December 5th, 2013
As A Study in Silks begins, Evelina Cooper and her best friend, Imogen, have recently left school and are about to embark on their first Season in high society. It’s 1888 and, while there are more options available to women than before, a young girl of good breeding was still supposed to find a respectable husband and provide an heir. So, between murder, magic, and troublesome automatons, Evelina and Imogen have to deal with suitors. Not that our young ladies are averse to dashing beaux, but it’s a little hard to find the time.
Even without adventures, the nineteenth-century debutante had a lot to cope with. The longed-for moment that marked the change from schoolgirl to young woman came when one was presented to the reigning monarch—in this case, Queen Victoria. This was an elaborate, invitation-only ceremony that usually happened around Easter. The importance of the presentation diminished over the century, but it was meant to be the sign that a young lady was admitted to Society and was fit to wed a gentleman. The current crop of debutantes was sure to receive invitations to balls, parties, and musicales and to be the focus of Society’s attention—and the prettiest (or richest) would be spoken for by the time the fashionable set retired from London for shooting parties in August.
As the Season drew near, the Lord Chamberlain carefully reviewed the list of eligible young women, striking those with any hint of scandal from the list. Once he was done, the queen would go over it again. Once she was satisfied, the invitations went out—but an invite was only the first requirement. A debutante also needed a sponsor, a lady who had herself been presented and could vouch for a young girl’s character. Usually this was a mother or aunt, but it could also be a friend of the family.
But once the sponsor was in place, there was shopping to do—not just for party clothes, but for the ceremony itself. The Lord Chamberlain issued a list of requirements for the proper attire, down to the dimensions of the dress’s train. The gown had to have a low neck, little to no sleeves, and should be white for unmarried girls. The regulation headdress was three white feathers—which were apparently difficult to keep in place. The presentee was required to curtsey just so and kiss the queen’s hand, then back away without tripping on her train. I’ve often wondered how many had nightmares about falling on their bustles in front of the entire royal court!
Needless to say, there was an industry dedicated to coaching young women through the ordeal. Fortunately for our heroines, their finishing school (zombies aside) would have covered the proper etiquette in their lessons.
But for Evelina the glitter and fluff of the Season only lasts so long, and then murder interferes. As A Study in Silks unfolds, the lure of a springtime of dancing and parties fades as her eyes are opened to threatening new prospects. The Baskerville Affair trilogy is a steampunk fantasy, in which fantastic inventions, sorcery, and romance all play their part. Evelina’s uncle, Sherlock Holmes, has his role as well—but not even he can protect her from the discoveries she needs to make before the game is done.
(originally published at Melissa’s Mochas and More)
December 3rd, 2013
Recently, another talented writer asked me how I went about plotting my work.
Okay, so I just heard the resounding thud of readers falling from their chairs, stunned insensible with boredom. I know there is nothing quite as obnoxious as writers going on and on about their craft, as if they actually thought about what they were doing instead of just geeking out at a keyboard and calling it art. This won’t be painful I PROMISE.
Yeah, right. Just bear with me.
Plotting. Sure, I own a host of books on the craft of writing. By virtue of owning them, I know I’m already smarter. Someday I’ll even read them cover-to-cover, and then watch me rock the metaphorical niceties of the Jungian subtext! I’ll be all over that next book.
But right, plotting. I’m a traditionalist, fond of a beginning, middle and end. As far as the theoretical framework around story structure—which is where writers start talking about Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery, the hero’s journey, saving the cat, and all the rest of those techniques—I like all of them just fine. They’re valuable tools, and I believe a good writer has a few at his or her fingertips. The trick is finding a good fit for your material and knowing when to use which model.
My story follows a more mythic structure, although it is more shamanic than strictly hero quest (and if you don’t know what that means, that’s okay because half the time I don’t either). I write character-focused books and tend to use more of an ensemble cast than just one or two main protagonists. The Baskerville Affair trilogy has a mystery/adventure plot arc that is resolved at the end of each volume, but the whole story unfolds over the entire series. Evelina, the heroine, has to face her shadow self and master that side of her nature. We see glimmerings of this in A Study in Silks, but it ramps up in A Study in Darkness. The fate of nations literally hangs on her choices, and the weight of it threatens to break her.
