Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Henry Dunant

Haven't done a historical piece for a while.
Henry Dunant was given the first Nobel prize for peace in 1901. His ideas led to the funding of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.
Wanting to meet with Napoleon III, Dunant travelled to Solferino in Italy. On the day he arrived there, a battle had taken place. The former banker was shocked to see thousands of injured, dead and dying soldiers left lying on the battlefield.
He quickly organized the local women and children to tend to the soldiers. He used the phrase "Tutti Fratelli," to convince them to tend to all soldiers regardless of the side they had been fighting for.
He later wrote a book, paying for 1600 copies to be printed and sent them to many leading political and military people in Europe. The book included the idea that a neutral organization should exist to mop up the blood after battles.
The ideas in his book eventually led to the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Again with the Internet Problems

Yes, again, that makes two times.

Damn you, virgin - never had these problems when it was cable.

I've had no net since Friday.

I'll post something new tomorrow - it's late here.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Steampunk Writing Opportunity

Seeking Steampunk Writers
Semaphore Magazine is currently seeking submissions for its June issue - and, indeed, for all following issues. We publish short fiction of up to 7,500 words, poetry of up to 60 lines, and creative non-fiction of up to 5,000 words.

Trust me, this one won't make you rich. But it's nice to be read.

If you're going to submit, good luck.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Suspension of Disbelief vs Research and Realism

Suspension of Disbelief

When a reader picks up a work of fiction, he or she will suspend his disbelief. He will happily believe whatever the story require he believe, whether this is faster than light space travel, alternative histories, the existence of dinosaurs in the modern age, etc.

But this suspension of disbelief comes at a price.

Breaking the Suspension of Disbelief

A reader can only suspend his or her disbelief so far. Eventually this suspension will lead to the disbelief breaking. Break the disbelief too hard, or too often, and it will shatter. A reader whose disbelief has been shattered will put your book or story down, and will not pick it back up. They often won't read anything else you write, either.

Keeping the Disbelief

So, obviously, you have to suspend the disbelief, but not break it. Right, great, fair enough. What we need to be aware of when writing is what breaks a reader's SofD.
  1. Badly researched facts
  2. Laws of physics/nature etc broken
  3. Rules of storytelling broken

Number One

Badly researched facts (or unresearched facts) will pull a reader out of the story. The only way to combat this is to research, research, research. The old adage to "write what you know" should really be "know what you write." You can bet your backside that at least one of your readers knows.

I know a lot of people on the net who have read my work. One knows a lot about horses and has rode cross-country. One knows a lot about space, and works with satellites. I believe she has a degree in astrophysics. One knows a lot about computers and the internet. If I'm going to write in any of those subjects I had better have my facts right.

But then there are people on the internet, probably reading this right now, and I have no idea who they are, what they do, or what they know. Everything I write (everything you write) has to be researched.

This is the Rule of Research.

Number Two

Laws of physics and nature are the laws of the world you write about. If these laws include magic, that's fine. If they include life after death in the form of ghosts or whatever, cool. But stay consistent.

Consistency is the essence of number two. This is the Rule of Realism.

Number Three

The Rules of storytelling involve staying in character, staying in POV, not using deus ex machina or plot devices, and various add-ons.

This is a tricky one. Some of these rules can be broken, but the key to breaking these is knowing that you are doing it. If you know the rules, then you can learn how to break them.

In Summary

Readers will suspend their disbelief whilst you write about magic talking yoyos, if that's what turns your fancy, but get your facts right, be consistent in your world's logic, and in the story's logic, and your readers will keep reading.

NB: This is assuming you have a grasp of grammar, can spell, and can write a good story.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Gunfights - Part Five: The Smell of Cordite

Thought I'd set a few things straight re: cordite.

1) Cordite is no longer used in ammunition. When a modern gun is fired, you will not smell the cordite. Apparently, this is a common mistake; the only time I've seen it is in a Dresden Files novel by Jim Butcher. I may have read about it in the past. If so, it didn't stand out. I only recently learned it was a common novelist error.

2) Cordite was produced in the the UK from 1889, to replace gunpowder.

3) Cordite is smoke-less.

4) Shortages of cordite during WWI led to American smoke-less powder propellants being introduced.

The cordite is in long strings. Box of Truth took some shells apart, find the results here: http://www.theboxotruth.com/docs/edu30.htm.
And remember, if your novels set in the present, you won't smell the cordite.

