Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Slums of Victorian London

"Wretched houses with broken windows patched with rags and paper; every room let out to a different family, and in many instances to two or even three – fruit and ‘sweetstuff’ manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the attics, Irishmen in the passage, a ‘musician’ in the front kitchen, a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one – filth everywhere – a gutter before the houses, and a drain behind – clothes drying, and slops emptying from the windows; ... men and women, in every variety of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking, squabbling, fighting, and swearing."

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839, on St Giles Rookery

Calling the slums of Victorian London a dirty place is like saying eating forty Twinkies a day is bad for you. The above quotation from Mr. Dickens is indicative of the type of place most of the poorest denizens of the city lived in. We're talking conditions roughly equivalent to many Third World countries, but existing in the center of the most powerful country in the world at the time.

The poor lived in brownstone tenements and rickety shacks, some next to the Thames, which was a stinking cesspool of pollution that smelled worse than a decaying corpse when the summer heat got too bad. It didn't help that the mills and factories turning London into a capital of Industry and Progress, places that many of these poor worked, were the causes of the vast amounts of filth poured into the river day in and day out.

Sanitation might as well have been nonexistent in these areas. Hector Gavin wrote a set of "Sanitary Ramblings" focused on Bethnal Green (an area in the contemporary London borough of Tower Hamlets) in 1848, and revealed that the section had "thirty-three miles of streets and 100 miles of byeways, not counting the length of courts and alleys, which require drainage." Guess how many miles of sewer this 759-acre area had.

Less than seven and three-quarters.

Gavin goes on to explain that the main street through the district had no sewer at all for 1,600 yards of its length, and a mile and a half of the sewers Bethnal Green did have also served the areas of London to the north and south. And none of the sewers connected directly to any of the houses. Because of this, repeated outbreaks of diseases like cholera, typhus, influenza and scarlatina were commonplace.

So common were these outbreaks that Henry Mayhew in 1849 christened the south shore of the Thames with the name "Pestilensia." These same diseases hit the same areas of the city every year, with the only change being the end of the street that the disease started on.

These slums were the basis for both the Lowtown and Quayside districts of Callarion -- the city CALLARION AT NIGHT takes place in -- without getting into a lot of the gritty detail that the social critics of Victorian London did. Because while it creates realism, a lot of the info is extraneous to the story I'm trying to tell.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Like the Logo?

You might have noticed the logo this here blog's now sporting on the right side of the screen. Weeelll it just so happens that I was reading Quest:Published, and noticed that L.T. Host regularly calls her readers the Alliterati. I then got really, really, really bored at my part-time job one night and decided I was going to create an Alliterati logo (interesting things happen when Matthew gets bored).

So I used Adobe Illustrator and my mad skillz (not really) taken from spending two years as a page designer for a daily newspaper company to throw a logo together for "The Society of the Alliterati." Hence the logo goodness.

Oh, and check out L.T.'s site. She has a Mad-Libs recurring feature using news stories as the base paragraphs. The results are entertaining to say the least.

Word Choice and Slang

One of the bigger problems I have with writing semi-period pieces (i.e. Steampunk set at a particular societal level) is that I have to find slang words that fit the story. Things like the word "Hey!" and "Oi!" might not work as exclamations to get someone's attention because they sound too modern.

So I end up trolling the dictionary for words that are at least as old as the time period my stories roughly take place in. With CALLARION AT NIGHT, that means going for Victorian England. With SON OF MAGIC (my completed MS), I have to aim for either creating my own words or using ones that have etymologies at least back to the 14th Century. That way I can be certain of the word not pulling people out of the story.

This can be crazy-making sometimes, especially when my crit group finds a word and says "That's too modern." And then I go back to the drawing board (mind you, I adore my critique group -- they're a talented bunch that have laser-guided eyesight for each class of my traditional errors. And they put up with me taking the proverbial red pen to their works. So I'm happy.).

I know I'm not the only one who has this problem (Gary, I'm looking at you), but I'm curious about how other writers of historical fiction/fantasy deal with the word choice issue.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Series of Steampunkery -- The Introduction

So my definition post on Steampunk was well-received enough that I decided to turn it into an occasional series chronicling the development of a steampunk world. Specifically the one in CALLARION AT NIGHT, my in-revisions WIP.

Steampunk, as it was originally used, forced writers to compose their tales in an alternate version of Victorian London (or any city of that era, though London was most common) because that's when steam was really King of the World. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were the prototypes for these writers, with their advanced science and gleaming crystalline, copper, and brass machinery. The other concession made sometimes involved the theory that some form of computing power existed -- whether it was Babbage's Analytical Engine (THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling) or something different.

