Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Great Steampunk Online Comic

Here's a nice holiday treat for you. If you have not run across Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius on-line steampunk (although they call it "gaslamp") comic, you are in for a treat. The art's great, as you would expect from Phil Foglio, and the story is a lot of fun. Enjoy, and if you like it a lot, consider buying the new novel out for the storyline, Agatha H. And The Airship City.

Here's the Link.

Enjoy and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Historical Characters in Steampunk

Some writers set their steampunk fiction in worlds so dramatically removed from our own there is little reason to expect historical characters to show up. Many worlds, on the other hand, are closer to our own reality and Space: 1889 certainly is among that number. Writers crafting stories in that setting naturally need to pay attention to what historical personages the novel's characters might bump into as they go about their business, and the same is true for GMs constructing adventures. That said, novelty is the key to all good stories and adventures, and so a continuous parade of Very Famous People never seems very plausible. Young Winston Churchill followed by young Teddy Roosevelt, followed by young someone else wears thin fairly quickly, and strains credibility as well, as the coincidental "star sightings" pile up. So what's a person to do?

Here's a technique I've found useful, and it's one everyone can do who has access to the internet -- which means everyone within sound of my electron-carried voice. In a story I'm writing I wanted to know who was who in the Austro-Hungarian embassy in London in 1889. The ambassador is pretty easy to track down, but his pay grade is way above the sort of people to whom my characters are likely to gain introductions. No, I needed the clever under-assistants, but where on Earth do you find that, without going to Vienna and digging through musty archives?

I reverse engineered the problem, because I wasn't just looking for an underling, I was looking for one who might be historically interesting. So I researched Austro-Hungarian ambassadors in the years leading up to and during World War One, or about twenty to twenty-five years later. I needed an English speaker so I looked at ambassadors to England and the United States, and then checked their biographies (mostly available at least in abbrevaited form on line) to see who, if any of them, had served in the London embassy in the 1880s.

Oh, my. Jackpot! I give you Konstantin Theodor Dumba.

Dumba, born in 1856, entered the Austro-Hungarian foreign service 1879 at the age of 23 after obtaining a doctorate in law, so he was clearly a bright and hard-working student. He served in the London embassy as a staffer from 1881 through 1886, apparently his first overseas assignment. Later he was sent to other European postings, but since my story involves the Austrian response to the assassination of their ambassador in London, and his hasty replacement with another diplomat, it makes sense the Austrians would call back a junior staffer with extensive experience in Britain to help the new ambassador find his feet. But what makes Dumba particularly interesting is the later part of his career. He was the last acredited ambassor from Austria-Hungary to the United States and was expelled in 1915, before the U.S. entered World War One, for his involvement in a plot to sabotage U.S. arms manufacturing.

So here we have a bright, ambitious, and highly competent junior staffer, thirty-three years old, fluent in English with connections to the British Foreign Office, and having at least a latent interest in espionage and the more dangerous side of international affairs, as well as probably a relaxed attitude toward inconvenient obstacles such as the law. Now that's an interesting historical character, and the advantage of drawing on a real person for this is that he begins to do part of your work for you, giving you clues as to how he would react to a situation -- sometimes in ways you might not have come up with on your own.

The world is full of intriguing people and each one has a story to tell you. You just need to look and listen.

Monday, December 19, 2011

From Whence Inspiration?

I am asked sometimes where my ideas come from. I imagine at one time or another every author is asked that. I cannot answer for anyone else, but for me, ideas are like snowflakes in their uniqueness and delicacy. I am afraid sometimes if I try too hard to understand, and thus explain, where they come from, they will stop. Ideas seem to present themselves in massed ranks to some authors, to throw themselves in inexhaustible numbers at them like human wave attacks -- lucky bastards -- but for me ideas are more bashful and so their mating grounds are best left undisturbed, lest they stop coming around altogether.

But I will tell you where I got the idea for How Dark The World Becomes, my upcoming novel from Baen Books. I got it from a song.

I am a Tom Waits fan from way back. I followed his musical career from the mid-70s on. His early music has a strong jazz and blues influence and his lyrics are not simply incredible poetry and story-telling, his melodies can be hauntingly beautiful. Then along came Swordfish Trombones and he frankly lost me. His muse took him off in the direction of what, to me, sounded like discordant and atonal noise, not music. I never begrudged him that, by the way. Artists have to keep growing and changing, have to keep finding something new to say, or they end up just a Las Vegas stage routine, doing the same act over and over forever, because "that's what sells" -- until it doesn't any more. Even back then, I think I understood what I years later read Lois McMaster Bujold put so succinctly and so well: "The author reserves the right to have a better idea." Or in this case, the musician does. If I can't see his vision as clearly as he can, it's not his fault.

So for a number of years I did not follow Waits's newer music, although I remained a dedicated fan of his early work. Then a few years ago a friend and fellow-Waits fan, and one who had stuck with him, played a Waits album called Blood Money in his car CD player. I didn't care for it, for the same reasons I'd drifted away in the first place: harsh, jarring music and a bleak, angry world view. But over the next few days I couldn't get the first song on the album -- Misery Is The River of the World -- out of my head.

It's not that I liked it; it's that it just kept rattling around up there and would not go away. I ended up driving out and finding a copy of the CD, buying it just to listen to that song and so exorcise it. It was as bleak as I remembered, even more so once I listened carefully to it.

Misery's the river of the world.
Misery's the river of the world.
Misery's the river of the world; Everybody row!
Everybody row!

Waits's command of the language is still as powerful as ever, if harnessed to a black dystopian view of a corrupted world.  He may be, as another friend described him, America's greatest living poet. He's a guy who manages to sum up, and then dismiss, the entire ascent of man in two lines:

The higher up the monkey can climb,
The more he shows his tail.

