hired one of your carriages for an important meeting. The horse died on route, and had clearly been in terrible condition before that. It delayed my journey and meant I missed my appointment with the Crown Prince of Blutagest.”

“Sorry about that, miss.” Watkins chewed on the corner of his lip. “What do you want from me?”

“It’s Mrs, not Miss,” Isabelle said. “Mrs McNair. What I want is an apology and some compensation.”

“Did the driver charge you?”

“He paid me back twice over, but that is hardly commensurate with-”

“Then you’ve been compensated.” Watkins bobbed his head and turned away. “Excuse me, I’ve work to do.”

He walked into the stables and Isabelle stomped after him. How dare this wretched man ignore her concerns?

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom inside, and so to make sense of what she saw. Horses were lined up in thin spaces separated by metal bars. Pipes descended from the ceiling into each of their mouths, and some sort of grey slop was being pumped from a machine by the wall. There were blisters on their lips where the pipes entered. When one of the horses tried to step back, a lever swung down from the ceiling and lashed it across the rear. Several of the horses had red welts on their flanks.

“What is this?” She choked on the words, her own concerns all but forgotten at the appalling sight.

“This is how we get the speedy in Speedy London Carriages.” Watkins stroked one of the pipes. “Special diet and mechanical conditioning.” He frowned at her. “Why are you still here?”

Isabelle took a deep breath, not the most pleasant experience in a cramped room full of frightened horses, and turned her glare back on the man.

“I want…” The thought slipped from her mind as the lash descended across another of the horses. “That is I demand…”

It was no good. She couldn’t even string her thoughts together in here. Perhaps that was Watkins’ intent, the odious little man. She had to take this outside.

No. The thought stopped her as she turned toward the door. If the problem was this place, then the solution was not to run from it. Not with so much suffering on display.

“I want you stop this barbarity at once.” She pointed to the horses.

Watkins’ laughter sounded almost as unpleasant as the horses’ pain.

“I own these nags,” he said. “You can’t tell me what to do. In fact…” He grabbed her arm and started dragging her out into the yard. “You can’t be here. This is private property.”

The pain of his fingers digging into Isabelle’s arm was nothing next to the distress she felt at leaving the horses to suffer, or her indignation at being treated this way. But now her passions didn’t block her thoughts, they fuelled them.

“It is private property, isn’t it?” She dug her heels in, no easy feat on manure-smeared cobbles, bringing them both to a halt. “And this whole area is owned by the Duke of Kent, so you must lease from him. I wonder what he would say about letting you continue, if I told him about today.”

Watkins chewed at his lip again, eyes narrowing as he stared at her.

“You don’t know the Duke of Kent,” he muttered.

“Short man, balding a little, dab hand at cribbage.” Isabelle raised her eyebrow. “And he loves horses.”

Watkins looked from her to the stables and then back again.

“Fine.” His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry you were delayed. Let me get my bookkeeper and we’ll talk compensation.”

“And no more machines for the horses,” Isabelle said.

“You’ll ruin me, woman!”

“Not as much as losing your lease will.”

“Fine.” Now it was Watkins’ turn to look indignant. “Not that it’s your business, but no more machines for the horses. Now will you just go away and leave me in peace?”

“Of course. I’ll come back tomorrow for my compensation.” Isabelle smiled and turned to walk away, then looked back one last time toward the odious Watkins. “And to see how much better you’re caring for your horses.”

* * *

Isabelle McNair is one of the stars of my steampunk adventure Guns and Guano, available as an ebook on most platforms, including Amazon. It’s free most places, and the sequel Suits and Sewers will be out very soon.

This particular story was inspired by reading a post on hollyiblogs, which cited an estimate that 3,000 horses a week died in London in the 1880s. It made me wonder about the lives and deaths of those horses, many of them worked to death as beasts of burden in an increasingly crowded and alienating urban environment. We often talk about the human cost of progress, but there are other sad costs too.

And if you thought this was worth reading, there’s more where it came from – my steampunk anthology Riding the Mainspring is free to anyone signing up to my mailing list. Why not enjoy some more tales of strange gadgets and Victorian life, all for a couple of clicks of the mouse.

bookdesign348My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.

I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.

This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?

I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.

So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?

For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.

* * *

Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.

bookdesign345Each week, I’m doing the exercise from Writing Excuses’s excellent podcast writing course and sharing the results here. This week’s exercise was working on beginnings:

Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

For these exercises, I’m working on Sieges and Silverware, the fourth part of a steampunk series I’m working on. You can read the first volume as an ebook now, and read the exercise preceding this one here. Suffice to say, I’ve identified some cool things I want to include in my story, and this exercise is about setting up the promise that those things will happen. So, here are three beginnings, any of which I might eventually refine and use:

Promise 1: Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.

