Re-punking your steam – three obscure slithers of Victorian history

Steampunk is fast becoming one of the main ways that modern culture interacts with our 19th century past. But for all the ‘punk’ in its name, it’s all too easily for steampunk to steer away from the radicalism of the punk aesthetic, to look only at a very mainstream view of history.

I’m not saying that this is always intentional. But like writers of fantasy and of historical fiction, steampunk writers take inspiration from the pieces of history made available to them, and that often leaves out the more interesting details, the more challenging subjects, the voices from the fringes of history.

As I’m currently reading a book on 19th century history* I thought I’d share a few bits that caught my attention, that I thought should be more widely known and maybe used for literary inspiration.




We all know that historical doctoring was often dubious, whether inspired by superstition or the latest scientific advances. US presidents Washington and Garfield both died as much from doctoring as from their maladies.

But the treatment of less well understood ailments could be shocking and downright bizarre. In the 1870s, New Jersey State Asylum staff sprayed patients with alcohol and set them on fire to see if they were faking epilepsy. Because epilepsy isn’t hard enough without some lighter-wielding lunatic burning off all your body hair in the name of truth. That kind of cruelty and incompetence has great potential for an antagonist.


Yes yes, I know, you’ve all heard how important mining was to the industrial revolution. But given the hundreds of thousands of people who worked down the mines, how much do you know about their lives?

Did you know, for example, that they were often highly superstitious? That makes sense when your life can be snuffed out without warning in a pit accident. Miners in the Durham coalfields of the 1840s wouldn’t go down the pit if they’d seen anything as strange and unlucky as a woman on their way to work. (yes, there’s a glaring gender issue there too – more on that subject later)

Or how about the fact that some miners were also terrorists? The Molly Maguires, a secret society fighting for workers’ rights in 1870s Pennsylvania and West Virginia, used arson, intimidation and assassination in their struggle for a better life, only to be brought down by a hired corporate spy.

Where are the bomb-throwing ghost-fearing miners in my fiction? (note to self – awesome character idea – go write that next)


That really shouldn’t be a heading in an article on obscure bits of history, but women don’t get equal representation in our examination of the past. And how often do you see sexual inequality tackled head on rather than worked around in genre fiction? But until 1850 almost every state in the United States recognised a husband’s legal right to beat his wife. This in the nation founded on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On a lighter note Lucy Stone, the first American woman to keep her maiden name after marriage, financed herself through college, lectured on antislavery and in the 1850s helped organise some of the first women’s rights conventions. Bet she had to be stubborn as all hell to manage that in those days – story conflict potential aplenty.

And back to you

I’m not saying to throw away your mainstream histories, to forget 1066 and the founding of the Union and the French Revolution and all that jazz. I’m just saying next time you pick up a history book, and in particular next time you look to history for inspiration, try to find something new. Something a little more punk. It makes for more interesting fiction, and it makes sure that those under-represented voices don’t remain obscure.

What are your favourite interesting historical details? Who do you think doesn’t get enough attention? Leave a comment, share your views.

And for more great history tidbits, try Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.


* It’s the Reader’s Digest Life During the Industrial Revolution, picked up for a quid in a charity shop – see, finding interesting history is easy.


Steal and steal well – first lesson from The Lions of Al-Rassan

I finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan yesterday. It was a beautifully written and fascinating book, and I’ll probably be writing about it most of this week, because like all the best books it’s taught me lots of lessons.

Spoiler alert - it's not about real lions
Spoiler alert – it’s not about real lions

Setting somewhere different

First up, the most obvious thing to talk about – the setting.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is a fantasy novel with almost no fantasy. It’s set in a secondary world version of Medieval Spain, a period known in real world history as the Reconquista. There’s one single magical fantasy element in the whole book, and other than that it’s essentially a piece of historical fiction with the details tweaked.

It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy.

It’s also interesting to see an author use that setting as a basis for any sort of fantasy. Secondary world fantasy settings, while usually taking a lot of their queues from medieval Europe, haven’t often played with the particular features of the Iberian peninsula. While this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Arabian-influenced fantasy it is the first time I’ve seen someone use the particular political and culture encounters, the clashes and compromises, and the elegant half-way-house culture that was Spain during the great struggle for dominance between Europe and Islam. It makes for a very different feel.

Here comes the history…

OK, let me step back a moment and put my history graduate hat on.

For those who don’t know it, Spain was torn between Islamic and European influences for most of the middle ages. These two great cultures – Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East – were defining themselves in contrast and conflict with each other, but also by absorbing influences from each other. From the first Islamic invasion in 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492 they grappled to control the Spanish peninsula, as a succession of different states rose and fell. The resulting culture took the best of both worlds to create something bold and vibrant. The resulting politics was bloody and horrifying, with battles and massacres aplenty.

