Category Archives: Research

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m currently following the competition between museums to find their creepiest object. I’m actually shopping a short story around about a medical model, so I find these bizarre objects right up my alley. This was all started on Twitter by the Yorkshire Museum, who kicked off with a 3rd/4th century hair bun from the burial of a Roman lady, still with the jet pins in place.


I don’t think anyone is going to top the leg transformed into a beast.

However, the ones that haunt me the most are the taxidermy objects: the Fiji mermaids, the crab claws playing cards, the kittens posed as if playing games, the fox with a woman’s death mask, the badly stuffed lion. Every single one of these could inspire a story from me. I am very tempted to write a short story collection based on all this rogue taxidermy.

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Filed under Museums, Research, Rogue Taxidermy, Story

Reading for Fun and Profit


I make no apologies when claiming to love reading. I was reading before I went to school, thanks to my parents reading to me every night.

All writers start out as readers. If someone tells me that they write books but don’t read them, I can’t help but wonder how he knows to construct a sentence, a paragraph, a story arc, and how to avoide clichés and stereotypes. How does he know what genre he is writing in, and what is already in that that genre.

So, a successful writer has to be a reader, for many reasons. Reading is the gateway to being a writer, any sort of writer. Off the top of my head, I read for:
1/ Pleasure;
2/ Research;
3/ Inspiration;
4/ Even more research (I do a lot of research); and
5/ Educational purposes.

Reading for research! You need to research for both fiction and nonfiction texts. I’ve done enough research to fill a library with historical detail for my Steampunk novels; and I still feel like I’ve never researched enough. I find it is easier with my scientific articles, because I can list my references!

Reading has physical and intellectual benefits apart from supplying inspiration and verisimilitude to your prose.

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This is why I have ten bookcases in my house and shelves packed with a double layer of books.


Filed under Books & reading, Creativity, Inspiration, Research, Steampunk, The Writing Life

Draft of Timeline of Women in Science During Victorian Era

All suggestions of additions welcome. This is something I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks, because I really needed a proper understanding of the background for women in Science in the Victorian era. It is only partially complete, but the backbone is there.


Mary Anning

Time Scientist/Instigator Achievement
1799 Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist


Discovery of the Ichthysaurs, Plesiosaurus, and many invertebrate fossil species.
1816 Marie-Sophie Germain (1 April 1776 – 27 June 1831) was a French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher. Submitted her third paper, Recherches sur la théorie des surfaces élastiques under her own name, and became the first woman to win a prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences.
1826 Mary Fairfax Somerville

(26 December 1780 – 29 November 1872) was a Scottish science writer and polymath (Caroline Herschel was first in 18th century)

Presented a paper entitled ‘The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum’ to the Royal Society
1832 Jeanne Villepreux-Power (24 September 1794 – 25 January 1871) was a pioneering French marine biologist The first person to create aquaria for experimenting with aquatic organisms. The first woman member of the Catania Accademia, and a correspondent member of the London Zoological Society.


1834 Janet Taylor (1804–1870), was an English astronomer scientific instrument maker, and navigation expert Her “Mariner’s Calculator” was patented. She produced Lunar Tables for Calculating Distances. She was awarded a Civil List pension in 1860.
1835 Mary Fairfax Somerville and Caroline Herschel Elected as Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society
1836 The Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth was established t0 teach women nursing.
1842 Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, (10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852) was a British mathematician and writer Wrote the first computer program, for use by the Analytical Engine built by Charles Babbage.
1843 Anna Atkins (16 March 1799 – 9 June 1871) was an English botanist and photographer Self-published her photograms in the first installment of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions


1847 Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889) was an American astronomer She discovered a comet, which was recorded as Miss Mitchell’s Comet


