Tag Archives: Charles Baudelaire

Dark, Gothic, and hurtling toward disaster

Steampunks  by Kyle Cassidy

Steampunks by Kyle Cassidy

Well…apparently my current scifi work-in-progress, a short story, is steampunk. Who knew? My good friend, author Lee French, figured it out yesterday at our regular Tuesday morning brainstorming session at Panera. After she pointed it out, I could see it clearly, despite my original thought that because I had set it on a mining-colony world, it was a scifi tale.

I was a little surprised I hadn’t seen it earlier, and once it was pointed out, I could see why I was struggling with the tale–I didn’t know what I was writing.

It began as an exercise in writing from the point of view of the flâneur–the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Click here for Scott Driscoll‘s great blogpost on the flâneur. In short, he tells us that: “With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character to accomplish other purposes.”  

The flâneur  is frequently found in literature from the 19th century.  The story is filtered through his eyes and perceptions–it distances the reader from the immediacy of the scene, so be forewarned: genre-nazis and arm-chair editors who want the material delivered in 60 second sound-bytes of action won’t love it. Literary fantasy explores the meaning of life or looks at real issues, and I tend to write from that aspect. Often, the fantastic setting is just a means to posing a series of questions. Sometimes the quest the hero faces is in fact an allegory for something else. I read good literary fantasy–it tends to be written by men and women who can actually write. Not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning, but they are often beautifully constructed, and I learn the craft of writing from reading it.

The Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte

The Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte

My flâneur is Martin Daniels, a young, wealthy, retired crystallographer. He spends his time roaming his city’s streets and sitting in sidewalk cafés observing his fellow citizens, and making social and aesthetic observations. He regularly finds himself crossing paths with one man in particular, Jenner: a self-made man who came up through the mines.

Jenner is battering against the prevailing social barriers which stand in the way of his achieving a political office that he covets, using whatever means at his disposal. He is uncouth, a barely civilized rough-neck with a bad reputation, but something about him draws Martin’s attention, and so he finds himself both observing Jenner, and listening to the whispered gossip that surrounds the man.

One day, as Jenner is passing Martin’s table,  his hat blows off and Martin catches it, returning it to him. Jenner then introduces himself, and admits that he has been watching Martin for some time. He has a task for Martin, one that intrigues him enough to bring him out of retirement. Thus begins an odd relationship.

Thus my flâneur ceases to be merely an observer, and becomes my protagonist, yet he is reporting the events from the distance of his memory, so he is still the observer.

aesthetic definitionSo what is Steampunk?  Mike Perschon, in his dissertation, The Steampunk Aesthetic: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture, has described it as “…an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.” The key word here is aesthetic.

So how does that relate to my short story? When I looked at it with a critical eye, I realized it incorporates all three of those devices:

Technofantasy: Technology that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as the force or motive behind an action or process. No explanations will be given. The technology exists within the story, not the real world.

Neo-Victorianism: A setting that evokes the nineteenth century, whether it is set there or  not. In my tale, the use of the flâneur evokes a 19th century atmosphere, as do the other constraints I had inadvertently written into it.

Retrofuturism: How we think the past viewed the future. It is set in the distant future, but it is a future I think Victor Hugo would have recognized.

I have always perceived steampunk as cogs and diodes, dark atmosphere, rather Gothic, and with a plot that has the protagonists hurtling toward disaster. Now I know it is all that and more. They hurtle toward disaster, with a nineteenth century flair.

Thus my sci-fi flâneur is now the protagonist in a steampunk mystery. This short story, which had sort of stalled, is now back on track and fun to write. Through writing short stories we have the opportunity to write in different genres, and stretch our writing-wings.

I learn more about the craft of writing with each tale, and that fires me up, helping me see my longer works with fresh eyes.

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The Flâneur ~ the 4th POV

In a literary fiction seminar  I attended at a recent convention in Seattle, University of Washington  professor, Scott Driscoll, discussed  a fourth point of view I had heard of in college, that of the detached observer.  I had forgotten about it, and Driscoll gave it a name I’d never heard of: the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) Many of you have heard of it as third-person objective or third-person dramatic. I see it as a completely separate way to show a story.

elegat wits and grand horizontalsWriting in 1962, Cornelia Otis Skinner said that there is no English equivalent of the term,  flâneur,  “just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city”.

paris spleenThe French author, Charles  Baudelaire, characterized the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets.” He saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. Thus, in the narrative, a flâneur plays a double role by existing  as a present, but ignored, member of society who remains a detached observer of all that occurs within the story.

Having the option to use this point of view in the narrative of genre fiction opens up many possibilities for originality an author may not have considered:

  • he is NOT omniscient as in having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding of the fictional universe–he doesn’t know everything–but he does know what he sees.
  • he sees more than the individual characters do because his random travels take him all over town regularly, and he observes most of the tale as it unfolds.
  • Because he only knows what he sees, some information crucial to the resolution of the final events will be revealed to him at the last minute–a surprise to him too. When the last pieces of the puzzle are put together, his commentary summarizes the fall-out and final outcome of the characters involved.

Men without WomenIt is a POV used in classic french modernist literature to describe the story of certain social scenes in the city, but I can see this as a useful way to relate the events on a space-station, or indeed in many traditional genre fiction social settings.

