As well as discovering a rich backdrop of inspiration, I uncovered untapped memories of my own. When I was a little girl, my grandfather used to take me and my siblings to traction engine fairs. I remember the green fields and muddy tracks, bold red and green painted engines with huge wheels and pumping pistons. Most of all, I remember the noise and smell; the sudden whoosh as steam was released that made me leap behind the safety of my grandfather and set my heart hammering against my ribs. The grimy, oily scent would stay in my nostrils for days and linger on the periphery of my senses. I was barely the height of those massive cast-iron wheels and the engines terrified me, deeply embedding a sense of awe. It is that same sense of awe that drew me towards speculative fiction with its big question of ‘what if?’ and then steampunk fiction, drawing on a nostalgia that has sat in the back of my mind for most of my life. If science fiction deals with the ‘what if?’ of pure invention, then perhaps steampunk deals with the ‘what then?’ – a reimagining of what has already been discovered.
My aim was to write a piece of fiction using the city as a backdrop, evoking a strong sense of place. Victorian London has always been a classic backdrop for steampunk and because I know the city well, I felt able to feed on its nostalgia. I chose Paris because it fascinates me and the similarities and differences between the two cities was interesting to explore. So with the background suitably steampunk, I managed to get in a bit of steam-powered tech alongside the retro-futuristic inventions. The protagonist’s story itself attempts to subvert the norms of the historical times, simply by the fact she is female attempting to enter a male dominated profession. And of course, there have to be aliens involved somewhere.
Hope you enjoy it – published this week in Electric Spec.
The road to nowhere;
a road of indistinct nature
that baffles and bemuses.
A creature of comfort,
a black hole in the middle
of a City of Bones.
The clouds open up
beneath my dogged stride
sheets of purple rain.
The ground beneath me rumbles
and a great crack sunders the earth.
I ride through the darkened skies
on the creature’s black-winged back.
Ruby eyes illuminate the space,
burning leaves, baking the tarmac.
And oh, how the city groans.
“Time to earn your place at the dance this year,” Mother said, shooing Pepper out of the door into the bitter frost of a late Hampstead afternoon. “While you’re about it, tell that fir tree that it’s wanted inside. And don’t forget to shake the ice out of its branches – the last thing I need is puddles in the living room.”
Pepper sighed and stomped up the garden path, thankful at least for her thick leggings and Doc Marten boots. The air smelt of stagnant defrosted droplets and woody conifers. Would this be the year she managed to entice Mr Keats to the dance? Hmmph. Unlikely. However much Mother hoped so.
“You’re wanted inside,” she said to the fir tree on her way past. There was a gentle rumble of earth beneath the snow white blanket as the tree uprooted itself and shuffled towards the back door. Pepper turned, hands on hips. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” The fir tree stopped mid-pace and drooped. Gripped by an idea, Pepper gathered up her skirt by the hem to make a cradle and stood beside the tree. “Well?” she said. The tree bristled its needles and shook its branches in irritation. It was enough to loosen the icicles that dropped with an off key tinkle into her skirt. Read the rest of this entry
I have always been fascinated with the world that lies beneath London. I guess that travelling through the underground system every day sets off my imagination and so, many of my stories link to underground stations and stops. Getting ahead takes us a little further, literally into the bowels of London.
Although we take it for granted, London Underground uses tunnels originally built by the Victorians and an interceptory sewage system that delivered London’s reprieve from the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. When it comes to feats of engineering, the Victorians were never short of imagination. You only have to look at the legacy of their work in London to realise that it was an era of industrial revolution and innovation.
My initial approach to research is usually with the people. I love the stories behind people and I’m fascinated by human motivation and behaviour, so I try to link the human stories to a place, then link the stories to each other. I like to get out and write in different places; parks, cafés, libraries, museums, underground stations, benches or anywhere in London where I can soak up the atmosphere and let it spill over into my fiction.
Place is important to me, but my stories are driven by character. I have to say at this point, that I didn’t take my research to the logical conclusion and into the London sewage system, that would be… well, eww. I found this wonderful book called London under London: A subterranean guide, by Richard Trench and Ellis Hillman, which explores the labyrinth of the city beneath our feet. So I let my own imagination run loose and exploited the use of ‘what if…?’
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs… (Rudyard Kipling)