Tag Archives: Setting

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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Fire Storms: the American conflagrations of the 8th of October,1871

Chicago_in_Flames_by_Currier_&_Ives,_1871

Nearly everyone has heard about O’Leary’s cow and the Great Chicago Fire, but that wasn’t the only fire that raged that day in America. There were fires in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in the towns of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, and Port Huron , Lake Huron, as well. The Peshtigo fire caused the most deaths by fire in United States history, with an estimated  1,500 people dying, and possibly as many as 2,500 … but that tragedy was forgotten in the shadow of the Chicago fire, where only 120 to 300 people died.

The summer of 1871 was a scorcher, with little rain. On October 8th, with winds blowing and no rain in sight, fires broke out in Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan. The most popular building material was wood, and the forests and fields were parched and dessicated, a fire demon’s dream come true. By the time the flames subsided several days later, thousands of people were dead, and a total of  four million acres of land had been razed.

peshtigo fire

The Great Peshtigo Fire

The Great Michigan Fire  was the fire that raged through Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron. No one was ever able to make an estimate as to how many died. By counting up missing families, a total of 500 dead was reached, but this total didn’t include all the lumberjacks spread throughout the forests and realistically the total was much higher.

Plaque

A commemoration plaque of the Great Michigan Fire

In 1883, the theory was put forward that the simultaneous fires across the Midwest were caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela. I don’t give much credence to this hypothesis, as the timing was all wrong and comets are made of ice. It is more likely that the fires were caused by lightening strikes – or even by hot ashes drifting from the Great Chicago Fire. The winds were fierce that week, which fanned the flames and made it difficult to fight the fires.

As my Steampunk novel is set in 1871 and 1872, it is unlikely that my characters would not refer to the great fires at some point. Adding details like this to my text adds verisimilitude to the narrative. It is the build up of small, believable details that draws the reader into the story … and then you can start spinning the fantastic.

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Filed under 1871, Historical Personage, History, Setting, Steampunk, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

The X (Club) Marks the Spot: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

T H Huxley with human skull

T H Huxley

The X Club was a dining club of nine  British scientists who supported academic liberalism in late 19th-century England. The club met in London once a month, except in the summer months, from November 1864 until March 1893. During this time, this ‘social’ club exerted a major influence on the scientific arena. The group went a long way in supporting Darwin and his theory of natural selection. I plan on doing a blog article on each of the men over the coming week.

The Members of the X Club were:

Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and anatomist, also known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and the founder of the X Club. To my mind,  his dedication in developing scientific education in Britain is what made him a truly great scientist. He believed schooling was a lifelong process and adult education should be encouraged.

George Busk

George Busk, a British naval surgeon, zoologist and palaeontologist, and he nominated Charles Darwin for membership in the Royal Society in 1864. He was the responsible of bringing to England the Gibraltar skull, the first known adult Neanderthal skull, even though identification of the skull as belonging to a Neanderthal was not made until the 20th century.

Joseph Hooker 

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, English Botanist and a director of Kew Gardens for twenty years, an explorer and discoverer of new species, and a great friend of Charles Darwin. With George Bentham, he is the co-author of The Handbook of the British Flora, still considered a standard text by botanists and taxonomists. He was the first of the three X-Clubbers in succession to become President of the Royal Society.

In my Steampunk novel, we meet with Hooker, and he though he is open minded about evolution, he is still something of an old fogey when it comes to women academics and their rights to Kew Garden.

John Tyndall

John Tyndall, physicist, covered a broad range of research in his lifetime. Among his discoveries was the scattering of light by particulate impurities in air and in liquids, still known today as the Tyndall Effect or Tyndall Scattering. He was a science teacher and supporter for the cause of science. As a science popularizer and communicator, Tyndall lectured on the benefits of a clear separation between science and religion.

William Spottiswoode

William H. Spottiswoode was a mathematician and physicist,. He was President of the Royal Society from 1878 to 1883. He published mountains of original mathematical work and, in 1871, he began to turn his attention to experimental physics. He researched the polarization of light and the electrical discharge in rarefied gases.

Edward Frankland – around 1860

Sir Edward Frankland was a research chemist, applied chemist, and something of a prodigy.  Frankland engaged in original research with great success, and he was only about twenty-five years of age when an investigation yielded the discovery of organometallic compounds. I consider his work on water pollution and lobbying for the creation of a clean water supply to be the highpoint of his career.

