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Where’s May’s update? You ask. Where have you and Chris been? You might also ponder. What the hell is ‘The Separated Man’? You say.

All valid questions. With different things going on in our lives (Chris doing work for FYW and me getting distracted by a cartoon dinosaur) we sort of let our updates for May slip. Very naughty of us, I know.  No excuses. Now halfway through the year I think we’re both beginning to realise that our chief rival is not one another, but Time itself. So, with tempus fugit-ing, there’s no time to dawdle. Let’s crack on.

How many words have I done? God knows. A lot. I’ve been working over sixteen different chapters and I’ve lost track of the word count. It’s well over ten thousand though. Probably closer to twenty thousand actually. I think I’ll leave it as a surprise now for when I stick it together. No. No, I promise to have counted by the next update.  But as you might be able to tell from that estimate it’s been going well. Very well. No creative constipation, just lots of writing, lots of story and plot progression, and lots of focus on this line in particular:  

“I conceived the perfect crime: a dead man committing a murder.”

 This is a sentence spoken by one of my characters: it’s up on a post it note on my wall, and whenever I write it is in my head. Because no matter how much flash and exuberance I add to the plot, no matter how many undead soldiers or Difference Men or ray guns there are, no matter how gaudy the Steampunk trappings, ‘The Separated Man’ is all about that one sentence. At it’s core it is about one, audacious crime, and everything else pivots around that.

 What’s that? What’s The Separated Man? Oh yes, sorry, I forgot to mention. I changed the name. ‘The Invention of Steam’ is now ‘The Separated Man’. I hope you like it as a title. I said right at the start of this Duel that ‘The Invention of Steam’ was a title likely to change. I expected it would. Titles, like any other part of a novel, can change at the click of a key or the flourish of a pen. I like to have a title in place though – I’m pretty good at them and having one helps solidify the idea of the story in my head. A good title is something you can really get behind.

‘The Invention of Steam’ sounds good, and makes sense in the context of the story, but I always felt there was a more apt and maybe exciting title to have. During May I went through an exhaustive list of possible titles in the hope of finding just the right one. The answer, as often is the case, was staring me directly in the face, but there were some serious contenders to it. Remember, it’s a Steampunk origins tale.

‘Rebel Steam’ was, for a long time, the lead title in my mind and one that best described the plot and themes, but the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a Steampunk Steven Seagal movie … … … Actually I’d watch that. ‘The Difference Men’ was another good one in my mind and had a couple of levels of meaning to it, but as the story has progressed the characters of The Difference Men became less prominent. It would be like naming ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Adventures of Mr Bumble’. ‘SteamHeart’ grew on me, but it made it sound a bit Young Adult and so far the novel can’t really be described as that. It’s gotten surprisingly dark and Gothic, what with its numerous murders and, what I’ve come to best describe as ‘anatomical horror’. Eventually, looking through the chapters already completed, the heading ‘The Separated Man’ stood out and it worked on more levels than any other. Many characters in my story can be described as ‘separated’ men or women, and all for different reasons. And the theme of separation and its interpretation goes right to the heart of the story. In fact, it goes right to that sentence I have on a post-it.

But while characters may be separated, the story is finally knitting together. ‘Phew!’. It’s been a fair challenge writing chapters out of order when they all have to connect so neatly – a bit like putting together a Lego set in the wrong order – but things are starting to coalesce. I’ll remind you of this when the whole story is finished, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled. Everything is connected, every interaction has a cause and effect, and there are moments early in the narrative that appear meaningless but which are vital to the plot later on. A bouquet of flowers that are mentioned in one chapter become an entire plot point later on. A stranger in the street doing something completely unrelated to the story is actually doing something integral to the story. My aim is to have you go back and realise ‘Ohh that was there all along but I didn’t notice it!’ Gosh I hope it works. And now that the story is actually taking shape here are ten tasty teasers as to what you can expect from it: 

  • Ray guns make more work for butlers.
  • Do not try and play the drinking game ‘drink every time a character drinks’ with this story. You will be dead by Chapter 3.
  • ‘Mr. Othniel Maggadees’ is my favourite name.
  • An entire career will become completely redundant in Steampunk Britain. It’s not dustbin men but it is disposal of a sort.
  • Speaking of jobs, new Steampunk careers include: Zeppelin Refuelling Technician, Omniclock Repairman, Ionised Potassium Salesman, Chief of Aesthetics, and Holography Designer.
  • Spring-Heeled Jack is the evil Iron Man of the 1800s.
  • There really is a fight in a special effects warehouse. Ardent viewers of Futurama will appreciate this reference.
  • One man’s Steampunk terrorist is another man’s Victorian freedom fighter.
  • There’s a restaurant that serves only exotic and endangered species in dishes such as ‘Toucan Salad’ and ‘Rhino a la Hamburg’. Weirdly, this isn’t so far from true high-class Victorian eating as you might think.
  • “Why would you give a calculator eyes?” is a very bad question.

