Category Archives: Plot

How Setting and Plot can affect Characterisation

professor-alice

My main character of my Steampunk novel is a seventeen year old girl called Alice. She is a polymath, and finds it difficult to gain respect and recognition for her inventions and education in the male-dominated field of science in Britain, in the 1870s. How you build a character should link back to your setting and plot. I am going to run though how Professor Alice was developed.

When I first had my idea for the novel, I knew it was going to be about a woman fighting against the established patriarchal restrictions built into the scientific society of Victorian England. So the fact she was female was a given. And she had to be tough and resilient.

She also needed to be rich. Alas, but only the daughters of the wealthy usually had access to a proper scientific education. A poor girl would be lucky to scrape enough education to read, write, and do figures. I made both her parents well educated, so that it was more likely that Alice would receive a better education than watercolours and piano playing. By making them minor nobility, it also gave me the opportunity to explore the class system of the Victorian era.

Now to pile on the negatives and increase her struggle. Red hair was NOT a fashionable colour in the 1870s, and was associated with prostitution and the lower classes. I didn’t want Alice to be a conventionally pretty woman. As well, I made her tall, in an era when small women were favoured over tall women (and I suffer from height envy – if I can’t be tall, I can at least write about tall women). In this way, she is visually striking without being considered beautiful, so that her looks would create uncertainty in social occasions. No hiding away like a wallflower for my Alice.

She was going to be having a lot of adventures, so she had to be fit and active. As well, she doesn’t wear corsets or skirts on a daily basis, because they restrict her movements and bustle skirts are simply dangerous in a laboratory. This would also add to the perception of her unnaturalness or Otherness in society.

When you look at characters in books, don’t assume that their appearance was just a random choice by the author. A small, brown-haired Alice with no money or education would not have been able to function within my plot.

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Forgoing the Tidy Ending (a rant)

dina-goldsteins-photo-series-fallen-princesses

Image from Dina Goldstein’s  Fallen Princesses photograph series.

As a writer, I have to spend time thinking about the ends of stories. A television show has an hour (well 45 minutes plus commercials) to set a problem and resolve it satisfactorily. Few television shows can afford to go with a messy ending with loose ends, because that isn’t what most people want from an hour of entertainment. Movies and plays, particularly art movies and tragedies, can take the risk of having an unhappy ending, but they still like to tie off the various subplots. Books can have very tragic endings, but everything still tends to get tidied away.

In real life, there are no tidy endings.Real life is a Gordian Knot.

patrick_corrigan-illustration-of-gordian-knot

Patrick Corrigan illustration of a Gordian Knot.

What do you – as a writer – risk by forgoing the happily ever after? Well, you may alienate some of your audience. Some people read purely for entertainment and don’t want to have to think deeply about the ending; and there is nothing wrong with that.

But other people read to have their thoughts provoked.So long as you are consistent, and your plot is logical, these readers don’t (or won’t) mind the story ending like an untidy pile of knitting left to unravel. These endings are particularly favoured by big ‘L’ literary books, but genre authors can utilise these endings to good effect. I’m thinking of Lois Lowry’s The Giver as an example.

the-giver

Some genres can’t have avoid happily ever after endings. A happy resolution is part of the classification of the Romance genre and the Fairy Tale. However, don’t confuse a happy ending with a tidy ending. A happy ending depends heavily on where you end the story. Happily ever after is conditional – if Cinderella’s story had ended before the fairy godmother’s visit, the end is sad and tragic.

Happy ever after is conditional.PNG

A twist ending can still be a tidy ending, if all the twists still lead to a neatly wrapped up ending. Twists are how you end up with a Celtic Princess Braid jumper, but it won’t unravel.

As I become more confident in my writing, I am moving away from the too tidy ending. It isn’t that I want to add a level of realism and verisimilitude to my writing, because of course I do; but this interest in knotty endings is more of a rebellion against the sameness of tidy endings. As Leo Tolstoy noted: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy is its own way. Human beings are messy. Relationships are messy. I want my writing to memorable and original, and so, once in a while, I will try to avoid the ‘sameness’ of a tidy ending.

contemporary-sculptural-basketry-by-catriona-pollard-the-gordian-knot

 

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Motivation and Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The motivation of your characters is what will push your plot along. Motivation can be as simple as wanting a cup of coffee or as complex as trying to take over a country or a planet. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used to break down motivation into understandable chunks. Understanding your character’s motivation makes it easier to plot what actions they will take under differing circumstances.

