In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.
When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?
I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.
Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.
If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.
As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:
Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?
Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.
The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.
Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.
Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.
So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.
Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.
The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.
The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.
So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”
Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.