A Thing Devised by the Enemy – a steampunk story

The ground still trembled as Dirk and Blaze-Simms headed deeper into the ground beneath York. The light of their lanterns cast shifting shadows across what was clearly an ancient tunnel, the floor worn smooth by the passing of feet, the nooks and crevices of the walls heavy with dust. Held up by blocks of mismatched stone and pillars of ageing timber, it had the air of a place built in secrecy with the scraps that could be diverted from elsewhere.

Around a bend, the tunnel opened up, leading into a natural cavern. The air was filled with the sound of clattering gears and rushing water. Through the centre of the cavern ran a fast-flowing stream, on which sat a mill-wheel ten feet across. From its wooden housing emerged a series of levers that were pounding at the nearby walls.

“What the hell?” Dirk exclaimed, taking in the bizarre sight.

Blaze-Simms was already out of the tunnel and heading for the machine, magnifying glass in hand.

“It looks late medieval,” he called out. “Oh yes, look, it’s been branded with the seal of Richard III.”

“But why would a king build some wacky machine under the city?” Dirk followed his friend more cautiously. If there was a machine, presumably there were also people running it.

“I have no idea,” Blaze-Simms said, peering into the workings. “All it seems to do is make the earth shake.”

“Well observed,” called out a voice.

A dozen people were approaching from the corners of the cavern. Dirk recognised the grey-haired archivist from the town records building and the history enthusiast he’d met at Micklegate. All of them wore pin badges of a silver crown.

“Richard III was the finest man ever to govern this city,” the archivist said. “He loved York and its people loved him. He left treasures hidden here, things to protect the city. And he left a group to guard them, in case anything happened to him.”

The men and women beamed with pride. They had the mad expression of those truly committed to a cause, an expression Dirk normally only saw on the most fervent of cultists.

“How’s this guarding anyone?” he asked, jerking a thumb toward the machine.

“His final gift,” the young historian said, her eyes wide with excitement. “In case the city ever fell into the hands of Scots or traitors. A way to bring the whole place down.”

“An artificial earthquake,” Blaze-Simms said, his voice filled with wonder. “And using such primitive technology. Truly remarkable.”

“He was a remarkable man,” the archivist said with an edge of anger. “And now they betray him, putting on the play that has slandered him for generations. But the time has come. We will stand for it no longer.”

“You fired up the machine because they’re playing Richard III?” Dirk stared at them in bewilderment. “Are you insane?”

“We will not stand for it,” the historian said, her voice ringing with passion. “Will you?”

Dirk looked across the group. Some of them bore bruises, marking them out as the attackers from the hotel. Many carried clubs or axe handles.

“You can’t destroy a city because they put on a play,” he said. “That ain’t just wrong, it’s downright absurd.”

“Then I’m afraid we can’t let you leave,” the archivist said. “Seize them!”

They surged forward, this band of misguided monarchists. Dirk set his lamp down and raised his fists just before they reached him. Punches flew and clubs swung as they swarmed over him, trying to drag him to the ground. He kicked one guy in the gut, slammed his elbow into another man’s chest, and head-butted a third.

“Dash it all!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed. He’d managed to take down two of his attackers, but another two had gotten hold of his arms and pressed him up against the casing of the machine.

Dirk leapt forward to help his friend. As he did so, something collided with the back of his head. He turned, punched, and turned again, then kicked one of the men in his way. A punch hit him in the nose and blood ran free, but he grabbed his attacker by the scruff of the neck and flung him away.

Now only the young historian stood between him and his captured friend.

She looked down at her injured comrades and then up at Dirk, blood dripping from his face.

“My God,” she exclaimed. “What were we thinking?”

“Can’t say I’ve got an answer,” Dirk said, approaching her. “But let’s get my buddy free and then we can talk this out.”

“Of course,” she said, taking a step towards him. “Only…”

Her knee shot up, hitting Dirk in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, she brought her clenched fists down on the back of his head. His face hit the floor and the world faded to black.

* * *

 

The latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverware, is out today!

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

So if today’s story seems like your cup of tea, then check out Sieges and Silverware, available now through Amazon and Smashwords.