1848 Maria Mitchell First woman elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences


1850 Maria Mitchell First woman elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science
1850 Founding of women’s tertiary educational facility, the North London Collegiate School
1853 Founding of women’s tertiary educational facility, Cheltenham Ladies’ College
1860 Florence Nightingale Established the Nightingale Training School for Nurses
1865 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, LSA, MD (9 June 1836 – 17 December 1917), was an English physician and feminist. the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain. She was the co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, the first dean of a British medical school, the first female doctor of medicine in France, the first woman in Britain to be elected to a school board and, as Mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain


1865 Maria Mitchell Was made professor of astronomy at Vassar College, and she was also named as Director of the Vassar College Observatory.
1869 Founding of first UK women’s university college, Girton
1871 Founding of UK women’s university college, Newnham
1874 Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya  (15 January 1850 – 10 February 1891) was the first major Russian female mathematician She presented three papers to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. This earned her a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, the first woman in Europe to achieve that degree.
1874 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson founded the first UK medical school to train women, the London School of Medicine for Women
1879 Founding of UK women’s university college, Somerville
1881 Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton (28 April 1854 – 23 August 1923) was an English engineer, mathematician, physicist, and inventor. Successfully completed an external examination and received a B.Sc. degree from the University of London


1884 Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya Appointed to a five-year position as Professor Extraordinarius (Professor without Chair) and became the editor of Acta Mathematica.


1886 Dorothea Klumpke Roberts (August 9, 1861 in San Francisco – October 5, 1942 ) was an astronomer. Made Director of the Bureau of Measurements at the Paris Observatory for the production of a star atlas.


1889 Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya Appointed Professor Ordinarius at Stockholm University, the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university
1889 Dorothea Klumpke Roberts first recipient of the “Prix de Dames” from the Sociétié des Astronomique de France
1891 Annie Russell Maunder (14 April 1868 – 15 September 1947) was an Irish astronomer and mathematician. began work at the Greenwich Royal Observatory, serving as one of the “lady computers”
1893 Dorothea Klumpke Roberts First woman to be made an Officier d’Académe of the French Academy of Sciences AND she read her doctoral thesis, “L’étude des Anneaux de Saturne” to a large audience of academics at the Sorbonne, and was awarded the degree of Docteur-és-Sciences; the first woman to do so.
1896 Dorothea Klumpke Roberts sailed to Norway on the Norwegian vessel Norse King, to observe the solar eclipse of August 9, 1896


1897 Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist submitted a paper, On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae, to the Linnean Society. Was unable to be taken seriously as an academic and turned to children’s writing.


1898 Annie Russell Maunder She photographed the outer solar corona from India in 1898, then published The Heavens and their Story with her husband as coauthor. She was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in November 1916.
1899 Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton At the International Congress of Women held in London, Hertha presided over the physical science section.


1899 Margaret Lindsay, Lady Huggins (born 14 August 1848, Dublin – died 24 March 1915, London), was an Irish-English scientific investigator and astronomer. co-authored the Atlas of Representative Stellar Spectra with her husband, William Huggins.
1902 Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton Published The Electric Arc, a summary of her research and work on the electric arc.
1904 Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton Became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society.
Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton was awarded the Royal Society‘s prestigious Hughes Medal “for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples”.



Filed under Feminism, Historical Personage, History, Research, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Uncategorized, Victorian Era, Women in Science

On Your Bike: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective of Mounting and Riding a Penny-Farthing Bicycle.

Bob Spiers on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister Maggie - West Wyalong, NSW, Circa 1900. This is one of my favourite images, because it shows two loving siblings larking around.

Bob Spiers on a penny-farthing bicycle being chased by his sister Maggie – West Wyalong, NSW, Circa 1900. This is one of my favourite images, because it shows two loving siblings larking around.

The velocipede that we now call a penny-farthing, was originally known as a Safety Bicycle in Australia (and probably the rest of the world). The recent invention of spokes allowed for the development of larger ‘spider’ wheels. The large front wheel allowed for higher gearing, and the bigger wheel was more comfortable over bumps and potholes. However, cycling enthusiasts were both excited and appalled by this newest innovation in velocipedes, because they looked so ‘flimsy’ and yet had intriguing new gadgets.