Friday, 17 April 2009

You're Not Bloody Dancing!

Ugh! I'm getting sick of people referring to fighting as dancing. "Want to dance?" sounded cool in the 80s. Come on, people, that was nearly thirty years ago.

Just to be ORIGINAL and INTERESTING, how about having a character describe a fight as something other than a dance. Like maybe, uh, a fight?

"Want to fight?" could sound cool (or, at least, cooller).

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Steampunk World's Guide to Badassery: writing bad-ass characters

What is a bad-ass?

Those characters so dedicated to their goal that nothing and no-one will stand in their way. Those characters who will not be stopped. They are larger than life, able to withstand the most dire of physical punishments and still keep cracking one-liners.

Famous Badasses

Bad-ass characters are becoming so popular they seem to fall over themselves in fiction. I have a few personal favourites;
  • John McClane, Die Hard. Focused, unstoppable, takes bucketloads of punishment, cracks one-liners (even one with a Permanent Marker; Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.) and has a catch-phrase.
  • Ellen Ripley, Alien etc. Focused, unstoppable, takes bucketloads of punishment, but a bit short on the one-liners.
  • Porter, Payback. One of my all-time favourite films.
  • Riddick, Pitch Black and Chronicles.
  • Chev Chelios, Crank and Crank 2.
  • Harry Dresden, of the Dresden Files series of novels.

Writing your own bad-ass

You can see from watching the above badasses in action what you need when writing them.

  • Make them hurt. In Die Hard John McClane gets pretty busted up, even getting his bare feet cut up by broken glass. The more pain they can take without going under, the more bad ass they are.
  • Make them focused. All these bad-ass characters have a goal they want that they focus on to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Make them witty. Don't underestimate the power of the one-liner.
  • Give them style. Long, flairing coats, manga poses and so on are all popular in movies. Similar things can be achieved in fiction. Obviously not exactly the same.
  • Make them witty. One-liners are essential.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Steampunk World's Guide to Viewpoints: Omniscient

Newbie writers are often warned not to use the omniscient viewpoint. Reasons are often not given. The reasons are simple.
  • It is hard to use right

  • It's often used wrong

Because of the sheer volume of newbie writers getting it wrong, a lot of places give this advice. I think giving advice on how to do it right would be much more beneficial, so that's what I'm going to do.

What is the omniscient viewpoint?

It is a 3rd person viewpoint. It is different from the 3rd person limited POV that is currently the most common in fiction because the limited viewpoint is restricted to one character per scene. A lot of people think the omniscient viewpoint is invested in several characters, but this is a common misconception.

This viewpoint is, instead, in the head of a God-like being. This being floats over the scene. It can enter the heads of any character in the scene. It has vast benefits over all the other viewpoints, but it has weaknesses, too.

The key to the successful use of this God-view is knowing it's strengths and weaknesses.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it fall, does it make a sound?

Who knows?

If you want to write about a tree falling when no one is around, or if you want to write about the formation of a wormhole leading to another universe, or the inner workings of a vast steampunk machine, or indeed anywhere that there is no character (and thus, no possible POV to be your camera) you can use omniscient.

This is one of the strengths of the omniscient viewpoint; use it when there is no one else around.

The Mystery Prologue

I'm calling this one the Mystery Prologue. That's where it's used most commonly. If you've read a mystery, you'll know what I'm talking about. The murder scene that the detective later has to solve. You have the killer, and the victim. You can't tell the scene from the victim's point-of-view, unless you're happy with him becoming a ghost halfway through. You can't tell the story from the murderer's point-of-view, either. You need him to remain anonymous (otherwise it isn't much of a mystery).

Omniscient viewpoint is the only answer. Of course, not all mysteries have a prologue. Dresden Files spring to mind as one (series) that doesn't.

Old Style

When writing about steampunk, some writers like to write in a Victorian manner. Personally, I don't (my readers aren't Victorians, after all) but if you do, remember that they primarily wrote in omniscient. See Jane Austen for examples of the Old Style.

Little Did he Know...

...he'd be dead by morning. This is a type of writing where the narrator reveals things the character can't possibly know. This is done to great effect in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, where he reveals things that are to come. When they actually come to pass, however, they are revealed to be totally different than expected.


