Join authors Claire Buss and Benjamin Hope as they discuss the writing processes behind their speculative fiction debut novels, dystopian sci-fi The Gaia Effect and Victorian gothic-steampunk The Procurement of Souls.
On Creating a Believable World:
BH: I wrote a blog a few months back about researching for alternate history novels where I discussed the need for the fictionalised world or premise to be rooted in truth so that the reader has something to hang their hat on as it were from which the imagined world can grow. I gave the example of the steampunk sub-genre which develops from the industrial revolution and the notion that the steam-powered technologies never died out. In The Procurement of Souls (PoS), I was keen to ensure that the late-Victorian setting was truthfully woven into the otherwise fantastical world in which the story takes place – as I mention in the blog, I tried to do this through the clothing; the architecture; the social norms of the time; some of the technology; and also through aspects of Victorian philosophy such as spiritual uncertainty, which I also hoped would also lend itself to 19th century gothic overtones. By contrast, it occurred to me that you had to fabricate all these aspects, which I drew on as my ‘root of truth’, for The Gaia Effect, and didn’t have a reality by which to refer to, being that it’s set in the future. I suppose you took today’s world as a frame of reference and then projected that into the future in order to pitch it in a way that gave the reader that all important element of truth or authenticity. I’m thinking about the social media technologies of City 42 such as The Sweeps, or the baby tech developed by the Corporation. Was this a conscious part of your writing process? How did you decide how far to stretch the technological advancement within The Gaia Effect?
CB: Yes Benjamin, creating the technological aspects of the book was a conscious decision throughout. I thought about how technology might move forwards in the next two hundred years and tried to extrapolate accordingly. I also considered how things might have been hampered by the apocalyptic event in the story. In The Gaia Effect, it's called The Event, a worldwide war using high-energy radiation weapons which destroyed much of the natural planet. I tried to make the tech believable and realistic but also recognisable to the reader as an extension of what they use and experience today.
What about the technology in The Procurement of Souls? There is an interesting blend of science and mysticism – did you do a lot of research into Victorian-era science or was it intuitive guesswork?
BH: Funny enough, Arthur Macabe asked a similar question in our discussion for his 23rd Interview from the Void. He was asking me about the mechanics of the soul extraction process that Dr Weimer carries out on his victims. This blend of science and mysticism, as you put it, around the concept of the soul and the bio-alchemy that Dr Weimer exploits and Magnus struggles with within the story really underpins the gothic quality that I was striving for. It enabled me to explore and develop some key Victorian gothic tropes and ideas within my imagined world. For example, the theme of spiritual and scientific change and uncertainty that is so prevalent in gothic literature is played out within Magnus’ private inner journey but also more explicitly in scenes such as that between Abbot Ignatius of St VIllicus’ monastery and Dr Weimer, who debate what the soul actually is and what this means for religion. In terms of research, yes, I looked at belief structures around at the time (including the alternative work by the occult author Éliphas Lévi Zahed, whose work I quote at the beginning of each of the three parts of the book) but it was of course largely then developed further through good old-fashioned imagination!
CB: And what about the social aspect of your alternate Victorian world? Was it intentional to have such a marked class divide?
BH: Again, if you look to a lot of Victorian literature the class divide is a prevalent feature; it’s hard to avoid, I think, in such a time in history. My intentions go back to my aim to situate the fantasy story within a context that has that all-important seed of truth. This meant trying my best to portray a realistic version of that world: of the rambling back alleys; bowing tenement buildings; brothels; and all the character types that might be found in such places in as true a light as I could – again, this involved a lot of research (The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney is a brilliant source for those that are interested). And then similarly, with the upper echelons, I did my homework to understand ranks at the time and the lifestyle for those of means. As such, I think the class divide within the book is a product of the time I was seeking to describe, albeit an alternative version.
BH: Language was also an important element for me in my efforts to create a believable alternate history. I ended up doing quite a lot of research into the etymology of specific words when I was unsure as to how appropriate their usage was. For example, I decided to omit the word okay as, although there is some disagreement about its heritage, it appears to hail from America in the mid-1800s and didn’t necessarily make it into common English parlance until quite some time later; I felt that it was too 20th century for use in my 19th century world. In The Gaia Effect, I thought that you were really successful in weaving aspects from your future world into the characters’ everyday dialogue; you use the verb to sweep in a social media context, much like ‘Tweeting’ and ‘Facetiming’ today and frag, presumably as an expletive. Where did that idea come from? Was character time-specific word-choice a conscious process for you when writing dialogue?
CB: I really wanted to have a pervasive social media aspect in my book. I think it's highly likely that current platforms will get much more invasive as technology improves and I also think that each generation will become more and more accepting of that level of intrusiveness. It made sense to use the Sweeps throughout the book - to refer to checking them, making them and talking about sweeping things out. After all, we already talk about the hashtag in everyday conversation, '#justsaying.'