In the Austral Wheel Race of 1890, Mr Gordon of Gippsland rode the “tallest machine in the world”. It was sixty-five inches high, while Mr Gordon himself was six feet four inches. – excerpt from Keith Dunstan’s The Confessions of a Bicycle Nut

Of course, the length of one’s legs restricted the size of one’s front wheel. As women are generally shorter than men, it meant the penny-farthing was much more popular with men than women. It was a difficult vehicle to mount and dismount. To keep your balance, the bicycle had to be moving, and you had to hoist yourself up to the seat and find the madly twirling pedals before you fell over. I imagine this took some practice, and involved quite a few scrapes and bruises until the enthusiast learnt the knack. Falling off would have been like falling off a tall horse.

The spoon brake on a penny-farthing bicycle

As well, the braking system was rather primitive; the spoon brake. The big wheel meant these velocipedes were devilishly fast, the rider’s weight was over the front axle, and so hitting the brake too hard would somersault the rider and his bicycle with disastrous results (gravity works). The rider would be projected head first into the ground with some force. It paid to learn how to fall sideways; still painful, but it saved your helmetless head. Fatal accidents were common in Australia.

Vintage Photos of Circus Performers from 1890s-1910s (17)

Safety is not an issue when you have the balance of a circus performer.

As a writer of Steampunk narratives, I think it is important to understand the differences between riding a modern bike compared to the Victorian boneshakers and solid-wheeled velocipede. Before the modern bike could appear, there had to be Dunlop’s invention of the rubber, air-filled wheel; experiments with wheel sizes in relation to gears; the invention of safer braking systems, and a multitude of other innovations. The experience of bike riding changed along with the bikes. What I really want is a long discussion with someone who rides an antique penny-farthing.

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Research, Science, Steampunk Genre, Verisimilitude, Victorian Era, Victorian-era Fashion

Getting Your Research Wrong

Victorian Grave

I have come across this meme  in several places: Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter for starters. I had a little giggle at it, at first. But every time it popped up, I could not help but wonder how many people believed the caption was correct, rather than realising it was a joke. After all, it seems quite a valid reason for the cage.

However, the cage is meant to protect the deceased and not the living. Grave robbing and body snatching were big business in the Victorian era. Grave robbing is the theft of personal items from the corpse, such as valuable jewellery. Body snatching is the theft of the actual corpse, for use in dissection and anatomy study.  Those who practised body snatching were often called resurrectionists. Supplying cadavers for dissection was such a lucrative venture that William Burke and William Hare actually started killing people to keep the supply of bodies coming for Doctor Robert Knox.

Traditionally, medical schools used the bodies of executed criminals for teaching medical students about anatomy. However, there were not enough criminals executed to keep up with the demand. Medical schools would purchase the bodies from resurrectionists, no questions asked. You might wonder at the concept of reputable academic institutions dealing in cadavers with a dodgy provenance. I am certain they knew some of their specimens were illegally obtained. There were authorities who turned a blind eye because they saw the practice as a necessity to get trainee doctors a proper anatomical education.

Some of the resurrectionists would dig at the end of the site of a recent burial, digging with a wooden spade (quieter than metal). When they reached the coffin, they would break open the coffin, put a rope around the deceased person’s neck or ankles, and drag them out of their coffin. The thieves were careful not to steal anything such as jewellery or clothes as this would cause them to be liable to a felony charge, though some did commit grave robbing as well. Because the practice of body snatching was so prevalent, families began taking precautions so that the remains of their loved ones were undisturbed. Hence the cages, also known as mortsafes, around graves, and in some cases there were watch towers and cemetery guards.

Poorer families – those who couldn’t afford a mortsafe – would keep a watch over a grave day and night for several weeks, until it was certain the body was too decayed to be of any use to the resurrectionists.