Dirk Dynamo wouldn’t have minded so much if the hot air balloon were plummeting toward the ground. Sure, they were losing altitude fast, and there was no way this would be a pleasant landing. But at least if they were heading toward the ground he could see what was coming, get ready to roll clear or dive into something soft just before they crashed.

What bothered him was the trees. A vast swathe of dark German forest, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Sure, the leaves might soften the initial impact. But then the balloon would get impaled on branches, accelerating its descent. They’d be falling through twilight shadows and layers of concealing greenery onto no-one new what upward protruding spikes of wood or rock. Risking life and limb was fine, Dirk lived with that all the time. But he liked to know what he was getting into.

And if possible, he wanted to live through it.

“Any progress?” He glanced away from the approaching treetops and toward Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, who was frantically disassembling and reassembling a mass of gears and gadgets in the corner of the basket. The Englishman looked a little too excited for a man facing imminent death, but then he always looked happy with a spanner in his hand.

“Almost there.” Blaze-Simms twisted a bolt and something glowed in the contraption in his hand.

There was a tearing sound and the balloon jolted as its ripped seam gave another few inches. Hot air hissed out onto the icy wind, and the treetops raced towards them.

“Almost ain’t gonna cut it.” Dirk grabbed a rope and braced for impact.

Leaping to his feet, Blaze-Simms slapped his device onto the side of the burner. He flicked a switch on its side. There was a whir, a rush of air that almost snatched Dirk’s coat off his back, and suddenly they were rising again.

“Great work, Tim.” Dirk struggled to be heard over the rush of air, but he was sure the grin on his face would convey the message.

Something was spinning on the top of Blaze-Simms’s device, while gears and levers rattled away around the glowing core.

“That will give us six more hours,” Blaze-Simms shouted over the artificial wind rushing past them and up into the balloon.

“Should be enough to get there,” Dirk shouted back.

There was another ripping sound and they stopped rising, though at least they weren’t heading back down into the trees.

Blaze-Simms looked up at the balloon, back down at his device, and then back up at the balloon again.

“Call it three hours,” he said. “Can we manage that?”

“Guess we’re gonna have to.”

Promise 2: A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.

Dirk Dynamo had expected that they might face trouble. He and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were heading toward the castle of someone they didn’t know, and who was helping their opponents. That wasn’t the sort of circumstances where you got a warm welcome.

What he hadn’t expected was that the castle itself would be in trouble.

“I say, what a spectacular view!” Blaze-Simms looked up from his notebook to take in the ground beneath their balloon.

The forest below was a sea of green, broken by occasional jagged promontories. The tiled roofs of small German villages added variety to the scene, but their rustic charm was nothing compared with the view up ahead. Rising like a finger pointed toward heaven, the Red Castle rose in grandeur from the hilltop in front of them.

“I’d expected it to be more, well, red.” Dirk turned the propeller Blaze-Simms had attached to the balloon basket, steering their course more directly toward the hilltop fortress. It was a place that had clearly been laid down a layer at a time over the centuries. At its base were walls and towers of grim grey stone, flat and functional, a defensive measure that could once have withstood any kind of assault. Above and behind them, within the protective circle of walls and steep hillsides, were additions of brick and timber frame, mixed in with a more refined kind of stonework in which elaborate arches played a prominent part. And above them all rose a tower more magnificent and ambitious than anything that had come before, many times as tall as the old walls were wide, a fairy tale castle of pale stone reaching to a tiled peak.

“I’m sure there’s a history to the name.” Balze-Simms tapped a pencil against his notebook. “Something involving heraldry, or perhaps blood.”

“Speaking of blood.” Dirk pointed to the open ground in front of the castle. “What do you reckon that’s all about?”

As they grew closer, what had started as a meaningless muddle of human activity was turning into what could only be an army camp. Wagons emerging from the treeline showed that it was still growing, while men in blue uniforms set up tents and organised supplies. Artillery pieces were being arranged facing the castle walls, their aggressive intent clear. It took Dirk back to his own days fighting in a different blue. The memories weren’t all happy.

Blaze-Simms pulled what looked like a snuff box from his pocket, unfolded and extended it until he held a telescope. He peered through the lens toward the castle.

“I say, look at that.” He passed the telescope to Dirk. “She’s definitely here.”

Dirk closed one eye and looked through the telescope toward the point on the battlements where Blaze-Simms was pointing. Three women stood watching the movement below, champagne flutes in their hands.

Promise 3: Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.