Like reflections in a mirror, each of the other players faces their own dark side at different points in the tale—and this might happen literally, metaphorically, or magically. Some pass the test. Some stumble and redeem themselves. Some fail—with interesting consequences. While the outer conflict of political upheaval moves in lock step with the main character’s inner struggle, the other character arcs weave within the larger story of revolution and war. Add mystery, romance, steampunk armies, magic and things that go boom and splat. That’s the works in a nutshell. It’s a steampunk fantasy.
From a bird’s eye view, it’s a fairly simple construct. From the worm/author’s eye view, it’s less elegant. I make copious maps, sticky notes, charts, drawings with arrows and color-coded thingies, and usually I end up tacking a large piece of newsprint to the wall and covering it in scribbles and sticky notes. At some point I’ll probably transfer it all to a spreadsheet, give up and return it to the wall. Sadly, no plot survives unchanged after first contact with the keyboard. Quite a few chapters perished in the making of this trilogy.
I can point to the places where I followed this writing technique or another—or simply strode into the bog with more will than wisdom—but some episodes are better left behind the curtain. Only my editor knows, and let me tell you she does love her colored pencils. But really, despite how clever authors are trying to be, the only thing that matters is whether readers (and authors) have a good time.
(originally published at Ramblings from This Chick)
December 1st, 2013
Temptation wears many faces, and the Victorians were quick to point out (rather gleefully at times) all the ways a young girl could go wrong. Reputations could be ruined in an instant, based on little more than a careless word or a minute spent alone with a man in a closed room. Ruin could mean anything up to being cast out penniless on the streets.
In A Study in Silks, my steampunk heroine, Evelina Cooper, is all too aware of what a misstep might cost her. Her position in Society is by no means assured, and the fact that she knows how to work magic—a crime punishable by public execution, if she’s is lucky—means she’s extra paranoid. But temptation keeps leaving her calling cards like a persistent salesman.
First, because she is a pretty young woman of marriageable age, there are suitors. One is Tobias—handsome, clever, rich, and heir to a title. He’s the flashy sports car model—breathtaking, but not really practical. And then there is Nick, her childhood sweetheart and a performer with the circus where Evelina spent her childhood. He has all the street-smarts and passion a girl could want, but whenever her magic and meets his, the results are about as subtle as a poltergeist on amphetamines. That’s all too dangerous when one is trying to hide rogue talents from the authorities.
But where Evelina can (mostly) resist the lure of romance, she has her future to think of. Security was a powerful motivator during a time when people literally starved in the streets. She may not be dazzled by money, but she’s been poor and knows all too well what hunger means. It was around this time that the Salvation Army was first established because the living conditions in some parts of London were so dire. Marxists, anarchists, and trade unions were active as well, each trying in their own way to alleviate the suffering. The streets of nineteenth-century London were a volatile place to be. They were, after all, the playground of Jack the Ripper.
But what she wants even more than pure safety is the kind of independence and intellectual freedom her uncle, Sherlock Holmes, enjoys—a faint hope for an unmarried woman of modest means. Lucky for her that this is a steampunk world, and she’s inherited dual talents for magic and science. And this is where Evelina does falter. When the sorcerer Magnus offers to teach her how to use her magic to full advantage, she wavers.
Unfortunately, Magnus is tainted by death magic and is exactly the type of practitioner she has been taught to revile. But he might hold the solution to all her troubles, if only she would consent to learn what he has to teach. The price wouldn’t be high—possibly just her soul. But in the end, what wouldn’t we pay for self-knowledge? For freedom and the chance to chart our own course in the world? The worst demons, the worst temptations, are always within ourselves. Over the three books of The Baskerville Affair, this is Evelina’s struggle.
(originally published at Urban Fantasy Investigations)