Tag Archives: pass the prose

How a Victorian Engineer Inspired My Protagonist

I should have known by his name that this man would be the larger-than-life figure I needed as inspiration for my protagonist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You’re destined for greatness with a name like that. And I needed some real-world greatness to help me lay a foundation for my protagonist. In my previous post, “Research: An Antidote for Writers Block,” I wrote about using research to solve some of the structural problems in the world of my fantasy novel. I scoured the Internet for notable figures from the Victorian Era and stumbled onto Brunel. I had found my man: an influential engineer whose name, work, and character lived far beyond the reach of his natural lifetime. Not only did he create some of the most innovative and memorable structures of the Victorian Industrial Age, but he stood out among his contemporaries as a person of tireless vision and ambition, even from a young age.

Twenty-one years old. I was still in college . . . changing my major, how about you? What were you doing at twenty-one? This man, I.K. Brunel, was already working as resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Can you imagine?

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

He was working alongside his father, Marc Brunel, a prominent engineer of the time, who had invented a tunneling shield that made building the underwater tunnel possible. It was the first of its kind and, at its opening in 1843, it was named the Eighth Wonder of the World. But the road to success wasn’t always glorious—the tunnel flooded during the third year of construction, and six of the crew were killed; Brunel barely survived when his assistant pulled his unconscious body from the water. It wouldn’t be the last time Brunel found himself in a tough spot.

From there, he worked on the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. Like the Thames Tunnel, it was a record breaker—the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. Brunel, then twenty-three years old, submitted one design after another and found himself battling the design put up by Thomas Telford, a well-known engineer in his seventies and the chair of the Clifton committee. But in the end Brunel won the commission. As if that David-and-Goliath-scale victory weren’t enough, he gained more notoriety with his next stunt. During construction, someone had the brilliant idea to string up a 1,000-foot iron bar that would carry a basket back and forth to bring supplies across the chasm. And guess who volunteered to test it? Yep, Brunel—he climbed into the basket and set off across the gorge, and it was going well . . . until the rope snagged. So he climbed out and freed it so he could get across. He was stranded, what else could he do, right? Needless to say, people took notice.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

So you can imagine by now what kind of man we’re talking about. Now think bigger, much bigger. As in Titanic. Before the infamous steamship was a twinkle in Thomas Andrews’ eye, I.K. Brunel was dreaming of The Great Western. He was convinced he could carry a passenger across the Atlantic by steam power—not so remarkable to a twenty-first century mind, but at the time it had never been done and . . . Brunel had never before designed a ship. Though he was opposed, ridiculed, and badly burned during construction, he saw the ship completed and arriving in New York from London in 1838. Oh and, by the way, it was the longest ship in the world.

SS Great Western (public domain)

SS Great Western (public domain)

The rest of Brunel’s life followed a similar trajectory of one innovative project after another. And it was this more than anything that drew me to him as a character of history: he was a man with astounding imagination, who broke through the boundaries of the known world, and the challenges of his own life, to pioneer a way into the future as we know it. I relied on details from Brunel’s life—engineering competitions, the setup of a drafting office, techniques of shipbuilding—to help construct my protagonist’s life and work, though the challenges he faces are of a more fantastical nature. Still, he has the heartbeat of men like Brunel: ambitious, visionary, groundbreaking. After all, it’s what makes us love them and root for them no matter where we find them.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

How about you? Where did the ideas for your characters or other narrative elements come from? Did you look into history to find inspiration or another place entirely?

 

– Paige Duke

Advertisements

Flash Fiction Friday

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

The Perfect Gift

by Paige Duke

Under cover of darkness, a girl ran to the dumpster behind the beat-up Shell station. She looked around to be sure she was alone, but she needn’t have worried. There was no one out yet at 3 a.m., and the gas station clerk was snoozing. No one watching to see her bruises, the tear in her hoodie, or the curious thing she pulled from her bag to toss in with the other garbage. And after she was free of the thing, still no one to see her sprinting away, away, away.


 

Today was the day, Ted could feel it. Today he would find the perfect Christmas gift for Alison. As he walked down toward the strip of boutiques on Main Street, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his puff coat against the November chill, he saw how it would be. Christmas morning, she’d wake beside him, after a night at his place of course—she’d be staying over by then, definitely—and pester him about her present, the twelfth one, the perfect one. He had the other eleven picked out and wrapped already, sitting in a cheery pile beneath his Charlie Brown Christmas tree they’d put up together after Thanksgiving. So Christmas morning, wearing her vintage kimono robe (Day Four’s present), Alison would lean into him and beg him for her perfect gift with that way she pouted at him.

Ooh, he shivered just thinking about it. That’s where the vision stopped, though, because of course he didn’t have the perfect present yet. But he would. Today was the day; he could feel it. Something about his hair. It was the first good hair day he’d had in more than a month. The static electricity just messed with it at this time of the winter. He’d brush it, not brush it, wash it, not wash it; nothing he tried made a difference—not even his Brooklyn pomade—it would stick straight up like he’d rubbed a balloon over it. But not today. Today when he’d put the brush to it, it lay down perfectly and stayed that way.

