8/27/14

Steampunk Summer: Yes, You Can Live in a Clockwork World!

In case you had any doubts that the steampunk genre has expanded into almost every medium, check out the successful and popular video game, Dishonored.  As a steampunk enthusiast, this game intrigued me when it came out two years ago.  Now that it's offered free (for a limited time, so go grab it!) with my Xbox Live Gold membership, I finally got to play it for myself (and watch my husband play for hours as he got completely sucked in).

Click to learn more about Dishonored.

What does Dishonored mean for steampunk?  It's total immersion from the get-go.  There's no mistaking the influences in a world driven by ingenious machines and basic power sources.  Gears, gadgets, and old-school weapons are close at hand.  Factories pumping massive clouds of pollution into the sky fill the horizon.  Just to make sure you're getting the full Victorian/sci fi experience, your path often includes flesh-eating rats that are best avoided.  The costumes blend everything from the high collars of the Elizabethan age (16th century) to more familiar 20th-century suit coats.  (They're fascinating from a historical standpoint, add depth to the in-game world, and show quite nicely that steampunk doesn't have to be restricted to one time period.)

What does this steampunk-infused game mean for gamers?  Why do I think it's worth your time?  Dishonored benefits from doing everything right that makes a game memorable, unique, and addictive.  It starts with the story - you play Corvo Attano, bodyguard (and possibly more) to the empress, who is murdered in front of you.  Her daughter's kidnapped in the same attack, you're set up to take the blame, and six months later, it's escape or be hanged.  Steampunk, industry, gadgetry, and technology are seamlessly blended into the gameplay.

Although set in a world all its own, Dishonored feels like home because it shares elements with other much-loved games.  Horde food, snatch coins, and read notes a la Elder Scrolls.  Sneak up on enemies, knock them out, and hide their bodies like in Thief.  Upgrade your powers, mask (see game cover picture), and weapons reminiscent of Deus Ex.  The unsettling, dreamlike encounters will take you straight back into the nightmare sequences from Max Payne (OK, maybe not that bad).

I don't know if any other steam-based games are out there, but Dishonored sets the bar pretty high.  Nothing feels "old" or "new," it just is, as if the world created is real and all you have to do is traverse it.  It's a fun, interactive take on a genre that's expanding and reinventing itself all the time.  This is just one more way to enjoy it.

If you're more of a video person than a video gamer, you can take in the look and sound of steampunk in my new book trailer for Steampunk Carnival.  The ebook's available for download (including the first 5 chapters free), and the paperback is coming along fantastically, so expect that in the next month or so.

8/20/14

Steampunk Summer: Author Nicholas J. Ambrose on Legos, Swords, and His Upcoming Series

In preparing for Steampunk Summer, I looked at 2 dozen steampunk books, trying to decide which authors to ask for interviews to post here.  Lindsay Buroker was one I liked (her interview is here), and Nicholas J. Ambrose was the other.


Ruby Celeste and the Ghost Armada promised several things I couldn't walk away from that hooked my interest.  Tons of adventure (sky pirates! sky ports!).  A great, real-feeling human element to the characters and their situation (the crew, the unwilling ride-along).  And of course Ruby Celeste herself, the captain of the airship Pantheon, with an attitude and a flourish of the sword to match her fiery red hair.  (Anyone who's known me for a long time will remember I got my publishing start 10 years ago with a spunky, red-headed heroine, but that's a story for another day.)

Nicholas was generous enough to spare some time from his various projects to answer some of my most pressing questions.  His answers, like his books, are honest, open, and hilarious.

The most up-to-date photograph of Nicholas J. Ambrose.

How did you get started writing?  What’s your origin story?

I don’t think there has ever been a time when I didn’t like writing - which, really, is quite an unexciting origin story. So, let’s try jazzing it up a little.  

Come with me. I’d like to take you on a journey to a summer’s day. I’m on the floor in my bedroom, playing with Legos.

Preceded by the smell of off-brandy, Mother walked up the stairs.

“Nick! Would you stop playing with those bloody toys all the time?!”

“But I’m having fun!” I protested.

“You’re twenty-six! God, do something with your bloody life.”

“But Mu-um!”

“Get rid of them!” This, a shriek. She took a long swig of brandy. “This is why your father left, damn it!”

She went then, but not without sowing the first seed of my shame. Yet - these Legos. I could not simply abandon them! Their tales were incomplete!

I continued this play for five months. Finally, one morning I woke to discover the house cold. I had no clue how to work the heating, and went to find Mother for her help. But she was gone, and my Legos with her. Only a misspelled note remained, vapours so pungent they drew actual lines in the air, ready to explode at even the word ‘spark.’

You have broke this family, so I have sold your modles and gone away to find your father. Do not loke for us. You are no son of mine.

Without my toys, I did the only thing I know how: I began telling stories, in hopes to one day have the money to travel west, to America - where, finally worthy of their love, I will reunite with my family.

(I still have not figured out the heating.)

I understand the obsession with Legos.  They unlock creativity - or at least, that's what I tell myself. What genres do you write in, and what do you like about them?