That’s all for now. See you next month!


 Words Done This Month: 2,901 (most of them in the last three days)

Total Word Count: 26,702

April Low Point: The week when nothing was done.

April High Point: The few days when everything was done.


This’ll be brief: I don’t want to write more words in an update than I did in all of April. I jest of course, but only just… 

What I wrote was good, there just wasn’t a lot of it. Not a bad thing. Better than writing thousands of terribly dull words. And it wasn’t as if it was a struggle to get that much done – I had a good time writing it. I’m not sure why then, the count is so low. Okay, there was one week where nothing was done, but that’s because there was a death in the family and everything sort of stopped. Apart from that there was nothing but open Time in which to get stuff done. Yet I’ve got to say I’m not one of those people who just sit and write at any time. You can’t force it out of me like juice. I’m not an orange. I have to be in the right mood. For two weeks I just wasn’t in the right mood. You might say, “oh well just set aside an hour and sit down and just write something, anything, just write!” but I say no. That’s just not how I get it done. Last week was the right mood, so I got some good stuff down. Ta-da! 

So the word count is a bit low. As a wholly remarkable book says ‘Don’t Panic’. Just because I wasn’t writing doesn’t mean the story was on ice. I was thinking and plotting and trying to infuse the plot with a bit more ‘fearful whimsy’, and by that I mean those fantastical, fairytale-like things turned twisted; a Grimm’s Fairytale with more technology. I already had some of it – the key to how to take over the world lies in my short story ‘The Clockwork Heart’ – but there are now plenty of extra little touches: cirrushows (advertising on clouds), buildings that are there but aren’t, gramohats (imagine an iPod in a top hat, except it’s not an iPod it’s a gramophone), and Charles Babbage’s chilling ‘Difference Men’ and their binary death cry (if there’s an excerpt this month then it’s definitely time you met them).

Ooh, and very, very soon ‘The Invention of Steam’ will have a name change. More on that later this month.  

So there’s plenty still to write about and plenty of fun to be had. The word count’s low but this isn’t a competition to see who can write the most words in a month. It’s a competition to see who can write the best story, and there’s plenty of time left in the year for that.

Wait, what do you mean it’s now May?!?!

Words done this month: 5,800

Total Word Count: 24, 360

Current Mood: Splendiferous

March Low Point: Nothing really to single out. Just need more discipline in writing.

March High Point: Adding up my word count and realising I’d done more than I thought.


 Let’s start with a story that actually happened. Just the other night actually.

 Some friends and I were in Newcastle for dinner, and on the way to the restaurant we passed a man standing in the street in a very fine purple suit. His hair and beard were unkempt and he walked with a bit of a stoop. He carried with him a mobile phone and a suitcase.

“Dyhvatime?” he asked us as we walked past.

We stopped.

“Dyhvatime?” he inquired again. “Thatime?”

‘Oh the time!’ I realised in my head that he was Scottish and very much the worse for drink.

“Yes,” I said, looking at my watch, “It’s five past six.”

The man in the purple suit looked shocked, and for a second intense confusion could be clearly made out, even under all that beard. And then, in his drunken Scottish drawl he asked something that rather startled us all.

“Mornin’ or evenin’?”

“Evening,” I said.

We stood there, us and the drunk, staring at one another, both in states of disbelief. And then, because there was really nothing else we could do, and because our bellies were rumbling, we left the drunken man in the fine purple suit to walk on into his brand new evening.

Time is a funny thing, and whether or not you’re so off your head you lose all notion of its passage, it is very easy to let it get the best of you. At times it drags, at times it soars past you, and always at the points you want it to do the very opposite. Einstein had it right: sit on a bench with a pretty girl and an hour will feel like five minutes. Hold your hand on a a hot hob for five seconds and it will feel like an hour. 

After the true ‘hand on hob’ disaster month that was February I resolved to make March a good month. March was when every challenge was going to be faced, every put off thing put on; everything was going to get done: romantically, financially, creatively and businessly. And it was. What I remember of it. Because I really don’t know where March went. It really did speed by, and I was only drunk for part of it. Maybe it was because I was doing the stuff I liked; writing, cartooning, setting up my business, waiting for the new series of Doctor Who, that everything passed so quickly. I’m not sure. I’d certainly like to think it was that, and not just my addled, pun-crazed mind making me believe it. March certainly has felt like the month for sitting on the bench with the pretty girl. I’m glad of the change: my hand was starting to smell like bacon.