A girl should be two things: who and what she wants. ~ Coco Chanel:

Level one: Physiological Needs

These are the most basic needs for human survival: food, water, sleep, air, warmth in cold weather and protection from the sun from in the heat. If these needs aren’t met, the individual will die. These are the most powerful motivations, but often they are forgotten in the excitement of a story. Even the pure-hearted protagonist needs to eat and rest sometimes. A good example of this would be Abdullah’s crossing of the desert in Diana Wynne Jones’ Castle in the Air, when the poor boy comes close to dying of heat and thirst.

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Level Two: Safety

Once the basic needs are met, an individual is now concerned with the issues of safety and security needs. Personal security is a desire to be safe from things like dangerous animals or war. Financial security is a desire for enough money to purchase personal safety and basic needs, and medicines and care to ensure an individual’s health and well-being. This can be the underlying motivation for what appears to be a greedy need for making money. Mr Shen in Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds at first appears to be an old miser, but it turns out his motivation was from a need to secure his family.

witches.:

Level Three: Love and Belonging

Love and belonging can mean family, or the intimacy of close friendships, or romantic love. It is this need that creates peer pressures, bullying, and may create a feeling of isolation. This need can be just as powerful as the need for safety, when people remain in abusive relationships, or get into dangerous situations due to a need for acceptance by a gang or group. It is the motivation of many YA protagonists, from Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) to Micah (Justine Larbalestier’s Liar), and every romance book ever written.

Bronze and green velvet dress:

Level Four: Esteem

This is self love, self confidence, and the need for the respect of your peers. This may manifest itself as a  need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. This is often the motivation used for villains, or anti-heroes. It can relate directly back to level three, and a lack of acceptance that creates a lack of confidence. Just about every quest tale relates to this level; think of Bilbo in The Hobbit.

long red hair - Google Search:

Level Five: Self Actualization

No one can reach their full potential, as a writer, as a queen, as a mother, as a teacher, without self actualization. This is the mastery of potential, using determination and discipline. Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is all about the main cast meeting their potential; Schmendrick as a wizard, Molly Grue as a woman, Prince Lir as a ruler, even Amalthea becomes a unique unicorn who has learnt how to regret. As a motivation for a character, this can be the hardest to define.

None of these levels are completely cut and dried. A character can have a blend of these needs as the underlying impetus to their motivations. If you are uncertain about what is motivating one of your characters, try breaking their motivation down using this hierarchy. And motivations can change throughout the length of a story, as one need is met, another will arise.

Some add a final level (Maslow did in the last years of his life) … spirituality, and the need to find something bigger than yourself. This is the level that can be the hardest to achieve … and the most satisfying to fulfil. It is this level that makes The Lord of the Rings one of the best loved and most memorable books ever written.

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Fatal Fashion; A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

English, early 1860s. In 1856 when William Henry Perkins accidently invented mauve, the first synthetic dye, a new age of colour in fashion was born. Soon vibrant and often gaudy synthetic colours were the toast of fashion but many of these hues also came with risk to wearer. Arsenic and picric acid to name a few were just some of the toxic chemicals used in create coloured clothing. This pair of mauve boots shows the brilliance of the new synthetic colour. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum Photo credit: Image © 2014 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada (photo: Ron Wood)

Mauve boots dyed with the new synthetic colour dye containing arsenic, picric acid, and other toxic chemicals, circa 1860s, from the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum

It is estimated that, during the late 1850s and late 1860s in England, about 3,000 women were killed in crinoline-related fires. In 1861, Fanny Appleton Longfellow died from the burns when her dress caught fire. In 1871, Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters, Emily and Mary, died of burns sustained after their evening gowns caught fire.

The Tragedy of Continental Theatre Fire in Philadelphia, 1861. Six or nine ballerinas died (reports vary). Four of fatalities were from the one family; they were the celebrated Gale sisters, from England. The problem was the flammable gauze of the costumes, that blazed fiercely when alight.