This is why research is so important. The internet can perpetuate a misunderstanding just as easily as true facts. Better to take the time to make sure of your facts.


Filed under Research, writing

Victorian Bathrooms versus the Steampunk Aesthetic

The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue

As I may have mentioned, I am somewhat addicted to research and reference books. Today I found a beauty: The Victorian Bathroom Catalogue. It has opened my eyes to the true excess of the Victorian bathroom; modern plumbing has nothing on the fixtures from the 19th century.

Doulton's Improved Hooded Baths

Doulton’s Improved Hooded Baths

Check out the hooded bath … something I’d never seen until I opened the covers of this book. A hooded bath has the plumbing hidden away, with only the tap fitting and shower head showing. This had hot and cold running water. The outside was decorated, and the inside could be enamelled in ‘any colour that may be desired’. Doesn’t it look luxurious?

Decorated bathroom porcelain

Decorated bathroom porcelain

As you can see from these images, plain white porcelain wasn’t your only option. Everything came in heavily decorated versions, because the Victorians were obsessed with ornamentation. Even the most functional item, like a toilet, could be a minor work of art.

Another fact that struck me with this text book is that they refer to hand basins as lavatories or lavatory basins … whereas my family consider a toilet the lavatory. Apart from the hooded bath, all the other fixtures are familiar to me. Even the boilers … I’m old enough to remember the scary boiler in my Nana’s bathroom, for heating the bathwater.

Whimsical steampunk bathroom

Whimsical Steampunk bathroom

The modern Steampunk bathroom just doesn’t have the options of such ornate fixtures (unless you’re a millionaire). Instead, the Steampunk Aesthetic is achieved with copper fittings to echo the Industrial part of the Victorian era. Steampunk isn’t a straightforward recreation of a Victorian interior to a room. Instead, it takes some Neo-Victorian influences and mixes them with Science Fiction theme – and that is what Steampunk is, after all, a subgenre of Science Fiction.


Victorian Bathroom

Sea mine bathtub

Sea mine bathtub

Rocket Ship tap fixtures

Rocket Ship tap fixtures


Steampunk isn’t historical recreation. You can take a chance and get really creative.


Filed under Bathrooms, Fashion, History, Research, Steampunk, Victorian Era

Some Interesting Articles and Observations about Arsenic Poisoning in New England, 1889

I have been doing a bit of research about medical literature in 1889.  I came across this great site for the New England Journal of Medicine, which listed the topics discussed and papers represented to a meeting of the staff of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1889. It didn’t take me long to realise that arsenic poisoning was the great topic of interest for the year, and interested I was – with a side order of fascination with Victorian food additives and an amazement of the use of medicinal tampons to treat genealogical problems.

'The Girl Embroidering' Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting - displaying the popularity of Scheele's Green, made with arsenic.

‘The Girl Embroidering’ Painting by Georg Friedrich Kersting – displaying the popularity of Scheele’s Green for wallpaper, made with arsenic.

For the year 1889, the topics relating to arsenic were:

  • In March – On Chronic Arsenical Poisoning especially by Wallpaper, based on the analysis of Twenty-Five Cases in which Arsenic was Found in the Urine
  • In May Some Historical and Statistical Facts Pertaining to the Use of Arsenic as a Poison
  • In August The Chemistry of Arsenic
    • The Anatomical Appearances Resulting from Poisoning by Arsenic
      • The Clinical History of Arsenical Poisoning
        • The Somerville Cases of Arsenical Poisoning
  • In September – Arsenic in the Courts

As you see, just the titles of these articles are telling a story about how the Boston medical fraternity has something of an obsession with arsenic, most likely to do with the Somerville cases of poisoning, and having to give evidence in court about arsenic poisoning. Somerville is most probably the suburb north of Boston, and not a family name. I have spent a couple of hours on search in the internet searching for the details of this poisoning event, but I’ve had no luck.