Everybody in the peninsula defined themselves by their religion, even if other factors also came into play, and the differences between religious, cultural and political allegiances were not clear cut. But while this was mostly a land of Christians and Muslims competing with each other it was also a land in which a small Jewish minority sought to survive and to carve out their own niche amidst the chaos.

Using what’s distinctive

What’s so wonderful about Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of this is that he hasn’t just taken the outward trappings of the period – the caliphs and kings, the poets and princes. He’s taken the deep rooted institutions and issues and riffed on them to build his world. There are religions mirroring the places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in medieval Spain. The politics between the city states reflects the real challenges and tensions of a period in which allegiances were slippery and borders ever-shifting. The massacre of one religious group by another is all the more powerful for reflecting what really happened to many Jews as tensions rose. And the plot of the book reflects the polarising influences that arose in the most bloody periods.

This means that you get much more than just another fantasy adventure. You get a world that’s both different and familiar, that’s utterly convincing in its detail. And for me, as a fantasy fan and a history fan, that’s some damn good reading.

Not done yet

I’ll be back to write more about this tomorrow I’m sure. In the meantime thank you to my friends who persuaded me to read this, especially Glenatron who’s evangelised for GGK any time I’ve created an opportunity.

Have you read The Lions of Al-Rassan? If you have let me know what you thought. If not then go read it!




Finding light in the darkness

It’s fascinating to see how the darkest experiences can bring out the lightest, most joyful stories.

Just look at Judith Kerr, an escapee from Nazi Germany and author of the fabulously popular children’s book The Tiger Who Came To Tea. This is a lady whose family fled Hitler and who went on to live through the Blitz. Whose father suffered a stroke on his return to Germany, and as a result took his own life. And yet her stories are full of joy and light, even when, in a moment Michael Rosen has compared to the Nazis regime, a tiger bursts in and turns the house upside down.

Having survived darkness, Kerr turned towards the light. Whereas I, with a privileged middle class British upbringing, find myself constantly turning towards the disturbing and the hidden when I write. I wonder if it’s just natural curiosity, wanting to make the unknown known, or some part of ourselves that seeks out balance. But as impulses go it intrigues me. After all, heroic fantasy has arisen in an era of peace and prosperity for its biggest audiences, so I don’t think it’s just me.

They say write what you know. But don’t we all want to write about something unknown?

How about you? When you’re reading or writing, do you find yourself drawn to works that reflect your own life, or that are its opposite? Do you want peace and light, or to peer into the dark corners?

And please, go read the BBC article on Judith Kerr. She’s a fascinating lady, and the absolute perfect picture of what a 90 year old children’s author should look like.

Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another

Having written on Friday about fantasy as a place where we learn some history, and about Robin Hood and the spectrum from history into fantasy, I got to see it all connect together over the weekend. Not only did I watch Disney’s Robin Hood (that’s right, the good Robin Hood), but I watched it with children, taking their first steps into understanding history.



I spent Saturday at my brother’s house, helping entertain my nieces, the terribly serious Princess and the unstoppable Ever-ready. The Princess is nearly five years old, Ever-ready two and a half, and thanks to their parents they’ve both acquired a taste for the fantastic.

After a busy day of playing and visiting the library, we settled down together to watch Disney’s Robin Hood, at the request of both girls. No sooner had the music started than they were enthralled, watching Robin and Little John run through the forest, excitedly telling me about the characters – who was good, who was bad, what animals they were and what they were doing.

For the first time all day, Ever-ready sat still.

Bedtime stories too

Bedtime showed the power of fantasy as well. Ever-ready’s choice of stories was The Reluctant Dragon, adapted from the story by Kenneth Grahame. The Princess chose Starcross by Philip Reeve, a space-faring steam fantasy – she has excellent taste. Both stories showed just how powerfully fantasy can capture children’s imaginations.

Watching the wedge

Watching them enjoy these stories, whether on screen or the printed page, I could see the thin end of the wedge of history slipping into their minds. They know what a knight is. They know how Victorian ladies dressed, and that they were expected to behave differently from men. They know about bad Prince John* and King Richard’s absence on crusade. They might also suspect that space is full of Moobs and that outlaws disguised themselves in Lincoln green, but we can correct that later. For now, they’re learning, and part of what they’re learning is a love of the past. Skipton castle is one of their favourite places.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the relationship between fantasy and history isn’t just the former feeding off the latter, it’s fantasy breeding a passion for history. And as a fantasy author and history graduate, I think that’s a great thing.

So how about you – do you have a passion for history, and was it fuelled by fantasy? Or maybe the other way around? I’d love to know.