Then a subset of this fiction started happening where the time period was either far-future after a devastating war (FITZPATRICK'S WAR by Theodore Judson) or, as in my WIP, a fantasy world that has little to no relation to our own. These secondary stories sometimes eschewed the dystopian elements of the prototypical steampunk works, instead weaving steam technology into fantasy settings while still potentially maintaining the ability to have magic (an example escapes me right now).

I'll close this entry before it gets too long with a brief list of some subject areas I researched to craft the world of CALLARION AT NIGHT:

Slums of Victorian London
19th Century British and American weapons
19th Century consumer goods
Steam engines
19th Century Russian culture
European peerage
Early automobiles
Early armored vehicles
Capsaicin (the chemical in chili peppers)

Odd list, yes I know, but I promise it will make some sort of sense eventually. I hope so at least.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Website Coding Issue

I finally managed to put together my personal website (, but I'm having some coding issues with the homepage (and yes, now those of you who haven't emailed me directly know my full name. *gasp* My secret's out!).

Anyway, as you can see, the Home link on the front page ended up inside the header for some oddball reason that I can't figure out. I moved the HTML back to where it should be in the Dreamweaver file and FTPed it to's server, which fixed it for a little bit, but now it's back to being funky.

So my question is this: Is there any surefire way to keep the Home link from doing that? Or should I even have a link to the home page on the home page?

Comments gentle readers?

Musings on Newlyweds

During my wedding reception, one of my wife's guests (a very astute and funny gentleman) told me that being married doesn't really hit you until the first "normal" day you wake up after all is said and done. He also said it's a life-altering event watching your wife walk down the aisle, but that's not the point.

This got me to thinking (a dangerous prospect for us writers) about what "normal" really is. "Normal" for me was seeing my new wife on the weekends and sporadically during the week for the past 2+ years (details I won't bore you with), but the new "normal" is having her there every day and seeing her when I get home at night. There's a wealth of novels about newlyweds (or if there isn't there should be) because the beginning of married life is bound to be good storytelling fodder.

It's not something I'd write, personally, because it sounds more romance-novel-esque than what I'm comfortable writing. Doesn't make the plot idea any less valid though.

EDIT: I told you I'd be back on the 22nd.

SECOND EDIT: Meant for that to say "It's not something I'd write about" because of that reason. That's what I get for not proofreading I suppose.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Award Goodness

So Renee Pinner nominated me for the Kreative Blogger Award. I know, crazy, right? Well I guess this means I have to follow some sort of rules for receiving this wonderful confabulation. I don't even know if I used "confabulation" correctly, but I don't care. I've been wanting to use that word in a sentence for awhile.

Anywho, the Rules (apparently they are legion):

1) Already linked to the person who nominated me (see above)

2) Copy the logo to your blog (see photo).

3) Thank the person who nominated you (Thank you, Renee!!)

4) Nominate 7 other bloggers who you think deserve the award. (see the end of the post)

5) Tell 7 things about yourself people don't already know (see below)

6) Post links to the blogs you nominate.

7) Leave a comment telling your nominees they've been nominated.

Uhhh ... hmm ... which 7 blogs do I nominate. Now this is going to be interesting, let's see if I can actually FIND 7 to nominate (who might not have been nominated already).

A dead man fell from the sky ... -- Gary Corby's blog (his first novel comes out in Fall 2010 from St. Martin's).
Unhinged...Seriously is entertaining.
Mimzy in the Tulgey Wood is a new discovery.
Scary Azeri in Suburbs

All right, I guess I could only find four. Ah, darn.

But anyway, so here's the list of 7 things you might not know about me:

1) I love musicals (not really a secret, but few of the people reading this blog would know it)
2) I study religious history and comparative religions because I think it's fun
3) I get excited when people talk about new scientific advances
4) I get lost on tangents when I read about history. Knowing things about the past can help you figure things out about the present.
5) I cook without recipes 95% of the time
6) I sing in the car when I'm driving by myself
7) I despise reality television and sitcoms (I was not a fan of Seinfeld).

Notification of Hiatusing (... and stuff)

If anyone who knows me beyond the blogosphere is reading this, feel free to ignore the rest of this post as you probably already know by the calendar what I'm about to say.