Sir John Lubbock

The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, also known as Sir John Lubbock, was a banker, Liberal politician, philanthropist, scientist and polymath, and one of Darwin’s neighbours and friends. His day job was as a banker but Lubbock also made significant contributions in archaeology, ethnography, and several branches of biology.  I consider his greatest achievement the introduction of the first law on the protection of Britain’s archaeological and architectural heritage.

Thomas Hirst

Thomas Archer Hirst was a mathematician, specialising in geometry, and a supporter of science education for everyone. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1883. He was an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society. He was the founding president of an association to reform school mathematics curricula and also worked to promote the education of women.

Herbert Spencer when 38

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Spencer is best known for coining the expression “survival of the fittest”, after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Spencer was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century” but his influence declined sharply after 1900. The low point of his career was the concept of Social Darwinism.

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Science, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Themes, The X Club, Uncategorized, writing

The Arts and Crafts Movement; a Steampunk Writer’s Perspective

The Arts and Crafts Movement was both a rebellion against the age of industrialization, with its machine-made production of household furniture and items and a social rebellion against economic commercialization of artist and the craftsperson. The movement wanted to return to a time when individuals designed and made the items that filled a house, and was inspired by a rejection of the overly fussy and artificial styles of the mass-produced mid-19th household items. Just about every visual art movement claims that function should follow form, but they all have different ways of interpreting this ideal.

William Morris

William Morris

Proponents of the Arts and Crafts Movement felt manufacturers ignored the qualities of the materials used. As you might guess, this movement relates to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Neo-Romanticism art movement, and Art Nouveau movement, and in itself inspired the Art Deco movement with its inspiration from machinery and industrial motifs. The philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement derived partly from Ruskin’s social criticism, which related the moral and social health of a nation to the qualities of its architecture and to the nature of work.

Like many visual arts movements,Arts and Crafts was inspired by traditional craftsmanship using simple forms inspired from nature. As well, the art should reflect the form of the item it was decorating. Wallpaper was flat, so the imagery should be flat. Cupboards are three dimensional, so they can have three dimensional decoration. A house is three dimensional, but full of flat surfaces like floors and walls, that need flt designs.

William Morris was THE English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist, and the main driving force behind the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1861, Morris founded a decorative arts firm with the artists Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, & Dante Gabriel Rossetti, civil engineer P. P. Marshall,  mathematician Charles Faulkner, and architect Philip Webb: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. The firm became highly fashionable and much in demand, and influenced interior decoration and fine arts throughout the Victorian period. In 1875, Morris assumed total control of the company, which was renamed Morris & Co. These days, Morris is probably best known for his textile designs, as there has been a revival for Victorian influenced fabrics and furniture (with Goths and Steampunks especially).

Covered Box by Lucia K. Mathews, The Oakland Museum

Though it started in England, the Arts and Crafts Movement soon spread to the rest of the world. America embraced the movement as an art movement and a social movement. Working class people all over the world were given the opportunity to learn new crafts, to increase the pool of artists and craftspeople making handmade furniture, pots, textiles, and just about anything else needed.

Late 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement Geometric Armchair

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Filed under Fashion, Historical Personage, History, Setting, Steampunk, Victorian-era Fashion

The Pros and Cons of Anthropomorphic Personification; a Steampunk Writer’s Perspective

Image result for electricity socket

What? WHAT? WTF!!!

When you look at these two sockets, what do you see? A majority of human beings will see duplicate looks of horror or shock, even though these sockets have no actual emotions. That is because humans beings are very good at seeing other human beings; we’re programmed that way. And we are very good at seeing patterns. But these two abilities together, and human beings tend to see human behaviour and emotions where they don’t exist.

Don’t I look noble and proud? Really, I’m just looking out for my next meal. I’m just as goofy as the next bird.

Of course, it is this ability that works on the side of artists, cartoonists and writers, to create the illusion of humanity. As a writer, I know I can make a reader relate to my character by giving them a list of traits and emotions for them to respond to, even though that character is just a fiction. Terry Pratchett was the all time master of this sort of characterisation, just it wasn’t a magic trick that only he could do. But understanding the process makes it easier to emulate.