I don’t think it can be about a murder, as every case of murder by poisoning was something of a media circus in the Victorian era. The American Florence Maybrick allegedly poisoned her English husband, James, with arsenic in 1889, and the case inspired a whole industry around it. This makes me inclined to think there must have been a rash of accidental poisonings, and maybe not fatal poisonings.

Remember I mentioned the New England Journal of Medicine was also dominated by articles about food additives, including toxic food additives. I’m leaping to assumptions … but it isn’t hard to imagine that some cases of food poisoning were attributed to arsenic. The unfortunate James Maybrick took it as an aphrodisiac, which certainly muddied the waters at Florence Maybrick’s trial. (I recommend reading up about the trial – it was a real mess.) Arsenic was also used in a myriad of ways around the home in the Victorian era, thanks to its lovely green colour. May I point out the title of the March article again: On Chronic Arsenical Poisoning especially by Wallpaper, based on the analysis of Twenty-Five Cases in which Arsenic was Found in the Urine…

I’m not going to reiterate my previous article on the toxic environs of the average Victorian household … I will reblog it instead.

As a writer, this find is pure gold. As a short story, it practically writes itself.  As ‘colour’ for a Steampunk narrative, it is first class. This is one of the benefits of research – INSPIRATION!

If you are interested in Steampunk, I also have a Facebook site: Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia


Filed under Historical Personage, History, Research, Setting, Steampunk

Lucky finds at the Markets


As my mum says “You never know your luck in a big city.” Today, while doing the grocery shop at the Rocklea Markets here in Brisbane, I found a secondhand book stall. I can never resist looking at books.

I’m am very glad I did! I found these two lovelies; historical fiction based on real people and events. It is finds like this that can really help in giving you a grip of the setting and zeitgeist of an era. I haven’t read these yet, but I have high hopes for these books. They might be reference books, as such, but they should add a wealth of detail to the topics of the suffragettes and Queen Victoria.

Of course, I can’t trust everything to be historically accurate. But checking my facts has become second nature. I’ve already discovered that the main factions in the British suffragette movement were the peaceful suffragists and the more militant suffragettes. Just the sort of detail that I treasure!

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Personal experience, Research, Steampunk, Suffragettes

Some of the Problems and Pitfalls of Using the Internet for Research

The Internet is a wonderful place, but we are still in babes in the woods when it comes to understanding how it has changed society, and the repercussions of its effects will be evolving for decades to come. To put is more simply, we are still shaking the worms out of the can. Now, as a zoologist, I like worms and I know how beneficial worms are to the environment, aerating the soil and breaking down organic substances; however, I also know you can’t herd worms. Once the slippery little suckers are loose underground, you really have no idea where they have gone. One of those worms is Internet research.

It seems like everything you ever wanted to know is on the Internet … but information isn’t the same thing as facts or truth. There are hidden pitfalls to research on the Internet, which is why students are asked to supply credible sources for any web-based research they do. So, have you ever asked yourself why are educators worried about information found on the Internet? Because – alas – so much of the information on the Internet is false, and it is sometimes very difficult to pick out the kernel of truth from among the chaff of lies.

Confirmation Bias: Confirmation bias is the (understandable) tendency to search for information that confirms your beliefs or hypotheses. This is a simple human trait, but it can create a terrible morass on the Internet, particularly if you are looking for facts about a controversial topic. People tend to ‘cherry pick’ through information that backs up what they think they already know. The best way to avoid this is to look for actual scientific studies or firsthand reports by reliable witnesses, and to actively look for reports that don’t support your argument, belief or hypothesis. Try to look for scientific reports with a balance in the pros and cons. If a report is all positive or all negative – ask yourself why this might be the case.

Echo Chambers: An echo chamber is a situation in which information or beliefs are reinforced by repetition inside a closed system, where different or competing views are censored or underrepresented. The Anti-vaccination network is a classic example of such a closed system, where only the facts that support their beliefs are shared, and anyone speaking against their beliefs are either a shill for Big Pharma or just plain wrong. A good way to spot an echo chamber situation is when anyone speaking up against the belief is attacked on a personal level, without any actual refutation of their arguments being attempted.