* Having done my masters dissertation on John, I actually think he has an unfairly bad reputation by comparison with the rest of his family. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be viewed badly – he was responsible for several political murders, including that of his nephew – but that the rest of them deserve it too. I mean look at Richard. The guy was in England for five months out of a ten year reign, neglecting the country that funded his middle eastern killing spree – total dick.

History, fantasy and our relationship with the past

OK, so it turns out that last week’s cathartic return to Braveheart hasn’t cleared it out of my system. Because there’s more to the issue of how we portray history than just accuracy versus story. That more complex relationship has been niggling away at the back of my brain all week, and Friday night seems the natural time to let it out.

I just want to understand you

Our relationship with people in the past is a bit like that between a teenage boy and the cute girl sat next to him in science class – he wants to get closer to her, but however hard he tries he’s never quite going to understand what she’s thinking. The things she’s experiencing are just too different from him.*

Puberty aside, it’s the same with us and the past. Until Doctor Who** turns up and lends us the Tardis, we can never directly experience those times. So we try to bridge the gap in understanding through this thing called history, where we reconstruct our own version of that experience, trying to wrap our heads round it in terms that are meaningful for us.

Facts or feelings?

Academic history tries to do that reconstruction through facts. There’s still speculation, and some projection of modern values and understandings onto a different world, but fundamentally it’s about cold, hard objectivity.

But life isn’t just about facts – ask that kid in the science class. It’s about feelings. They are as important to building meaning and understanding as any amount of information. And this is where historical fiction comes in. Through a looser adherence to facts, it tries to evoke the feelings of the era – the real lived experience of people in that time.

Neither approach is necessarily more meaningful than the other – they’re just different.

And on to fantasy

In a sense, fantasy fiction is one step further along the same scale of relationships with the past, from historical fact past historical fiction into worlds that aren’t real at all.

What’s that you say? Fantasy isn’t history? True, but history isn’t the same as the past anyway. And fantasy often takes elements from history and helps us to imagine and understand them.

Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm
Like Kevin Costner, but with fur and charm

Just look at Robin Hood. There’s a scale of deviation from the historical facts – from the reality of the Folvilles and Cotterels*** and other such gangs running round 14th century England; to the myth of an imaginary bandit still rooted in the real setting; to the figure of blurry legend floating through several centuries; to Kevin Costner taking on witches, or that Disney fox singing oo-de-la-li; to full on fantasy versions of the aristocratic outlaw wilderness man like Tolkien’s Aragorn. Each step further away from concerns with historical truth, with understanding those people on their terms, brings us closer to understanding them on our terms. However we do it, we’re developing some understanding.

You say history, I say fantasy, lets call the whole thing off

I’m not really sure what conclusion to draw from any of this. The relationship between history, fantasy and our lived experience is a complex one. And if I’m not trying to understand it in black and white terms like ‘historians good, Gibson bad’ then I want to explore those grey areas.

Anybody else got any thoughts on this? Because I’m all out of insight for the evening.

* I’m not saying that gender identity is an absolute. My views on human nature are much more focussed on nurture. I’m just saying, puberty’s a difficult time, girls get menstruation, boys get wet dreams, they’re not seeing life through the same lens.
** Have you seen the mini-episode they put out this week? It’s a nice piece of Moffat cleverness, rather satisfying.
*** Pretty sure those names are mis-spelled. Sorry. It’s been over a decade since I left academia, and I don’t have the appropriate essays to hand.

Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.


Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I just finished reading The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, leant to me by everwalker‘s faithful raptor. It’s the story of Simonini, a nineteenth century forger, told largely through diary entries as he pieces together his broken memories. It examines some of the darker aspects of Europe at that time – crime and inequality, the emergence of professional espionage and the rising tide of anti-semitism. As with much of Eco’s work, it’s also concerned with the uncertain nature of human experience, the subjective and unreliable way we bear witness to our world. There was a lot to enjoy here, but there was some stuff I found disappointing too.

First the good bits. Eco is a very clever writer. He pulls together the threads of history in a seemless and convincing fashion. You don’t need to know anything about the real history to understand what’s going on, but if you do then those details become more convincing. He does what Dan Brown fails to do, deftly tying together story and reality, making the incredible convincing.

Simonini is a fascinating idea for a character. Lurking in the background of great events, he develops from fraudster to conspirator to spy, raising questions about the boundaries between these activities. This is a character designed to make a point, but one who has depths and darkness beyond the nature of his career.

But these strengths are tied to the book’s weaknesses. Eco’s writing is clever at the expense of passion, and I never felt much emotional engagement. Simonini was so busy weaving his way through history that he seemed to lack his own sense of drive and purpose, and I didn’t feel for him. Whether things went well or badly, I remained largely indifferent.