 So as a result of this fast-forwarded March and it’s many distractions that needed tending to I actually thought my word count was going to be low, but was rather surprised by how much I’d done. Not a massive amount but more than expected and enough to keep me on the very loose target I’ve set myself. Apparently I got some writing done on that bench.

 I think that the higher word count wasn’t just as a result of a more positive attitude, but because I was writing sections that really excited me, and which I’d been dying to write from ages. Real pulp action stuff. Outrageous, word-spilling fun like Spring-Heeled Jack bounding through London, crashing on top of Hansom cabs and leaping back onto the rooftops while gunfire bends the air around him. Or tense moments where an Inspector manages to trick an answer out of a suspect with some clever wordplay. It’s been immense fun, and as Chris and myuself have said many times before, writing should be fun. The day it becomes a chore is the day I’ll think about becoming an accountant (again). And thanks to the fun things are really picking up plot-wise. The story is taking more definite form, characters are fleshing out nicely and a good dose of intrigue has been added. And now that some textual chaff has been cut out from the literary wheat in the editing process I’m a lot happier with what’s been done.

What will April (described as ‘the cruellest month by Eliot) have in store? Well my Smedley Senses are tingling. A change is gonna come, some hands will be on hobs, and it’s not going to be the easiest of months to navigate, but there’ll be time – hell I’ll make the time – to write. And yes, an entire quarter of the year has gone, and I’m as terrified by that as anyone (seriously, a whole three months? Where’d that go?!), but there are three quarters left, and that’s a lot of writing time.

 And in the end, at least I and my opponent are aware of the time we have left. Unlike a certain man in a purple suit…

We begin in the rain.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

Ohhh…that’s good isn’t it? Not least because it’s an ad-lib. Film buffs and quote fans will know it’s from ‘Blade Runner’ and, as well as it being just bloody good, it illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about in this post. The Name Drop.

The Name Drop in fiction is a fine art and, done right, will expand the imaginative borders of your story without you really trying. Be warned though – it’s a thin line between igniting your reader’s imagination and putting together a boring list of names. ‘Blade Runner’ does it right, by obeying the rule of mystery. What are C-beams? Where is the Tannhauser Gate? I have no idea, but it’s more fun imagining in my head than being shown. Because the power of a name can be so potent and so inspiring that it will put images and stories in the mind of your reader more intense than you could ever tell. It will allow them to take that name and conjure up their own notions of it.

Here’s a couple more example to illustrate the point, and they’re all from sci-fi, but that’s because sci-fi (and fantasy) does this so very well. You don’t find this sort of thing in Pride & Prejudice. Plus I’m a big geek. Another occasion when the Name Drop is done well is with Khan’s speech from Star Trek 2 (incidentally, fact fans, this speech is sort of a 23rd century update of Moby Dick)

“He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

The Antares Maelstrom… What does that bring to mind? A tower of boiling nebula gases stretching for Lightyears across the dark and cold? A whirlpool of unstable gravity, flexing and distorting Space and swallowing up stray planets? Something else entirely? That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to know what it is. It’s not going to affect the plot. But it sounds bloody exciting. And it gives some extra depth to proceedings.

‘Doctor Who’ does it to, and it’s one of my favourites when it comes to sci-fi name-dropping. Planets and places mentioned but never seen include Shalakatom, Woman Wept, Poosh, The Lightning Skies of Cottapalooza’s World, The Celestial Belt of the Winter Queen, The Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magella-Geshtat, Pyrovillia, Klom, Villenguard, and the inimitable Rexacoricofallipatorius. Aren’t those places you want to go to? Don’t they make your mind wander to the farthest corners of possibility and linger there, revelling in exotic ‘maybes’? The mention of all those things stretches the scope of the universe the story is set in and, more importantly, fleshes it out. It gives it depth in the reader’s head. Be careful not to overdo it though. A few choice names work and pique interest; a great list of them will bore your reader.

And be sure to make any names interesting. They have to have some quality about them that provokes further thought. The Antares Maelstrom sounds dangerous and exciting. The Antares Cloud does not. I can’t tell you what works and what doesn’t – it’s trial and error. You just have to come up with something, say it out loud, and see if you get that thrill of possibility. Don’t inhibit yourself. Put words together you might not think would work. Flick through a dictionary or a book and just pick words that sound fun or evoke a certain thought/feeling, and see if they gel to make something. The crazier the better. Use foreign words too if you feel like it. You might just come up with the next panserbjorn.

