Monthly Archives: March 2013

Thinking it over

I used to think it was a joke that people ask writers about how they get ideas.  This is because I suffer from an overactive ideas generator.  It fires off a hundred ideas a week, and my main problem is sorting the cliche from the original idea.  This isn’t as easy as it sounds.  After all, a ‘good’ writer should be able to take a stale idea and make it sing.  Right?  Right?  So often I wonder if  I’m letting an idea die because I haven’t the skills.  However, that aside, I thought everyone had the same problem, and it was a kind of cultural joke.

Well, of course, my viewpoint has all changed.  I now know that some people believe writers pull ideas out of a hat.  Apparently there is some kind of secret magic box, full of ideas and we can pull them out when we need them.  Some people believe ideas aren’t the end result of some hard thinking.  I’ve heard the longing in another person’s voice when I’m writing an idea in my notebook. (I find my ideas are like dreams, they seem to disappear if I don’t nail them down.)  I’ve seen the ‘why is she so lucky’ look.

What I noticed when I was at uni was that part of our course seemed to be about how you went about getting ideas.  Now, I often wonder how anyone thinks they can be a writer if they don’t know how to generate original ideas of their own.  After all, reality sparks off so many inspirations. I can get six ideas just by watching the news or reading a science text.  I can get one just by chatting with friends.  I don’t see this as a gift or talent.  I get ideas by keeping my eyes and ears open, and by being prepared to sit and think through an idea to a conclusion (logical or otherwise).  I do believe this ability can be taught.

And most of the ‘secret magic box’ believers seem to ignore all this lovely advice.  When our lecturers told us how to turn to real life text for inspiration, they ignored these gems.  When they talked about research and hard work, most of them were bored and made comments under their breath.  And yet, when it came time to do creative writing, they were lost for ideas.  (And they weren’t suffering from writer’s block…that is an entirely different problem.)  They were waiting for inspiration to fall magically from the sky.

I wish.  Some people don’t understand that the 1% inspiration can be as much work as the 99% perspiration.  There is no secret magic box.

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What’s in a name?

Girl under tree

I am one of those people who spend a lot of time choosing a name for a character. I think a name aids in defining a character, and a good name is halfway to helping your readers to visualise them physically and possibly give them insights into the character’s personality.

I’m certainly not the only writer to feel this way. And it is no surprise that my own favourite writers are probably of the same mind. Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones are (or were) very clever at giving their characters the perfect name, like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg or Sophie Hatter and Howl. Sometimes an author will even make the character’s name an integral part of the plot, like Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘Don’t Call Me Ishmael’. So, I thought it might be interesting to dissect the process as I see it.

When I first start thinking about a story, who the characters are is always an important part of my plotting process. After all, I will want the action to move forward in a specific way, and so I require protagonists and antagonists who will act and react in a certain way, and the best way to achieve that goal is to tailor my characters to the plot. In this manner, this preliminary characterisation is of vital importance to my plot. If I need a weak character who is easily swayed, I am not going to place them in a profession that requires lots of decisions on a daily basis; conversely, a strong character will not be bullied by a spouse or boss – in fact I would probably have them running their own business. And this elementary character sketch influences their physical appearance, as I wouldn’t make a farmer weak and pale (unless he or she was ill as part of my plot).

As the example, let’s look at the protagonist of my current Work-in-Progress (WiP). I wanted a character living in the Victorian era who would be at odds with the intensely dominating patriarchal culture that existed in the scientific community. This automatically made her a female character.  To make her situation even worse, I made her very young, so that she didn’t even have the innate respect given to an adult. She had to come from a background where a scientific education would have been made available to her, so she had to be from a noble family (which annoyed me, as I am a Republican, but there you go).

It is at this point I will start thinking about a name.

The very first thing I did was go to the Behind the Name website, to see if they had a list of Victorian names. They don’t. However, a quick scan of the internet gave me lists of the most popular names for each year. I was drawn to the name ‘Alice’, since everyone knows Alice from Wonderland. Better yet, it isn’t that uncommon day in this era, which meant it wouldn’t grate on modern ears as too strange. A little more research provided the information that Alice was a popular name in the Victorian era due to Princess Alice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, who was a patron of women’s causes and it basically meant ‘noble’ – BINGO!  I had her first name.

As well, I liked the contrast of a practical, scientist Alice with the whimsy of the Wonderland Alice. And since most people knew of Lewis’s Alice, I could use references to Wonderland to give the character further resonance. (I didn’t end up exploiting that aspect as much as I first thought.)

Her surname came from my earliest idea of what her personality should be like.  Saint Bruno of Cologne is a saint celebrated for his eloquence, his intellectual pursuits and his love of teaching, all attributes which I wanted my Alice to share – so her surname became Saint de Cologne (many of the French aristocracy had fled to England or married into the English blue bloods – and this gave me to opportunity of giving her a French chaperone based on another famous female scholar). I made her minor nobility, so she became Lady Alice. As I wanted her to ‘sound’ posh, I also blessed her with Elizabeth for a middle name (and as a sly way of honouring my eldest daughter, whose middle name is Beth and to honour my other daughter, I gave her Scottish ancestors).

Then I made her a Professor , because she had to be an unarguable scientific genius – and a bit of research turned up the fact that an earned title takes precedence over an inherited title – so if a princess was to become a doctor she would be Doctor Princess Suzanne. I made her a professor even though no university in England would matriculate a woman let alone award her with a teaching position in the Victorian era. However, European universities were less bigoted and were inclined to offer academic honours to rich women they hoped would give funds their institutions. However, I wanted my readers to know that Alice had earned her academic credentials, so I stuck Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture behind her name. These are not real degrees … but in my alternate timeline they exist.

So now I had my name for my main protagonist: Professor Lady Alice Elizabeth Saint de Cologne, Scientiæ Baccalaureus (Starred First Ord.), Doctor of Divinity in Horticulture (at sixteen), child prodigy, polymath, inventor, explorer and adventuress, and artist of the Botanical Sciences. In that name I hoped to encapsulate a fair proportion of her history and personality.

Now, none of this research was necessary. I could have plucked a name that sounded just as good, with a lot less effort. However, this careful construction of Alice’s name gave me the chance to get to know her while I was still in the early planning stages of her story. It helped me think about what her personality had to be like to be the person I needed for my plot. This process helps me form a very clear picture of her ‘voice’, and makes it easier to write her actions.

And her name also gave me a fairly good idea of what she had to look like. With Scottish ancestry, there was a good chance she would be a redhead. She would be taller than the average woman, for she would never have suffered from malnutrition. She wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and so she was probably athletic in build with beautiful strong hands. Her French connection gave her a stylish beauty even when she neglected to dress fashionably.

See how it goes with me? If Alice had been a Millicent FitzWindsor, she would have been and looked very differently in my imagination.

Of course, I don’t expect any other writer to have the same process for naming their characters. It is rather complicated. But this works for me … and it might work for someone else. This is why I am sharing.

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Filed under Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, The Writing Life, Uncategorized

A glimpse into my characters

What is at stake?

For Alice: she is trying to find herself without the guidance of her parents. She wants to prove herself. She is also resentful that – simply because she was born a girl – she suffers from so many more hurdles than men. This is made extra difficult by the fact that she likes men as individuals, and there are few strong feminine role models in her society. She feels the need to prove herself on many levels, intellectually, morally, ethically. When she becomes attracted to Mark, she feels frustrated by the restrictive social rules that says she can’t be honest with her feelings.

For Mark: he is also trying to work with barriers holding him back, except his barriers are of class. He is Alice’s soul mate, but the great divide of Victorian social mores is against them. He is the flipside of Alice’s social problem, as he was born into the wrong class by an accident of birth. By making him Australian, I have made him more aware of the arbitrary nature of the class system. He dislikes James, and worries that he dislikes him for all the wrong reasons, and so confuses his instincts when he senses James is a bad egg.

Felix: Alas, Felix is also suffering barriers, as homosexuality is basically outlawed. He is a man, struggling to understand his own nature. He is trying to define himself as a real man, even though he already suspects that his sexuality is going to be restricted by his gender. He is possibly the most interesting character in the sense he has a less defined ‘enemy’.

James: his both his father’s heir and his father’s rival. His birth was the reason his mother dies, and his father has never really forgiven James for her death. He is fighting for survival, though he might not realise that on a conscious level. He dislikes being a pawn in his father’s power game. He is asserting himself as an individual – but he is more like his father than they both realise. His motive will always be an underlying need to prove himself worthy to his father, even after his father is dead.

James’ Father: he was never a nice person, but the loss of his wife unbalanced him. He seeks to control everything in his life, which became an obsession with dominating the world. He does believe he is doing the right thing, if not the kind thing, to improve the human race using Darwin’s theory as his stepping off point.

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What does Steampunk mean to me and the WiP?

Ah yes – what can I tell you about my WiP? Well, we can safe assume that it is falls into Steampunk as its literary category. But what defines the Steampunk genre?

The term retro-futurism gets bandied about a lot. I think it is a good term, but it requires some explaining to people outside of the genre, because it doesn’t specify WHICH era it applies to. Even the title ‘Steampunk’ confuses some people, because they don’t realise it means steam-powered, as in the start of the Industrial Age.  And other people only see the ‘punk’ and think the genre must be people by anarchists who pierce everything and beat up little old ladies for listening to Barry Manilow. I find it easiest to tell people I write stories in the style of Jules Verne.

The Steampunk Aesthetic and Steampunk subculture we can safely ignore for another post.

To me, Steampunk is about setting a Science Fiction story in the Victorian era. It means taking the known scientific advances of the era and ramping them up several notches. What would the impact of those advances have on Victorian society? As a feminist, I like the idea of stirring the pot in a strictly patriarchal society. But you don’t need to stay in the Steampunk genre to write feminist prose.

I like gadgets. I really like gadgets. I am a science geek; the history of science fascinates me endlessly. I am a huge fan of the works of Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens and a dozen other Victorian writers. It felt right and natural to start writing Steampunk genre fiction. Steampunk mixes all my favourite writing obsessions into one genre.  I am also very taken by the use of the term Gaslight Fantasies, because most of the action in Steampunk prose would take place by the light of gas lamps and gas lanterns.

So, when I started writing my current WiP, it came as no surprise to me that it turned out to be a Steampunk story.

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March 19, 2013 · 4:27 am

Introducing the Cogpunk Steamscribe

ImageHello my friends. This blog will be the journey I am taking to finish writing and editing my Steampunk Work-in-Progress, from now on refered to as the WiP. I will list here the influences, inspirations, research and problems I will encounter as I finish and polish ‘The Botanical Adventures of Professor Alice’. Currently the WiP is 113, 411 words long and this is only the first draft. It is a daunting task to tinker with this draft and knock it into shape. Exciting, isn’t it?

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