"I suppose I am a born novelist, for the things I imagine are more vital and vivid to me than the things I remember."
~ ELLEN GLASGOW
Followers of Beyond the Rails know that the ship, in the 1880s, runs on electricity whose control and employment is considerably more advanced than the medium actually was in that time period. And where does it come from? Why, the Cheadle & Gatley closed-circuit turbine generator, of course! And what might that be? A small forced-draft boiler heats water to steam which is routed through a turbine which turns a generator. The steam then travels through a condenser outside the hull to be cooled to liquid temperature, then back to the boiler to be reboiled. It doesn't expend water, so the ship doesn't have to carry tons of it. Is it realistic? Not that I'm aware of. Does anyone care? Apparently not, for the only comment I have received about it was quite favorable.
There have been a couple of comments about why my engineer doesn't seem to do any engineering, why he only gets into the action when he is on deck, or off the ship entirely. Very simple. I don't want you, the reader, poking around in there, and finding out just how much polo (horse hockey) I've spread around the engine room in order to move the stories forward. And so far, it's worked.
Yesterday, a lively discussion was conducted by the exceedingly well-educated steampunks of Scribblers' Den concerning the level of reality required in a work of that genre. Again using my own work as an example, anyone with access to Google can look up the Cheadle & Gatley, and find that no such thing ever existed, yet there it sits in the engine room of every balloon that appears in one of my stories, essentially making powered flight possible. One of the Denizens working on his first book for publication had incorporated a similar imaginary device in his own story, and was concerned with being taken to task over it.
Nonsense! My response was to cite what I regard as the biggest piece of voodoo science in the history of literature, Star Trek's warp drive. Incidentally, their transporter was offered as a bigger piece of hooey, and I'm not prepared to argue against that at this juncture, but the suggestion makes my point. Star Trek needed a mechanism to get them from star to star for each week's episode, and their budget didn't allow scenes of the Enterprise landing on a planet to be filmed (ref.), so they solved those problems with the wave of a typewriter (this was the 60s, remember), and the viewers accepted on faith that they worked.
Why? You never saw Chief Engineer Scott spend an episode explaining how the warp drive worked. Captain Kirk would say "Ahead, warp factor two," and ahead the ship would go. Sometimes the drive would malfunction, creating its own set of problems for the drama to feed on, but they never turned to the camera and delivered a classroom thesis on it. Likewise with phasers, transporters, antimatter reactors, food replicators, diagnostic beds, or any of the other myriad "plot enhancers" they pulled out of their collective bungholes. The secret to why this worked is simply that it was offered up as part of their world, and nothing more was said about it. The viewer learned the capabilities as each device was used, and became familiar with its uses and limitations the same way that he became familiar with the world around him, by experiencing it. Of course, the corollary requirement is that it is kept consistent. Each device has a specific function that doesn't change from episode to episode to serve the needs of the plot, and that is important.
The analogy I've always used is Dragnet, that venerable old cop show that began before television. Most of you are probably too young to remember Jack Webb's wooden portrayal of Sergeant Joe Friday of the L.A. Police Department, but here's the point: When he drew his snub-nose .38 Detective Special to fire at a fleeing criminal, he didn't first turn to a bystander, nor to the camera, to deliver a dissertation on how the weapon worked. He drew, aimed, fired or not, and when the need had passed, he holstered it without further comment. If that's what Joe Friday did with his revolver, it should be what James T. Kirk does with his phaser. It isn't the wonderous, almost-magic technology to him that it is to us. It's part of his daily life, and he treats it as such. Thus it works as a story point, and unusual concepts will work in your stories if you treat them the same way.
I read a book last week, or rather I should say I tried to read a book. I finally cut my losses at the 24% mark according to my Fire. I'm purposely not mentioning the name here, because I am not the sort of authority that should be able to cost another author sales, and that isn't the way I care to act, anyway. But here's the situation. The book is a work of steampunk that takes place predominantly on an airship. Near and dear to my heart. The author had obviously done a great deal of research to construct his equipment and backstories, but having collected all this information, he couldn't resist putting it on the page. Every device, every character, had to be presented to the reader in a plot-sabotaging show-and-tell that brought what had every sign of being an engrossing story to a crashing halt.
