Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.
When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.
This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.
Steampunk is no longer a mainstream genre not like ten years ago. It isn’t referenced in mainstream shows like NCIS or Castle (and NCIS is still going!), nor are there the flood of Steampunk genre books that we all enjoyed when it was at the height of its popularity. There are still outposts of enthusiasts, but even some of the long-term fans have fallen to the wayside.
How do I know Steampunk has lost some steam? On Facebook, many of the Steampunk sites I followed have ceased posting – many haven’t posted anything for years. It’s harder to source Steampunk genre movies and literature. Strangely, this trend hasn’t effected Steampunk cosplay and it is still as popular as ever. Well, you can’t argue that the Steampunk Aesthetic isn’t a great looks for everyone.
So, where does this leave the Steampunk Enthusiast in 2022?
Steampunk isn’t dead. It will never be completely forgotten, just because the subculture is no longer top of the pop culture. You just have to dig harder to find it. You can still find books and anthologies in the genre, and the recent animated series, Arcane, was certainly leaning hard into the Steampunk Aesthetic. Arcane has a second season coming post-2022. Professor Elemental is still singing and writing. The Girl Genius Comic still updates three times a week. I’m still getting Steampunk stories accepted.
The fires may have subsided, but the coals are still red hot.
I was asked today why I had posted an article on modern feminism on my Facebook Steampunk community page. What makes this comment even harder to understand is that today is International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the achievements of that half of the human race that spent a lot of history being ignored and suppressed. Some things never change, such as the studied ignorance of how the Suffragettes and Suffragists fought for women’s rights. It wasn’t until I was at university that this historical topic was discussed.
The Australian school curriculum doesn’t like to delve into the stickier and nastier parts of history. Take my schooling. If you studied Modern History in your senior years of high school, it was all about the the Great Depression and the Two World Wars of the Twentieth Century. If you studied Ancient History, its all about the Greeks and Romans, with…
If you create anything, you’re amazing. If you literally imagine something new into being, you’re amazing. If even one person is moved by what you created (even if that person is you), you have changed the world for the better. You’re amazing.
Genre is how various categories of writing are recognised. Genre is a marketing tool, and a useful method for hunting down books you might enjoy, and it is used in judging books for awards. When you go into a book shop, usually the books are separated by genre: Cook Books, Humour, Reference Books, etc. These are very basic categories, often covering an enormous variation in the types of books lumped together. This is often why very original books, like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, may end up in the children’s fiction area of a bookshop. No one knows what genre it should go into, because it covers so many genres.
Genre can be broad…Fantasy. Or it can get very specific, like Victorian-era, London-set, Steampunk fantasy aimed at a twelve year old audience. Every genre has its own rules and traditions, such as sword and sorcery genre books should have swordmen/swordwomen and wild magic as basic plot elements. Does that sound straight forward? It isn’t, as many genres overlap, and new genres are forming all the time.
For a writer, genre can be both restrictive and wonderful. Big Picture: I write Fantasy, and I dabble in horror and Science Fiction. I don’t think I will ever write a war-based novel or a Western. However, my fantasies tend to be adult fairytales in an urban setting. Little Picture: You might call it Urban Fantasy, or Magic Realism, or Feminist Fairytales. I wouldn’t.
I don’t like to be pigeonholed, as it restricts what I can or can’t do. However, if I was going to market such a book to a publisher, I would pick one of those genres so that the publisher has some idea of my style. And booksellers will know to put it in the Fantasy bookcases in their stores.
But what if I wanted to write a science fact book, when I am known as a fantasy author? If I am a popular fantasy writer, publishers may reject this out-of-genre book, as my fan base might be unhappy. Ditto if I write young adult, and then I write a book aimed at an older audience. Of course, I can change to another pen name…but why should any author be so restricted creatively?
Recently, I helped judge an award. A lot of the stories were put into the wrong categories. No matter how great a story is, it can’t win if it doesn’t fit into the genre of its nominated category. So some good stories might have missed out on recognition (or would have, it they hadn’t been nudged into the right genre categories). But I couldn’t help wondering if the authors were confused about what genre is.
There are any number of good books that can help with an understanding of genre. This essay is just a starting point, to get you thinking.
1. Who inspired the character of Aunt Enid? Is she based on a real person? Aunt Enid is an amalgam of my own Great Aunt Enid and my grandmother. . I have fond memories of them; both were strong, independent women. When I was at uni, I shared a granny flat with my grandmother. She wore trousers and rode a motorbike when she was young. I used to help my great aunt make lemon butter on her big, old, metal wood-burning stove with a multitude of doors (back in the 1970s). She lived in an old Queenslander house, with large hydrangea bushes at the bottom of the front stairs; one on each side.
2. The Protectors are such a great concept. What inspired them?
I’ve had the idea for a fantasy series – called The Otherworlds – whirling around in my head for over thirty years. It will happen one day… I decided to write The Aunt Enid Mysteries as a ‘fantasy’ mystery on this side of the portal to that fantasy world – with the advantage of less world building.
Having hit the big five-oh a little while ago, I realised/was frustrated/annoyed/dismayed TK at the lack of older female protagonists, let alone ‘women of a certain age’. The hero/heroine in fantasy stories were usually the ‘chosen one’ fated to save the world (ie. protect it), so I thought: why can’t they be a group (usually three, isn’t it?) sworn to protect our world from the hordes of Darkness and magical creatures invading from the Otherworlds.
