Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Under the Volcano with T. E. MacArthur

This week I sat down with T.E. MacArthur--who I know best as Thena--to talk about her debut novel The Volcano Lady  (Treasure Line 2012), the delights of history, and the challenges of writing about a character who fits into her own time as much as she challenges it: a very proper English lady of the 1880s with an advanced degree in geology--a more than usually masculine field.

MS-A: You’ve obviously had to do some serious research into both geology and the history of the science for The Volcano Lady. Which came first, the research or the decision to write a novel?

TEM: Oddly enough, I think they lay dormant, together, for quite a long time (all puns intended.)  I can’t say if there has ever been a time when I wasn’t doing some sort of writing and volcanoes have fascinated me since I was little.  If I had to choose the Chicken or the Egg, I’d say that the novel came first.  My understanding of geology overall was modern.  For The Volcano Lady, I needed to research what Victorians knew.  I had a bit of luck in finding a first edition of Professor John Wesley Judd’s Volcanoes: What They Are and What They Teach (1881.)  Once the story was building I knew the next subject I needed to study was Krakatoa.  Happily, the Royal Society published an 1888 report, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena.  Here I could get a look at how Victorians experienced the cataclysmic event as well as an amazing example of how Victorians approached documentation and scientific inquiry.

The first concept I had to drop was the theory of plate tectonics.  These days we have a marvelous understanding of continental movement due to radar imaging (a World War II development), deep sea exploration (again, mid to late 20th Century), and GPS.  When Yellowstone National Park (classified as a super volcano) has an increase in ground elevation or the lava dome in Mt. St. Helens grows by centimeters, we can track that.  We have proof of plate tectonics.  During my character Lettie Gantry’s time, most geologists were still debating whether the earth was solid to the core or not.  Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was based on the concept that there were continent-sized caverns under the ground, bored out of the solid earth.  He went so far as to have his characters go into an Icelandic volcano only to come out in Italy.   A suggestion that the crust moved would have been laughable to Victorian scientists.  Earthquakes were measurable on a graph, but why they happened was not yet known.  The last 150 years have been the boom time for the science of geology, but for Lettie and her peers, the science was just getting started.

MS-A: Is there a trick to using the research without making the reader feel like they're siting in a geology lecture?

TEM: As opposed to my answer to the question above?  Ha!  In the case any novel, the focus should be on the characters.  Remembering that the events and the science guide a character’s actions and decisions but that ultimately they respond uniquely, can help substantially.  The hard part is really in editing out the science so that you don’t spend more time on it than characterization.  One of the most painful cuts I made was in a scene between Lettie and Professor Pierce.  He had just read some material on geology so that when he met her he could show off a bit.  They had a very Vernian scientific debate over the Uniformitarian Theory.  I won’t bore you with a definition of that term for the same reason I couldn’t bring myself to bore the reader with it: it didn’t move the story along and it didn’t create the relationship I wanted between Pierce and Lettie.  I read the scene without it and the scene didn’t lose impact or importance.

I have been told that after reading the novels, some folks have come away with a better understanding of geology or its importance.  I take that as a compliment.  It was tempting though to over-explain things or to have Lettie actually create Plate Tectonic Theory 100 years before its time.  That is a fault I see in historical fantasy, whether Sci Fi or Steampunk.  We want our heroes to be so good, so smart, so like us, we often write them as modern thinkers with almost superhuman abilities to create theories that cannot be supported by the technology and knowledge of the period.  I gave Lettie a little bit of this by allowing her to formulate her Floating Raft Hypothesis – that the continents float like icebergs.  Scientifically, it’s wrong but it suggests that she is not limiting herself to what those around her commonly accept.  And people like that in a hero – thinking outside the box and a little ahead of the norm, but only to a point.  I believe that if I had her creating Plate Tectonic Theory, it would have made her unbelievable.

MS-A: You have created some wonderful characters, both heroes and villains. (I’ll admit I’m a little bit in love with Tom Turner myself!) What do you do to make characters interesting to readers?

TEM: I fall in love with them.  Or I want to become them.  Then I write the adventure I wish I had, were I Lettie Gantry.  Or the intimate moment I wish I had with Tom Turner.  Not every writer will create characters that resonate with every reader.  My thought is that if I can make them whole and complete to me, I am empowered to present them as whole and complete to the reader.  From there, the reader may chose for himself whether he likes this person or not.

