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Interviewing the AH Community: Keith Dickinson

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 over the next few Months I'll be interviewing 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.

This week it's Keith Dickinson, a steampunk writer who can be found at his website and on twitter.

Hello Keith. First of all, thanks for agreeing to talk to us.

Thanks for having me.

For those of our readers not familiar with you, you're a writer of steampunk detective stories. When did your interest in Steampunk start and what do you think the appeal is?

It's hard to say where my interest in steampunk started. Probably with movies like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I loved the idea of modern inventions in a historical setting. Then, as I saw more cosplay, and other steampunk creations, that's when it solidified into a love of steampunk. They had a certain way of designing things in the Victorian era that I just think looks fantastic when applied to the modern world. We have lost a lot of stylised beauty these days, I think, in our madcap pursuit of “form follows function”, and it's nice to see that style realised in the steampunk world.

A lot of the classic Alternate History stories are detective mysteries, why do you think it's such a good genre to use to introduce a reader to a changed world?

Detectives are great for telling stories because they can go everywhere, and talk to anyone, about whatever they want. It's their job to ask questions, sticking their nose in where it doesn't belong, so it gives the writer a lot of leeway in terms of how they tell their story. And each time they have a new case that's a whole new world within a world for them to explore. It keeps things fresh and interesting, which is always good when you want to keep people entertained.

As to why historical novels often tend to be detective stories, I think that Sherlock Holmes has a lot to do with that, at least within the steampunk genre. Just look at how easily the character lent itself to a steampunk aesthetic in the Guy Ritchie movies (steampunk in all but name). He's what people think of when you mention the Victorian era, other than Dickens, and so it's no surprise that that's where people's minds go when they come to write historical novels of their own.

Alternate History is often criticised for being overly focused on the nitty gritty on the differences between their history and real history but your works are focused far more on the characters. Do you actually have a sketched out idea of what the setting is like or it it just vague enough that you've given yourself leeway?

History has never been my strong suit, in fact it was my worst subject at school. Thankfully, I'm not writing a historical textbook, I'm writing a story with airships, criminal chocolatiers, and talking cats in it, so I doubt anyone is coming to one of my books expecting historical accuracy. There are some amazing books out there that really do a deep dive on their historical accuracy, like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman Papers, but I just don't have the patience to research something like that (although I do like to throw in the occasional historical oddity, just for fun). For the world of Hammersmyth I simply picked a point of divergence, the second industrial revolution, and decided that from that point on all bets were off, that I could do whatever I like. It's so much easier that way. Plus, as you say, I'm more focussed on the characters than I am historical events, so there's very little in my writing that I need to be accurate about.

Given that the main Altered history elements are advances in technology, why did you choose to set the story in the past at all rather than the future or a fantasy world? What's the main appeal to you about that clash of a retro culture and futuristic technology?

Two things; familiarity and freedom. I've written in other genres, and still do, but when you're writing something set in the future, or in a fantasy land, you have to do a lot of world building, stopping the story to explain your new magic system or the royal line of succession, which takes up a lot of time and can be quite boring if not done well. But when you write something with a historical setting, one that people are familiar with, you avoid all that, making the story instantly accessible to the reader; and at the end of the day I'm all about the ease and accessibility.

As for throwing modern inventions into the mix, I find it gives my characters a lot more freedom. They don't have to ride a horse for days to get from one end of the country or the other, they can take an airship instead. They can call each other rather than have to send a telegram. They can do whatever they want, basically. So long as I can think it, they can do it. It gives the story more pace and versatility, plus it's a lot more fun to do too. Sky pirates and cowboys on mechanical horses? Yes please!

Your works have a pretty light tone, though there's a few hints about the darker side of the era. Any plans to explore that in the sequels or do you prefer to keep it cosier?

I don't ever intend to go really dark. There's enough dark in the world. I write stories to offer people an escape, and whilst I don't pretend that the dark side of life is not there, I don't make it the focus of the story I'm trying to tell.

When I write a story I always ask the same two questions; What's it about? and What's it really about? For example, in the follow up to Dexter and Sinister, called The Dragonfly Delivery Company, the story is about airships and sky pirates, but what it's really about are the lives people are born into and the roles they feel they have to play. I'm very much inspired by how Terry Pratchett handled social issues, highlighting them whilst at the same time telling an engaging story. It's definitely something I aspire to.

Obviously the main draw in terms of novelty in your novel, 'Dexter and Sinister: Detecting Agents' is the robot cat detective. What was the inspiration behind that?

Having Dexter be a mechanical cat seemed so obvious to me I didn't even question it. I heard the terms dexter and sinister, thought, “That sounds like a pair of detectives,” then thought, “And dexter sounds like something you'd call a cat,” et voila, Dexter and Sinister were born.

I actually never intended on writing a steampunk murder mystery. I needed something to do whilst my former agent was touting a fantasy noir I had written around town, and so I thought I would give it a go. But, once I'd had the idea of a mechanical cat that says all the things you know cats are thinking when they look at you, I couldn't resist, I simply had to give it a try.

In your blog, you've written some useful tips for new writers trying to break through. If you had to summarise that in a paragraph or two what would you say?

Write the thing you want to read, not only because you will read that thing a lot before you're done, but because, if you enjoy the story, other people will enjoy it too. Learn the rules if you want to, they have their uses, just remember that the only thing that matters is this; is it interesting? If what you're writing engages the reader, and makes them happy, they won't care if what you did was “correct” or done in the “right way.” And if they do then clearly it wasn't written for them.

And don't worry about perfection, just go for it. Every writer would love it if their next next novel appeared fully formed on the page, perfect in plot and punctuation in every conceivable way, but it never happens that way. Ever! Writing is rewriting, so just get it down, get to the end, go back, make it better, and then keep doing that until you have something you're happy with. Then give it to someone you trust to read. That's when the real hard work begins, dealing with someone else's feedback.

One of the tips people always say is good cover art, you have a terrific cover for your novel by Jasmin Garcia-Verdin. How did that come about?

Everyone judges a book by its cover, and I mean everyone, so I knew I needed a good design, one that was eye catching (easily spotted at a convention from ten feet away) but that also tempted people to crack the spine to see what was inside. I looked at websites like DeviantArt and ArtStation to find artists whose work I liked, then got in touch with them until I found one I could afford who was available for a commission. Then we worked together in coming up with an idea, with me providing source material and her responding to that. I have some design experience, but I'd never done a book cover before, so it was a daunting task. However, like all things, it's just a series of small decisions that need to be made until finally you get to where you need to be.

I have a full breakdown of what it's like working with a cover designer on my website – Anatomy of a Cover Design – with lots of pictures, details of how to write a brief, and advice on how to give effective feedback, if anyone would like to know more.

What else can we look forward to seeing from you?

I have a whole series of novels planned, set in the same steampunk world. I plan on introducing samurai and magic and space travel and all sorts of things. Plus I'm working on a steampunk board game, as well as making videos using puppets for some of my steampunk short stories. I want to make the world of Hammersmyth as big and fully-rounded as I can. There's so much potential in the steampunk genre, and I intend to realise every bit of it.



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