I'm getting married this weekend (Sunday the 13th) to a very lovely young woman that I met two years ago, after we'd both graduated from the same college (with the same major) and never ran into each other while we were both students. We'll then be heading to Disney World in sunny Orlando for our honeymoon about two days later. Because of this, I'm going to be incommunicado on the blogosphere from tomorrow night through to roughly the 21st or 22nd. I'm telling you, my loyal blog readers, because I'm actually attempting to keep a regular schedule for updating this sucker as per Eric's advice.

The trip itself probably won't appear on the blog. It's not really germane to the site's purpose, and honestly the wife would probably kill me if she happened to see it (Hi honey, if you're reading!).

So yeah ... I'll "see" you all when I get back.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Bad pun, yes I know, but I couldn't resist.

So the whole point of this post is to explain a little about the lovely genre known as Steampunk (because two reviewers at Public Query Slushpile asked), which is itself a subgenre of science fiction/fantasy. The simplest method of defining the style is to call it Neo-Victorian which, while true, doesn't really get across the whole point in the best fashion. Especially if you don't know anything about the technology of Victorian England (add that to my list of random bits of knowledge).

Anyway, the history of the genre goes like this ... cyberpunk came first, with its dystopian themes and cyborgs and people who have wires coming out of their heads, plugged into electronics in the near future (what calls Twenty Minutes Into the Future). Steampunk resulted as a response to the harsh metallic gleam of cyberpunk by taking that technology and plopping it into Victorian England with the level of knowledge that period already had. One of the first novels was MORLOCK NIGHT (1979) by K.W. Jeter.

With steampunk, everything's made of copper, brass, wood, and steel -- and still somewhat dystopian -- but without the same metallic sterilization (ooo ... big word) of near-future cyberpunk. Charles Babbage's mechanical computer sparked the Information Age a hundred years early, steam power through James Watts and others was developed into flying machines and cars and armored tanks, and even mechanical robots than run on punchcards (THE AFFINITY BRIDGE by George Mann) can make an appearance. The cyborgs are still there, but this time they run on steam power.

Then you get into the idea of the "punk" side of the genre, which is intended to be a rejection of the system. The interesting thing about steampunk fantasy is that it sometimes doesn't even involve a dystopia. All it has is highly advanced steam technology that's capable of doing most everything we do with our technology now. Except mobile phones don't exist, nor do credit cards, or anything else that requires the plastics developed post-1920s and 1930s.

There's my brief (well not so much) explanation of what steampunk is. It's a heckuva lot of fun to write in, let me tell you. Especially because that means my random knowledge of thermodynamics is actually useful outside of random trivia. Which is always a good thing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Prologue: To Have or Not to Have?

Over at Public Query Slushpile is a query for CALLARION AT NIGHT, my in-revisions WIP that's my first effort at writing steampunk fantasy (which is great fun as I can use my knowledge of thermodynamics to make some fairly cool tech).

The current version of that story includes a prologue set when the MC, a half-nymph named Moriah, is ten years old and sets up the reason for why her mother, Dahlia, runs out on the family. I used this as a way to show that Dahlia wasn't a complete tool for leaving her daughter and husband by letting the reader see, through Moriah's father's eyes, why Mom decided to leave.

I'm struggling with keeping it in. The prologue offers information the reader might not otherwise see, but I wonder if it would be better to introduce it through Moriah's eyes instead. That way the reader discovers why her mother left right along with her. It's a toss-up for me -- I love the audience having insight the MC doesn't, but I also feel the prologue can be cut without sacrificing the story.

So I wonder what the general opinion is on having prologues. Do you include it if it's interesting backstory or only if it drives the plot forward? Thoughts?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Writing Practice

I read Stephen King's "On Writing" a few years back right after I graduated from college -- it might have been a gift, I'm not really sure -- and one of the things that stuck with me was King's admonition to "write every day."

Now, our pal up in Maine can do that. It's the benefit of making a lot of money off your books and being able to write whenever you want, knowing that it'll sell a gajillion copies. But for the rest of us who have to fit writing in where we can, finding time to practice our craft can get dicey (stupid real life and its interruptions).

So what's that mean? Easiest solution is to write when you can, whether that's two days apart, five days, a week ... whatever. Even if you only have about an hour each day to get something down, use it to your advantage. Me? I luck out because my full-time gig (I also have a part-time one, more on that later) sometimes has long periods of downtime. So I fill it by writing because there's only so much on the Internet that's actually interesting to look at for hours on end.

Whether that's articles for an online mag, making headway on one of my WIPs, or slapping words together on this here blog, the important thing is that it's writing.

And now we turn to you, my blog readers, if you care to comment. How do you find time to write? I'm very curious.