And come back next week to see what happens next in the tunnels under York.

Glorious Summer – a flash story

Dirk Dynamo liked English summers. They were milder than the ones back home, making for a more relaxing time. And there was so much history to see in this country. Their guest house in York was older than the state he’d grown up in. The city was full of grand old buildings. Proud as he was to live in the age of the steam train and the telegraph, he still loved to see such sights.

“What ho, Dirk!” Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, Dirk’s long-standing friend and companion in adventure, settled into a seat across the breakfast table. “How’s the tea?”

“Good, I guess.” Dirk had decided that, if he was going to make the most of his English holiday, he should drink tea instead of coffee. But so far he was finding it a bit watery for his tastes. “What you got there?”

Blaze-Simms waved a sheet of expensive writing paper.

“Letter from the mayor! He heard that there were members of the Epiphany Club in town and he has a mystery he wants us to solve.”

“No thanks.” Dirk shook his head. This was the downside of joining a club for scholarly adventurers – people expected you to be ready for action all the time. “I just want to relax, drink some tea, catch a play. They’re doing Richard III at the playhouse and you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare.”

“Did you know that he had strong ties to York?” Blaze-Simms asked, setting aside the letter and buttering some toast. “Popular man around these parts.”

“Hope they don’t mind seeing him as a villain.” Dirk peered at his tea. Was this really how it was meant to taste?

A round man in a pinstripe suit approached their table.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said. “Would you be Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms and Mister Dirk Dynamo?”

“That’s us,” Dirk admitted reluctantly. He had a feeling he knew where this was going. “How can we help?”

“I’m Mayor Arkwright,” the man said. “I wrote to you about the shaking in the centre of town. Some of the older buildings are threatening to collapse and we have no idea what’s behind it. People are terribly put out. We were hoping you could-”

“I’m here on holiday, Mister Mayor,” Dirk said. “Reckon you can find someone else to deal with this.”

“Our local scholars haven’t had any luck,” the Mayor said. “Couldn’t you just-”

“No!” Dirk blushed. He hadn’t meant to be so loud, and now the other diners were staring. He lowered his voice. “I just want a holiday.”

Across the table, Blaze-Simms was scribbling in his ever-present notebook.

“You want to do this, don’t you?” Dirk asked.

“Rather!”

“Then you do it by yourself. I’m off out to see the sights.”

Dirk set aside his teacup, got to his feet, and headed out.

*

For some reason, York’s medieval gates were called bars. Dirk would have to ask Blaze-Simms why later. For now, he was content to stare up at Micklegate Bar, with its crenellated towers and ancient stones.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” said a woman standing next to Dirk. She had a pencil in her hand and a bundle of sketching paper protruding from a canvas bag. A broach in the shape of a silver crown sparkled in the sunlight.

“Yes, ma’am,” Dirk said. “And amazing it’s still standing.”

“Did you know that they used to display the heads of traitors there?” she asked. “Left them out to rot.”

“Makes me glad we live in civilised times,” Dirk said, turning to her with a smile. “Though it’s good to hear about what came before. Are you a historian?”

“I dabble,” the woman said, smiling at him. “Mostly in the medieval side of-”

The ground shook, almost throwing them from their feet. The woman grabbed Dirk’s arm for support. An ominous grinding sound came from overhead.

On instinct, Dirk jerked away from the ancient gate, pulling the woman with him.

With an almighty thud, a block of stone hit the street where they’d stood a moment before.

At last, the shaking stopped.

“Are you alright?” Dirk asked.

“Yes, thank you,” the woman said. She looked up at the gate, a crenellation now missing from the battlements, and then down at the pencil in her trembling hand. “I think I need a cup of tea.”

“Want some company?” Dirk asked.

“No, no,” she said hastily. “I have some things to, um, to work on.”

Dirk almost laughed out loud. That distracted expression was one he was used to seeing on Blaze-Simms.

“Alright then,” he said. “You take care. I’m off to get theatre tickets.”

As he arrived at the playhouse, a man was pinning notices over the posters for Richard III. “Postponed For Your Safety”, the signs said.

“What’s the problem?” Dirk asked, frowning.

