I try to stay out of online arguments. They never, ever make a person look good. And if that person is an author, coming off like a meanie or a jackass will drive readers away. How many times have you skimmed over a bloody flame war and thought “Wow, that was so convincingly argued, fact-based, and respectfully presented, I’m going to go out and buy tons of these people’s books!” Not often, I imagine.
Which is why I save my rants for my dog. He’s a great listener, and as long as I keep the kibble and walkies coming, he doesn’t care what I think about the Emotional Issue of the Day (funny things, you humans with your “emotions,” but I digress.) And no one keeps secrets like a German Shepherd.
But sometimes a person can’t help herself. And sometimes an argument can inspire something besides road rage and heartburn.
Many years ago, when I was still toying with the idea of writing stories, I found myself in an argument with someone in a steampunk forum who insisted that it wasn’t realistic in steampunk to write main characters who weren’t upper class white males, because (according to this person) during the Victorian era, these were the only people who had access to education, technology, and science—and also, because these were the only people who had any sort of social agency.
Ignoring for the moment that steampunk is a branch of science fiction, and therefore authors define “realistic,” did you just say that clockwork zombie pirates dropping time-warp bombs from laser-cannon equipped dirigibles are more “realistic” than, well, a melanin-enhanced main character who lacks a penis, an Oxbridge education, and a trust fund?
I’m not very good at spontaneous arguments. I need time to think, research, and consider. It’s what made me an excellent translator, but a piss-poor interpreter. One can’t, after all, turn to a client in the heat of negotiation, and say, “Can you just shut the hell up for a minute and let me find the right words to convey the subtle nuances of that rubbish you just spouted?” At least not without losing all her clients (but gaining the admiration of frustrated interprebots everywhere).
So after a few unsuccessful—and undignified—attempts to relieve this poor poster of their ignorance, I did what any reason-driven clockwork girl would do—I exited the forum and stewed about it.
And this irritation—this little bit of sand in my shell that scratches and inflames to this day—became one of the pillars of my writing.
I’m a 19th-century girl, for better or for worse. But I’m not interested in corsets, high tea, or being presented at court. I find the corridors of power more treacherous than the back alleys of Whitechapel. I wear men’s trousers and carry a knife in my boot. My clockwork heart beats for the children sleeping in doorways, the men laboring in the sweet, choking air of the sugarhouses, the women running orphanages on a shoestring and a prayer. Caribbean immigrants. Soot-covered apprentices. Phossy-jawed matchstick makers. Murderously territorial mudlarkers and costers in all their button-covered finery. Italian ice-sellers. Flower girls. Hops-pickers and public disinfectors.
The nameless multitudes upon whose sweat and blood were built the privileged lives that appear in history books. These people had “agency.” These people had stories. They might not have had the same influence with official institutions that the upper classes enjoyed, but there are many spheres of influence, and many means of making one’s way through the world. These are the stories I like to read about, and these are the stories I like to write.
So, though I take petty pleasure in the fact that, years later That Other Poster, who also fancied themselves a writer, has authored little else other than forum screeds, I also have to grudgingly thank them for the sand in my shell that has driven me to search for ignored lives and lost stories, and to write the stories that bring me (and hopefully a few other people) such enjoyment.
My new book, Turnbull House, continues the story of accidental detective Ira Adler (an olive-skinned Jew from the meanest of the mean East London streets—no pedigree, no trust fund, no frock coats). Two years after the life-scrambling events of The Affair of the Porcelain Dog, former criminal Ira is scratching out a living as a private secretary and sitting on the board of the youth shelter he helped to found at the end of Porcelain Dog. It’s not a comfortable life, but it is an honest one…at least until some bastard author pulls the rug out from under him again.
Turnbull House is the second of three books, and will be released in February.