Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So I regularly interview various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Dawn! First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
Thanks for having me!
How did you get into Alternate History and what, do you think, is the appeal of it to you?
I've been interested in history since I was a kid, so it's sort of unsurprising that I eventually gravitated there for my degree and one of my favorite genres to write. I also grew up with a lot of fantasy and science fiction in my life, thanks to parents who were geeks, so the combination of fantastical "what ifs" with my interest in history was a perfect match.
You have an academic background in History. Do you find yourself coming back to areas you studied or edited reports about in your writing or do you try and keep a distance between the day job and the fun job?
For the most part, the areas I studied haven't really found much of their way into my writing yet. There's probably something to be explored in those topics, but the closest I've come is writing a story with a main character who could have been related to the German immigrants in Missouri that I wrote my thesis about. I have learned a lot about archaeology and anthropology through my day job, and I've written a couple of tangentially related stories to those topics.
You obviously do a lot of research before writing an historical piece, in your 'Unfixed Timelines' anthologies you include a short essay about the historical setting for each story alongside the fiction. What do you think are the most important things to capture in terms of the feel of an historical era?
For me, understanding how the events or setting fits into the bigger historical picture is helpful. I also like to try to find just a handful of details that I can toss in to really evoke the time period, which sometimes means going down rabbit holes to find out things like how people stored sugar in a pub in Victorian England. But at the same time, I'd warn folks who are writing a story set in an historical era to be careful not to spend too much time on the research. In some cases, close enough is good enough!
What exactly Alternate History is as a genre is always somewhat disputed. You tend to write what I could call 'soft AH', where it's set in a recognisable historical society but the divergence is fantastical or science fiction elements rather than just different circumstances. As a writer what appeals to you about that mixture of historical and speculative fiction?
Catherine Schaff-Stumpf calls this sort of alternate history "fantastic history," and I tend to use that term or "fantastical history." For me, tying in the speculative bits to an historical period is where I find most of the fun. "What if" is a great question to ask, but I just think of that question on a smaller scale. I tend to go for smaller events, not large world-changing ones, because my own historical focus is generally social history, or "history from below." This often includes people that past historians have not paid a lot of attention to, like women, minorities, and the lower classes. So by focusing on smaller events and what might be considered "supporting characters" by some, I can write stories touched by the fantastical within an historical setting, and that's really what I love!
You've reviewed less fantastical Alternate History on your blog, such as 'To Climates Unknown'. Do you think your own writing has much in common with books like that or do the fantastical elements mean you have different aims?
I was absolutely amazed by 'To Climates Unknown' because of how well it took long-established events and twisted them into a brilliantly complete and detailed world that looked like our world but just a few degrees off. Arturo Serrano had some deeply fantastical pieces within the story, too, with earlier than real world technological advances and the way that that earlier development shaped their outward forms. But I also really enjoyed that many of the sections of that book were focused on lesser-known people. That's the primary place where I saw similarities between my own writing and Serrano's wonderful book.
You're a prolific reviewer of fiction, on your blog, as well as a writer of it. What have been some of your favourite books that our audience might be interested in?
Having already mentioned 'To Climates Unknown,' which I highly recommend, I also really enjoy Cynthia Ward's series, beginning with 'The Adventure of the Incognita Countess,' which mashes up history with vampires. 'The Hand of the Sun King' by J. T. Greathouse is a historically inspired fantasy setting that draws from Chinese history in very amazing ways. Rosemary Jones has a very cool Cthulhu mythos tie-in novel set in the early twentieth century film industry called 'Mask of Silver' that's of interest to people who like both history and film. And I love everything I've read by Alex Acks!
Your novel series, the Brass and Glass trilogy, is a classic steam punk story about Airship Pirates. It also, as is traditional of the genre, has outlaw, outcast lead characters. Do you think the outsider politics is a major part of the appeal of steampunk vs other types of historical fiction?
For me, a big part of steampunk goes back to the "punk" roots wherein oppressed peoples rise up against the status quo, so outsiders are quite often a part of the genre. And if you look at the Victorian era on the whole, there were plenty of people who were oppressed, who suffered under horrid conditions, and who had reason to want things to change. So my ragtag band of misfits are the change they want to see in their world, fighting against a government that really doesn't care what happens to the "little" people of the world.
You and your husband ran the Mad Scientist Journal for many years, which published dozens of anthologies and gave many new writers their first publish. What advice would you give to first time authors trying to get a story accepted?
Speaking as both an editor and a writer, the biggest advice I can give is that you need persistence to get published. You're going to get rejections, no matter what level you're at as a writer, but you may feel as a beginning writer that all you get is rejections. But you have to keep going, or you won't ever feel the magic of an email stating that they love your story and want to publish it. Also, you have to keep writing new stuff. Because if you've only got one story and it sells, then what? But also, the more you write, the stronger your writing becomes, and the harder it will be for editors to turn you down.
Obviously one of the struggles of small press publishing is funding. Beyond book sales, you have a patreon, you've ran kickstarter campaigns, you've used subscription sites like Channillo. How easy is it in the current literacy landscape to make money as an amateur and what funding model do you think is most effective?
The truth is that it's not easy at all. I still work a full-time job to support our household and my writing habit. And while my writing income is growing from year to year, it's not remotely close to paying the bills. In terms of the effective models, Kickstarter tends to be the fastest way to accumulate a large amount of income, but it also involves a lot of work. When we used to run month-long Kickstarters, nearly all of our spare time was devoted to promoting it and following up on things during the month, and then we'd have several more months of work to complete the project. And you always run into the possibility of pouring your heart and soul into a project you believe in, but in the end, it doesn't fund.
What can we expect to see from you next, in terms of AH or speculative history generally?
This year, I'm primarily releasing short story collections, while also working to get more of my short stories published in magazines and anthologies. I've got a steampunk short story due out in 'Runs Like Clockwork' in February, and I'll have a collection of middle grade steampunk short stories, 'Chrysanthemum and Marigold Marsh, Girl Detectives,' out in May. I'll probably be looking at another volume of 'Unfixed Timelines' in 2023, and I've promised a friend of mine who doesn't enjoy reading ebooks that once I have enough of those stories and essays, I'll do a print version that includes all of the 'Unfixed Timelines' stories!