That works well for heroes and sometimes villains, but with villains you have to be careful.  You have to decide what kind of villain you want: someone so vile you have to hate him or one you actually understand and sympathize with.  Or, someone in between.  Readers of fantasy and adventure want someone to hate and blame for the terrible causes of the hero’s journey.  But, I believe today’s reader is looking for more than just an all-bad guy.  They want a complex character who has a reason for why he is the way he is.  Was it his mother abusing him, the death of a loved one, or a residual anger for the outcome of war that did not favor him?  For a budding writer who wants to go beyond the Snidely Whiplash villain, I recommend Bullies, Bastards & Bitches by Jessica Morrell.  Changed my whole outlook on the bad guy.  It also ruined my ability to just sit through movies and not pick apart how their villain was designed.

Making your historical characters fit in their time period is another way to keep your reader interested.  This is tough with women characters from the Victorian age.  Women were dramatically limited by the rules of society.  They had to behave in prescribed ways.  I believe that what gives Lettie an edge as a character is that she is thoroughly Victorian and yet appealing to modern readers.  She struggles against misogyny without disconnecting her from the environment she must live in – that created who she is.  I have difficulty reading historical stories where the female lead entirely bucks the system and faces no consequences.  I feel such portrayals show someone who is entirely disengaged with the time period.  Maybe a woman could walk into a saloon in Tombstone, but once she’s done that, she can’t expect to get a room at the high class hotel (they wouldn’t allow her in) or apply for a job outside of said saloon.  Victorians would assume she was less than a lady and shun her.  Thus Lettie behaves as a lady would while straining the boundaries of academia.  A significant inspiration for Lettie was the real life Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to graduate from medical school.

MS-A: Have you thought about how you will cast the Volcano Lady‘s characters when it’s time to make the movie?

TEM: A tough question.  When I visualized many characters, I tapped people I’d met – often more than one per character.  Some are an homage to friends who have been supportive or inspirational.  Tom Turner was visually designed on an actor, so too Christopher Moore.  I think that I would be open to who might play the characters, but with a strong requirement that no one be under 35  years old.  One of my motivations for writing the Volcano Lady series was to present to the Steampunk fans characters who were more than thin, model pretty, 18 year olds.  Frankly, I wanted to design a character like me, including age.  I would be horrified if the cast was made up of today’s 20-something actors.  Tom is a civil war veteran in the 1880s – doing the math leaves him in his 40s.  And I didn’t want a young Lettie either – she has a doctorate and years of field study which the math won’t support if she’s 22.  I believe that while Hollywood has discounted most women over 30, the average Steampunk lady fan is not a fit for the 18-25 young male subset Hollywood seems to cater to.  Looking around Sci Fi and Steampunk conventions, I can assure you that more than 50% are female and beyond voting age.

MS-A: I've just been enjoying the first of your Penny Dreadfuls. How would you describe a "penny dreadful", and what do you find so appealing about it as a story-telling device?

TEM: I am calling The Yankee Must Die series a “penny dreadful” or “dime novel” for the fun of it.  It feels right for a Steampunk series.  The Victorians devoured dime novels, dreadfuls, and pulp magazines weekly.  And some of them really were dreadful.  Looking back in time at them, the whole idea of melodramatic, good vs. bad, virtually implausible escapist stories seems rather charming.  George Lucas based his wildly successful Indiana Jones movies on the Saturday matinee serials that were the grandchildren of those Victorian penny dreadfuls, and modern audiences still can’t get enough of it.  My cover artist, S.N. Jacobson (, has been researching dime novels of the 1880s for the cover design.  We’re even thinking of adding a snake oil sales pitch on the back cover, as was often done.  There is a sense of innocence, simplistic heroism,  and cliffhanger excitement to that genre.  It has been incredibly fun to write.

MS-A: I know that you started this series without having given any thought to what genre it might be—it was just the story you wanted to write. Your stories are historical and a little romantic as well as fantastical. What are your about genre in general and as applied to your  story?

TEM: I keep using the term Steampunk as I think it best fits.  Steampunk is a subgenre of Sci Fi – Fantasy.  It bases itself in the Victorian age and asks the question: what if?  What if a self propelled submarine with deep diving capacity had been created?  What if large scale airships were possible?  What might the Victorian age, or the Age of Steam, have been like if one or two things had changed?  Some Steampunk is, like The Volcano Lady, a combination of solid historical details (I do tweak a couple of events, I confess) and technology that might have been.  Some Steampunk goes so far as to change the history almost completely, often due to a technological breakthrough that historically did not happen, which Mark Hodder does exceptionally well in his Burton & Swinburne books.  Steampunk can be many things so long as it keeps in mind the basis on which it builds: the Victorian era.  I occasionally call The Volcano Lady a gaslight romance, but that is not quite a genre found in Amazon – yet.
MS-A: What do you like most about your writing? What do you want people to take from it?
TEM: Perhaps it is because I am a product of the late 20th Century that I have come to a point where the cynicism and downbeat mood in many books has become clich√© if not irritating.  I refuse to have vampires, werewolves, or zombies – that’s been done to death.  I miss the action adventure where you have fun.  I’d love to see matinee serials and pulp magazines become more than just a nostalgic fad.  We seem to be missing our innocence, which is odd for me to say because the very journey Lettie Gantry takes results in the loss of some of her innocence but never her sense of wonder.  Can we be awed by the Universe and yet see it without innocence?  I don’t know.  Maybe, like thousands of writers before and after me, I‘ll explore that question through Lettie. 

