Tag Archives: memoir

548. Victorian Steampunk?

 

Please note that Serial is back temporarily, to present the short story by Dickens which was a predecessor to A Christmas Carol. It starts today. Check it out.

 

 

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The Victorian era — was there such a thing?

Victoria became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901, a reign of just short of sixty-four years. Everything in Britain changed in that time except the Queen, so does the phrase Victorian Era have any real meaning?

If you are going to write steampunk, that is a fair question. Of course steampunk usually takes place in an alternate Victorian era — sometimes extremely alternate — but you have to have at least a reasonable knowledge of the original if you are going to mimic it.

Most of us get our history everywhere but a history book, so let’s see what fiction we can use to subdivide the era. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and the Queen were born only a few years apart, so if you enjoy those authors, you are reading about the early Victorian period. Not my wheelhouse, but to each his own.

More to my taste, Charles Dickens’s first novel was published in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. His last novel (uncompleted) and his death took place in 1870. At that time Victoria still had three decades to live.

The Dickensian era is almost as widely known as the Victorian. In full disclosure, I have read all of Dickens’s Christmas novellas — A Christmas Carol several times — but his larger works tend to defeat me. I think I was inoculated against them by being force-fed Great Expectations at too young an age.

Not everyone reads Dickens by choice, but everyone knows what Dickensian means. Judith Flanders in The Victorian City, said:

Today “Dickensian” means squalor . . .(Dickens was) the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known — through whose eyes those streets have become Dickensian . . .

She got it right for her literary audience, but wrong for those who never read a Dickens novel that they weren’t forced to read. Dickensian, to the average Joe (or Joan) means carolers in fancy dress, Scrooge redeemed, Tiny Tim getting a second chance at life, and a village of quaint houses for the Christmas mantle. The actual harshness of Dickens’s other novels is excluded.

The squalor and the sweetness: that is the dual heritage that steampunk authors have to work with if they set their works in variations of the early Victorian period.

As I explained last Wednesday, Like Clockwork is derived from A Christmas Carol, although it morphed into something very different from a Christmas novel. I don’t think Dickens would recognize my London at all.

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From 1870 when Dickens died, until 1901 when Queen Victoria died, the world became a very different place from the home of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution changed the world into something much closer to the present.

You might choose Jules Verne as the author that most represents this era, but not if you are concentrating on England. Verne would be the right literary reference for a steampunk novel set in the La Belle Époque, Paris. If you know of such a work, send me the author and title. I would love to read it.

My earlier steampunk novel, The Cost of Empire, travels across five continents by dirigible, but much of the action takes place in London. For that time period in London, there is only one literary creature who is in everyone’s DNA; not an author, but a character who is more real to most of us than the author who created him — Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and there were flashbacks to earlier cases. His Last Bow was on the eve of World War I. This neatly fills in the rest of the Victorian era and spills over into the Edwardian.

Gender gets involved here. Dickens appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to men and women alike. The rest of British popular literature, contemporary to the era (not historical fiction) is largely gender biased, with Austen and the Brontes for the gals, Kipling, Buchan, and Conan Doyle for the guys.

In other words, if you are a guy (guilty as charged) and you consider Victorian characters, you are more likely to think first of Sherlock Holmes than of Elizabeth Bennet — or even Mr. Darcy.

When I first became involved in the Victorian era, after becoming interested in steampunk, my knowledge of everyday life in London came largely from multiple readings of the canon. That is what Holmes fans call the fifty-six stories and four novels written by ACD himself.  My internal vision of Victorian London was that which could be seen from 221b Baker Street, even though Sherlock himself never makes an appearance in my writings.

Yet.

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If you want a reference book for each era, I recommend:

For the early Victorian period — The Victorian City by Judith Flanders. She gives a modern scholar’s look at the reality behind the world that Dickens wrote about.

For the late Victorian period — Sherlock Holmes: the Man and his World by H. R. F. Keating. He provides commentary on Holmes’s world, with contemporary photographs of scenes from the canon.