“Earthquakes,” the man said. “Plaster’s coming off the roof. Can’t risk it falling on the audience.”

“How long until the play’s on?”

“How long do earthquakes last?” the man asked with a shrug.

Dirk let out a frustrated sigh. He’d seen a similar sign outside the town museum. So much for his holiday plans.

All he had left was drinking more damn tea.

*

Blaze-Simms and the Mayor were still at the breakfast table. It was scattered with maps and diagrams, piles of stale toast and cups of cold tea.

Dirk flung himself back into his seat.

“Alright,” he said. “Your damn earthquakes are ruining my holiday anyway. I might as well investigate them.”

“Huzzah!” Blaze-Simms exclaimed.

“But if my holiday’s cancelled…” Dirk waved a waitress over. “I’ll have a coffee please, ma’am.”

* * *

 

What’s this, an Epiphany Club story? It’s almost as if I wanted to remind you that the latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverwear, is about to come out…

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

So if today’s story seems like your cup of tea, then you might also like Sieges and Silverware, out on the 27th of October. You can pre-order it now through Amazon and Smashwords.

And come back next week to see where Dirk’s investigation in York takes him.

A Woman in a Man’s World: The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman

sitnWherever you stand on feminism, it’s hard to argue with the fact that there’s greater gender equality now than throughout most of history, or at least European and British history. The raising of VAT on tampons might be a retrograde step, but women have more rights to economic and political self-determination than they did in the Victorian era.

That doesn’t mean should ignore the inequalities of the past, and for me it’s a great day when I find one of my favourite authors tackling that history.

Step Forward Mr Pullman

I mostly know Philip Pullman’s work through the extraordinary His Dark Materials trilogy, a defiantly anti-establishment and unusual fantasy series that tackles ideas of religious authority and what it means to be human. It’s an amazing series that proves YA fantasy can be deep, smart and beautifully written.

I haven’t read all of his Sally Lockhart books – historical fiction set in Victorian England – but I recently re-read the second one, The Shadow in the North, and was struck by how this book draws attention to inequality while challenging it.

Sally Lockhart is a woman in her early twenties, in an era when the young were expected to respect their elders and women were meant to stay in the kitchen, or if they were wealthy then to stay in the parlour looking dainty. Sally isn’t like that. She is a one woman financial consultancy company, with a sideline in criminal investigation. She refuses to be bowed by the pressures of gender expectation, while recognising when she has to work with them. Her social circumstances affect her, as anyone’s circumstances affect them, but she doesn’t let them define her life. And when she stumbles upon a conspiracy that has left one of her clients a pauper, she doesn’t let the gender, rank or wealth of her opponents stand in the way of justice.

Different Types of Inspiration

Like many fantasy fans who self-identify as feminist, I like to see writers create worlds in which no-one is limited by gender. Those allow female role models who aren’t restricted by the fifty-fifty split of which genitals they’re born with, and who I can proudly hold up as inspiring role models to my nieces.

But that doesn’t mean I want every setting I read to be one of equality. We don’t have that equality in the real world, and the inspiration a character provides, as well as the interest of their story, can come as much from challenging gender expectations as not having to live with them.

This isn’t to say that I love this book purely for Sally Lockhart. It’s an exciting story with a great cast of characters, male and female. You don’t have to have read the first book for it to make sense, though I imagine that adds to its richness. Pullman’s prose is clear and engaging.

If you haven’t read any Philip Pullman already, then I strongly recommend that you go read His Dark Materials. But if you have, or you prefer historical fiction to fantasy, then The Shadow in the North is well worth your time.

A Jolly Party! Another Lego Book Scene

I’ve been making Lego models of my books again. This week, a scene from Victorian steampunk adventure Guns and Guano, available for free from Amazon and Smashwords.

Governor Cullen throws a party welcoming the adventurers of the Epiphany Club to his island.
Governor Cullen throws a party welcoming the adventurers of the Epiphany Club to his island.
Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms entertains the guests by making an engine out of a napkin and a wine bottle. Don't forget, Sir Timothy, you're hear on a mission!
Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms entertains the guests by making an engine out of a napkin and a wine bottle. Don’t forget, Sir Timothy, you’re here on a mission!
Governor Cullen tries to get Dirk Dynamo into the party spirit, while Isabelle McNair chats with Braithwaite and his impressive beard. Look how much Dirk loves a party!
Governor Cullen tries to get Dirk Dynamo into the party spirit, while Isabelle McNair chats with Braithwaite and his impressive beard. Look how much Dirk loves a party!