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The Philosophy of Science & Logic and the Steampunk Writer – Part One

Warning Science Ahead

When writing Steampunk narrative, it improves the quality of your prose if you understand some of the philosophy behind rational, scientific thinking. Contrary to expectations, rational thinking and science do not oppose poetry and lyrical prose. Most poetry follows quite a rigid set of rules; I recommend Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled and it supports my assertion. Most novels have quite a complex structure, even if you can’t spot it as easily as in the Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (nesting dolls). Prose depends on the underlying structures of the sentence and the flowers of rhetoric. All of these literary structures are to provide clarity while at the same time boosting the aesthetic quality of the texts. If Beauty is Truth, then science and rationality can be very beautiful.

Rocket for SCIENCE

So, today, let’s look at the some of the skills needed to think logically and rationally. These are skills that should help you develop a plot without plot-holes.

The Either/Or Fallacy:

In Western culture, we have a bad habit of seeing everything as a binary opposite: it’s black and white; you’re either with me or you’re against me; it’s my way or the highway. Real life has more shades, and not just of grey. When writing a Steampunk novel, unless it is for very young children, the good girls should have their flaws and the bad girls should have their virtues.

Reality is for those who can't handle Science Fiction

The Side Issue:

It is best to avoid having a side issue to derail the actual aim of a course of action or an argument in your narrative. Politicians favour this strategy, deflecting a question onto a different topic that really doesn’t answer the question. When writing, don’t let too many side issues take the impetus from the main thrust of the plot, unless your putting in red herrings to a mystery. A side journey should always lead back to the main storyline.

Science = Magic without the lies.

Questioning Everything: 

Don’t assume your reader knows all the details of the science you are supplying. Don’t assume you know all the details, unless you’ve done a lot of careful research. Science is all about never assuming you know all the facts, and comes with the expectation that there is always something new to discover. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series has dozens of examples, but my favourite one is his constant questioning of idioms; for example ‘getting on like a house on fire’ might mean people screaming and running away.

Bring Back Science

Cause and Effect: 

One of the main forces driving a plot along is cause and effect. This happened, and it caused this new event to occur. However, some writers can get confused about cause and effect, and make assumptions. Example: the tidal forces of moon controls the tides. The moon controls werewolves. Therefore, werewolves are controlled by the tidal forces of the moon. This may be true, but it is highly unlikely. Further investigation will be needed to find the real causes of any event.

Sweeping Generalisations: Everyone’s favourite sort of fallacy, because it is often mistaken for hyperbole. All women are bad at maths. All men are brutes. All cats are selfish. When you are writing, you have to be alert that you are not misrepresenting a fact because of generalisations. It is also lazy writing, as it can often create stereotypes of your characters. When making a statement, try to keep it accurate. Too many generalisation can build up within a plot to create contradictions, which will lead to plot-holes.

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The Carrington Event: the geomagnetic solar Perfect Storm of 1859

Solar Storm

Image of solar flare from NASA website

Science can make important discoveries through hard work and dedication, but luck (good and bad) has its part to play. Let’s start with a quick oversight of the major players in this historical event.

Richard Carrington was an astronomer with experience and training, you will often see him referred to as an amateur astronomer, but this is because he was not in the employ of an academic organisation when he had his most famous observation. He had trained and worked as an observer for the University of Durham, and had a paper published. His admission as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, 14 March 1851, also proves he was more than a mere amateur. He was the younger son of a wealthy brewer, and had the means to construct his own observatory. Astronomy might have been his passion, but he was a reliable and trusted observer, and recognised as one of England’s foremost solar astronomers.

Richard Hodgson had a great deal in common with Carrington. He was wealthy enough to build his own observatory. Hodgson was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, because of his work with telescopes and microscopes. However, he was a talented amateur, with no academic training; he was originally a successful publisher (this would indicate that he was a high intelligence).

Sunspots as sketched by Richard Carrington on September 1st, 1859.

The lives of these two men became intertwined on September 1, 1859. Carrington was using his telescope to project an 11-inch-wide image of the sun onto a screen, he was observing and drawing the sunspots. At 11:18am, he watched as the sunspots disappeared under the flare of two bright spots, and for five minutes observed how this bright spots grew and then faded. Hodgson also witnessed and recorded the event. They has witnessed an enormous solar flare, the biggest on record, even today.

The Carrington Event of 1859 was a solar coronal mass ejection hitting Earth’s magnetosphere and induced one of the largest geomagnetic storms on record. If a similar storm was to happen today, it would be a disaster for our electronics, on which we are so dependant. One of the most obvious effects in 1859 were aurora all over the world, even at the tropics, showing the bombardment on our magnetosphere. Telegraph systems all over the world failed, and telegraph pylons were observed throwing sparks.