Although most of my output is genre fiction of some kind, I do have a deep-seated love of general fiction. Character stories are the sort that have always struck me most powerfully, and I try to carry that into all my work in some way. Genre is secondary, and chosen either because some aspect of it allows me to put a different spin on a literary story, or more simply because the genres I pick are hella cool.

Well said. Which are your favorite characters in your book and why?

If I had to pick, I would probably go for ALL OF THEM. Assuming that’s not allowed (it’s probably not), Brie Channing, introduced in Ruby Celeste #2, is my favourite. She’s a living oxymoron: endlessly nervous, and really somewhat quivery, but also possessed with endless reserves of na├»ve ballsiness. She’s really fun.

What does your cover tell us about your book?

There is at least one sword.

I love that Ruby's weapon of choice is a sword instead of a gun, dagger, or crossbow.  It's different and makes great action scenes.  What are you working on now?  How is it similar to or different from Ruby Celeste and the Ghost Armada?

I’m taking a little break from Ruby at the moment to work on something a bit different. ‘They Call Me Storm’ is the first part in an urban fantasy series launching toward the end of this summer. I’m not saying much more just yet, but if you check out my swanky website Regarding THE HIVE (www.regardingthehive.co.uk) I’ll begin talking in more depth very soon.

 (I see red hair, so I'm excited!  Also, Nicholas has an easy-to-find mailing list option right on the front page of his site, so that makes a nice option for keeping up with his projects.)

Click to learn more about the Ruby Celeste Collection on Amazon.

The first 3 books of the Ruby Celeste series are now available as a gorgeous and very well-priced box set.  So if you like steampunk, air pirates, or want to see if you will, I'd jump on that deal.

To follow Nicholas J. Ambrose on Twitter, click here.

To find the Ruby Celeste Collection off-Amazon, you can find it on Smashwords here and Kobo here.

8/13/14

Steampunk Summer: The Carnival Has Arrived!

As my Facebook fans already know, Steampunk Carnival is now available for download as an ebook.  (I've started the process of turning it into a paperback as well.  I'll update you as I go along.)  Remember, you don't need a Kindle to read my ebooks!  All you need is the Kindle app - click here if you want to get it for the device (or computer) you have.

It's hard to believe that just over 2 years ago, I sat on vacation with Josh in a Victorian bed and breakfast and read him the first chapter, rough and unedited.  I was working on the first draft at the time, and it was amazing to spend a few days in the environment in which parts of the book take place.

The fireplace in our room - converted to electric for convenience (and safety).
Katya and Magdalene, my heroines, live as many Victorians did - in a boarding house where the boarders shared a common dining room.  That's how the DeLano Mansion Inn in Michigan, where we stayed, is set up.  Josh and I ate breakfast alongside colorful characters from several different states - fellow Hoosiers, a spitfire of a woman from Texas, and a family from somewhere else down south.  (Boarding houses with common eating areas were eventually replaced with the independent, separate living offered by the apartment buildings we know today.)  In my book, shared spaces give many great opportunities for personalities to clash and mingle.

You can read the first 5 chapters of Steampunk Carnival for free on Amazon or download the sample to your device.  I'm posting the first chapter here for your enjoyment, just a little different than it was 2 years ago.  (Katya and Magdalene haven't come into the story yet.) Let me know what you think!  Thanks for reading.

Steampunk Carnival


1884

Naperville, Illinois 


Chapter One

     The journal has become my lifeline, the only thing I live for. If I could, I would carry it with me everywhere – to work at the factory, on my strolls through the memorial park, on my visits to Saints Peter and Paul Church. As it is, I leave it here, buried in the bottom of the drawer beside my bed, beneath newspaper articles and whatever scraps of paper I can find.
     I guard it as my greatest secret, and it haunts me during the day like nothing else. When sweat drips into my eyes, when my hands smear grease across the legs of my trousers, I envision its pristine pages before me. I wish they were there so I could fill them, even if oil and moisture bled the pencil’s smooth lead across their surfaces. When I close my eyes against the repetition of the machines and the men I work with, I imagine turning the pages, glancing at what I’ve written to arrive at the first white sheet.
     No matter what happens during the hours of my day, I focus solely on finishing the journal. When my boss drops my wages into my hand, I rush to buy new pencils. When the weather turns warm, I want to take it outside and make notes in the shade of the mighty oaks. When I feel abandoned and alone, I long to hold it. When the sunlight finds a clean spot on the grimy factory windows and pierces my eyes, I wish I could picture the way it streams through the boarding house windows and falls across the bed where I scribble in the lamplight every night.
     Whatever greets me when I arrive home from the factory, I draw out the journal. While a fight rages in the street or someone whistles in the hall or I’m stuffing a roll from my supper into my mouth, I fish a pencil out of the drawer and set its tip to the page. I don’t let myself hesitate, and I don’t need to. Whatever ideas grew in my head throughout the day fly across the paper. This stolen hour at night is never wasted sitting and thinking. I write without stopping, sheet after sheet until I worry I will run out of paper before my ideas are done.
     If I didn’t need sleep, I would write through the night, but I make myself stop. I jot down my final thoughts in a flurry and fold the book closed. I fling the pencil in the drawer, nestling the journal in the bottom and concealing it again. In the turmoil of sleep, I dream about it, finishing it, marking that last blank page with lines of lead. The grey strokes intertwine and thicken and twist into a mass until there is nothing recognizable as paper left.
     My heavy boots stomp up the wooden stairs of the boarding house. The journal looms closer with every clomp and creak. I follow the hall to my door and turn the knob. I can feel the pages in my fingers, thick and dry, before I have even touched the book. I ease the door closed behind me. I forget my boots on my tired feet as I drop to sit on the edge of the bed and reach for the hanging drawer pull. I dig out a pencil and shift the loose pages aside.
      No matter what I do or how long I look, there’s no mistaking it. I cannot find it. Even when I tear the drawer out of the bedstand and shake its contents all over the floor, growling through gritted teeth, no sign of it announces itself. The journal is gone.