So here's what I started thinking as I listened to this song again and again: if some guy from a hundred years from now heard this song and it resonated with him, with his life experiences, what sort of world would he come from?

The other thing I realized as I listened is that, no matter how bleak and hopeless Waits's music may sound, it is not without hope. If there is no hope, then there is no point to rage -- and there's plenty of rage here. Out of that first question came the idea for this novel, or rather for its protagonist, and out of that second understanding came the theme. Here's the brief setup:

About thirty years in our future, we are contacted by a star-faring civilization, a mostly-peaceful "Star Collective" encompassing all the settled worlds of five intelligent races -- all they have ever encountered. We are invited to join and we do so, becoming the sixth race of the Collective. Fast forward seventy more years and, due to the intellectual property laws of the Collective, we are locked into all the low-tech, low-wage, dead-end grunt jobs. There are a couple areas at which we excel. We have a creative streak unmatched by the other races, and so Human musicians, composers, visual artists, architects, even interior designers are in demand throughout the Collective. For those without a creative streak, or the ability to fake it, Human mercenaries are widely used as well. Finally, we are very, very good at crime.

The title comes from a quotation from Leo Tolstoy, as I believe I mentioned in a previous posting, but it is worth repeating as it captures the theme of the novel completely:

There is something in the human spirit which will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light in the heart of a man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.

That is to say, the novel is hopeful in tone, a celebration of our better angels which remain with us-- if we let them -- regardless of how black things appear.

By the way, Blood Money is a remarkable album, one which gets in your head and grows on you over time. The music was written for the 2000 musical stage production of Woyzeck, co-produced by Waits and Robert Wilson and based on the famous incomplete stage play of the same name. written by George Buechner and published posthumously in 1879. Strange to contemplate the play's origin in the middle of the Victorian era, but there you are. The song God's Away on Business from the album appears in the 2005 film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

I highly recommend the album -- but not for the faint of heart.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Abattoir in the Aether Coming Soon

We have a final cover for Abattoir in the Aether, by L. Joseph Shosty, and so the book itself should follow soon. Abattoir takes place on an orbital heliogragh station, but not one in planetary orbit. Instead Peregrine station is in solar orbit between the orbits of Mars and Earth so it can relay messages between the two planets when they are in orbital opposition, or close enough to it the worlds are not visible in the night sky. Of course, there's more to the station than simply that . . .

Abattoir in the Aether is Book 4 in the first season of Space: 1889 and Beyond stories. Book 5, of course, is my own A Prince of Mars, and no little kid anticipates his Christmas presents more than I wait for that one to appear. Oh boy!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Writing and Rewriting

I have been remiss. This has been a long dry spell for the blog and I can only plead that I have been writing every day -- just not this.

I've been doing a lot of preliminary plot work for Conspiracy of Silence, the lead book for season two of Space 1889 and Beyond. I have been nearly consumed by a major rewite project I'll tell you about some day, but suffice it to say it is steampunk. Now I am getting started on my rewrite of the novel Baen Books has picked up (not steampunk). Since all the contracts are signed and exchanged, and the advance is deposited, I suppose it's okay to talk about it without tempting fate. I am not a superstitious guy, but even I hesitate to tempt fate. If harm seldoms come from it, good certainly never does.

The novel was originally titled Bird Song's End. I thought it was an okay title, but nothing special. Baen liked it even less than that and wanted a new one. After floundering around for a week or so, I came up with the title we both like:

How Dark The World Becomes

It is based on a quotation from Leo Tolstoy:

There is something in the human spirit which will survive and prevail, there is a tiny and brilliant light in the heart of a man that will not go out no matter how dark the world becomes.

So now I am rewriting. Rewriting is something just about every writer does differently, and it has a lot to do with approach. I like to get the first draft as close to what I'm aiming for as possible, but I know a lot of very good writers who just concentrate on getting something -- anything -- down on paper for a first draft and then do the bulk of their work in the rewrite. I'm more inclined to rewrite as I go, to double back and fix earlier passages to fit what I've written later, and so I do lots of small rewrites along the way. I've read authors advise against that, but it seems to work for me. If something different works better for them, that's fine.

I think the reason rewiting is so important is that it mirrors the way we learn the craft of writing. We write poorly, then we write better. I've read of people who sit down and write a brilliant novel their first time out of the starting gate, and do so in a matter of weeks. Are these folks the norm? I don't think so. In fact, my immediate reaction is more along the lines of, "Burn the witch!"

I believe that, for the vast majority of us, writing poorly is the essential first step toward writing well. If you are afraid to write because you fear your prose may not be that good, you will never get good. A Russian author (I forget who) once said the first million words we write are garbage, and it's a formula repeated often in the writing biz: be prepared to throw away your first million words. But first you need to write them. If you don't write those first million words of unremarkable prose, you will never get to the point where your prose makes people take notice.

So write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite again. Write poorly, and then make it better, but write.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November Bestsellers Announced by Untreed Reads

I just received the November sales data from Untreed Reads through their online store. All three "Space 1889 & Beyond" books made the list!

Mark Michalowski's "Ghosts of Mercury," which wasn't released until almost mid-month, debuted at the number one spot. Congatulations Mark! (That cool video trailer you did must have something to do with it.)

Andy Frankham-Allen's "Journey to the Heart of Luna," the first release in the series, is still hanging in there at number 4.

K. G. McAbee's "Vandals on Venus" is not far behind at number 6.

Big congratulations to everyone. My own "A Prince of Mars" will hit the e-street later this month, along with L. Joseph Shosty's "Abattoir in the Aether." I've got some big sales numbers to live up to, but you folks are all going to buy a copy and recommend it to all your friends so I'm not going to be embarassed, right?