His ship is powered by a contrived device that is every bit as much Polo as the Cheadle & Gatley, but as the new captain is reporting aboard, he (and the reader) is treated to about four pages on how the thing works, its brilliance and uses, on and on as if you've been transported from this ship to a lecture hall, until by the time you get back to the story, you've forgotten what it was about.
Same with people, even if they're well-known personages. As is not uncommon in steampunk, Alexander Graham Bell has a cameo. The protagonist visits him to consult on a matter vital to the plot. Fine, it's a steampunk staple. But as he's approaching the door to the man's home, he suddenly launches into another four pages on Bell's childhood, his schooling, the impact his father had on his life, how he came to be the great inventor he was, until you're fighting to keep your eyes open. For the love of Zeus, just knock on the goat-smellin' door already!
Here's how this looks on the page: If I was writing a story about an author, I might write, "Jack sat at his keyboard working on his latest piece when he heard an unfamiliar sound from the kitchen and decided to investigate." You would find out over the course of several chapters, through conversation and the occasional phrase of description that Jack was a fiction writer, as opposed to a journalist, a scientist, or anyone else who might be using a keyboard. The author I am referring to would be more likely to write,
"Jack sat at his keyboard typing at a comfortable rate of fifty words per minute. He could actually exceed sixty, but the increased likelihood of errors meant that he disciplined himself to maintain the slower speed. He was a fiction writer, had been since early childhood. He had attended elementary school in the upscale, insular neighborhood of Point Loma, a suburb of San Diego, California, where his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Warner, had instilled in him a love of writing to entertain others. Mrs. Warner, known to the school's students as "Mrs. Warner in the corner" because of the location of Room 4, her magical domain, seemed to love children, in contrast to the other teachers on the faculty, and little Jack responded to her as he had to no teacher before." He would go on to describe Jack's home life, his high school experiences, the hitch in the navy that had shown him half the world, how that informed his writing, his marriage, his career, the tribulations with his children, until in all likelihood, by the time he got back to his story there would be no one left around reading it.
I've heard about people who can't bear to leave an iota of their research out of the story, but this is the first example I've seen that was done this egregiously, and it makes for an unimaginably bad reading experience. Just don't, that's all. If you're an aspiring author, kill this habit and bury it somewhere that you can't get back to. I'm pretty sure this is the worst reading experience I've ever had. Granted, if someone forced me to read a romance, I probably wouldn't like it because it isn't my cup of tea, but steampunk adventures about airships are my absolute favorite things. Yet if this had been a physical book, some of the neighborhood cats might have been in serious danger!
I do extensive research, and invent the things I need to drive my stories. My rule of thumb is that you are given about 10% of the backstory on technology, and 25% of what I know about my characters, and it comes at you in a natural way, usually during conversations, and always a piece here and a piece there until a picture has been built up in your mind, and you have one of those "ah-ha!" moments. What I've described above is the worst form of storytelling I've ever encountered, and I cannot warn young, aspiring writers off of it strongly enough.
All right, I've belabored this point long enough, speaking of belaboring points, but it is the most important thing I can impart to a young writer. Just don't, okay?
On the "me" front this past week, aside from wasting several hours that I'll never get back on the aforementioned book, I've gotten Chapter 10 of Beyond the Rails III up for my writing group to sink their teeth into, and will begin assembling Chapter 11 tomorrow morning. That is rolling along nicely. I've probably finished about 40% give or take of the draft, and once that's done, I can start the first edit. Things are going well! With my daughter glued to the Olympics every evening, I have sat down with the Xbox 360 game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I encountered this on a list of The Ten Best Games that Nobody Plays, and bought it used. Am I ever glad I did! With a story by my favorite fantasy author, R.A. Salvatore, artwork by Todd McFarlane, lead artist on Spawn, and Ken Rolston, an integral member of the design team of the Elder Scrolls series as executive designer, this is the game everyone should be talking about instead of Skyrim. To anyone who is a fan of role-playing fantasy, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Finally, I heard this little blurb on a radio newscast yesterday, looked it up, and it appears to be legit: According to a study at Yale conducted over 12 years of 3,635 people over the age of 50, reading for 30 minutes a day extends a person's life for an average of two years. The article can be read here. I know I'm preaching to the choir on a website like this but still, help me get the word out; nothing pleases an author like an uptick in reading!
And on that note, I'm going to bring this week's ramble to a close. Play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, considering that news flash, read well, and write better!