Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

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!

Mud and Brass - High Resolution - Version 2The mirror was buried deep, and Fred had to pull hard to drag it out of the mud. His fingertips throbbed as he grasped its edge and pulled it up against the resistance of riverside silt.

“Come on!” Polly’s scarred face was wide with alarm. “Smog’s comin’ in, we’ve got to go.”

“Not yet.” The mirror came free with a sucking sound. He slid it in among the dials, gears and cables in his sack.

“Smog’ll kill you!” The ribs of her chest showed beneath her ragged dress.

“So will hunger.”

She didn’t reply, just turned and ran after the rest of the mudlarks.

Fred reached back down, pulled out a flywheel, a strip of canvas, a handful of smaller gears. The hard edges hurt hands swollen and made soft by damp, but he kept going until his sack was full. At last he stood and swung the weight of his findings over his shoulder.

Around him, the Mercers’ factories towered above dense grey-green fog. As he strode from the riverbank up toward the streets, his eyes watered and his throat stung.

The cobbled streets were deserted, doors locked against the smog or anyone desperate enough to be out in it. Fred’s footsteps echoed off grey stone and red brick as he walked away from the factory district and its gear-strewn mud, toward the slums around the edge of the city. He’d waited longer than he should have done, and the smog was becoming dangerously thick, the chemicals from factory fumes stinging his exposed skin. Coughing and spluttering, he had to pause and catch his breath.

Desperation took hold. If the smog grew any denser it would kill him. The sack was slowing him down, but without it what would he have to sell, how would he eat tonight?

He swung the sack around, feeling the burden of its weight. But he had known whole weeks without food, curled over with the cramps of hunger, and could not bear that again.

In desperation he started hammering on doors, but each time angry voices yelled at him to go away. Swinging the bag over his shoulder, eyes watering with fear as well as pain, he stumbled on.

The fog congealed around him like tar. His skin was burning, and when he coughed he tasted blood. Doorways were invisible, the end of the street a distant dream. Only the vague shapes of aristocratic homes were visible, towering through the haze high above his head.

Stumbling to his knees, weak from lack of air, he looked up into that grey sky, where sunlight and clean air hung far beyond his desperate reach. A distant, forbidden realm of the rich and powerful. For him to go there was to face imprisonment or worse.

But what could be worse than death?

With trembling hands he pulled a cable from his sack and tied a loop in the end. Something protruded from the side of a building four floors above, and he flung the loop at that. It fell back useless to the ground. Blood misting his breath, he flung it again and again, until finally it caught.

His face felt like it was being pressed into a fire, and he could barely see through the blurring of his eyes. But he tied his sack to the end of the cable and climbed.

The top of the cable was hooked around a protruding drainpipe. He paused there, pulled the sack up behind him, then flung the cable up again and continued his ascent. Each time he stopped the air was a little clearer, his breathing a little easier, the pain a little less. At last he emerged into sunshine and lay back on a tiled roof thirty storeys above the smog-clogged streets.

Opening the sack to stow away the cable, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mud-smeared mirror. His face was burned all over, skin peeling away.

Fred smiled at the scarred vision. He could make it home with the wealth he had found. He would survive.

* * *

A couple of weeks ago Scott A. Butler wrote a glowing review of my story ‘Mud and Brass’, in which he said he’d like to read more set in that world. Ever keen to give readers what they want, I wrote this story. While it doesn’t revisit the characters, it does take us back to that setting. If you enjoy this then you might want to check out ‘Mud and Brass’, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.

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.

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.