MS-A: What can we look for as the next step for you?
TEM: On February 15th, I am releasing the first Yankee Must Die story, Huaka’i po (the Nightmarchers), set in the Kingdom of Hawai’i.  This story is packed with erupting volcanoes, pirates, kings, and ancient Hawaiian ghosts.  As a thank you to all those who supported the first Volcano Lady novels, the story will be available as a free PDF download.  Naturally, one should only download and read, not redistribute for sale.  For those who don’t have e-readers or can’t take advantage of the PDF file, there will be e-books and paperbacks on Amazon – at a small charge which I fear I cannot avoid.  Fingers crossed that later this year, after a fact finding mission to Iceland, I will be able to release the third Volcano Lady novel, currently titled The Great Earthquake Machine.
There are two Steampunk conventions on my calendar: Clockwork Alchemy on Memorial Day Weekend, in San Jose, CA, and SteamCon V, October, in Seattle, WA.  I plan/hope to be conducting writer’s workshops.  By no means am I ready to become a Professor of American Literature, but I know there are some wheels that don’t need to be re-invented.  If I can share some of my experience to help another writer, I’m happy to.
 Thank you so much Maggie for inviting me to share your blog.

An excerpt from 

The Yankee Must Die:  The Gaslight Adventures of Tom  Turner
by T. E. MacArethur

Date unknown, 1884
March?  Was it Spring yet?
Location unknown.  Arizona – or was it Colorado?

Tom Turner slammed his fists as hard as possible into the boards that covered him. They rattled slightly; the iron nails were loosening. Dust dropped onto his face and he turned his head, desperate to keep his eyes and nose clear. The cough could not be stifled. He grasped at his breath and held it. No sound beyond a relentless rolling of wheels on ill-travelled road.

They hadn’t heard him – yet.

Noises of thumping wood or creaking boards could be natural in a rattling wagon, but the human cough was a giveaway that Turner was awake.

Carefully, he allowed shallow, almost useless breaths to steal into his lungs. Someone cursed as their horse slipped on the gravel.

The narrowest beam of light slid through a tiny gap between the rough planks that matched the length of his body. There were, perhaps, only five inches between his nose and the wood. There was a small amount of room on either side of him, but his feet touched one end of the box and strands of his hair snagged on the splintering boards only an inch beyond his head. God, he needed to breathe clean air. The cold alone was going to kill him.

The box, and anything near it, jolted hard as the wagon hit rocks, dropped into holes, and generally struck every deformation in the road. Gravel popped out from under the wheels and hooves. Mules protested the rugged road and steep terrain.
The road to where?

He’d been unconscious when they’d put him in the box and nailed it shut. When he’d woken to the sound of arguing voices, he’d fought the natural urge to scream, to curse them, to pound his fists against the thick pine that sealed him inside and to claw his way out. He wanted to fight. He wanted to run. He needed out! Damn it, he needed more air! Primal voices in his head shrieked - he couldn’t stay in that confined space. His imagination raced toward a vision that the next moments would include dirt being piled on top of him, a shovel full at a time – every man’s worst nightmare – being buried alive.

Clean air, his lungs craved air!

Instead, the box had been lifted up and unceremoniously dumped on the back of a wagon.

So he wasn’t going to be buried – not at that moment – not yet. It was hardly a relief, but it was a chance. Turner knew chances when he saw them and, to save his own life, he couldn’t fail to take advantage of them.

The military man within him took over his insane thoughts. He knew not to make another sound unless he could get away with it. He bit into the gag still stuffed inside his mouth and forced each effort to shift his weight to be smooth – silent. They could never know he was awake. They would make carless mistakes if they thought he was no danger to them. His hands were still bound, and so too were his legs as far as he could tell; he couldn’t move them. He would need to free himself, but without alerting his captors. Assassins, more correctly.


He had little time left. It took nothing to guess that the box he lay in was meant to serve first as a prison, then as a coffin. It smelled like a coffin. Moldy pine. Freshly dug dirt. The stench of a former occupant. The air was thick. Yet, as each wagon wheel bounced along the poor road, into some deep gully, or slid sideways in thick sand, he knew the box was not well made. The road was getting rougher – which meant he was getting farther and farther away from human habitation and the means to help himself. Rocks smashed under the weight of the wagon as it rolled over them, or snapped out from under the wheels to scatter noisily across the land.