Trying to break this down as a writer, I think it may come from an obsession with details that doesn’t translate into bringing them to life. For example, Simonini loves his food. He often records what he goes to eat. It’s an interesting character quirk that should make this immoral man more likeable. But these passages just turn into lists of dishes and ingredients, not descriptions of the food, how it tasted, how it made him feel. And maybe that too is meant to show us something about the character, but I soon started skimming those parts. Simonini didn’t really seem to care, and so neither did I.

I love that the world contains such a clever writer as Umberto Eco, but in this case I found his writing too dispassionate. He’s tried to do something really admirable, but it didn’t work for me. If the good things I’ve mentioned appeal to you then I’d recommend reading Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose first. And then, if you still want more Eco, try The Prague Cemetery. Maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

Working at inspiration

There’s a tendency to talk about inspiration as something mystical, some flash-from-nowhere power. I think that’s nonsense. Inspiration is like any act of imagination, it’s something you work at.

Partly, this is a long term project. The more time you spend thinking about how you can apply your experiences to stories the more effortless that will become. When I first started writing I’d occassionally notice something interesting. The way light streamed from a porch on a spring evening. The curve of a statue in a gallery. A concept from sociology that explained why people listen to others. I’d note that thing down, I’d think about its ramifications or how it could be used to add colour to a story. I’d mould it into a shape that I could use.

As time went by that got easier. I’d see that fall of light and I’d know straight away how to use it in my current scene. Or I’d hear that sociological concept and see immediately how it could motivate a character. And that was when those moments of inspiration really started to fly. Those flashing insights, the realisation that, hey, that bird would be a good model for monster A, a great metaphor for Lord B’s character, or maybe a hobby for character C, like ornithology or taxidermy, and that’s why her and B don’t get on, and…

Those moments were coming because I’d worked at building a better creative engine, a set of thought processes that were better than ever at creating the ideas I wanted.

But working at it is a short term thing too. This week I’ve been reading Eileen Power’s Medieval Women, because I’m planning a story that involves several medieval women*. For the first few pages I didn’t get much from the book. It was interesting enough, but nothing was really sparking. Then I took one concept, about the deeply divided attitudes to women in medieval Christianity (praise the Virgin Mary, bemoan Eve’s part in the fall, compare all women to both, develop feelings of confusion normally restricted to teenagers). I thought about the ramifications of that for my story and wrote it down. Half a page later, with that idea already in my head, I read something else that fitted with it, so I noted that down. And again. And again. Ten minutes later I was spending more time making notes than actually reading. That engine I mentioned earlier had got warmed up, and now it was really rolling. One of the most important fuels for creativity is more creativity.

So, messy engine metaphors aside, what’s the point of this? It’s that ideas and creativity don’t just happen, and realising that, working on mine over time and in each moment, has really helped me. Inspiration doesn’t just happen. You make it happen.

*And also because I’m something of a history nerd – there’s a reason I studied it solidly for six years.

From the Sea

Pheidippides ran from the sea, the crash of waves and Persian steel still echoing in his ears, a memory of salt spray kissing his neck.  Behind him his brother Greeks piled the dead on the scarlet sands and gave hearty thanks to Pan for scattering their foes.  Harsh chants of victory gave way to the steady thud of his sandals on the path, joined by the rushing of blood in his ears as he ascended the steep mountainside.  His heart soared at the news he carried, of the triumph granted by the satyr god.

Pace after pace the road stretched out behind him, dust rising and finding the sweat so that his shins were coated with mud.  He stumbled, toes ramming against a rocky outcrop.  Pain seared his nerves and blood dripped into the dirt but he righted himself without pausing.  His lungs burned and an ache throbbed through his legs, rising to meet the muscles straining for each ragged breath.  He rubbed the sweat from his eyes but still his vision shifted, trees by the road blurring into a green veil that danced in the breeze.  Then the leaves were torn asunder and a horned figure stepped forth, grinning fiercely as he sprang towards Pheidippides on cloven hooves.

Fear seized the runner.  Had Pan, having broken the Persians, now come for him as well?  Not even daring to catch the god’s eye he hurled himself forward, faster through the thin mountain air, and out into the hills below.  He felt a piercing gaze on his back, heard laughter rattle on the wind, and thought of the enemy soldiers, eyes wide with panic as the Greeks bore down upon them.

At last Athens appeared across the plains.  He staggered into her streets, women and children watching him nervously as he ran on, each breath a wave of fire through his chest.  Finally he reached the temple and sank to his knees on the cold marble floor.  Staring up at the goat-legged figure before him he called out one last hoarse word.


The statue smiled at this prayer of thanks, and Pheidippides felt the panic fade, leaving him to drift into welcome blackness.


Originally published in Carillon 18, June 2007.