It is my pleasure to share a guest post written by Phoebe Darqueling. I first ‘met’ Phoebe during an author takeover in the FB group Fantasy and Science Fiction Readers Lounge. She was an entertaining and informative host on a new genre for me (steampunk). I was so impressed I joined her blog tour for the release of No Rest for the Wicked!
I’ll be posting a review and book spotlight tomorrow so be sure to check that out. For now though, Phoebe has the stage and you can check out her post below. I think history lovers, trivia geeks, writers and readers alike will find it interesting and fun!
Writing Historical Fiction: Pinnacles and Pitfalls
By Phoebe Darqueling
It’s not quite right to say that what I write is “historical fiction” in the strictest sense…
Whenever I try to sit down and write something straightforward, elements of fantasy and sci fi always have a way of creeping in. However, in my Mistress of None series, my setting is the real world of America in the fall of 1871. It’s just that ghosts and the unlucky few who can see them happen also to exist.
I was inspired to use this setting after spending a stint training to be a tour guide at the Sacramento History Museum. I had the advantage of getting to walk around Old Town, which is several square blocks that have been preserved with a 19th century feel. They also have a wonderful Gold Rush Days celebration every year with a variety of artisans, re-enactors, and demonstrations. However, my work was only getting started.
Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy varies widely when it comes to the amount of historical accuracy at play. Some of it is total fantasy set in a different world, such as my first novel, Riftmaker. In that one, a dog and his boy from the here and now are transported through a portal to a city where the technological development stalled in the 1860s after they stopped stealing tech from us. I had a blast making up cool tech and using the transformative powers of the rifts to explore issues of identity (animals become humans and vice versa after passing through). But when it came to writing No Rest for the Wicked: Mistress of None Book 1, I decided I wanted to come as close to accurate as possible.
Getting it Right
I could take some delightful tidbits right from the tour guide training. For instance, Sacramento at that time had a police force, but only one bicycle between them. If you wanted a bath during the Gold Rush, you would be charged based on how many people used the water before you. (They only refilled the tub once per every TEN people!) Toothbrushes and towels were likewise rented and used by lots of different people. And my personal favorite, Sacramento became the capital of California rather than San Francisco because the people voting were kidnapped on a river boat, brought to Sacramento, and guaranteed they could always drink as much booze as they wanted for free when they came to visit.
Now, most of those fun facts didn’t actually make it into the text. (Except for the bicycle thing. I couldn’t resist!) Instead, I tried to capture more of the spirit of lawlessness than portraying actual people. There are rival gangs, dirty dealings, and plenty of gambling. My main character is a not-so-retired grifter (con artist) who owns her own saloon, so she was right at home among the thieves and low-lifes. Which is another thing I love about late 19th century California – women had many more chances to be business owners than almost anywhere else in the entire world at that time. Viola Thorne had naturally gravitated to one of the places where she could be independent because of who she is, and Sacramento opened its arms to her.
Another aspect of writing about the past that I really enjoyed was getting to know the slang terms and sayings. There were huge regional differences and the West had its own set of amazing lingo. Among others, I explored this extensive page for inspiration (not to mention a good chuckle): https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-slang/
The tricky part was choosing phrases that were distinctive enough to give the “cowboy” feel to the dialog, but not so obscure that readers would get lost. I mostly used ones that I’d either heard before or made sense easily given the context of the conversation, plus I tried to imbue the narration with some of the turns of phrase. For instance, “They’re so crooked they’d eat nails and spit out screws” made the cut because it was self-explanatory as well as clever. As I move on to the second book in the series, which takes place on a Mississippi riverboat, I plan to shift my dialect again.
Getting it Wrong
Unfortunately, not all resources are created equal, or they aren’t specific enough to pertain to the situation I wanted to write. My biggest boo-boo came when reading about the conditions of long-distance train travel. The Transcontinental Railroad had been open for a few years when Vi boarded an eastbound train in that October of 1871. I had visited some museum and exhibits about trains during my travels, and thought I had all the facts down for what it was like to travel first-class and overnight.
So imagine my surprise when I was doing a final check on one thing and discovered I’d gotten dining cars completely wrong! Yes, dining cars did exist in 1871, but only east of the Mississippi. Furthermore, passengers likely couldn’t move between cars when the train was in motion at that time. I suddenly had 25% of the book that needed a big overhaul in order to be historically correct.
It was a bit of an existential 48 hours while I struggled with whether or not I felt like it was worth it to go back and rewrite so much of what I had considered a totally finished product. Afterall, it’s fantasy, right? Wrong. In the end, I knew my future self would look back on it and shake her head if I didn’t make the extra effort. I had already worked so hard to be accurate, why stop short?
It meant a lot more work, but in the end, I think the finished product is valuable both as a work of fantasy, but also as a window into the past.
Will I Do it Again?
Being a slave to historical accuracy is not for the faint of heart. There is so much research involved in making something that rings true to a real era. And historical fiction readers can be real sticklers, especially when they leave reviews.
The full Mistress of None series will take Vi and her ghost partner all across the United States in about a two month period covered in five books. This means I have a lot of work ahead of me, and sometimes I will probably kick myself for choosing the path of accuracy with this series. At the same time, I plan to write many many more books in the future, which means plenty of chances to shoot from the hip and build new worlds as I go. Both approaches have their highs and lows, and for now anyway, I’m still “high” on history.
Find out more about the characters, read some excerpts, and see what reviewers are saying about No Rest for the Wicked on the blog tour page.
Plus, are you interested in finding out more about Steampunk and Gaslamp Fantasy? You can get a free copy of my collection of articles from six years of blogging when you sign up for my e-mail list. Find out more about The Steampunk Handbook.
Thanks so much, Phoebe!
Readers, I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did! Below is a bit more info on Phoebe so check her out!
Phoebe Darqueling is the pen name of a globe trotting vagabond who currently hangs her hat in Freiburg, Germany. She’s an equal opportunity Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly fan, but her favorite pastime is riffing on terrible old movies a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. In her “real life,” she writes curriculum for a creativity competition for kids in MN and edits academic texts for non-native English speakers. She loves all things Steampunk and writes about her obsession on SteampunkJournal.org. During 2017, she coordinated a Steampunk novel through the Collaborative Writing Challenge called Army of Brass, and also loves working with authors as an editor. Her solo novels Riftmaker and No Rest for the Wicked debuted in 2019. You can find her short stories in the Chasing Magic and The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales anthologies so far, and she’ll be featured in an upcoming collection called Cogs, Crowns, and Carriages in November 2019.