It’s a device I’m using here and there in ‘The Invention of Steam’, mostly to fill in the nine year gap between the end of the Victorian Empire and the rise of the Empire of Steam. Events such as the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, The Sterilisation of Paris, and illusions such as ‘The Charybdis Cord’ and ‘The Crimson Five Million’ all add to the mystery and thrill of the world without me blabbering on about it for pages and pages, slowly draining the mystery from them by explaining them.

So the next time you’re writing your sci-fi or fantasy, or maybe writing in a real world setting but need a good name for a book or game, give the Name Drop a try. Trust your reader to fill in the world for you. Let their imagination do the work. They’ll feel all the more rewarded for it. In just a few words you can give them the building blocks to imagine places more wonderful than your words can describe. Above all, have fun with it. If you do, your readers should certainly have fun with the results.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see those attack ships…

I forget, what with all the writing alone at my keyboard, that other people might eventually read what I’m typing. That’s a good thing though. It means what I write is solely what I like and isn’t influenced by me second-guessing and wondering if Joe Bloggs will like it. Although I hope Joe Bloggs does like it.

I chose this section as it makes the most sense on it’s own. Chapters 1-7 (ie: the finished ones) contain a lot of dialogue and won’t make much sense when split apart. This bit doesn’t really need putting in a massive amount of context, but I will say that it is the opening of ‘Part 2’ of ‘The Invention of Steam’ and from a chapter called ‘The Diplomacy of Fire’. It’s set nine years after ‘Part 1’ in a time when history has been changed to what we would call steampunk. Through circumstances I’m not going to tell you about (as it would spoil the gripping and quite frankly ingenious finale I have planned for ‘Part 1’), the British Empire has fallen and the technology-driven ‘ever-shining Empire of Steam’, led by Lord Rhodion, has taken its place. And with Europe and Africa under control the Empire sets it sights across the Atlantic…

“Let me tell you I will fight, with the butt of my rifle and the teeth in my head if I am so forced. I will fight until the last drop of blood in my body has soaked into the soil of this great nation and fertilised the minds its people to take up the gun and the sword and the scythe and stand against all foreign oppressors. We will fight. Let them know that we will fight, as we have so proudly done before. And as before we shall bear the fruit of victory.”          

   -President Ulysses S. Grant, in a speech to an assembled crowd at Chattanooga, Tennessee (1875)


It was rumoured that war was coming to the United States.

For Edgar, such news was always digested with toast and eggs. Each morning he would sit in the dining room and eat one fried egg, (scrambled on weekends) three pieces of toast, and drink two cups of coffee (but never fully drain the second) while reading The New York Times. It was a routine so well-worn it had become see-through, but the worse the news from beyond the Atlantic became the more he drew comfort from such a little ritual. Secretly he worried for how much longer he would be able to enjoy it. He had always known that The Clockwork War would come. It was only a matter of time before the war Zeppelins cast their shadows over the streets of Manhattan.

For months now the American press had featured detailed articles of the Empire’s change of troop movements on the continent and the massing of armaments at Britain’s south coast ports. Each day new and disturbing information was filtered through ink: Von Zeppelin’s factories tripling their output, the caesium mines to the south-east of Russia churning up ray-gun fuel 24 hours a day, the fires of the Sheffield foundries bleaching the sky orange as they blazed through the night, fed by veins of iron and steam. Undoubtedly the cogs of war were being greased for fresh conflict. The armoured engines that rolled through the capitals of Europe were being refined and built with greater speed. Heavy canons capable of turning cities to vapour and dust from over a mile away, and which had first been deployed in the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, were moving back toward the French aerial harbours. Fishermen had sighted an armada of war frigates performing manoeuvres in the Norwegian Sea, using icebergs as targets and smashing them apart with jets of particle light. There were even reports of a strange ‘walking’ weapon being tested on the Portuguese border, but of this there was nothing more than speculation.

Such rehearsals for war were anything but hidden, and what was not seen was to be heard from the seat of power. Lord Rhodion’s speeches were re-printed in full, with each new declaration being a clearer statement of his intent than the last. He talked of ‘expanding the borders of progress’ and ‘the land lost to the ungrateful’. By the start of 1875 the Empire of Steam’s great leader had all but officially announced the plans for an armada to sail across the Atlantic and ignite the East Coast with his ‘diplomacy of fire’.

The response from the United States to such threats was fierce. In vitriolic addresses to Congress and the public President Ulysses S. Grant showed that gunpowder still ran through the old soldier’s veins and much rapturous applause greeted his bold words. But between each new tirade of rhetoric was the national fear that any blood would have to be shed to maintain the hard won freedom of the States. Its people felt they had lost enough life in pursuit of peace. The battlefields were still wet, the graves still warm, and the nation rebuilding on scar tissue.