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Balfour Stewart

The event was recorded on the magnetometer of the Kew Observatory by its director, Balfour Stewart, a physicist. Between this record and effects of the worldwide magnetic storm, Carrington suspected a connection between the storm and his solar event. When Elias Loomis wrote up the event, he named it the Carrington Event because of Carrington’s detailed observations, with Hodgson’s & Stewart’s supporting evidence.

As a Steampunk writer, the Carrington Event is pure gold for inspiration. Instead of having a human villain, you can have your protagonists fighting to survive an unexpected disaster caused by something like the Carrington event. Imagine a plot where a Victorian-era rocket loses all its electronics? Or missing an important message because the telegraph lines are out of commission. The possibilities for building a plot around such an Event are endless.

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Getting Down to the Nuts and Bolts: Plotting a Steampunk Scene

Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains

I’ve talked a bit about plotting, but I really haven’t explained the basic idea of plotting a scene.The structure of narrative is built up from a variety of scenes; it is very rare that a novel would just be one scene (I can’t think of one example, to be truthful). So the scene is the brick from which your castle in the air is built – or, to use a Steampunk Metaphor – a scene is one of the springs that goes into the running of the clockwork of your story, pushing it along.

So, let’s start with a simple and basic plot, one of the classics: a couple find each other and fall in love, then there is some event that separates them, and eventually they find each other again for the happily-ever-after ending … or not, as the case my be. Picking one aspect of that plot: some event separates them. Did they fight? Was one character dragged away by events beyond their control? Did they plan to meet up, and one of them failed to make the meeting? As the writer, it is up to you to make this event plausible without contradicting you characterizations or settings. Let’s pick another classic: one of the couple gives up the other ‘for their own good’. Say the girl character is at university and doing brilliantly, and her beau decides his presence is putting her career at risk, for what ever reason.

This is where you have to start plotting your scene. Will he just call off their ‘engagement’ with no explanation? Will he deliberately start a fight, so that she will break it off with him and never know the sacrifice he is making? Will he start undertaking risky behaviour, expecting to die and so set her free that way? Or will be do the completely unexpected thing, and just tell her that he believes he is a bad influence on her, and give her the opportunity to make up her own mind? (I prefer the last option, because it assumes the girl is mature and smart enough to direct her own destiny.)

Let’s say you’ve chosen the ‘sacrifice’ option, as – again – it is one of the classic options; this is the driving force of any version of ‘A Star is Born’. So, you need a scene where your protagonist will die in some manner, and it is up to you how you will plot it. In the first two movie versions of ‘A Star in Born’, the Norman character drowns himself. This can be very dramatic, as your character walks resolutely into the dark, cold water. But your character don’t live near the ocean. So how would you plot this?

Firstly, you would write down the main points of the scene:

1/ ‘Norman’ realizes he is a liability and is harming his true love.

2/ ‘Norman’ decides to commit suicide, but he doesn’t want to recreate residual guilt for his true love.

3/ ‘Norman’ decided to drive his car/horseless carriage over a cliff, making it look like an accidental death.

So, you now have the blueprint of your scene. Now you have to get all the parts and screw it together.

Wheels within wheels

Wheels within wheels

If you are writing a straightforward recollection of events, you might leave the scene nearly as sparse as the outline. Sometime, particularly with death scenes, less can be more. Death is dramatic without much ornamentation. However, if you are a ‘wheels withing wheels’ stylist, you might add more description of the scene. What does the car/carriage signify? Where ‘Norman’ chooses to leave the road might have significance. If you prefer to write in first person perspective, you might take your audience with ‘Norman’ and see his final moments through his eyes. How you write this scene relates to what has gone before, and what you plan to be the repercussions of this scene for the rest of your narrative.

This is what plotting is all about. Every scene should be pushing the story forwards. It might not be that the death of this character is vital to the narrative, but is essential as an insight into the character of the main protagonist: a young woman who has tragically lost the love of her life. It might be that you are writing a tragedy, and his sacrifice was in vain. So the scene has to touch the heart of your audience; or shock them; or give them a sense of relief that the character got his just desserts.

Ask yourself:

Is this scene necessary?

What do you, the writer, want this scene to achieve?

Who needs to be in this scene?

What is the setting?

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