This is just a bunch of squiggles and yet it has plenty of meaning to a human being (or Opus).

In a Steampunk narrative, anthropomorphic personification is what makes the robot butlers come to life. However, this is not a genre for getting carried away with this tool in your writer’s kit. This is a genre that draws its verisimilitude from a solid grounding in science. If someone is referring to their steamcar as ‘Mary’ and uses female pronouns when speaking of her, make sure it very clear if the steamcar is actually sentient, or if that this is just an affectation of Mary’s driver. That last thing a writer should do is create confusion instead of clarity.

Steam Pug

Where animals are concerned, human beings always tend to attribute human thoughts and emotions to them, particularly their pets like cats and dogs. Again, always make it clear if the pet is actually the originator of any witty sayings or felt emotions, rather than their owner. I know I tend to have an ongoing conversation with my cat, where I provide his side of the dialogue as well as my own. If I was writing these conversations down in a story, I could make Felix a talking cat, but it would be a better way of expressing the character of the pet owner (me).

Felix

Felix

As an example, I refer to Felix as ‘my little man’, because he looks like he is wearing a tuxedo. My daughters refer to him as ‘Tiny Satan’ because he enjoys tackling people and has yet to learn to not use his claws. My children think he is plotting world domination through intimidation. These are both forms of anthropomorphic personification, and they tell you more about the people than the cat (who is just being a cat).

As a tool for building a setting, anthropomorphic personification can make the wind howl, a storm rattle tree branches angrily, or have the sun smiling down. It is the human beings within the setting who will be interpreting the weather in this way. Take care to make that clear to the reader.

Anthropomorphic personification is one of my favourite tools in my own kit. You can have a lot of fun with it. And my muse approves…

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Using Steampunk Models for Writing Inspiration

I need an airship to rock me to sleep on the winds of the aurora.

I am the first to admit I have a fabulous imagination … but it never hurts to have a little extra inspiration. Recently, I wanted to design a dirigible in great detail, so that I could describe it several times throughout the narrative without making any major error. I hate the idea of describing something one way, and then getting details wrong three chapters later because I was too lazy to get a clear image up front. And – lucky me! – there are plenty of images of models online, of beautifully detailed Steampunk dirigibles and airships and balloons.

art Model fantasy steampunk airship airships steam punk steampunk ...

Steampunk, gotta love it!

This model reminds me of the flying fish in Disney’s ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’, an animated movie which borrowed heavily from the Steampunk Aesthetic.

My imaginary airship wont look exactly like the models illustrating this article. But they are certainly assist me in coming up with ideas of my own. Like the use of tartan for the balloon…

steampunk airship

Steampunk airship by  Edward J. “Skeeter” Wachtendonk Sr. Flying Dutchman Co. This is a metal and fabric airship sculpture the lights inside the Zeppelin illuminate and a motor with numerous gears animate, move, paddle, spin and turn just about everything on the ship.

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The Victorian Coffin; a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Probably the most epic coffin in all of History. I'd get buried if I could have one of these!

The Victorian era is considered a morbid time in history, due to its seeming obsession with death. Rather, it was an era when humanity began to win the fight against preventable diseases and so the loss of a life was considered a greater tragedy then in previous eras. In our modern era, we tend to avoid discussing death and all the paraphernalia that accumulates around the passing of an individual. We tend not to talk about coffins (shaped to be widest across the shoulders) and caskets (a straightforward box shape), and yet they are still big business for funeral homes.

Sir Henry Thompson’s main reason for supporting cremation was that “it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied”.

Until the 1870s, cremation was not an option for British citizens, and all were buried in graveyards (though not forever in cemeteries with limited space). Some Christian religions need the body to remain uncremated because the body will be resurrected. This created levels of ‘status’ for the various coffins (and caskets). In keeping with the Victorian for ornamentation, there were certain items added to coffins to ‘decorate’ them.

Coffin Screws:

Coffin screws

Victorian coffin screws

Coffin Hinges:

Coffin hinges

The shop for antique and Victorian door furniture,door handles,door knobs,locks,door bells,bolts,hinges,latches etc.

Coffin Plates:

 victorian coffin plates - Google Search

victorian coffin plates - Google Search

victorian coffin plates - Google Search

People collected coffin plates from family relatives. Now that is morbid!

Handles:

French Antique Large Cast Iron Handle by LeMoulinBleu on Etsy, $50.00

1890 Antique French Coffin Handle via Skinner And Hyde

1890 Antique French Coffin Handle

Coffin handles

Assorted Ornaments:

Cavity filler and embalming fluid

Brass stamped flowers

Brass stamped flowers

As you can see, a pine box can get very ornamental with all these doodads. As well, the lining of a coffin could vary from nothing to a lead lining right up to silk or satin linings, and might include a coffin bell for those who feared being buried alive.

Coffins of the Victorian period came equipped with an extensive system of the bell, which reportedly detained person can ring if you woke up Six Feet Under. These rarely work, however, because even if the person they called, no one hears. Gravediggers sometimes paid to keep watch over the graves and hear the bells to go off.   This is the where the term, "Saved by the Bell" derived from.

accidental mysteries: Exceptional Post-Mortem Photographs

Fully lined coffin

As a writer, I would use coffins as a metaphor for the social status of the deceased. Coffins add a Gothic sensibility to the Steampunk genre, though the addition of bells might inspire one to make a coffin something more than a bed for your character’s eternal rest. In Terry Pratchett’s Nation, the character of Cookie has equipped his coffin as a survival pod, complete with rations, maps and a sail. A Steampunk writer might add grenades, rayguns, and the coffin might convert to a mole machine with a rotating digger for a nose. A coffin for a truly Great Escape.

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Filed under History, Metaphors, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Victorian Era

The Toast Sandwich: A Steampunk Feminist’s Speculations on the Peculiarities of Victorian-era Cuisine.

The toast sandwich served as a side dish at celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant ‘The Fat Duck’

As a child, I wondered about the attraction of cucumber sandwiches as part of a posh English tea time treat. I mean … cucumbers are rather flavourless compared a lot of other sandwich fillings, like egg and lettuce, cheese and chutney, ham and tomato, or even just sliced tomato. Then, as I got older, I realised it wasn’t so much the sandwich itself that was posh, as what it represented: thin slices of white bread, hot-house cucumbers, the crusts cut off … all very prissy and lacking in nutrition. No red-blooded female would enjoy such fare, only the effete and the aristocracy. Cucumber sandwiches were symbolically used in novels, plays and movies to identify upper-crust people, occasionally in a derogatory manner. Everyone knows the crusts are the best bit of a sandwich.

And then, today, I came across the concept of the toast sandwich, a piece of buttered and seasoned thin toast between two slices of thin bread. The recipe was originally devised by Mrs Beeton in 1861, for those times when a family was short of funds. This was not a dainty dish for enjoying with a cup of tea; this was an austerity recipe. (Mrs Beeton wrote the most famous cookbook of the Victorian era, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.) So, I toddled off to try it out for myself, except I have no ‘white’ bread, only multigrain. It tasted like salty, peppery bread and toast. Bleagh. I could only eat a few mouthfuls. I plonked some jam on the toast (which went surprisingly well with the salt and pepper) and turned the buttered bread into a cheese and tomato sandwich.

I was reminded of the Patrician’s recipe in Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook. I can imagine the Patrician letting his hair down and having a toast sandwich on his birthday.

However, times have moved on. The toast can be flavoured by a multitude of different sauces and mustards and mayonnaises. The sandwich may even include a salad. The most famous of these modern versions is sold as part of a Mad Hatter Tea party in Melbourne, Australia. These versions of the dish are not priced for the austere wallet.

Food is always a great method for adding interest and depth to a setting or characterisation. What a person eats can tell you a lot about them; my protagonist in my Steampunk work-in-progress loves fruit and vegetables, which is quite out of place in Victorian times. In this manner, I underline her differences to the average person of her time. A person who eats a toast sandwich for lunch is obviously hard up for a sixpence, while someone who eats cucumber sandwiches will be likely to have a mess of pottage. The same person who eats cucumber sandwiches at tea will have a supper table groaning with dishes, all with a named meat.

We are what we eat.

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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.

map_bathroom

Victorian Bathroom

Sea mine bathtub

Sea mine bathtub

Rocket Ship tap fixtures

Rocket Ship tap fixtures

steampunk-bathroom-condo-loft

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

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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

https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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