Aaand that’s all you get. I’m not going to say anything else about it. Ideally you’ll have liked what you read. And given he never said such words I should really be given a job as Ulysses S. Grant’s speech writer.

Words done this Month: 3,000

Current Word Count: 20,000

Current Mood: Best not ask…

February Low Point: Pretty much the whole damn month. February is unwelcome guest of months.
February High Point: Finding a box of ‘After Eight’ in the cupboard. They are now mine, and a delicious minty treat whilst writing: ‘End of paragraph? After Eight time!’

February gave with one hand and took with the other. My writing completely lost steam (no pun intended) and for over two weeks (two weeks!) I wrote not a scrap of text. It wasn’t writer’s b***k (I hate that phrase. Makes you sound like you’re at your typewriter, staring at the keys, smoking an endless string of Lucky Strikes as your shaking hand wipes the sweat from your ruddy brow and the other hand reaches for the liquor bottle. Even the phrase itself is uninspired, like it was thought up by someone under its weight. It should be called something cool like ‘Creativity Torpor’ or ‘Phrasal Inertia’ or ‘Wordsmith’s Constipation’. Anything but w*****’s b***k). Sorry, that went on a bit longer than I planned. Anyway, it wasn’t wordsmith’s constipation. It did allow me to get plenty of cartoons done for my neglected blog, but in the back of my mind I was conscious not enough ink was being directed towards the written word. Was I incredibly worried about this? Not especially, as I had prepared for the inevitable torpor that I knew would set in at some point. I’d built up such a head of steam in January’s word count that I knew I could afford to lose two weeks work time. I would have preferred not to lose it this early, but never mind.

After sixteen days things righted themselves and I was back to the regular flow of words. The goggles were on (literally), the boiler was stoked, and a fleet of clockwork engines could not have pulled me away from my keyboard. In the story, an Inspector called, a non-existent body was exhumed, and rumours of war began to stir. The result? 3000 done in all by the month’s end. A paltry sum compared to January, but I did say at the end of the last update that it would be less. Importantly, I’m still within my planned timetable and on track. So I’m not worried or disappointed: what was done was good (well, in my opinion), and although I wasn’t writing a lot of the time there was plenty of other vital work done, in terms of editing January’s words, some historical fact checking, and thinking about the way the whole course of the novel will pan out. And as a result there were some important and exciting changes made in the direction the story will take.

So, setting the Zeppelin’s course Marchward, and with a fresh wind in the sails, I can already feel the pace picking up. February’s tiresome skies are gone and the outlook’s bright. There’s new music on my iPod, a drawer full of post-meal mints at hand, a cup of Darjeeling waiting to be quaffed, and (most importantly) the desire to write something bloody brilliant. Oh yes, it’s full steam ahead. Pun definitely intended.

Chris will be here tomorrow with his update, and then on Wednesday and Thursday things get really interesting as we each post a short section of something we’ve written so far for your perusal and comment. Mine will be up on Wednesday and Chris’ will be up on Thursday. It’ll be your first chance to read our stuff, get a feel of our stories, and see just how very different we are in our writing styles.

Isotope batteries to full power! Vent the HeliOx gas! Shovel on more dogs! It’s Rob’s update…

Current Word Count: 17,000-ish
Current Mood: A bit frustrated but otherwise good.
January Low Point: The last few days actually. No writing has been done.
January High Point: First week. I was snowed in and so got a LOT done then. Since that time the pace has been slower but nonetheless steady.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Okay, so, I know what you’re thinking: ‘17,000!? Wha-?!’ You may be wondering how I’ve managed to get so many words into one month, so I’ll explain the hows and the whys.

As I mentioned, I was snowed in for the first week, and with nowhere to go I seized the opportunity to get as much done as possible. That’s when a good portion of the 17,00 was constructed. Also, I currently am wanting of a job, so I have rather too much free time on my hands, and have used that to write and do a little planning. Most of the planning had been done though. This story (well, the base of it) has been percolating in my cog-noggin for over a year, so I was able to hit the page knowing more or less what I’m aiming for.

Most of all though, I ‘write big’. Very big. As Chris mentioned in his update we have very different styles. To communicate just how different our styles are, think of them in terms of soup: if Chris is the Campbell’s Condensed; a lot of good stuff perfectly poured into a small space, then I’m the Campbell’s Soup factory… in mid-explosion…with Alphabet soup flying everywhere…and splashing over onto the Bread Roll Bakery next door. An action he can describe in a sentence I describe in a page. Chances are that if he told the same story I’m telling he could do it in half the number of words. But that’s because I love to get tied up in alliteration and adjectives and language that hasn’t been used for about a century. There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s just different. Plus it fits with the kind of story I’m telling.