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546. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (1)

Everybody who doesn’t write, wants to know where writers get their ideas. Everybody who writes knows the answer is, “Everywhere,” and also knows that answer won’t satisfy anyone.

I think that those who ask really want to know is where we get the initial idea, the one that sets everything in motion. For instance, I have one like that which I haven’t used yet. It’s a winner for sure. It has hippies and drugs and the . . . nope! I might still write that one, so I’m keeping it to myself.

I’ve actually already told the origin stories of one novel, one series and one fragment. You can check them out if you want. I have one more answer that covers four stories, and that answer is Scrooge.

My fascination with Dickens’s classic began during the Christmas season of 1970. I was a new college graduate, married, waiting for my date to enter the Navy. My immediate future looked grim, and possibly short.

The musical Scrooge was released that year and it went straight to the heart when my wife and I saw it in the theatre. I immediately bought the videotape, even though I had no way to play it at the time. I knew I didn’t want to lose that powerful story of redemption.

In the  years that followed, I read the original story several times, along with the other four Christmas stories that Dickens followed up with in later years. I also made a collection of other Christmas Carol movies, some good, some dull, some awful. Every actor seemed to want to play Scrooge.

Five years after the release of Scrooge, I started writing novels. I concentrated on science fiction and fantasy, but deep down I wanted to write my own Christmas classic. And yes, I know, there are ten million other writers who have had the same idea.

I won’t go into detail, but over the years the idea grew from one story to three.

Nathaniel Gunn returns from a long voyage on a trading ship to Philadelphia in 1791 to find his wife dead from disease and his two children apparently dead as well. Throughout the following Christmas season he gives away his money to the needy around him, but it does his heart and soul no good until he has to give away the one thing that means the most to him.

The children, who are not really dead, make their painful way back from their uncle’s farm toward Philadelphia. Along the way they find themselves taking shelter with a family of Moravian’s, the Christian sect that was that era’s the strongest advocate of Christmas, long before it’s celebration became generally accepted.

These two stories are bracketed by a later story. Nathan, the son, finds himself in New York in 1823 where he befriends the despondent Clement Clarke Moore.

Those stories grew out of a desire to bring early Christmas to the new world, and tie the birth of Christ to the birth of the nation. (The first congress met in New York in 1789 and Philadelphia in 1791, before moving on to the newly built Washington City.)

It needs writing. Maybe someday if I can find the time . . .

Those were literary and historical ideas. Meanwhile, there was a purely visual idea that also came out of Scrooge. I’ll tell you about it in two days.

Continued Wednesday.

545. Lottery Day at the Big Casino

Rep. Pirnie draws the first number.

The place was a class at Michigan State University, just about this time fifty years ago. I wasn’t in the room, so I may be wrong on a few details, but the basic story spread quickly all over campus.

The professor was a young radical. There were a lot of those at MSU in the late 60s. Finals were near when he announced that grades would be given out a little differently this year. He opened a notebook and began to call roll. As he did, an assistant drew notes from a bowl. The professor read, “Adams.” The assistant took a folded paper from the bowl, opened it, and said C. The professor read, “Baker,” and the assistant said F.

As you may guess, it left the room in an uproar. I’m sure the actual grades were given in the normal manner, but the young professor had made his point.

About a week later, a similar lottery took place nationwide, televised, and determined life or death for thousands of young Americans. I was listening closely, because I was a contestant. It was the first draft lottery since World War II.

There were three of us paying attention, my two college roommates and I. One of them didn’t have to worry; he had blown his knee out as a high school wrestler and was 4-F. That’s a medical deferment. The other roommate and I were on student deferments, but we were both going to graduate in June. He drew a high number and never served. I wasn’t so lucky.

I have said often that the draft leveled the playing field. It was a favorite saying in that era that Viet Nam was a war where black people were sent to kill yellow people for the sake of white people. Without the draft, that would have been even closer to the truth.

I wasn’t feeling so charitable when that bastard got to my birthday and pulled a 41.

Ain’t it fun to gamble in the big casino?

540. Where Are the Vets?

Here are some statistics, tailored for those who read this blog. I know most of you are young. I see your pictures on your likes, and I check out your websites.  I’m not young, so I see changes you may not be aware of.

Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both presidents Bush all served in the military in wartime. Regan and Bush Two served stateside in wartime; the others all saw combat.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump did not serve.

In the current House of Representatives only 70 of 435 have served in the military. In the current Senate, only 13 of 100 have served. Those numbers will go up slightly with the incoming congress.

Veterans were not so under represented in previous congresses.

These figures relate the the reduced number of persons in the military. That is not quite the same as a smaller military, since the persons now serving tend to spend more years in service. Draftees from previous eras tended to go home as soon as they were allowed to do so.

I come from a long line of draftees. My father served in Europe in WW II, was wounded, and remained during the occupation of Germany. His younger brother was drafted, trained, and was on a ship “heading for Japan to die” (his words) when the US dropped the A bomb. He ended up in the occupation of Japan. I joined the Navy, Vietnam era, but not by choice. My draft number was 41, which meant my number was up (in both senses of the word) before I finished college. And no, I did not see combat.

I hated the draft and I still do, but it had one positive aspect. It leveled the playing field. More Americans had to step up, whether they wanted to or not, and that led to more protests. Without the draft, we would have been in Vietnam much longer.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of WW I. All those veterans are gone. WW II ended in 1945. Very few of the vets from my father’s generation are still around.

America left Vietnam in 1973. Any vet who saw that day at age 18 would be 63 today. That was also the last  year American’s were drafted.

I’m not suggesting a return to the draft, God forbid. I have no particular agenda at all; I just want to give you this to think about.

A country which everyone has to defend, or at least has to stand in jeopardy of military service, is a very different thing from a country that depends on a volunteer military.

Better? Worse? That will be your decision going forward.

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The numbers in this post come from PBS.

538. Not Like Clockwork at All

I have been writing my latest novel Like Clockwork for ten months and today (October 17) I called it “first draft done”. But it’s not that simple.

I have a file on my computer called ???When???, where I keep track of starts and finishes because I would never remember dates otherwise. I went there to make note of the tentative conclusion of the first draft and took time to remind myself how I got here.

It’s a tangle. I’ve had books that took longer to write, and books that grew well beyond the size I had intended, but I have never before had a book that refused to tell me ahead of time what was going on. I decided to share the file of my progress(?), edited to remove irrelevant family matters.

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January 2, 2018. I began the first page of a novel/novella with the working title Clockwork Christmas.

Jan. 13, 2018.  Clockwork Christmas is now titled Like Clockwork, after the toy store where Snap works. As of today, I am about 12,000 words into the thing. I hope it will reach at least 60,000 words to be sold as a novel, but it still could possibly be finished at novella length.

(For reference, SFWA sets novella length at 17,500-40,000 words. F&SF sets 25,000 as the largest piece they will publish.)

Like Clockwork is being constructed of (minimum and approximate) 1000 word chapters.

From roughly 17 to 22 January, 2018, I paused Like Clockwork to write posts for the website. (There were several pauses for colds and other minor illnesses which I will not record.)

On Jan 31, I wrote chapter 10 in which Balfour gets the idea for Jekyll and Hyde. He does not yet know that he already wrote it in another life.

Mar. 6, 2018, things are coming slowly. As of today, about 25 chapters done. That’s a large number, but each chapter is short.

March 11, 2018  Today Stevenson emerged into consciousness, absorbing both Balfour and Hyde. That lasted about a day, then Balfour realized he can’t be the actual Stevenson because he remembers Stevenson’s tombstone. What exactly  is he? As of now, I have no more idea than he does.

April 3, 2018, writing on the chapter Slow Time, I began to show Bartleby’s dogged determination to follow any task to its completion. The question occurred to me for the first time, is Bartleby human, or a robot or android. As of this date, I hadn’t decided if he is a person or an living story character with Melville as Fabulist, and now here is a third possibility.

