Influences for Smoke, Steel, & Ivy
Once upon a time, long before a pandemic made travel impossible, I spent a week in London and Paris. It was my first time touring these cities, and it was a big deal because I’m an art-nerd in addition to a nerd-nerd. At the time, I was in the middle of revising my first novel (landing on those words “The End” for the first time is life changing), and was thinking a lot about that story as we toured around London. I reread parts of my book on the train to Paris. I pondered character arcs as I drank the best cup of cocoa in the world from Angelina’s. I tried to patch together solutions for the recently illuminated plot holes.
So naturally, when I came home, I started writing a completely different book.
Smoke, Steel, & Ivy began with my trip across the pond. Images, settings, beverages, feelings–I lifted all of them from that trip and deposited them into my new work in progress. For example, I remember a woman sketching some sculptures in the V&A and that academic study had me imaging desks and other pupils in that gallery…burning the midnight oil… trying hard not to fall asleep.
My travels to London (touring the Tower Bridge engine room, the organ music at St. Paul’s, a chocolate caramel torte at the Cafe in the Crypt at St. Martin of the Fields), struck chords with me. Walking around London that cold week in March inspired me. Travel wakes me up. I’m more present during and after a trip. The need to catalog everything I fell in love with or rediscovered makes for some epic writing sessions.
So that trip was for sure an influence, but it must be said that I’ve been a natural fan of steampunk/gaslamp aesthetics my whole life. I just like lace and leather and intricate gears and engines and metal and clouds of steam and women in ties and corsets and men in vests with their shirts unbuttoned and sleeves rolled to the elbow, and questions of science, science and progress…wait, that’s a song. But I like thinking about how the first computer program was invented by a woman (Ada Lovelace is such a boss) and that the first computers ever (the Jacquard loom) were invented (and then largely run by women) to create damask and other textiles. That’s my brand of steampunk/gaslamp. Women in STEM, innovating, running around falling in love and changing/saving the world.
A lot of the entertainment I was consuming at the time was influential. Harley and the Davidsons, Victoria, and Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton being the stand outs. Funny story, I was delirious with fever when we watched Harley and the Davidsons, and so I can’t say with any conviction how it stacks up, but in my fever high I was convinced it was the most amazing miniseries ever.
A lot of what I was feeling at the time was influential. I put in my vertigo, and my love for my bicycle (mine’s purple), and the nasty spill I had on it, and what I know about cherry blossoms. But at its heart, Smoke, Steel, & Ivy is a retelling of my favorite fairy tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it was enriched by the myth of Atalanta. I wasn’t super familiar with this myth, but my sister was teaching a mythology course at the time I was drafting, and over Mother’s Day weekend, when we were catching up, she told me about this one.
Atalanta was a runner, and she was faster than any man alive. She was also intelligent and gorgeous and a total boss. If you wanted to marry her, and all the fellas did, you had to race against her and win. You forfeited your life if you lost.
So enter into the story, Hippo boy (I know, Hippomenes. His name isn’t the least bit sexy. It took some ingenuity and Google Translate to easter egg that name into my story, but I did.). Hippo knew he was out of his league, but he also was head-over-feels in love with Atalanta. So he went to a higher power, namely Aphrodite, and said, “You have to help me.” Aphrodite gave Hippo golden apples.
And while Hippo and Atalanta raced, he rolled these flashy, golden apples ahead when he was falling behind, and Atalanta would stop and pick them up, because come on. It’s a golden apple. You’d pick it up too.
So Hippo boy won the race. He cheated kinda, but he won the race. And he and Atalanta lived happily ever after*. Because really, she let him win.
Golden apples come up in other folklore. They are symbols. I see them as a placeholder for what is flashy enough or important enough to stop us in our tracks. What makes us course correct? What gets our attention? What changes our minds? It’s tidier to just call it a golden apple. And more fun than labeling it a distraction or change of heart. Yay symbolism.
I’ve spent more than a few evenings wondering if I was Atalanta, and I was running a (metaphorical) race, what would my golden apples look like? (Babies. Babies are golden apples for sure. Cookies. Yup. I can make a pit stop for a cookie anytime anywhere. Thrift and/or antique shops get my attention. Yes, I will stop and see if I can find a pretty china plate. Cookies taste better when they come to you on china plates. I enjoying proving this at every opportunity. What else? A well tended vegetable garden with neat rows of good things to eat, growing contentedly in van Gogh colored soil. I’m going to stay awhile. Flowers make the cut too. A new book review from one of my trusted sources or even pretty pictures of well organized bookshelves–I’ve just canceled my entire day to stop, stare, and read.)
In my novel, my steampunk princess has a love of and a thirst for technology. And her fella gets it. He gets that he is out of his league, but he turns to his friends for help. And the result is three delicious, mouthwatering golden apples tinker-made to stop the heroine in her tracks and realign her journey.
So there you go. Hop on a plane, eat some good food, tour some beautiful museums, come back and binge a few shows, mash together a beloved fairy tale and a myth, and you too can write a New Adult Steampunk/Gaslamp Fantasy Romance novel. To put it more simply: live, explore, enjoy and ask yourself about what you’ve always loved and why. Then…
*My blog, my ending. To be fair, the Greeks really loved their heroes and their journeys and these stories are notorious for having subpar/ tragic endings. I prefer fairy tales that focus on heroines and their journeys of connection that lead to happy endings.