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Creating Shanghai Sparrow: Guest Post by Gaie Sebold

Shanghai Sparrow (cover)The germination of a novel is a peculiar process. It seemed particularly so, for me, in the case of Shanghai Sparrow.

When I first considered the possibility of a steampunk novel I had only written two short stories set in steampunkish universes, both of which I’d enjoyed doing, both of which had a rather sepia-soaked, melancholy tone. However, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to maintain that tone for an entire novel – or that readers would enjoy it if I did. I fancied something more fun. Spies! Funky Mechanisms! Adventure! The Empire!

Except that however much I may like my country in a general way, the history of the British Empire is not a subject I could imagine writing about without hefty doses of eye-rolling cynicism and frank horror. So although I wanted to write about a school for spies, I knew I didn’t want (and probably couldn’t write) a gung-ho heroine. And although Victorian London is endlessly fascinating, it’s well-trodden ground. Also, my actual mechanical ability would fit neatly into the average egg-cup, and still leave room for a pretty good-sized egg.

Basically, I started out with rather more negatives than positives. A type of fiction I’d hardly done at all, in a way I had never done it. A spy novel with anti-Empire sentiments. A steampunk novel not set in Victorian London. And mechanics that would have to rely, as far as possible, on no applicable knowledge of any sort of physics more complex than those required to open a jar of jam.

What I did know was I wanted a school for spies and a lively heroine. Also, magic. I wanted magic in there somewhere.

Etherlux Magnifier by JunBut things add up, from here and there and everywhere. Some time ago a friend persuaded us along to sound artist Ray Lee’s Ethometric Museum. This was a strange and delightful installation wherein odd instruments that looked as though they were designed by a series of mad scientists from about 1870 through 1930 were set going by the ‘curator’ (Mr Lee, in underlit goggles and disturbingly surgical-looking gloves) to create a series of repeating sounds that gradually built up to a harmony.

The ‘theme’ or ‘plot’ was that these instruments had been designed as devices of ethometric science to create specific emotions in the listeners. It worked, in that the whole thing was so pleasingly bonkers and the final harmony so delightful that most of us left with huge and possibly disconcerting grins plastered to our chops. And, more than a year later, up popped the memory of those strange instruments and their purported ‘effects’.

Steampunk dragon by IronshodI’d been reading folklore, and graphic novels that played with the idea of the fey, and had some thoughts about why the fey might have withdrawn from the world as the industrial revolution got under way. And at some point someone mentioned the possibility of an Eastern setting, and I thought, hmm. Then suddenly there was this picture of a steampunk Chinese dragon and well, I knew I had to have one of those, because how could you not?

I started reading around. I read about the Opium Wars. This did nothing to improve my opinion of the British Empire. Or the Chinese Empire, for that matter. Or the human race in general. Ye gods, people do horrible things in the name of…well, anything. Gods, Universal Harmony, the Balance of Payments, the necessity of giving people a damn good civilising whether they want it or not.

Reading about Shanghai was, in some ways, worse: though there was marginally less hypocrisy involved. People were quite openly treated like disposable objects in the pursuit of profit. I was also reading Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Though I had some knowledge of social conditions at the time, on top of the rest of my reading it was almost enough to send me into a permanent downward spiral. While the Empire was expanding upwards and outwards, mouthing off about its moral obligations to the poor benighted world as it went, its centre of power was held up by people living lives of filthy desperation, taking any work they could find, however dangerous or degrading, to scrape together enough for a mouthful, a night’s shelter, and shoes.

Shanghai 1900There really wasn’t a lot to choose between the levels of poverty and exploitation in London and in Shanghai. And I needed, somehow, to turn all this into something that bore as much resemblance as possible to an adventure novel, rather than a Fabian Society tract.

As for my heroine: she ended up being a contradiction too. Someone who learned to lie, cheat, and steal in order to survive; and ended up rather good at it. Someone not all that morally straightforward, who I wanted people to like. Who I needed to like, in order to write her. So how did it come together?

I’m really not certain. I went back to favourite books on writing and studied plot as though it were surgery. I wrote things and deleted them and wrote them again a different way and added subplots and cut characters and drank a lot of coffee and wrote long whinging emails to extremely patient friends and wailed at my extremely patient partner over my desperately clutched glass of wine. There were more than a few days spent doing little but flinging swearwords at the screen and wondering what the bloody blue blazes I’d got myself into. (These were occasionally somewhat made up for by the days when I got to research Victorian swearwords, and fling those instead.)

sonaesthetic cropAnd in the end, like the different notes from the machines in the Ethometric Museum becoming a harmony, this strange ragbag of ideas and facts and nonsense and oddity turned into a story. But the process? Have I got it now? Nope. I’ve realised it’s different every time. I never know what to expect. I keep thinking I must have learned how this works. Next time I’ll have it all worked out, next time it will be easier, clean and neat and simple. I’m finally beginning to realise that not only is this unlikely ever to be true, but perhaps I should thank my lucky stars for that. Because if it did become that clean and neat and simple, I suspect it might become dull. And dull really isn’t what I do this for.

Shanghai Sparrow comes out on 29th of April in the US and 8th of May in the UK from Solaris. You can read an extract of it here.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Mike says:

    Sounds like a great read. More of a pantser than a plotter? I am always curious about this.

  2. How a germ of an idea becomes a full scaffold for writing is interesting. Imagery, basic ideas…I was curious how this concept came to be.

  3. Awesome read. Definitely have to pick this one up 🙂

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