Okay, so I don't know what else to call this. Terry Pratchett has his own omniscient style where jokes are a large (and awesome) part of the narration. I don't advise you to try and copy it, but if you can, go for it. There are any number of horror writers, epic fantasy writers, etc. There's only one Terry Pratchett.

So, how do we use omniscient?

There are tricks to using omniscient properly.

  • Don't go into someone's head unless you have to. Action scenes and descriptive passages are better told from the God POV.
  • When you do go into someone's head, don't go in too deep. A light brushing of surface thoughts should suffice. If you go in deep, it is harder to come back out.
  • If you reveal the future (a la Lemony Snicket) be aware that constantly revealing what is coming will leach away tension.
  • If you change characters too quickly, it is head-hopping. Head-hopping is baaad!
  • Omniscient tells more than it shows, and telling is baaad, too.
  • It is the most impersonal viewpoint, and can make it harder for the readers to care about the characters.

And that's omniscient viewpoint for you.

I fancy doing bad-ass characters next. We'll see...

Monday, 13 April 2009

Friday, 10 April 2009

Airships - helium or hydrogen?


Helium was first discovered in the sun in 1868 by French astronomer Pierre Janssen. He thought it was Sodium. Later that same year, Norman Lockyer observed it and realised this was a completely new element unknown on earth. It was almost 27 years when it was finally discovered on Earth.

Helium is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic gas. It is found in vast quantities beneath the Great Plains (in America).

Until the 1990s America produced 90% of the world's helium, with the rest coming from Canada, Poland, Russia and a tiny amount from a few other nations.

Hydrogen is more bouyant than helium, but helium has the benefit of being both non-flammable and flame-retardant. This is why it is commonly used in airships.

Breathing pure helium continuously causes death within minutes by asphyxiation.


75% of the universe is hydrogen. There is very little of it in its elemental form on earth. Most of it is extracted from hydrocarbons. It is highly flammable. It will spontaneously combust at 560 °C. Pure hydrogen-oxygen (between 4 and 75% hydrogen) flames emit ultraviolet light and are almost invisible to the naked eye.

When the Hindenberg famously exploded, the flames that were seen were from the combustible materials that made the ship.

Jacques Charles invented the first hydrogen filled balloon in 1783.

It is 7% more bouyant than helium.

As a rule of thumb, 1 cubic meter of hydrogen lifts 1.1 kilogram, 1 m3 of helium lifts 1 kg and 1 m3 of hot air lifts 300 grams. (In Anglo-American measures: 1000 cu. ft. of hot air lift a maximum of 20 lbs. and 1000 cu ft. of helium lift about 60 lb.) These figures are on the safe side and allow for variations in altitude, temperature, humidity and also purity of the helium.

This quote comes from a handy little site, here http://www.myairship.com/faq/index.html. Steampunk World recommends it, and that's all the recommendations you need, right?

Anyway, hope this helps...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

How to Make Gunfights Exciting - Part Four: The Lone Draw

Steampunk World presents Clint Eastwood in the Lone Draw....

A Spaghetti Western by Scribblar!

Okay, not quite. But if you have ever seen a western, chances are you've seen a lone draw. And they're not just restricted to Western's... the pivotal part of the Lone Draw is the face-off, and this is a pivotal part of many types of fight scenes. If you read fantasy, and the hero and villain face each, trade insults, then draw swords - you've just read a face-off.

If it's Martial Arts you're into, the hero walks along, stops suddenly. A man in black (seriously, black = evil[?] wtf?) steps out and they have a face-off. Hell, the innocent, inexperienced yet survives-to-the-end heroine of any horror movie usually has a face-off with the monster. It even happens to Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Aliens, Alien blah...

So, what is the face-off, how do you write one, how do you make it exciting, and etcetera.

The Face-Off

The face-off is the intrinsic part of the Lone Draw. It is the money scene. In the Lone Draw there is very little exchange of bullets, there is very little action. The action is not that important, it's what we learn about the character (the introspection) that is important.

In the example on the left, we can clearly see Ripley's fear. This will raise the stakes by reminding us she is human. She is such a bad-ass in the movie, it is easy to forget she is not a super-human. Or even a bad-ass normal (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BadassNormal). She's just normal, just you or me, doing what she needs to do to survive.

The Introspection

Watch a Western. The good guy and the bad guy (if he isn't the one in black, he's the one with the black moustache) line up. Cue the close-ups.