Writing Excuses 10.19 Exercise: Intrigue and Cross Purposes

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

Writing Excuses 10.17 exercise – different points of view

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.

Almost.

Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

Plotting the Exciting Bits: Writing Excuses Exercise 10.12

My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.
My heroes, ready for action, adventure and a nice cup of tea.

This week’s Writing Excuses podcast was a Q&A on story structure, talking about different approaches to structure and how to get the most out of them. This ‘pick the best bits’ approach fits well with the exercise they gave at the end:

Make a list of all the awesome things you want your story to accomplish. Then put them in the order in which you want them to happen.

As with the previous exercise about plotting with the beginning and end in mind, I’m going to use this exercise to help me develop a novella I’m planning, Sieges and Silverware. The fourth in a series, this sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification. Major plotlines include a dispute with their former colleague Isabelle McNair, a siege of the castle, a mad scientist on the loose and some covert feminism in an age run by men.

Making it Easy for Myself

If I was working with pen and paper, I’d have to brainstorm all my ideas, then write them out again in order. Thanks to the magic of the digital age I can put them in order as I come up with them, and edit that order if I’m not happy with it. So what you’ll see is the end result.

Hooray for computers!

Plot Away

My list of awesome things, in order:

  • Dirk getting lost in the crazy layout of the castle.
  • A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
  • A monster hunt through the darkness of the castle dungeons.
  • An argument that addresses the problems for women in gaining influence in Victorian society.
  • Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
  • A small band of heroes fending off a massive assault.
  • A discussion on the nature and value of nationalism.
  • The discovery of a mad scientist’s laboratory.
  • Ninjas vs Prussians.
  • Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
  • A desperate airship or balloon flight from the castle as it is captured.

All the Cool Bits

Theoretically, I can see a lot of value in this exercise as a way of starting plotting without losing your enthusiasm for a project. It lets you focus on all the coolest things you want to write, and then turn those into something at least a bit coherent and useful.

But for me, in this instance, it’s proved less useful. I came up with a few interesting things, like the Carry on up the Khyber style dinner party. But whereas the first few volumes of this series were about throwing in lots of new cool ideas, by this point the story is about developing and paying off the stuff that’s already in there. I suspect that cool ideas will emerge from the structure, not the other way around.

It’s fitting with the discussion from the podcast. Not every approach to structure is for everyone, and you use the ones that suit you.

Did you try the exercise? How did you get on? And how do you go about structuring stories? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.

Heirlooms, Real and Pretend

If, in years to come, my descendants go through my treasured personal possessions to understand their family, they are going to be massively confused.

Pocket watch given to my real ancestor William Jackson on his retirement in 1920.
Pocket watch given to my real ancestor William Jackson on his retirement in 1920.

My biggest adventure involving this watch: dancing so hard at a friend’s wedding that the watch flew out of my pocket and the glass got smashed. Sorry William Jackson!

Copy of Dickens's Christmas stories given to the fictional valet Jackson, my character in a long running roleplay campaign, by his employer Lore Buffington, aka my friend Jules.
Copy of Dickens’s Christmas stories given to the fictional valet Jackson, my character in a long running live roleplay campaign, by his employer Lore Buffington, aka my friend Jules.
Complete with inscription, written 100 years after its supposed date.
Complete with inscription, written 100 years after its supposed date.

My biggest adventure involving this book: The night Jackson’s history of insanity was revealed in an old smugglers’ cove, while Lord Buffington was busy staking his vampire sister. It turns out that sane people don’t carry cake and tea through gun fights, and vampire slayer references are inevitable for a character known as Buffy.

Many of my happiest memories are of games I’ve played in. I just hope for their sake that future family historians can disentangle the real from the fictional. Or maybe not – maybe it’ll be more fun to believe that their ancestors slew monsters as well smelting steel.