Hence, the ‘Protectors’: (Great) Aunt Enid and her friends. But, of course, they aren’t just little old ladies…
3. Why is it important to you that you use Adelaide as a setting? (As I like to use Brisbane because I can research the settings personally.)
Adelaide is my adopted home, having moved here in 1988. It’s a city rich in history. I find out more interesting snippets with each round of research. Many don’t know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited here in 1920, for a lecture tour. We were the first state in Australia (and second place in the world) to give women the vote.
There are many stories set in England, or the US, but not nearly enough stories set in Australia. I wanted to add a local Adelaide flavour to my stories – and the research is easier. I love walking around the local area and finding historical places and stories. And the Adelaide Hills are a perfect setting for a cosy mystery.
4. I enjoy the fact that Enid is ‘a feminist’ thinker in an era when it was a scandal to be an independent woman. Was that always your goal?
Yes, it was. I wanted to channel my great aunt Enid and my grandmother. Little old ladies (or not so old in A Fey Tale), aren’t always frail and withering.
5. You have an excellent use of humour in this novel – do you find it hard or easy to write humour?
Yes, and no – and thank you!
Humour is subjective and is suited to everyone. I read to escape, as many of us have over the past couple of years. I read a lot of stories with whimsy and love Gail Carriger’s ‘etiquette of humour’. A bit of light-heartedness is always a good foil for darker, ‘Australian’ cosies.
I know other readers plan the humorous beats to their stories. I can’t force the humour. It feels stifled. I do look for potential ‘situational humour’ opportunities when I plan scenes. When a cheeky idea pops into my head, I let my imagination run with it to see if it will work. If not, I rewrite.
6. How much research do you do for your historical references?
I’m a research geek! I devour documentaries, often ending up with several ideas for stories. I usually am working on a few stories when in the research phase. I love speculating and twisting history. I’m always asking ‘what if?’. But you need to know something well to be able to play with it convincingly. I spend months (sometimes several) researching before I start work on a story.
I collect old books and facsimiles of books written at the time I’m researching. I have a couple of bookcases and several stacks of books, dedicated to history, especially sixteenth century Florence, and 19th century society in general. I also love Ancient Egypt. I’m fascinated by eras when science was emerging, and folklore was still ingrained in society. Science, art and legend create an interesting mix.
7. How does writing these fantasies contrast to how you write your Steampunk novels?
My steampunk is set in an alternate ‘real’ world, so a lot of my world building is already done. I just need to work out how technology has changed and how this has affected society. In fantasy, there is a lot of world building: maps (I love maps!), climate, cultures, society, economy, history, etc – the reason why I’ve delayed writing my fantasy series. I haven’t got all the ducks in row, as it were. The Aunt Enid Mysteries is a ‘suburban’ fantasy (not quite an urban fantasy), set in the ‘real’ world with fantasy elements hidden all around us. We’re just not aware of it.
It’s much easier and quicker to build on existing worlds and not have to start from scratch.
8. Who are your writing ‘heroes’? What do you read for fun?
There are so many. I’ll give you the short list:
Classics such as:
JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for world building and setting
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh for mysteries/detective stories.
HG Wells, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne – for early science fiction
Gail Carriger for whimsical steampunk, humour and voice.
Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams for quirky narrator (so jealous), humour and voice
Jim Butcher for fun, urban fantasy, and use of first person that doesn’t grate on me
And so many more, for many reasons; some have great ideas, some a wonderful writing style, and some for description.
9. Where can people source this book and your backlog?
If you’re in Australia, you can buy original music and print books direct from my website shop (and get them signed) – www.karenjcarlisle.com/shop
Oh, yes, until I run out of ideas. They’re novels I write between others. The third book already has a dedicated ideas box, with a few scenes and lots of notes. It’s set back in current-day Adelaide, and will be next in line after the second book of The Department of Curiosities is finished.
Usually I post observation journalpages chronologically, which is why I’m still working through last year. These three pages, however, are very current. (I’ll scan them eventually).
I am editing a draft of a story this month. This means I am confronted by words I regularly overuse. Sometimes this is simply because I think they’re neat, or get in a habit. But some words I use because I like them and they mean something to me. When I use the word “green” it’s less about description than about trying to invoke some nebulous, numinous green-ness.
So I finally sat down to work out what I actually *mean* when I use some of my most overused words.
Here is “green”:
This approach is a work-in-progress, but it has already been useful both for edits and for clarifying my thoughts on a story.
Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me
You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words, and words are all
I have to take your heart away
From ‘Words’ by The Bee Gees
I have previously written about different types of symbolism of mourning jewellery, how pearls represented tears; and ivy represented fidelity; locks of hair from the deceased were incorporated into jewellery; painted miniatures of single eye surrounded by clouds and tears were symbols of a lost love; and – of course – there was jet carved into glittering brooches and beads for mourning jewellery. I haven’t even touched on the meanings of urns, angels, anchors and acorns (another day, perhaps). However, not every piece of mourning jewellery had to have a masked meaning. Some came right out…