Movies can't show us what each character thinks. They focus on expressions. See the eyes, that's the introspection. The line of the mouth. The angle of the shot. These are things the movies have to use, because they lack the narrative element of novels.

The gun points down the way, the camera "looks" up at Dirty Harry. This gives him an impression of power; the grim line of his mouth and serious set of his eyes show his character. Here is a man who is pissed-off, and has a job to do.

You can show that through narration. You can enter your character's head, and tell us what he thinks. Is he scared? Is he doing what he has to do because it must be done, whilst being terrified that he is going to die? Is he having fun? Is he the 1880's version of a modern adrenaline junkie, getting into gunfights because he loves the high? If he was alive today (and wasn't 150 years old) would he be bungie jumping?

You have to tell us, and now is the best time. Get us inside his head, let us know what he thinks when the going gets tough. This is when your character is his truest self; it's when we will love him or loathe him the most.

The Audience

If you write omniscient (which most people who give writing advice say don't do, but I don't agree with that) you can show us the thoughts and feelings of the people who are watching. What does the banker think of the gunfight? What does the prostitute think? The sheriff? The bartender?

If you don't write omniscient, don't forget that your POV character needn't be the one fighting. For instance, if he sees his father/brother/wife in a gunfight, this could be a life-altering moment for him. It would be a great time to see inside his head.

The Gun

For goodness sake, don't get the technical details wrong. You cannot underestimate the importance of getting it right. If you get it wrong, you will lose all credibility with your readers. You might think that a piece of information is so far out of the normal and everyday that not a single one of your readers will know of it. More than likely, you'd be wrong.

For more information on guns in the Steampunk Era, follow this link. http://www.angelfire.com/art/enchanter/space1889/1920.html This is from Space 1889, which seems to be a role-playing steampunk system (one I'm not familiar with), but the details on the guns all seem to be chronologically accurate.

The Bullet

It all ends with the bullet. The introspection, the emphasis of the scene, everything. Bang! It's all gone.

This post has inspired me to write one's about bad-ass characters, about the onmiscient viewpoint, and about suspension of disbelief versus research and realism.

They're coming soon...

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

I've decided not to do a post on airships

Mostly, because I found this awesome site.

This picture is taken from it. As are these random facts...

  • Weight was of crucial importance in operating an airship so only lightweight materials were used, even the grand piano in the salon was made of aluminium rather than wood.
  • Airships such as the Graf Zeppelin with a top speed of 129 km/h (80 mph) could easily compete with transatlantic liners.

It's a fantastic site, with lots of information. I might go into more depth on airships in a couple of days, or failing that I might move onto how they fly.

Back to writing advice soon. Coming next on writing advice is part 4 of Making Gunfights Exciting.

Click on the post title to go to the site, as always.

Monday, 6 April 2009


Click on the title to go to what is possibly the vastest steampunk site on the net. It has been running for seven years, and would have certainly made it into my recent top 5 except, 1) that was for blogs and 2) this site was in Polish. They have recently finished updating it to make it English, too.

Great site, great content, great links.

My idea of the top 5 steampunk blogs is found here. http://steampunkworld.blogspot.com/2009/03/top-five-steampunk-blogs.html

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Airships Through History

Since the beginning of time, man has looked to the stars and dreamt of flying. The Greek legend of Icarus may be a fable warning against arrogance, but the legend of Daedalus was a story of human ingenuity and flight.

But these are only legends - who invented flight, and how, and why?
The Invention of the Kite
Kites are important because they were the forerunners of gliders and balloons. No one knows for sure when or how the first kite was invented; they could be as much as 3000 years old. There are many legends as to how they came to be.

The first recorded use of a kite was in 200 BC, when the Chinese general Han Hsin flew a kite over the walls of the city he was attacking, and used it to measure how far his men would have to tunnel to reach passed the defences.

Marco Polo wrote of kites so large they could carry men - in essence, the first gliders. Technically, a kite has a string going down to the earth, whilst a glider is free from the earth. It was the Italiens who first brought kites to Europe.

From gliders to... helicopters?

The next great flight invention is known as the first helicopter, although it was never built. The ornithopter is Leonardo Da Vinci's most famous invention, even though it was never built. In actual fact, Da Vinci wasn't the first to consider mechanical means of flight.

Here we see an ornithopter design:

The First Manned Flight

How long ago do you think the first manned flight was? The Wright brothers in 1903? Langley in 1891? George Cayley, in the early 1800s? 1783, when the Montgolfier beothers built their balloon? The first manned flight was... one thousand one hundred and thirty eight years ago. Yes, 1138.

Abbas Ibn Firnas covered himself in feathers, strapped on his mechanical wings and, by the accounts of all the witnesses he flew for a long time before returning to land from where he had taken off. But at that point there was a fault in his design; he hadn't realised the importance of a birds tail. Abbas Ibn Firnas fell from the sky, and hurt his back. He was 66 years old when he flew.

In 1870 Gustav Trouve built and flew and landed an ornithopter. The wings were flapped by gunpowder charges activated in a bourdon tube.

You can learn more about ornithopters at the ornithopter society, here. http://www.ornithopter.org/index.shtml. They also have a store online, here http://www.flyabird.com/.

All a Lot of Hot Air

In the 1780s the Montgolfier brothers built the first hot air balloons. The first passengers were a sheep, a rooster, and a duck. It almost sounds like a joke...

The Montgolfier brothers maybe the most well known of the airship or balloon pioneers, but they were not the only ones. Liutenant Jean Baptiste Marie Meusnier in 1783 proposed a design of an airship 260 feet in length, with internal ballonnets that were to be used to control the lift. The envelope would be attached to a long carriage that could double as a boat if the airship was forced to land in the water. It could even be propelled and steered.

Propulsion Technology

Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English channel in a balloon that had a bird like tail for steerage and flapping wings for propulsion, in 1785.
A year earlier he had taken a hand-powered propeller onto a balloon; the first recorded means of propulsion in flight.

Henry Giffard
It was Henry Giffard who finally invented the first dirigible. This passenger carrying airship had a 3 horse-power steam engine weighing over 400lbs, and was filled with hydrogen. It was 144 feet long, and had an average speed of just 3mph. This design wasn't improved upon until 1872.
The end of the Passenger Airships
Lots of things are said to end with a bang, but on the 6th of May, 1937, the passenger airships really did. This was the day that the Hindenberg exploded; the how is still controversial, but the fact is the airship burned completely in under a minute.
Airships Today
Finally, airships are still in use today, in the areas of advertising, sightseeing and surveillance.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Making gunfights more exciting - Part Three - Gun Battles

The staple of so many action movies, the lone hero against a crowd of bad guys. Here we can see the archetypical one, Bruce Willis' John McClane in Die Hard.
But can such massive gunfights work on paper as well as on screen? Yes, and no.
Here are some tips to help make the most of your pitched battle.

1) A Book is Not a Movie

In a movie, you can see everything that is on the set. If there is no couch in the office, and then halfway through the scene there is a couch, it wrecks the whole film. http://www.moviemistakes.com/best_continuity.php Well, maybe not the whole film, but it certainly doesn't go unnoticed.

In a book you have a similar effect. Essentially, you can't add anything into the background during a fight scene. You can't have a gun battle in a warehouse and, halfway through the scene, suddenly announce the baddies are hiding behind barrels, and then at the end make the barrels explosive.
The audience can't see the location - they know only what you tell them. You need to tell them before (or, if that isn't possible, as soon as) the fight begins.

2) Give the Baddies More Firepower
Ever noticed how, in movies and computer games, the hero usually has a handgun, and the baddies have surface-to-air rocket launchers and so on. You can build tension by having the hero outgunned as well as outnumbered.

In computer games, when the hero does finally start getting to the big weapons, like surface-to-air missiles and so on, his enemies usually start getting bigger and scarier, too, like in Metal Gear...

3) Let the Hero Get Injured/ Allies killed

Okay, no one expects the Hero to die, not really, and that is fair enough.

But you can raise the tension in a scene by letting him get injured, or killing off his allies.

Right now, that's all on gunfights.
Still to come: the Quick Draw.

No internet

I had no internet at all last night, or for most of today. Curse that Virgin media...

Airships will be tomorrow or Monday.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Airships are coming

I'm going to start a series of posts on airships this weekend. I'll start with a general history of flight, then look at several types of airship, then go into more details into the hows of how they flew.

In the meantime, here is a link to a series of Steampunk Icarus drawings. http://mixedbagmythography.blogspot.com/2009/01/been-while-since-i-updated.html