Now for the downside of using the flâneur as your vehicle to convey your narrative:

  • He is not reliable—he has his own personality, offering subtle judgments and unconscious opinions on the behavior of the characters. Therefore, just as in a first-person narrative, the reader cannot be sure he is telling the unbiased truth.
  • The narrator  tells the story without describing any of the character’s thoughts, opinions, or feelings; so the reader can only guess at character motivations, and must assume the objective observer truly is objective and has told the truth in that regard.
  • It separates the reader from the intimacy of the action and slows the pace down.
  • It could become voyeuristic, if one writes graphic love scenes. {eeew.}

255px-On_PhotographyThe POV of a flâneur is also a vehicle used in in art, and in street photography.  Susan Sontag in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photographydescribes how, since the development of hand-held cameras in the early 20th century, the camera has become the tool of the flâneur:

The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”

Susan SontagOn Photography, pg. 55

I don’t see myself using this style of POV for an entire novel, but I can think of a thousand ways to use it in short-stories. Come November, when NaNoWriMo begins, I may give it a whirl, just for practice. Writing is a craft and I love finding different ways to express it. A fresh point of view to write from can only stretch my writing skills.

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Setting inspiration ablaze

225px-Author_james_rollins_2008Last Thursday I was privileged to hear James Rollins speak at the opening of the 2014 Pacific Northwest Writers association conference in Seattle, Washington. He’s quite hilarious, and down to earth. He is still actively working a s veterinarian, which is a profession that would keep anyone humble, I  think.

It was a wonderful speech, and I was completely entertained, laughing so hard I had tears at one point. Jim kicked it off, but over those four days of immersion in the craft, 4 presenters in particular impressed me and rekindled my drive to write good novels.  Over the next weeks I will be blogging on the elements of the craft that each of these four speakers were able to convey.

scott-driscoll1The first to pique my interest and steal my literary heart was Scott Driscoll,  whose  novel, Better You Go Home , has been receiving high praise. I am in the middle of reading it now, and it is compelling work. I’ll be blogging at length about all the books I purchased at this convention.

Anyway, Scott gave 2 talks and I attended both of them  The first was on the arc of the scene, developing a rhythm for each scene that grips the readers attention, takes him through all the emotional points you want him to experience, and then sets the platform for the next scene.   The second was on literary fiction, which is my secret addiction.

In some ways I already understood the arc of the scene, but he was able to really get it across in an entertaining and concise way, and emailed me a wonderful handout to tape next to my computer. In his literary fiction seminar Scott Driscoll also discussed  a fourth point of view I had heard of in college, but forgotten about,and gave it a name I’d never heard of: the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer,) which we will be discussing next week. Charles  Baudelaire characterized the flâneur as a “gentleman stroller of city streets,” he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. Thus, a flâneur plays a double role by existing  as a present, but ignored, member of society who remains a detached observer of all that occurs within the story.

jason blackThe second speaker to really grab my interest was Jason Black. A well-known structural editor, Jason also writes middle-grade novels.  His discussion on steering your story where you want it to go was really pertinent to a problem I’ve been wrestling with in one of my current works in progress. I will be writing on his suggestions and putting them to work  for me.

One of the things that Jason jarred loose in my head is how I need to proceed with deploying information about a certain evil character while not revealing too much at the outset. He reminded me of the the concept of asymmetric information–A situation in which one party in a transaction has more or superior information compared to another. This often happens in business and stock transactions where the seller knows more than the buyer, although the reverse can happen as well. Potentially, this could be a harmful situation because one party can take advantage of the other party’s lack of knowledge.

In novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, and those plot points are driven by the those characters who do have the critical knowledge. Applying this to my current plothole will be key to resolving it.

Lindsay Schopfer book signing PNWA 2014Then I was assisted by fantasy author, Lindsay Schopfer, in identifying character motivation. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why characters do the things they do–and Lindsay boiled how to identify it down to simple manageable chunks. Now I think my problems with the one evil character I am trying to flesh out will be resolved, because he now has clear motivations for his actions. I will be writing like a banshee for a week, anyway!

Lindsay’s characters leap off the page, and that is what we all want for our own work.   I really enjoyed The Beast Hunter and Lost Under Two Moons, and have reviewed both of them on Best in Fantasy.

Terry PersunAnother seminar I went to that really pushed my current work into focus was given by Terry Persun,  the award winning science fiction and fantasy author.  He was discussing point of view, the ubiquitous POV we sometimes struggle with, should we be omniscient, 3rd person, or first person? And what do they mean? Of course, I have a grip on that, but it was his side comments and sense of humor that jump-started my my brain. He managed to help me bring into focus the way to end the final bit of misery that is my current work in progress.

He made the point that the only POV a reader can really trust is the ‘omniscient’ as it is not told from any one character’s point of view and is therefore unlikely to be a lie. However, that said, he’s  written novels in every POV, because it’s more interesting for him as an author. I bought 4 of his books–just sayin’.  Can’t wait to get into Doublesight. I can smell a book blog review!

And while I was there, I finally met Janet Oakley in person. She is a long-time friend, an author I have known for several years, and whom I met through the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards Contest–but we only have known each other through the on-line community. She is an awesome person and her books, Timber Rose and Tree Soldier  have been winning awards right and left!

Janet and I met up with local author Don Harkcom, who writes thrillers, and who is now being courted by several agents. Don actually lives not far from me, and we spent a lot of time discussing everything from gaming to politics. All in all, it was a great conference and I am already looking forward to next year!

Me, Don Harkom, J.L. Oakley -Janet - PNWA 2014

Me, Don Harkcom, & J.L. Oakley at PNWA 2014

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