Hands still held together in front of him, he pounded them against the box again and again, more often hitting at an angle to the wood, raising a welt or cut on his skin, bruising them. The loud road noise was covering his attempts, but he didn’t know how long the trip would be – would he have enough time to weaken the lid of his coffin?

More loose dirt and dust fell from the lid and down onto his face. Turner wiped it away as best he could. The cold was as stifling as any heat wave and foul air made it worse.

One of the wagon drivers called out to a man who was, by the sound of things, riding a horse nearby. Their destination was in sight. There “it” was, one of them cried out. Turner had no remaining time. Twice more he rammed his hands into the lid. Each time it lifted slightly, allowing streaks of light inside, but seemed to lock back down into place and sink him into darkness. Damn thing was made too well.

His head was pounding. His chest felt as though it would explode. The wagon stopped.

The conversation was muffled but some words were distinguishable. 
“Mine shaft.” 
“Played out.” 


Turner’s box was pulled off the wagon and dropped onto the ground, the impact caused his once-healed ribs to burn and too much air to escape his lungs. The box was lifted by the three men, who complained about the work incessantly. He couldn’t see them. Shadows occasionally blotted out the light seeping in through the cracks. They were moving quickly and not in unison. Inside the box, Turner kept banging into the sides, bouncing back and forth as they half dragged, half carried his coffin away from the wagon.

Sound and fractional light changed to complete darkness and echoes. The temperature plunged dramatically. They were inside … something ... a mineshaft.

“He ain’t big, why’s he so heavy?”

“Shut up! We ain’t got far to go. They couldn’ pump fast enough and the whole thing ‘er filled. Been like that all o’re the place. Ain’t no more money in Tombstone. No more silver. Jus’ whores ’n drunk cowboys.”

“Was’ wrong with that?”

Tombstone. Arizona Territory? That made little sense. Of course, he’d been in Colorado. He’d met Sherman and Tesla there. How did he get to Arizona?

If these men worked for the lingering elements of the Confederacy entrenched on the coast and hiding south of the U.S. border, then they were taking him to Mexico. Yet, Tombstone wasn’t a logical place to be … too many people … too much “civilization” … something else was going on. Why a mineshaft? Were they going to kill him, then why kidnap him? Why would they kill someone they had been taking out of the country at some risk? Or was it even the Confederates? Dear God, was it Pierre Jules Hetzel - again?

His captors stopped. Turner braced himself and listened. Would they bury him now? Would they bother? Two of the three were complaining too much to go to the effort of digging a hole. Would they just leave him there, thinking he could not get out? After everything he’d lived through, could his luck still be that good? Damn it, he hadn’t survived this long – against all the odds – to die like this.

The box was stood on end, head down, dragged, and then pushed over an edge. It rolled twice on the steep decline then dropped onto its back and slid down the last of the slope, splashing foot first into water and mud without sinking.

The water flooded into his box up to his waist. This time, a curse burst out of his lungs, only muffled slightly by the gag. The water was icy.

“He’s awake.”

“Don’ matter none.”

“It’s stuck – it ain’t sinkin’,” the third man shouted, an echo of his voice warbling for a moment after.

“Well, I ain’t goin’ down there to un-stick it. It’s movin’ anyway.”

And the box was. Slowly, but unquestionably, it was moving. Turner stopped fighting. Every movement simply freed the box in the mud and allowed it to sink further with more water rushing in.


Get free –get out. Damn it, he was a sailor and could swim. God the water was ice. His legs were going numb.

“We’re done ‘ere. We did our job.”

Their footsteps away from him were distinct, accentuated by cracking gravel and curses at how hard it was to walk up and out. They continued to argue with one another until neither their voices nor wagon could be heard.

Slow the breathing. Deeper. Control.

Pounding heartbeats and ringing filled his ears. His body shook from the cold. Slowly.

Slowly. There’s a chance – think!

Idiots. Amateurs.

Anyone with any sense would know not to walk away until the job was really done. The trouble with having been a covert operator during the War was that Tom Turner had to do things he would have preferred not to – dubious things - but when he had to, he did it thoroughly. And he learned this concept so well that even sitting in freezing water his mind mocked the men who had left him there, not dead yet. Sloppy. Never walk away until you know the body is lifeless and properly disposed of.

The box slipped five inches lower before sticking in the mud again. The water line was up to his chest and making his breathing more difficult than it already was. A sailor’s worst nightmare – drowning.

Perhaps, after all, they had done their job well enough?

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