Night was falling as the hot air balloon reached the walls of the Red Castle. An elderly servant in a tailcoat supervised two teenagers in livery as they helped with the landing. Taking the ropes Dirk Dynamo threw to them, they secured the balloon by tying it to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt from the basket down onto the stonework and looked around in the light of burning torches. Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

The elderly servant stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English, but Dirk thought there was slightly less of a formal edge to his voice.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

“Do I look like I’m carrying a card?” Dirk gestured toward the battered balloon, his filthy clothing, the bruises still fading from his face.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what passes for normal in America.” The butler managed to make the last word sound like a curse, and it made Dirk’s blood boil. With the least possible movement, the servant turned to face Blaze-Simms. “Sir, do you-“

“There’s no need for that.” Isabelle McNair stepped out of the shadows of the nearest tower. “I know these gentlemen.”

Dirk felt like someone had grabbed hold of his insides and stirred them around until nothing was in its place and everything was knotted with tension. He fought to take deep, long breaths, calming his hammering heart.

“Mrs McNair.” He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Everything about her reminded him of Paris, both the good and the bad. It was the bad that threatened to overwhelm him, and he pressed his anger down. “We’ve come a long way to talk with you.”

“And I look forward to talking with you,” she said. “Though I must confess, I barely know where to start.”

“Sorry would be nice.” Blaze-Simms looked absurd in indignation, his scowl so serious atop his incorrectly buttoned tailcoat. But at least he could express what Dirk couldn’t put into words. “After everything we went through, I think it’s the least we deserve.”

“If I were sorry, I would not have done it.” Isabelle took a step forward, her attention on Dirk. “But I hope that, with time, you might forgive me.”

“That don’t seem likely,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Of course not.” Isabelle smiled, though there was sadness in her eyes. She offered him her arm. “Shall we go inside?”

Dirk thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door.

“After you,” he said.

Reflecting on the Exercise

This was really fascinating. I enjoyed all three beginnings, and without the exercise would only have ever written one. It’s made me think about which promises are most important, and which help set the tone of the book best, as well as drawing readers into the characters.

If you’ve got any thoughts on which of these three is best, and why, then please let me know – I need to give this some serious thought.

And if you’ve done this exercise or something like it, please share you’re thoughts on it below – I’d be intrigued to hear how you got on.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

This week’s Writing Excuses podcast was a Q&A on story structure, talking about different approaches to structure and how to get the most out of them. This ‘pick the best bits’ approach fits well with the exercise they gave at the end:

Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

As with the previous exercise about plotting with the beginning and end in mind, I’m going to use this exercise to help me develop a novella I’m planning, Sieges and Silverware. The fourth in a series, this sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification. Major plotlines include a dispute with their former colleague Isabelle McNair, a siege of the castle, a mad scientist on the loose and some covert feminism in an age run by men.

Making it Easy for Myself

If I was working with pen and paper, I’d have to brainstorm all my ideas, then write them out again in order. Thanks to the magic of the digital age I can put them in order as I come up with them, and edit that order if I’m not happy with it. So what you’ll see is the end result.

Hooray for computers!

Plot Away

My list of awesome things, in order:

  • Dirk getting lost in the crazy layout of the castle.
  • A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
  • A monster hunt through the darkness of the castle dungeons.
  • An argument that addresses the problems for women in gaining influence in Victorian society.
  • Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
  • A small band of heroes fending off a massive assault.
  • A discussion on the nature and value of nationalism.
  • The discovery of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Ninjas vs Prussians.
  • Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
  • A desperate airship or balloon flight from the castle as it is captured.

All the Cool Bits

Theoretically, I can see a lot of value in this exercise as a way of starting plotting without losing your enthusiasm for a project. It lets you focus on all the coolest things you want to write, and then turn those into something at least a bit coherent and useful.

But for me, in this instance, it’s proved less useful. I came up with a few interesting things, like the Carry on up the Khyber style dinner party. But whereas the first few volumes of this series were about throwing in lots of new cool ideas, by this point the story is about developing and paying off the stuff that’s already in there. I suspect that cool ideas will emerge from the structure, not the other way around.

It’s fitting with the discussion from the podcast. Not every approach to structure is for everyone, and you use the ones that suit you.

Did you try the exercise? How did you get on? And how do you go about structuring stories? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

bookdesign348

Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?

The first in my series of Epiphany Club novellas, Guns and Guano, will be up on Amazon by the end of March. A tale of action, adventure and ingenuity, it’s the start of a series of five novellas featuring adventurer Dirk Dynamo and aristocratic inventor Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, heroes of some of my previous short stories. I’m really excited and proud to be putting this out there.

You can read a couple of Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s earlier adventures in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, available free to anyone signing up to my mailing list. And keep an eye on this blog for more news of the new release.

Very excited I tell you!