April 4, 2018, writing the final paragraph of the chapter Slow Time I came to the realization that Like Clockwork is the story of a whole cadre of people who made a Faustian bargain, got what they asked for, and now are suffering from buyers’ remorse. I also came to the realization that yesterday’s question, “Is he a robot?” is answered this way — he is a cold, detached, hard boiled detective type who can’t be pushed aside from a goal or puzzle. He doesn’t need a personality any more than Sam Spade did. Not a machine, but thinks like one.

(Aside — Bartleby’s name changed as the writing progressed. First he was named after the Melville scrivener. Then he became Helmsman. I liked that name but it implied that he was a leader type, which he wasn’t. Finally he became Hemmings, because it’s just a name with no hidden meanings.)

About here, some time was devoted to my personal life, plus the completion of an unrelated short story.

On about June 28, I became aware the Tor would accept novellas beginning July 30. Like Clockwork had been nearing its end at about 70000 words. That doesn’t work for today’s publishing industry, and some of that was less that compelling writing in a long flashback section. I had three choices. Shorten and go for Tor novella publication, stretch even further and try to reach salable novel length, or let it find it’s own length and self-publish. I have opted to make it a Tor novella, although the other choices remain if Tor rejects it.

On July 14, 2018, I finished the Tor novella version of Like Clockwork, now retitled The Clock that Ate Time. I still have to do some e-formating to match their submission engine. The novella version runs 39,365 words. I had to cut out everything relating to Hemmings and Crump, which means cutting out the Babbage and Hemmings’s brief career as a sweeper in a factory, along with the extended memory-retrieved-as-flashback that details how the Founder set up the whole thing and why. I really hated to let go of all that.

I would enjoy the long version better, but the short version is less discursive. If the novella doesn’t fly, I may try it elsewhere (if there is any elsewhere — F&SF maxes out their novellas at 25,000 words) or I may go back and finish the long version. For now, I’m just glad to be at least temporarily done with it.

The novella version went off to tor.com.

You have to understand that writing is schizophrenic. I was sure that it would be accepted. No other outlook would allow a writer to retain his sanity. I was equally sure that it wouldn’t be accepted. The market being what it is, everyone on Earth with a novella ready is going to jump into the tor.com window of opportunity.

From the end of July until the beginning of October, I worked on other projects.

Oct 2, 2018   tor.com rejected The Clock that Ate Time, resulting in disappointment followed by relief. Now I can complete the novel version. Bear in mind, it is not insanity to carefully edit out feelings of irritation and disappointment, as long as you know that you are doing it.

Now I am expanding Hemmings part of the story and grafting it back onto the whole. It is called Like Clockwork again and it is taking forever to complete.

October 17, 2018 I finished both part one and part three of Like Clockwork months ago. I have recently been filling in the middle third, which amounts to a long flashback that explains how reiterant London came to be. Today I wrote the last line of the middle section. I still have several  half-page long dialogs or descriptions to fill in, and I still haven’t quite finished deciding how to integrate Hemmings and Crump into the big finale, but I am calling it “rough draft finished”.

Still, it feels (and is) very unfinished at this stage. I think I need to fill in more of the Founder’s personality. That may take only a few touches here and there, but they have to be the exact right touches, and that can take a long time. I also have four versions to integrate: beginning, middle, and end of the latest version, along with the tor.com version which is the least extensive but most polished.

I need to find something to write next, or perhaps finally decide to begin self-publishing; it may take a long time for all the finalizing of Like Clockwork, a few hours here and a few hours there.

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See what I mean? This is my fourteenth book, and the only one that has driven me this crazy. I know that I did a lot of character name dropping, but that was unavoidable. I don’t expect you to understand anything except the level of madness this book has engendered.

Today I started deciding which potential novel will be number number fifteen. I plan to outline this one.

I think.

534. A Writer Lives for Libraries (3)

Just before I entered high school, the shrinking population of our county caused two school districts to consolidate. They built a new high school and bussed students in from miles away. One room of that new high school was full of empty shelves with boxes of new books sitting on the floor. Since I already knew the English teacher/librarian, and since I was a hard worker (and he wasn’t) I got to empty those boxes and fill those shelves. There is no better way to learn a library than from the ground up.

