Hi everyone! I’m delighted to be here—what a cool place! Pull up a comfortable armchair here in the gondola of our airship, have a cup of tea (or a thimble of something stronger), and join me for a cozy chat among friends while we sail among the clouds!
In the fall of 2011 I made the decision to leave the day job and write full time, and have never looked back. Since 2002 I’d been working full time in marketing in Silicon Valley, while writing three books a year for publishers such as Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette. Needless to say, something had to give! The first book in my Magnificent Devices steampunk series, called Lady of Devices, had been turned down by ten publishers, so in a life-changing moment, I decided to take my friend Bella Andre’s advice and self publish it.
Before I knew it, I was getting reader letters saying how much people loved my spunky heroine, Lady Claire Trevelyan. Book two in the series hit #14 on the historical fantasy bestseller list. Book one hit #1 on the free list (it’s still free until January 30!) Two universities have added the series to their reading lists for their literature classes, and book clubs are reading the series now, too.
Who’d have believed it? I’m so grateful to readers who love a little adventure in their reading—steampunk with spirit, if you will.
What does steampunk mean to you?
For me, it’s the endless possibility of the worlds you can create in this subgenre. If you can imagine it, you can write it—and readers will go with you if they trust you to give them a good read.
What is your favorite thing about steampunk or writing about steampunk?
I just love the “maker” philosophy and the sense of wonder that the Victorians had about technology. For them, technology was about making life better, and they seemed to have no boundaries in their imagination of gadgets and gizmos to accomplish all kinds of things to that end. Whether they actually worked in the physical world or not, the point was that someone could think of it, and the only limit was their imagination. Writing a book is a little like that!
I simply can’t manage without my temporal decay monitor. Or one of my many hats. Not to mention a bustle pad with a concealed pocket. A lady can never have too many pockets.
What turned you on to steampunk?
Back in the sixties my favorite show was The Wild Wild West. Every week, Artemus Gordon invented a cool new device, and of course, the train was packed full of them. Instead of playing house, we neighborhood kids would re-enact the episodes from the week, and since I was the oldest, I got to be James West. But I secretly wanted to be Artemus. In my book, brains outshone brawn any day. That outlook still pervades my Magnificent Devices series, where a lady of intellect can make a success of herself no matter what her economic status.
Do you have any upcoming steampunk stories you can tell us about?
Brilliant Devices, the fourth book in the series, will be released at the end of February. It will wrap up the adventures of Lady Claire, who will go on to do great things offstage during the next three standalones in the series. I’m planning seven in all.
I just adore the Mopsies—ten-year-old twin girls who have been living on the streets since they were very small. Maggie and Lizzie are smart, quick on the uptake, slightly cynical about human nature … and can fleece a toff in less time than it takes to smile at him. The Mopsies are the scouts and watchers of the gang of children that Lady Claire takes under her wing. And in watching her, they learn what it means to really be a lady—to trust in their own resources and make their own luck, while at the same time putting others first and helping those who are less fortunate. This ragtag group becomes a family over the course of the books … and it’s the Mopsies who feel that connection most deeply.
At Christmas I did something I’ve never done before—I wrote a short story featuring the girls, which I posted on my blog. Even in a few hundred words, those girls just walk right off the page and take over. I’m looking forward to giving them a book of their own, fast forwarding five years to the time when they are young ladies. Though it’s hard to be a young lady when you’ve grown up a pickpocket …
What’s the hardest thing about creating a steampunk universe?
In any genre, one of the things an author fears is being derivative—consciously or unconsciously repeating what has gone before. I’ve read widely in this genre so make a focused effort not to repeat what others have done while still enjoying the tropes that we readers love: airships, ray guns, goggles … and the subversive nature of it.
I have the greatest fun imagining how something that we use now—say, a car—would function in a steampunk universe. In the Magnificent Devices universe, the combustion engine has been a failure, and in fact was the incident that changed Lady Claire’s life. So if cars run on steam, what do they look like? How are they steered? Do you have to throw wood under the hood to heat a boiler to create steam, or can you use another method? A person could spend a lot of time researching these things instead of writing, so it’s a fine line to walk. It’s a fun one, though!
What does steampunk allow you to do as a writer that no other genres can?
What I like best about it is that the morals and conventions of Victorian society provide a backdrop for the outlandish devices and the strong personalities that we enjoy in the genre. The tension between “stiff and strait-laced” and “wildly imaginative” gives you a play zone that is really interesting to me. And it’s how I can have a well-brought-up young lady learning to shoot a ray gun in one scene and teaching the Mopsies the proper way to pour tea in another.
How much research does it take and how much imagination?
All my books, no matter how imaginative, are underpinned by research. I went to London a couple of months ago and photographed locations in the books, such as Bedlam, Belgravia, and the Thames at low tide, so that I can use the details and the physical experience in the books. Google Earth can take you a long way, but there’s nothing like actually going to the Imperial War Museum, which was originally the Bedlam insane asylum, and walking that circular drive, seeing the wall at the back over which my characters escaped, and feeling the atmosphere of the place. For the Lady Lucy, an airship that figures prominently in the stories, I referred to a huge old book on Zeppelin airships with floor plans and cabin layouts. I spoke with an expert on steam engines to make sure that my trains operated properly. Yes, the “science” behind the Selwyn Kinetick Carbonator, a device in the books, is made up, but the steam that runs it is not. Writing steampunk is a fascinating balance between the world of reality and the world of imagination. I think that’s why I love it so much!
Last thing—I’m giving away the first three books in the Magnificent Devices series in whichever format you prefer to read. Just leave a comment to be entered!
PRIZE UPDATE: Congratulations to Martha!
It’s been such a pleasure sailing with you—do come and visit me at www.shelleyadina.com!