A Fascinating History

One of the things I found most intimidating about writing a steampunk novel was the prospect of historical research. I needn’t have been worried. It’s been the most fascinating aspect of the project. Most steampunk fiction is set in the Victorian era, in the mid to late 19th century. My book, Fidelio’s Automata, begins in 1901, at the tail end of this time. One of the things I needed to learn was what peoples’ daily lives were like in those times, around when my grandparents were born. In those days, indoor plumbing was a luxury and electric power was an innovation mostly found in larger cities.

Among the more important issues to resolve was how my characters should travel. In 1901, the horse-drawn carriage was still a major mode of transportation, albeit a slow one. The automobile was new on the scene, and transcontinental highways were not even begun. I was intrigued to learn that the first cross-country highways were privately-run projects, in some cases spearheaded by western businessmen as a way to promote tourism from the East. Another factor was the newly invented bicycle, which required a smooth surface for riding. Cycling groups formed the core of the “good roads” movement.

Although I wanted one of my characters to have a car, since the book is centered around emerging technologies of the time, the most efficient way for the characters to travel would be by rail. Another mandatory form of transportation would be the airship, especially since that’s a staple of the steampunk genre. Since this is fiction, I’ve advanced this technology by a few years. This seems plausible because the airship required less in the way of infrastructure than did land transportation.

One of my favorite things about writing about this era is that it takes me back to my childhood. No, I’m not nearly that old, but since I grew up in a rural and backward part of the country, I had experiences shared by few people my age. For example, I attended a one-room country schoolhouse through the third grade. By the way, this facility did not have plumbing; we had to use the traditional little wooden building with the crescent moon on the door. The farm where my family lived was connected to the electrical grid only a few years before my birth. The wind-turbine my parents and grandparents had used for power still stood at the top of a tower in the middle of the yard.

This is all the more amazing when I consider that my son, who was born hear the close of the 20th century, has never known a time without video games, computers, and the Internet. Speaking of the Internet, this has been my most valuable resource. It’s quite easy to find population statistics for various cities that appear in my book, such as Buffalo, New York, and Toledo, Ohio. I can even download street maps from that time so I can use correct names. Outside of the fictional aspects of the book, I try to stick to factual whenever possible, to preserve its historical feel. Years ago, when I first began writing, I had to make a trip to the library every time I needed this kind of information, which was quite time-consuming. Thus my book about the past is being made possible by the technology of the future. I hope that when it’s finished you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did creating it.