There were piles of books on science, and I read most of them. There was a copy of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which had just been published. It would have been banned if any of the Baptists had gotten hold of it, but I was probably the only one to read it. That was the book in which Heinlein made sex seem dull. They can’t all be winners.

I graduated from high school, went to college, got married, went into the Navy, and returned to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where I got to use the Regenstein Library. Then I started writing. Wherever we went, my wife got a job at the local library — often in the bookmobile.

I has some success writing but not enough to live on, so I got a credential and made teaching middle school my day job. I kept that day job for twenty-seven years, still writing but with much diminished output. Then I retired and I went back to writing full time.

Once, during that period, the school where I was teaching had a special day in celebration of reading. My teacher friend Crystal invited several of us to talk to her class about our early reading habits.

I went to the local library and found an original copy of Star Man’s Son still on the shelf. It wasn’t the same copy — I was fifteen hundred miles from the library where I started out — but it was the same edition. It probably came off the same press the same week.

Thank God for libraries that never throw anything away. When my turn came, I was able to hold it up and say, “Here is the first book I ever checked out.” Then I could hold up copies of Jandrax and A Fond Farewell to Dying and say, “And here are the books I’ve written, because long ago I learned to love to read.”

Now I live in the foothills of the Sierras and, coincidentally enough, I am once again equidistant from three cities. Each one is a county seat, and each one has a library.

One is the city where I lived for all my teaching years. Its library is in a newer and larger building now, and the books are reasonably up to date. I go there often.

One of the other libraries is old and poor. They have lots of books, but some of them are older than I am. They have a full selection of Buchans, mostly in identical bindings from some original matched set. They have a matched set of Jules Verne, as well, and both sets are battered and worn. As I walk up and down the shelves, I see lots of books that I saw in my first library fifty years ago.

I’m glad to have a library where everything is up to date, but it is also nice to have a place where I can step back into the past, to pick up copies of those books I didn’t have time to read when I first encountered them. Not every good book was written this decade.

Now turn off the computer and go check out a book.

533. A Writer Lives for Libraries (2)

Readers today are contemptuous of Tom Swift and his kind, and with good reason. I had loved those books up to my first day in the library because they were all I had. They had filled lots of hours with lots of entertainment, and had opened me up to worlds beyond the farm.

Once I had access to libraries, I took home real books, mostly science fiction, and things would never be the same. With my first book, I met a real writer; Andre Norton had something to say, and she said it with grace and style. Ultimately, I would find Heinlein, Zelazny, Dickson, Le Guin, and hundreds of others beyond science fiction. But Norton was the first and she taught me how to write. Almost sixty years later I still hear the echo of her style in my writing.

In full disclosure, the county library I’m talking about was not quite my first library. My class in grade school – all eight of us – were the last to haunt a building that had housed three hundred students before my town shrank. We discovered a disused closet that still held the books that had once been the library, and there I read my first book for adults, Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose.

The county library in Claremore was where my heart and soul lived, but I also had a dalliance with the library in Collinsville. It was an old, small, red brick building donated by Andrew Carnegie. If you have passed through small town America, you’ve probably seen one just like it. Carnegie libraries all look the same.

That was where I discovered one of the great secrets of life: libraries are time machines. I don’t mean that they have books on history. I mean that they never have enough money, so they never throw anything away. In Collinsville in the sixties, the shelves were full of books published during and before World War II. Not only were they about bygone days, the books themselves were actually, physically old. Hundreds of boys, too young to fight, had sat in that library reading the Dave Dawson war books that I now held in my hands twenty years later.

The same actual books. Match that, ebooks!

So I learned to re-read, and to treasure books from eras past. I still read John Buchan regularly, holding my nose at his imperialism and racism.

While digging through the books at home, I found one rare treasure, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, published in 1911. Yes, the taser book, although I couldn’t know that because this was long before tasers were invented.

My grandfather, who lived in Florida and whom I saw only once a year, had read this Tom Swift (Sr.) book fifty years earlier, and he was the one who sent me my first Tom Swift Jr. many years later. Wow!

Libraries are great, but everybody needs to have a stack of books of his own. more on Monday