The Woozle Effect: Named for the fictional beastie in A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh”. If you’ve never read the book, Pooh and Piglet assume tracks made in the snow going around a larch spinney are being made by woozles. The more they circle the spinney following the tracks, the more sets of tracks they find, because – of course – they are the actual individuals making the prints in the snow.  A media woozle occurs when an article makes frequent citation of previous publications, giving the appearance of credible research taking place. However, further investigation will reveal a web of articles that are all citing each other, without the support of any actual evidence or research.  What they rely on are people being comforted by the solid appearance of careful research, when it is all a house of cards built on misunderstanding. The old chestnut that ‘vaccinations cause autism’ is the best example of a real-world Woozle, as every single citation leads back to a 1998 publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal The Lancet, by Andrew Wakefield. Even though this article has been debunked, retracted by The Lancet, and Wakefield discredited in the field of medical research, it still manages to be cited in every anti-vaccination website in some form.

Astroturf Campaigns: Astroturfing is the use of a fake grassroots movement to influence public opinion, while the campaign is secretly funded by corporations or governmental entities. This might sound like a conspiracy theory, but astroturfing plays on people’s fear of the unknown or of change or of new technologies. A great example would be the movement here in Australia to blacklist alternative energy sources to coal and oil, like windfarms or geothermal energy, with these antagonistic movements often supported by funding by the mining corporations. These campaigns are often based on ‘personal experience’. Studies were taken of people living near windfarms, and they discovered a plethora of ‘disorders’ suffered by these locals, which were then used to fuel the grassroots campaigns against the windfarms. A closer look at these studies showed that the respondents’ answers were skewed by leading questions, and other studies had questionnaires with a bias built in, and that the studies had been funded by corporations who obtained their original funding from the mining companies. And – amazingly – every time a news agency breaks this story, it disappears without any backlash. *sigh*

Silence: Always remember, what isn’t said can often be more telling than what is.



Filed under Research, writing

The Age of Enlightenment and how it effects the Steampunk Genre

Historian Keith Thomas says the Enlightenment has always been contested territory. He says that its supporters:

hail it (The Age of Enlightenment) as the source of everything that is progressive about the modern world. For them, it stands for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future.
Extract from the Wikipedia

The Age of Enlightenment is considered by Western Society to be the the era from the 1650s to the 1780s, when cultural, artistic  and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis and individualism over the traditional institutions of authority, such as the Monarchy. Groups like the Kit-Cat Club of Britain were working to improve the political agenda in relation to all the fine arts, increasing private patronage of artists, writers and intellectuals over patronage by the nobility. This was the era when the issues pertaining to women’s right were first being broached in a public arena.

Left-looking half-length portrait of a woman in a white dress

Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley and the writer of the ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’.

The Age of Enlightenment gave rise to increasing popularity of scientific Rationality. It was the leading proponents of the Enlightenment that encouraged the concept that Education was (and still is) a basic right for men and women, rich and poor. Education was seen as the main method for increasing the viability of civilization, and to assist in increasing civilization’s prosperity through technological innovation. With increased prosperity, the poor and the working class would need not resort to stealing and other crimes to merely survive.

It was upon the strong foundation of the Enlightenment that the Industrial Age rose. It changed the social order and gave rise to the Middle Class, the main beneficiaries of the Industrial Age. It has to be remembered that the culture and technology of Victorian age didn’t just pop into existence like Athena popping from Zeus’s forehead. The Victorian and Edwardian eras need to be considered in the context of the proceeding, as history is constantly threading new beads onto the thread of time, changing the patterns.

As a writer, I have done a lot of research in the Victorian era. The more I research, the more I realize I have to spread my net to really understand any era.

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Research, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre