First I have the winner of Caitlin Kittredge’s The Iron Thorn.
Antonio, you’re our lucky winner. Please email me at suzannelazear (@) hotmail to claim your prize.
This week at Steampunkaplooza we’re featuring authors from Pyr and giving away a ton of great books. Today we welcome author Mark Hodder to Steampunkapalooza. Mark Hodder is the author of: THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK (Pyr, 2010), THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN (Pyr, 2011) and EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (Pyr, forthcoming).
Mark Hodder is the creator and caretaker of the BLAKIANA Web site (www.sextonblake.co.uk), which he designed to celebrate, record, and revive Sexton Blake, the most written about fictional detective in English publishing history. A former BBC writer, editor, journalist, and Web producer, Mark has worked in all the new and traditional medias and was based in London for most of his working life until 2008, when he relocated to Valencia in Spain to de-stress and write novels. He can most often be found at the base of a palm tree, hammering at a laptop. Mark has a degree in cultural studies and loves British history (1850 to 1950, in particular), good food, cutting-edge gadgets, cult TV, Tom Waits, and a vast assortment of oddities.
Building a World for Burton & Swinburne
By Mark Hodder
It’s a tricky business using real historical figures in a fictional setting, especially when you’re turning some very well respected scientists into crazed villains. Where do you draw the line? When does creativity become slander?
While plotting the Burton & Swinburne novels, I was often faced with this dilemma, particularly in relation to one particular scientist who changed the way we think about existence, and whose genius I’m in awe of. I really didn’t want to portray him in a way that might cause even a single person to change their opinion of him.
The solution was to make my alternate versions of these personages as wildly over the top as possible—to push them to the point of absurdity—to make it blatantly apparent that I didn’t for one moment expect anyone to regard them as truly reflective of their historical counterparts.
This, though, presented another problem. How could I expect readers to invest in the story if key characters were entirely unbelievable?
The answer came with world building.
In any kind of speculative fiction, world building is important. When you’re dealing with an alternate history, it becomes crucial. I placed Burton and Swinburne in a different version of the Victorian Age—but being different cannot justify being any less complex. There has to be politics, there has to be art and technology, there have to be social and cultural forces at work, and there has to be a zeitgeist—a “spirit of the age.” Anything less will not feel like a living, breathing reality.
So I started with the facts. Fortunately, I was already pretty well versed in Victoriana, so I didn’t need to do as much research as I would have had I been setting my stories in, say, the Elizabethan Age or in Feudal Japan.
I began to ask myself questions such as:
“What if these two people had met?”
“What if a solution to this problem had been found?”
“What if this event had never occurred?”
“What if this event had occurred?”
From each of these starting points it was relatively easy to create chains of causes and effects then start to interrelate them.
For example, I wanted to feature Oscar Wilde in the stories, the reason being that he was famously associated with aestheticism, which provides a wonderful counterpoint to one of the main themes of the trilogy. I’ll not tell you anything about that theme (no spoilers here!), but suffice to say it comes to the fore in the third book, EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON.
My problem was that Oscar was only seven years old in 1861, when the first book, THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK, is set.
In real life, he had a happy childhood in Dublin and was most definitely not in London when I needed him to be. I knew, though, that Ireland had suffered a terrible famine between 1845 and 1852. By extending the dates and intensity of this event, I could turn Wilde into an orphan who fled to London, there to eke out an existence as a newspaper boy. So in my alternative history, the famine begins in 1837 and is ongoing. But for what reason is it different? I don’t explain, but 1837 is a key date in the story for other reasons, and I thus give the reader a coincidence to ponder over and perhaps they’ll fill in the gap themselves. (As a matter of fact, I do have an untold backstory there, and may visit it in a subsequent novel).
This is an important point: you can’t describe every single reason for why things are they way they are in your alternate history. It would make your novel very thick and very boring. Most things have to be simply suggested then left to the reader’s imagination.
Okay, so I got Oscar to where Oscar needed to be, but in doing so I devastated Ireland. This, obviously, has to have major consequences. So by 1862, the time of the second book, THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN, Britain has been flooded with refugees, causing a strain on its resources. How would politicians respond to this? A quick look at the history books revealed that right at the end of 1861, an event called the Trent Affair occurred. This very nearly drew Britain into the American Civil War. In my version of events, it does lead to such an involvement, and the reason is directly related to the Irish refugee crisis.
I then have scientists trying to solve the problem of the famine, and, in doing so, making the situation much worse, kicking off events that will lead to the far-too-early outbreak of the First World War.
That is how one small requirement—the need for Oscar Wilde to meet Sir Richard Francis Burton in London in 1861—ultimately led to the development of the entire political backdrop for Burton & Swinburne’s world, and that backdrop becomes a vital story element in the final book of the trilogy.
When an author creates a convincingly deep, multifaceted and convincing world, whatever fantastic elements are then thrown into it will seem wholly natural to it, a part of it.
In SPRING HEELED JACK, London is filled with steam powered penny farthings. By CLOCKWORK MAN, there are gigantic steam-driven insects thundering up and down the streets. Plainly ridiculous! However, when made an element of a world that seems otherwise perfectly logical—where effects have realistic causes—such craziness is much more easily digested. The same applies to wildly over-the-top characters. Now real historical figures can be made absurdly unbelievable—it’s perfectly obvious that no slander is intended—and they are less likely to be rejected by the reader, because they exist in a properly constructed context.
We have two sets of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man to give away two lucky commenters — North American winners only. Contest ends 11:59 PM PST, April 17, 2011.