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.


  1. What a gem of a find! It's moments of discovery like that which make it a pleasure conducting research.

  2. AJ,
    Absolutely. I found two other historical characters who fit the story remarkably well at the same time, and while I won't bore you with all the details, I'll share this one. Fairfax Leighton Cartwright, the British diplomat who came with an ace of preventing World War One, as a young man wrote romantic tragedies in verse as well as gossipy satire poking fun at the ruling class. He was 32 years old and was a junior foreign office staffer in London in 1889 -- just the sort of romantic and headstrong young man likely to come to the aid of a lady in distress and devil take the consequences.