Click the cover for more on Amazon.

8/6/14

Steampunk Summer: Horsepower, Hair Curling, and the Evening News

Writing Steampunk Carnival, I got to make up some cool technology.  Steam-powered roller coasters.  Miniature water pumps for the outdoor bathrooms that offer the convenience of modern faucets.

But one thing that struck me about the research I did into the 1880's was how much great technology our Victorian ancestors already had.  I won't go into all of it here, but the next time you're surrounded by traffic, doing your hair, or reading the news, you might see it a little differently.

It's no secret that horses provided transportation power before the invention and wide-spread usage of cars.  But as individual, family-owned carriages could be expensive, horses also served as the muscle for public transportation.  Before buses and streetcars, there were horse-drawn streetcars.  Before there were UPS trucks and semis hauling everything from produce to televisions, horses pulled wagons full of the necessities of the day - ice, kerosene, freshly farmed food.  (You can see a sleek, shiny example of a kerosene-carrying tank wagon here.  For my fellow South Bend, IN, crowd, I dug up this 1906 ad from Studebaker, catering to farmers with their sturdily built wagons.)

For those of us who've become dependent on our personal vehicles or those who rely on buses and trains to get around, we know how it feels when that technology is suddenly out of order.  Do we call someone to get a ride?  Do we walk?  Do we wait until it's fixed to travel?

Now think of those sci-fi movies where modern society grinds to a halt.  No cars work.  No buses.  No trains.  No way to effectively and efficiently transport goods, people, or medicine.  That's what equine influenza did in 1872, starting in Toronto, Canada, and ravaging horses across the United States until it reached Cuba.  It's estimated that 80-99% of horses in those areas were affected, and 1-10% died from it.  Without horses to pull the fire engines, the Boston fire in November of that year had to be put out by hand and on foot.  Streetcars had to be stopped for lack of horses.  Reports of wide-spread panic filled the newspapers every day.  I'm not sure how the outbreak ended - suddenly or by dwindling - but all it took was 90 days to bring civilization to a halt.  (You can read about it in more detail here at the Heritage Restorations blog with great pictures and here at Wikisource if you want to see if your area was affected.)

I never would've thought to look up Victorian versions of curling irons for my book, but luckily, they weren't hard to find.  Victorian women's hair commonly had two things - curls and frizz - and they both came from the same place.

1880's Ad for Curling Irons (Courtesy of Hairdressers Journal International)
Today, using a curling iron is relatively easy.  Plug it in, wait for it to heat up, and find a good speed at which to set but not fry your hair.  Back then, not so easy.  Women heated their curling irons on the stove top, where finding the right temperature was a skill they developed at best or it remained a guessing game at worst.  Overheating the iron and leaving it on their hair too long resulted in the frizziness that's almost synonymous with Victorian hair.  Damaging or singeing hair was also a real danger (so common, it was featured in this vintage sonnet).  Hurray for electricity and controlled heat settings, huh?

Even if you're not familiar with the technology of the 1880's, you're probably aware of what they didn't have.  No TV, no Facebook, no radio.  All that time we spend before and after work catching up on the news, entertainment, and gossip, they had to fill another way.  We still have a lot of morning newspapers and even some that print in the afternoon, but what we lost over the years was the once-popular evening newspaper.

It might not be technology in the sense that transportation or personal care gadgets are, but evening newspapers served several purposes.  They contained local, society news (like Facebook for Victorians).  They offered jokes for entertainment.  Local and world news for education.  Opinions and editorials.  Classifieds and ads.  Pretty much everything we're used to now.

But somewhere between the rise of television and Americans wanting their news earlier in the day, evening newspapers passed into oblivion.  In Steampunk Carnival, the boarding house's newspaper of choice is the Indianapolis News, which ran from 1869 to 1999, providing evening news for 130 years.  (So when you read the book, you'll know Mrs. Weeks, the boarding house's owner, isn't far off the mark when she says if everybody buys the morning papers, it'll put the evenings ones out of business.)

In a nutshell, that's where some modern technology stood when it was "modern" over a hundred years ago.  If you missed reading my hand-picked excerpt from Steampunk Carnival featuring some of the steam-powered rides I created, you can read it on Girl Who Reads.