So what have I accomplished in 17,000 words? Well as I don’t write in a linear fashion I’ve written chapters from all over the ‘Victorian’ half of the novel, but stayed clear of Part 2: Steampunk. I’ve sown the seeds of a clockwork war, invented (my version of) the ray-gun and killed a character with it, I’ve killed off a few others, some of whom might not stay dead, there’s been a heart-to-heart conversation between two old friends (probably the bit I’m most proud of at the minute), an introduction to our arch-villain behind the curtain Lord Rhodion, and there’s even been an outrageous fight in a Victorian special effects warehouse, complete with prop use. Hahahahaaa! What did I tell you? There’s soup everywhere!

In all, it’s been a very productive month and I’m quite happy with it so far. Above all, it’s been fun. I don’t subscribe to the idea that writing is a serious business or something that you shouldn’t enjoy. If I don’t have fun writing it then chances are you won’t have fun reading it. But although the finished story is going to be about 100,000 words don’t expect to see such a high word count again for the rest of the year. January was the head of steam. February will be a leaner month as I’ll be knitting together sections of stuff I’ve written before I make the big push in March to write and finish the Victorian half of the novel. Alternate Steampunk Britannia will be started (hopefully) in April/May. And that’s when the soup really starts to fly…

See what I mean?

For instance, in a worst-case-scenario, the story might actually make more sense backwards than it does forwards. But then, by the time you reach the start of this article, you’ll already know that.

So time-travel is out. You won’t find any members of the Adherence of the Quantum Evocation coming from the 16th Steam Century back to Victorian London to make sure that Queen Victoria lives to 1901. It’s a bit of a shame, but it does save me an extra 25,000 words, and as we’re reaching the end of the Duel’s first month I’m accutely aware of time passing all too quickly, so I suppose it’s not all bad. Time-travel can often be seen as, or used as, nothing more than a flimsy gimmick. Plus, I don’t have to deal with any of the tricksy time issues that can occur. And they really are tricksy. They can break your story if they get out of hand.

I hadn’t expected introducing time-travel would remove all the drama. I think it’s because a control over time is the ultimate power. Nothing is impossible, everything is possible, and as such all tension is removed. All drama goes out the window. If character X dies then what’s the problem with skipping back a few minutes and preventing their death? Or why not travel to the future to amass an army of robots to slay your foe in the present? Things can get ridiculous pretty quickly, and if you try and introduce rules to combat that ridiculousness then you can end up running head first into the aforementioned ‘confusing the reader’ territory. No, time-travel is like booze. A little bit is good, maybe exciting, but too much and soon everything just gets fuzzy and gives you a headache.

It’s a problem I just encountered. In ‘The Invention of Steam’ Time gets changed, but there’s no time-travel involved. It’s an organic change and it happens over a period of years, just like it does in the real world. But then I got a bit clever and came up with some grand time-travel scheme that saw future Steampunk Britain rebel and try to prevent its creation in the first place back in Victorian Britain (Incidentally, by doing that I’d also be filling the ‘punk’ brief of ‘steampunk’, because as I’ll post about at a later date, people do seem to think adding cogs and brass makes a steampunk story, and forget that it actually needs to have an act of rebellion – an act of ‘punk’). It was a nice idea, a bold idea, and it fitted in perfectly with everything I’d done so far or planned to do, but the minute I put the first ideas of it in the story everything I’d written just felt, well…ridiculous. Worse still, everything I wrote after just didn’t feel right. The moment I introduced time-travel the world that I’d spent 7 chapters diligently creating just shattered. The Noir Victorian setting, the characters in it, all just felt flimsy. I’m still trying to work out why. It’s like an experiment went wrong and I’m trying to figure out which chemical was responsible for it. I think it’s because in writing the first chapters I’d set up the rules: a period novel that’s true to the details of the period. I hadn’t created alternate Victorian Britain – I was writing in the real one. So when I suddenly introduced a very sci-fi trope completely out of the blue it was like putting a talking whale in a Deerstalker there. It just blew all the drama apart. I had broken the time-page continuum. The minute I removed the offending sci-fi-ism the story flexed back into something I thought good.

The main problem is that, to put it bluntly, time-travel is very confusing. Not even the world’s smartest quantum physicists fully understand it. So already, as a writer, you’re starting out from a point of ignorance that you’re going to have to fill with your own ‘Laws of Time’. And in trying to explain it and how it weaves in with your story there’s always a danger you can lose the reader by super-saturating your text with sci-fi jargon (A Temporal Energy Deficit Factor? What the-?!). But even if you set up your own rules and understand them and your reader understands them you still run the danger of ending up with a story becoming overly-complicated (eg: ‘Wait, how many versions of ‘X’ are there running around?) too full of head-scratching loose ends (eg: ‘So, when Time was put right what happened to Mr. Y?’), or riddled with plot-hole paradoxes (eg: ‘How can ‘Z’ be there and there if they were there?’). Unless you do it right you’re likely to confuse your reader. But time-travel doesn’t just hurt your head, it can hurt your book.

