Category Archives: Verisimilitude

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

Steampunk Gadgets and Verisimilitude; or, How to Bling Up Your Narrative

Steampunk Enterprise Desk Lamp

Steampunk Enterprise Desk Lamp, Art by Joe Keller, southwindairbrush.com

The topic of this blog was the request of a friend who is also a writer.

You want to add gadgets to your Steampunk novel, but are you uncertain about how to go about this process? You’re worried that your gadgets lack any originality? Take a deep breath and stop worrying; this is rocket science! And you are in charge of the rocket. You don’t have to have a science degree to write about gadgets. A little research can be your friend here.

Image from chroniclesofharriet.com website

Image from chroniclesofharriet.com website

Need inspiration? Spend ten minutes just looking at gadgets online. What sort of gadget are you looking for? Make your search terms as specific as possible. So, say you’re looking for a striking form of transportation for your protagonist.

Suggested List of Locomotion Search Terms: steam, steam-powered, electric, Victorian, Edwardian, motorised, velocipede, bicycle, vehicle, engine, train, flying, lighter-than-air, dirigible, airship, airplane, aeroplane, balloon.

Let’s pick three at random: steam-powered, flying, velocipede. A whole pile of interesting images pop up! Here are three of them:

Steam-powered Copeland high-wheeler

Steam-powered Copeland high-wheeler

Steam-powered velocipede

Steam-powered velocipede

Glider designed by George Cayley, British aviator, circa 1852.

Glider designed by George Cayley, British aviator, circa 1852.

Aren’t they lovely? Now imagine a vehicle that incorporates the most interesting features of all three. You pick what features really strike your fancy. Now write down a fulsome description of your imaginary machine (and draw it if you like), and how it works, and what it must feel like to ride in it. And now you’ve sorted your first gadget! Give it a wonderfully bizarre name, and you’re away…

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Filed under Bling, Gadgets, Genre Markers, Setting, Steampunk, Verisimilitude, writing

Verisimilitude: a Steampunk Perspective

Image from the americanduchess.blogspot.com websiteImage from tumblr of Victorian-era cosplay

Can I share a secret with you? When I first heard the word verisimilitude, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. My lecturer mentioned the word in an introductory lecture, and I had to rush off after class to find out a definition. I was surprised to find it meant ‘the appearance or semblance of truth’, since the class I was taking was about writing fiction. Then I discovered it had a different meaning in the field of literature, and that it meant ‘internal consistency’. What it boils down to … does your story, characters and setting have an authenticity of their own? Or is there a jarring lack of logic that will push the reader out of the story?

Achieving verisimilitude is a writing skill that can only come with practice, and lots and lots of reading. It isn’t just about getting the details right, but it is about building a quilt of details to form a picture and not a mess. Do the characters sit comfortably within the setting? Is the setting appropriate to the plot? Is the plot suited to the characters? If any of these questions give you an answer of ‘no’, them you are lacking in verisimilitude, and there is a good chance your audience with be alienated by the clash of inconsistency.

Take, for an example, the differences between the illustration and the photograph above. The feet and ankles of the illustration are much, much smaller and slender compared to the feet of the woman in the photograph. Now, those slender drawn feet are very decorative, but if real-life girl had those feet, she would snap an ankle when attempting to walk or dance. That is the perfect metaphor for verisimilitude; your details have to support the story.

This doesn’t mean you can’t give your imagination full rein while writing.  Jules Verne’s fantastic tales are believable only with a suspension of belief. But all the elements that make up Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea fit together to create a tightly structured net of plot, characterization and setting that completely captures the reader’s imagination. As Captain Nemo prefers to use products only from the sea, it would break verisimilitude if he were suddenly to develop a passion for beef in red wine, rather than fish and seaweed dishes.

Verisimilitude takes work. But putting the effort into achieving it means that you have constructed a world that keeps your audience seeped in your narrative. The paradox of verisimilitude is that if you do it really well, the audience won’t even notice. This is one of those phenomenon where non-writers look at something well written and think “That looks so easy to do,” because the writing seems so natural and effortless. Take comfort from the fact that your fellow writers know this is not the case, and are admiring your craftsmanship and talent.

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Filed under Steampunk, Verisimilitude, writing