Monthly Archives: January 2015

Theoretics – Jekyll & Hyde (with Mark Hoy, Chimaroke Abuachi)

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Writing Against Heteronormative Gender Stereotypes: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted (with her husband) in 1861 as Jack Williams.

Union soldier Frances Louisa Clayton, who enlisted (with her husband) in 1861 as Jack Williams.

The Steampunk genre is open to many interpretations of the industrial era. I am writing a Steampunk YA novel, with a female protagonist. In the Victorian era, a respectable woman was restricted to wearing dresses, and layers of cloth and whalebone between her skin and the fresh air. My Alice conforms when she is out in public, but in the privacy of her own estates she wears ‘masculine’ clothing.  It is more comfortable, and much safer, when she is working in her laboratory. In this era, the wearing of masculine clothes is considered quite shocking.

So, what do you do when you have a character that doesn’t conform to societies expectations of gender and sexuality?

Don’t make a big song and dance about it.

We live in an era that is trying to achieve a culture of equality and tolerance. The best way we can achieve that is not to define a character by her (or his) gender or sexuality. If a woman (or a man) wants to wear unconventional clothing, may have someone comment on it the once, and leave it at that – unless of course the manner of dress is the point of the scene. Just like you wouldn’t harp on someone’s age or ethnicity or religious beliefs, you shouldn’t harp on their sexuality or gender. A person is just a person, and not a jigsaw puzzle made of parts. Your character should be seen as a whole and well-rounded personality, or they may be defined by the stereotypes linked to certain traits.

Miss Martha Jane Canary,  around 1874, and Dr Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1870s, after serving as a surgeon and receiving the Medal of Honour during the American Civil War.

Miss Martha Jane Canary, around 1874, and Dr Mary Edwards Walker, circa 1870s, after serving as a surgeon and receiving the Medal of Honour during the American Civil War.

The same strategy works best when a character doesn’t fit the heteronormative ideals of gender stereotypes. It is lazy writing to construct a character using any sort of stereotype, and you need to keep an eye out for ones you may not even realise are stereotypes. The butch lesbian. The effeminate homosexual. The flamboyant transsexual. People are complex, and if you don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) someone who doesn’t conform to a heteronormative lifestyle, don’t write about them.

However, if you want to warmly embrace the concept of a full spectrum of human genders and sexualities, don’t feel that a Steampunk setting will restrict you. Quite the opposite, in fact! Because you are working in an alternative timeline, you can write about a Industrial Age with teeming with tolerance and understanding. You can make a world of your own!

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

Cross dressing Michigan farm boys.

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Steampunk Stage Directions: Character to Setting Interactions

The Prestige

One of my lecturers, Dr Ross Watkins of the University of the Sunshine Coast, gave me the finest piece of writing advice for settings. He told me to consider my setting as another character, and provide it with a ‘dialogue’ of its own. Thanks to using this suggestion, I can build a much better and stronger relationship between my characters and setting.

If you are using your setting just as a place for your characters to interact and for the action to take place, you are underutilizing your settings. Could this dialogue take place just anywhere? Could the action take place somewhere else? A great setting acts in conjunction with the characters and plot to set a mood, like a literary diorama. The correct setting will intensify the atmosphere you are trying to achieve, as well as act as a supporting character and function as a plot enabler.

As an example, look at the image above from the film The Prestige. We are in a stage magician’s workshop with the magician and his ingénieur (the designer and engineer of his stage tricks). They are discussing the ingénieur’s most recent creation. Now this conversation could have taken place in a coffee shop or in the street, but the workshop has the tools and raw items to make into magic tricks. Already you can see how the setting and action are supporting the characterisation of the two men. However, this setting is also working on another third level. The workshop is wear the real magic happens. The narrative is about the creation of unique and spectacular devices, so as to bamboozle the audience and grow a great reputation. The workshop is one of the central settings to the plot; where reality and magic are interchangeable.

Your settings can act as metaphors and analogies. But never get so wrapped up in your setting that you forget about the other two pillars of your storytelling.

Is this a setting or just a backdrop?

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Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and Body Language

bbc_sherlock_x_watson___long_overdue_return_by_voydkessler-d5ud9vf

 You have your setting. You have your plot. You have your characters…

Now what?

Now you have to let them interact. The most obvious interactions are character to character, but all three have to mix to create the conflict and resolution of your narrative.

Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and body language

The most obvious of character to character interactions is dialogue. The biggest problem with dialogue is that – in real life – a great deal of our communication is unspoken, because human beings have a sophisticated system of displaying emotions and complicates this with gestures and body posture and other nonverbal cues. This is hard to translate onto the page, and only partially because we don’t really notice a lot of this communication on a conscious level.

There are five main functions of nonverbal communication in human beings:

  • To express complex emotions
  • To express information about events and attitudes
  • For emphasis during speech
  • Presentation of personality
  • Social rituals

For example, when most people say ‘hello’, they also do an eyebrow flash, where they rapidly raise their eyebrows and drop them again. You don’t notice when you doing it, and you generally don’t notice the other person doing it (but I’m predicting you will now notice it for the next day or so). It is when someone doesn’t do the eyebrow flash that you notice something awry. You sense that they may be aggressive or disinterested. Now, how do you convey that gesture – or the lack of it – onto the page?

As well, so much of a conversation is conveyed by grunts and sounds. Most of us know about ‘hmmm’, ‘um’ and ‘er’, but there a dozens of more sounds in a normal conversation, ‘duh’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘gah’, ‘tsk’, yawning, gasping, sighing, moaning, hissing through your teeth, and I could go on and on. How much of this do you include in your text? And if you added in all the incomplete sentences that people make, your dialogue would end up too patching and boring to follow.

The proximity of communicating characters is important. If two people conversing are close enough to touch, this sends a different message than if they were on the opposite sides of a table, and again if they were on the opposite sides of the room! Their positions and postures might give you a bigger hint as to what is happening. If they are nose to nose and looking deep into each other eyes, with relaxed postures and caressing gestures being exchanged, you can make the assumption they are in love (or plotting murder).

This is a lot of information to convey in your narrative. You have to pick those aspects that convey the clearest picture of what is happening, as well as design your dialogue to sound like speech without actually mimicking real speech patterns. Look at the image provided, showing a very complex interaction between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. As an exercise: how would you convey that information just by text?

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Changing Gears: the Steampunk Plot

I’m reblogging this as it works very well together with the current post about plot.

Cogpunk Steamscribe

If you’ve done any journalism courses, you know about the five questions you need to answer in any story – news or otherwise – which are :

  • Who?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

In a novel or short story, characterization is the Who;Where and When are described by the setting; and the plot is driven by Why and How. Plot is just as important as characterization and setting in a Steampunk story. The reader might be enchanted by your characters and settings, but they will soon lose interest if there is no plot. All three, plot, characterization and setting, need to be top notch and working together as a cohesive whole. A good Steampunk adventure needs to answer the Why and How.

Any basic plot can be modified to a Steampunk plot. There is a traditional list of seven basic plots:

1/ The Monster, aka Overcoming the Monster. The perfect Victorian examples…

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What the Plot? – a Steampunk Perspective

1871 map of London

Since the last two blog posts were about setting and characterization, logically this one should be about plot. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I am a planner when it comes to plots. I sit down when I first get an idea for a story and do a ‘chunking’ exercise. This is when I let my imagination run unfettered, without any restraints. The weird and wacky ideas are given as much chance as the more rational possibilities. I sit down and write down chunks of text, feeling my way through the original inspiration.

At this point, I might have some idea of my setting and my characters, but they aren’t fully realised. I need a plot to generate the characters and setting; conversely, I need to know my characters to get a feel for the events that will be in the plot. The ‘chunking’ exercise helps draw out the relationships between the characters, the setting and the plot. This will help me generate a timeline and a plotting grid.

So, at this point, I have a map of what is going to happen and the order of the events. I can set off on my journey with some idea of what is going to happen along the way. Other writers prefer to write without a map, and I admire their strength of spirit; I couldn’t work that way.

I start filling in the events, while at the same time I am learning more and more about my characters. I have two methods for ‘filling’ in the map. Sometimes I start at the beginning and work through to the end. Sometimes I will write the big scenes first, and they will give me a better idea of what needs to happen in the lead up to these scenes, and what the repercussions will be for my characters.

It is at this point that the plot will go through its first set of changes. As I get more familiar with my characters, I sometimes find that certain scenes won’t fit into the plot any more as that will mean someone acting ‘out of character’. I might find I need more or less characters, to fit in with the vagrancies of the plot. Even as I am writing the first draft, I will deviating from my map. And so the map gets changed. My plots are very, very flexible in the early stages.

Now – I know I harp on this but it can’t be said enough – there is no wrong way to writing a novel. If you feel more comfortable plotting in a different manner, run with it. I am just sharing my methodology for those people who are still seeking a methodology of their own, or are like me and are absolutely fascinated with the processes of other writers.

With the current Steampunk Work-in-Progress, my original inspiration was reading the biography of Beatrix Potter, and how her sterling work with studying British fungi was unrecognised by the British scientific community simply because she was born a woman. The unfairness of her position pricked my muse. So I decided to create my own ‘Beatrix’, a young woman with an extraordinary intellect, fighting against the misogyny of her society. Alice has a lot more happen to her than just struggling for academic recognition, and yet all her adventures had their beginning in wanting to empower Beatrix Potter.

You know you’ve hit the right mix of plot, characterization and setting when you find it easy to write a scene. This is due to your mental flow not being interrupted by inconsistencies. Generally, if it is easy to write, it is easy to read. Some days the words will just fly onto the page. It is the best feeling in the world.

However, there are going to be days when the words sink to the bottom of the cesspit. They stink. But it is better to keep struggling, because you will working towards understanding what is wrong. Think of those heavy words as stepping stones.

I’ll give you an example from another WiP … a YA vampire parody novel (I always have several projects on the go). I had one of a loving vampire couple having an affair with a human, because she misses being human. I was having so much trouble writing those scenes. Oh boy, was I stuck! That was because I was writing against the character, who passionately loves her husband. My muse was just about shouting at me how I was creating a huge mound of plot problems for myself if I kept that event in the plot. So I changed it, and did a complete rewrite to erase the incident entirely. Suddenly, the blockage was gone and the words were flowing again. Character and plot and setting were back in sync.

My biggest problem was that I was kind of attached to the scene where the husband confronted his wife. This is what they mean by ‘kill your darlings’. Never be so in love with a scene, even if it fabulous with snappy dialogue, if it is going to create plot holes.

So, in the end, my plotting technique isn’t for everybody, but it works well for me. I would love to hear from anyone who has a different technique that works well for them.

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Filed under Plot, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, YA Work in Progress

Constructing Alice: A Steampunk Perspective

When I am constructing a personality for a character in my stories, I always try to give each character a backstory that will make them act in ways that will move my plot along. Even if this backstory makes no appearance in the text, it will impact on how that character acts and what that character wants. It is what the character wants that causes the conflicts in a narrative, be it the character wants to rule the world or simply desires to save it. Character should affects plot and setting as much as setting and plot affect the character.

 Professor Alice in modern era

In my Steampunk Work-in-Progress, my protagonist has quite the backstory. Alice is a polymath, but her specialty is Botany. At seventeen years of age, she has a professorship from a tiny European country, because she attended classes dressed as a man, claimed to be ten years older, and spelt her name as Ellis. She got away with this because she is tall for a woman, and she pretended to be suffering from bad colds most of the time to disguise her voice. She values rationality over emotions.

General random details: She is a genius inventor. She was born in 1854 (and shared her birthday with me; all my protagonists share my birthday to make it easy for me to remember). She had a younger brother, Phineas, but he died in infancy and she can’t really remember him. She is a redhead, and gets frustrated with people who expect her to have a fiery temper. (Actually, I suspect most redheads have a temper because they are sick of people telling them they have a temper – and no soul.)

Her parents went missing when she was eleven, as they were both botanical scientists and went to explore Australia looking for a rare plant they thought might hold a cure for consumption (Tuberculosis). They thought they would be gone just six months to a year, and left Alice in the care of Comtesse Amélie Veronique du Palais, a French cousin to her mother (and a scientist and an innovator in aeronautics). Amélie has done her best to bring up Alice in the manner her parents wanted, by getting the girl tutors in mathematics and all the sciences. Alice often wonders if she is getting the education planned for her deceased baby brother.

It is popular opinion that Alice’s parents are dead, and yet Alice secretly hopes they are alive, though she can’t understand why they haven’t returned to her. Because her parents were quite wealthy, and minor nobility, she has had several offers of marriage, even though she considered something of a scandal and an eccentric. And remember, her husband takes ownership of everything including Alice, and can even refuse Alice permission to do any further research.

Apart from the heartache of her missing parents, Alice finds the outright rejection of the British academic and scientific societies just so unfair and something of a burden. She can’t get any of her papers published. She hasn’t been asked to join any of the societies (though her friendship with Mary Somerville and Charles Babbage may see that oversight corrected). Most academics and scientists don’t appreciate a young woman showing them up; particularly since society frowns on the education of women in the rational sciences and natural philosophy in case their brains melt. She can matriculate at an English university – though she is welcome to study and take exams – and so she can never lecture at a British university. As well, she can’t even go to Kew Gardens without special permission (and the gardens were run by a series of very misogynistic gentlemen). Those fusty old men are also jealous of the fact that she is making another fortune with her discoveries and inventions.

She is devastated when Charles Darwin writes of women being inferior to men. She feels betrayed by her hero.

Alice finds it hard to make friends with women her own age, mainly because ‘nice’ families don’t want her giving their daughters any ideas. She doesn’t look down on girls who haven’t been given the same educational opportunities that she has had. The few times she has been able to chat with girls around her own age, she has found them rather delightful company. She is a lot happier now that she has Sophie Watson as her assistant, for the help AND the company.

Sophie adores Alice for her enthusiasm for science – she was recruited from one of poor scholar schools Alice’s parents started and Alice continues to fund. She isn’t a polymath, but she very intelligent and creative and has something of a crush on Alice. I plan on Sophie finding love eventually with another very bright woman, as Alice is heterosexual (though Alice does like to cross-dress and wear masculine clothing). And I prefer seeing their love mature into a strong platonic love between equals, rather than something sexual.

Speaking of sex, Alice is just starting to get interested in boys as something other than friends. Her best friend in the whole world is Felix Tame (Oscar Wilde), who is a year younger than her but just as much a genius – if in the Arts rather than the Sciences. The two were drawn together by their need for company, and as my mother says ‘water finds its own level’. Two genius level intellects longing to connect with people who can understand the difficulties of being ‘different’; there is no sexual attraction between them.

Mark and James enter Alice’s circle of friends through their mutual interest in science; and she is attracted to both men for different reasons. Mark is the ‘Edison as a boy’ and ‘boy next door’, and is a mechanical and electrical wizard; he invents a working robot using hydraulics and clockwork run by steam. However, Mark is poor and a colonial from Australia – two counts against him marrying Alice who is rich and of higher status. James is rich and sophisticated and of the same class as Alice (and therefore less likely to be interested in marrying her for status or money). His area of science is mathematics and statistics. However, as we will discover, James is more interested in her value as ‘breeding stock’ for providing him with intelligent children rather than in Alice for her own sake.

What is the defining event of Alice’s young life? The loss of her parents. She feels that the source of all her personal troubles flow from there.

So – what does Alice WANT? What causes the conflict?

1/ Alice wants her parents to be found alive.

2/ Alice wants the respect of the scientific and academic establishments.

3/ Alice secretly would like a beau and to feel like a normal girl.

 Professor Alice

Now, this backstory and personal information is even more detailed in my files. I didn’t want to bore you with too much information. I won’t be coldly stating the facts like this in my narrative. But knowing all this helps me keeps her character consistent. I know how exactly how she will react in a situation. This makes writing about her much easier than if I was just blindly writing and making it up as I go along. It increases the believability of Alice as a real person, and the verisimilitude of the narrative in general.

Now, you might notice very little mention of Alice’s appearance in this backstory. This is because Alice isn’t motivated by her looks, but by her intellect. This is probably because she is a pleasant looking, and can be beautiful on occasions, and so she can ignore her looks. If she was super beautiful, or very plain, or disfigured, this would have an impact on her confidence and behaviour. She would prefer not to have red hair, but doesn’t really fret about it. I chose red hair because she is of Scottish descent, and it amuses me to make her a ginger because Doctor Who wants to be a ginger. Joking aside, I prefer to keep details of her appearance vague so that the reader can supply their own image from their imaginations, though I see her as rather like the two girls accompanying this article.

So there you have it. I now have a character who will react in a very specific way in my narrative, in ways that will push my plot along! And she fits perfectly into the setting, because the setting was designed with characterization and plot in mind. I even know what she would do if she saw a spider – can you guess what Alice would do if confronted by a bird-eating spider?

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, YA Work in Progress