When it is done right, it’s spectacular (like ‘The Time-Traveller’s Wife, The Time Machine, and any of the Thursday Next books but especially ‘Something Rotten’), and I am a HUGE fan of the time-travel genre when it’s done right. But as much as I love it, as a writer I also fear it. Because if you use time-travel in your story you suddenly posses an immense power to do anything, change anything, and bend all the rules to fit your whim, and if you don’t set yourself boundaries and rules on how to use it you can ruin your story in oh so many ways.

Time travel…it’s very hard to get right.

***WARNING: This article has been subjected to a ‘Jankis’-class Paragraph Continuity Paradox. Ensure your browser is updated with the latest temporal-feedback firewalls before reading***

Names! Never underestimate their importance in a story. They can tell you a lot about a character, the book, and even the author. Sometimes they can even be a theme in their own right. They are in The Invention of Steam. There are characters looking for names, someone trying to clear theirs, another trying to reclaim it, someone using a name to hide themselves, and even a shadowy organisation which goes by many and yet never settles on one for the purposes of secrecy. There’s even a name for the age following the fall of the Victorian Era.

I like to think names are my strongest point when it comes to writing (well, that and an amazingly acute ability to alliterate awesome arrangements of words) and I have pages and pages and pages and pages of notepaper at home filled with names that I’ve come up with over the years. Names come to me easily. Everything else I have to work at. A lot of people in The Invention of Steam have rather idiosyncratic, but not unbelievable, names; there’s Mr. Washington Amberghast, Mr. Lionel Shivers, Hartley Salt, Mrs. Gullsdotter, Dr. William Fesker-Mandible, Ms. Gertrude Spool, Inspector Oswald Forge, Mr. Basil Gunwoodge, and of course, the ever-popular Josiah Nutbudget. Actually most of them are supporting characters, but I like to think that even people with just one line deserve a memorable name.

But all this is nothing compared to the genius of Dickens when it came to naming characters Not only did he create memorable figures, he gave them even more memorable and flamboyant names: Lady Dedlock, Wackford Squeers, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Abel Magwitch, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and (I kid you not) Mr. M’choakumchild. Such a talent was he at names that one actually became an noun and a verb: Scrooge. There’s such a glorious sense of wordy fun to them. To look at a list of surnames from Dickens’ novels is like watching the alphabet dance: Snagsby, Turveydrop, Jellyby, Smallweed, Pickwick, Mantalini, Knag, Lillyvick, Sliderskew, Creakle, Pumblechook, Wopsle, Jaggers, Chuzzlewit, Chuffey, Pecksniff… I could go on and on but you get the point. Glorious. And, not only were the names entertaining, but they hinted at the character’s personality, a secret, or even their job. Mr. Krook in Bleak House is essentially just that; a crook. Wackford Squeers mercilessly beats his pupils. Mr. M’choakumchild is a cruel master of the school in Hard Times. To look at each surname instantly gives you an idea of who you’re dealing with.

That’s what I’m trying to do: give my names some meaning – not just make them interesting to look at but make them little clues about the character. Will it work? Well I guess I’ll have to wait ’til someone reads it. I’m basing an entire character’s big secret on their name so I’m hoping it’ll be partly successful.

There is one problem though: I still don’t have a name for my arch-villain. Everyone else, right down to the tea lady, has a title but not him. And that’s fine for the first non-Steampunk half of the book, where we don’t see him and he’s only referenced as an ’employer’, but come the second act when brass Hell is let loose on the world and people see their future marching, rolling and ticking through the streets, well that’s a different matter. The Steampunk Age will have it’s leader, and he needs a name. But what? Everything I’ve come up with sounds too corny or too weak.

For inspiration I’ve been looking at the names of the great villains, the arch-nemeses: Blofeld, Moriarty, The Master, Lex Luthor, Hitler, Darth Vader, The Joker, Satan (if your hero is Jesus), Doctor Evil, Cam Winston, Lord Voldemort, and yet none of them have helped. However I have learned that in fiction you can divide villain’s names into 4 distinct groups, which I have titled ‘Smedley’s Categories of Evil Nomenclature’:

1st Category: ‘The Real Names’: Villains operating under their own name, often using only a surname, such as Blofeld, Moriarty, Sinestro, Satan

2nd Category: ‘The The’: Villains who have come up with the defining feature of their evil and put a ‘The’ in front of it, such as The Joker, The Green Goblin, The Devil, The Riddler.