I write very organically; I don't have a set plan of what will happen and I tend to let my characters do the talking so I never consciously think 'oh, they must use this word'. Obviously once the way the characters interacted with the sweeps was established I had to make sure that rolled out throughout the book. I often find when I'm writing that I end up doing a lot of back weaving when I finish the first draft as I'm trying to edit the plot holes!
On Developing the Sequels:
BH: With PoS having come out this July, I have already begun on its sequel, A New Religion. It’s funny, as I never consciously set out to write it as a serial (although I also now have a prequel in mind!); rather, I had an overall story arc to PoS which developed as I wrote. It was simply that when I came to the end of that arc – and it felt the right place to finish the first book where I have – so much had developed in my inner narrative that I felt that I had to keep going. I think, for me, I had also invested so much in this world I had developed that I also wanted to see where characters would take themselves next. I’m enjoying bringing in other characters from the protagonists’ pasts too and introducing those who were mentioned in PoS but never actually interacted with the narrative. I don’t want to say too much more about A New Religion at this stage, but I decided to include the prologue at the end of PoS as a sneak preview! I know you've finished the first draft of the sequel to The Gaia Effect and that you’re currently busy editing. Was the development of this sequel a similar experience for you, given that to begin with you didn’t even set out to write a full manuscript?!
CB: The Gaia Effect was the result of a one-chapter competition entry. The entry requirements were for a first chapter which I duly wrote and sent in. I did not realise that if you were fortunate enough to make it through to the next round you had to submit the rest of the book so The Gaia Effect was written and edited in about three months. When I got to the end I had an idea about continuing the story but it wasn't anything clearly defined. I went away, worked on some other projects and have now come back to book two - The Gaia Project. The bulk of the sequel has been written apart from the end section which is still in development but I am working through my editing pass at the moment. I hope to have it ready for beta readers by the end of July because, with two small children, I doubt very much that I will be able to get a great deal of work done through the summer holidays.
CB: One of the things I really enjoyed about coming back to the world of The Gaia Effect was revisiting my characters and weirdly finding their voices again without a problem. It's very comforting to be writing for them again because of course, I know them so well. It's been commented by readers of The Gaia Effect that I write from my male character POV in a natural and believable way and I do find it very easy to write Jed's story. One of your main characters is Clementine, the plucky young heroine - did you find it easy to write from a girl’s point of view? Do you think the fact that she was a daughter and not a son made any difference to your plot?
BH: This is an interesting one. I think for any character to work, the reader has to sympathise or empathise with them at some point in their journey at least - even for the anti-heroes (granted, this is somewhat difficult with Dr Weimer who is sociopathic!). Thinking in these terms, then the writer also has to do the same. To a greater extent, in fact: to write from a character’s perspective we need to inhabit their minds and view the world through their eyes. My strategy when writing from Clementine’s POV was to do just this: yes, she’s a young woman of 17 but she has strong motivations and an unshakable sense of justice which comes with being the age she is. I tried tapping into these motivations and her particular stance partly by engendering these feelings from when I was this age but mainly from my imagination. And aside from anything else, the thing that facilitates writing from any character’s perspective, be they male, female, or somewhere in-between, is the fact that as their creator, you know them intimately. So, no, I didn’t find it any trickier writing as Clementine, than any other character. I think you have to believe in the courage of your convictions and know that you are writing their truth.
The second part of the question, relating to her influence on the plot as a daughter rather than a son, this absolutely made a difference and it was a conscious choice to go with this dynamic. Magnus and Clementine’s relationship is steered a great deal by the past trauma in their lives of the death of her mother, Anna. This has a huge impact on both of them, in terms of their interactions, their motivations, and their inner thoughts and feelings: Clementine is partly driven by the need to fill her mother’s shoes and complete her legacy; Magnus’ own journey is shaped by the mother/daughter parallels he recognises in Clementine and emotional changes he must face in accepting this. Magnus’ child had to be a daughter for the plot threads to work. It would be a different story had they both been male!
About the Authors:
Claire Buss is a science fiction, fantasy & contemporary writer and poet based in the UK. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead, Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with her debut novel, The Gaia Effect, setting her writing career in motion. She has since released five books, has plans for many more and is hopelessly addicted to cake. You can find Claire at www.cbvisions.weebly.com or follow her on Twitter @grasshopper2407.
Benjamin Hope is the debut author of The Procurement of Souls. He blogs regularly on the writing process and offers up recommendations in 60 words for novels within speculative and gothic fiction. He also occasionally guest lectures at universities on public speaking. He lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and daughter. Find him at www.benjamin-hope.com or follow him on twitter @BenjamHope.