3rd Category: ‘The Titled Villain’:Villains who are Counts, Lords, Dukes and other members of the aristocracy, such as Lord Voldemort, Professor Moriarty, Darth Vader, Lady Gaga. This category also covers Doctorates and PhDs of whatever subject, and even just the title ‘Mister’, so Professor Moriarty, Doctors Evil, Octopus and Horrible, Mister Freeze.

4th Category: ‘Evil Expositors’: Villains named after what they do, or how they do it, such as Jack the Ripper, Spring-Heeled Jack, The Strangler

Simples! Go on, try it out for yourself. Think of a villain, any villain across history or one that you have created yourself, and I guarantee they will fit the model. It’ll also be of use to you when coming up with your own villains for your own stories/screenplays/secret villainous identities. I’m thinking of using a 1st Category name for my baddie. Anything else would sound too corny. An ordinary name seems to fit the rest of my story, something that wouldn’t suggest the presence of a malicious mind. I’m honestly not too sure. If you can think of one that might help me let me know! In the meantime I’ll just have to write ‘John Smith’ in place of whatever evil name I do come up with. Mr. Dickens, I could do with your help right now…

Hello, I’m Rob, the more adjective-prone Duellist, and this is just a post to introduce you to my novel so you know the kind of thing I’ll be writing and working on for the next year. Crikey, a whole year…seems long and yet not long enough. Still, no time to worry; on with the introduction…

“The history books will write that in the year of Our Lord Eighteen-Hundred and Sixty-Six, the Age of Victoria and her Empire ended, and the Second Age of Steam did begin.”

That’s my first line right there. The product of Day One of the Duel. And it pretty much sums up the whole plot of the novel I’m writing. It’s called ‘The Invention of Steam’ (a title that will likely change) and is half Victorian Crime Noir and half Rollicking Steampunk Adventure. Good word, rollicking; it rolls around the mouth. Actually, it sort of rollicks around the mouth. Anyway, enough of that, back to the story. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write for over a year now and talked to Chris about, but never got to putting anything more than notes down. So, with the characters already in my head and the story just about planned, I’ve started to put pen to paper. I feel I should admit that when I say the story is just about planned, I mean to say that I know where I want it to start and where I want it to end, but in between that anything can happen. Certain points have to stand and certain events must happen, but in between all that I just let the story go where it feels natural. I don’t write in a linear style either, but instead write bits or chapters here and there and out of order, stitching it all together when sections collide. It all sounds very haphazard doesn’t it? But it makes sense in my head, trust me.

I’ve always wanted to write a Steampunk novel. This is half of a one. It’s a Steampunk origins story, telling how history as we know it cascaded off-course and how a world of brass and clockwork and strange futuristic contraptions was born. The first half takes place in a very recognisable Dickensian landscape, and the second half occurs decades later in the strange new Steampunk Britain, where dirigibles float through the crowds, clockwork carriages run through the streets, and the ‘dynamic particle oscillator’ is weapon of choice. What causes such a dramatic shift? Time and text will tell. I’m not going to go too deeply into the plot as it’s liable to change and evolve over the year, but I can say for certain that I’m throwing everything at this story. There’ll be an aerial Zeppelin battle, the invention of the ray-gun, big game hunters, historical characters Count Von Zeppelin and Queen Victoria, a whole host of people with fanciful names like Josiah Nutbudget and Gershwin Choker, a clockwork man, and even a fight with Spring-Heeled Jack atop a racing locomotive! Plus, murder, magic, disguises, romance, and Omnibuses! It’s unashamedly big and bombastic, but don’t take that to mean brainless: you’ll need your wits about you to piece together the very personal mystery that drives the heart of this story… But more on that next time.

Right, well I can’t stand round here all day talking, I’ve got a novel to write and an opponent to do battle with. And I need to figure out how to kill a character with a Spinning Jenny…



  • Rob: NEW POST! 'The Separated Man' fifth & sixth month update! Name changes, apologies and teasers. 7 years ago
  • Rob: everything is starting to coalesce. Unfortunately it's coalescing a couple of months behind schedule. 7 years ago
  • Rob: I just permanently deleted a 9,000 word chunk of text. Yep, 9,000. I'm a bad writer, but I make up for it in brutal editing. Ha! 8 years ago
  • Rob: May has so far been the best writing month since January. Everythings starting to wind together. 8 years ago
  • Rob: Thinking of the title change for my story. 'Rebel Steam' is good but sounds like a steampunk Steven Seagal movie. I'd watch that. 8 years ago