So, his unshakable optimism led him through one store after another. He first tried the boutiques, because he’d heard Alison and her girlfriends talking about them over their long lunches. He hated how those things just dragged on, but there was usually a pretty intense make-out session at her place after, so he just powered through. But what the girls failed to mention was how damn expensive everything was in those shops. He couldn’t afford more than a comb or a nail file after all the other eleven presents. No, that was not perfect present material.

Ted tried the antique shops next, his spirits still holding. Alison loved antiques. Nothing in her apartment was from Target, except maybe a basket or something. She had a thing about baskets—organizing in general. He’d tried to start picking up his own place more, hoping that might encourage her to come over more. To stay over.

But the antique places were a bust too. They weren’t as expensive, but everything was just . . . old. Right, but not the right kind of old. Like cracked plates and dusty magazines and shit. No. That wasn’t right for the perfect present. So Ted kept walking and looking in windows, feeling his hopes draining with every step. Then it was sleeting and he felt his hair frizzing and he was about to call it quits. He must have misread the perfect-hair-day sign.

He was headed back to the car when he saw it—the old Shell station. He couldn’t believe the place was still open, it looked in such bad shape. Back in his freegan days, Ted and his buddies from the Meetup.com group would dumpster dive there for the overflow from the vegan place next door. They’d come across some good stuff there sometimes, Huck had even found an old Lomo camera once that was in perfect condition. People didn’t know what they had, just chunked that stuff. Plus, he’d met Alison at the Shell. He’d stood in line behind her, overheard her trying to buy a pack of American Spirits, but she’d left her card at home. He saw again how he’d stepped up beside her and said to the clerk, “I’ll take two packs,” as he laid a bill on the counter. She’d smiled up at him, blonde, pretty, and those full lips.

Ted found himself walking toward the dumpster. He felt stupid, sure. Dumpster diving for the perfect gift? But this was the day and he’d tried every place else, after all. He looked around to be sure no one was watching him, slipped inside the rickety fence, and peered in at the trash heap. There were boxes turning soft with the sleet, mounds of takeout wrappers, food scraps. He stretched on tiptoe to see if he could catch sight of anything else. And he did see something. A glint of metallic light, glistening with a sheen of wetness. As he strained to see further, he saw its curved shape. It looked promising. He reached in and hooked a finger around the thing, it had a kind of loop.

Ted pulled it out, feeling by its weight that it was right. The thing lying in his hand made his chest grow warm. It looked like an antique! Like a gravy boat, only fancier and with a spout on it. Its copper-colored lid had scrollwork-type decorations and foreign script on the sides. He tried to pry the top off, but it was stuck. Even when he brushed the sleet off with his flannel shirt, he couldn’t make it budge. But that didn’t matter. He felt it. He grinned and turned to go home, clutching the thing in the crook of his arm, oblivious to the unnatural heat of it against his puff coat.

It was perfect. Alison was going to love it.

Genie Not Included

by Dani Nicole

Ten years and the lamp hasn’t moved. I watch it, polish it, and leave it just like I’m supposed to. Just like the king told me to.

I still look at the entrance to the cave like some gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking woman is going to walk through it. I would ask her on a date, but she would probably say no considering I don’t really shower anymore. The lake water in the cave is all I can use. But after I asked her on a date and she said no, I might ask her if she could watch the damn lamp and give me a break. Maybe she would feel sorry for me and say yes.

This is what my mind resorts to in the dark hours of the dark cave of the dark life of being the dark lamp watcher.

All the king’s orders are because of some stupid myth that one day, maybe, just possibly, there is a slight chance that the lamp will shiver and a big ass-genie will come popping out of it.

Holy hell, I would love to see that. I kind of wish he’d wait until the hot girl shows up and surprise the crap out of both of us, just before we were about to kiss. Then when he asked me what my three wishes were, the first one would be just another damn minute so I could finish the job. It’d be pretty awesome to show off my wooing of the ladies in front of an all-powerful genie.

But I have a feeling genies aren’t the type to cater to your every need. After all, they only give you three wishes. They’re not going to sit around until you make up your mind. So I’d have to have all three wishes ready. But I’ve only thought of one wish so far.

Ah, to hell with it. It’s not real anyways. And I’m just some stupid kid sitting on the floor of a cave covered in mold. I’m not sure if I smell like mold, or if I’ve been here so long the mold smells like me.

What I need to focus on is dinner. A rat skitters across my feet and I stab it with my blade. I used to flinch at the sight of blood, at the sound of bones crushing. Now it’s an everyday feat, and a necessity to staying alive in a cave full of rodents and fish.

I reach in my sack for the box of matches. When I pick it up I know I’m in trouble. It’s entirely too light. I slide the box open. Yep. Empty. Fantastic. Now I’ll just have to wait for the king’s lackeys to deliver more supplies in the morning.

Maybe Archibald will come. I like that guy. He always sticks around to chat. Kind of gets that whole isolation thing and how it makes you batshit crazy and whatnot.

I inhale, holding the rat carcass in my hands, letting the blood run to the ground. I really don’t like rat sushi. But I really don’t have a choice. I inhale, bring the rat to my lips, and swallow bile. I hold my breath and bite down.

Disgusting.

Revolting.

I never–

What was that?

I suspend the rat carcass in mid air. It hangs in limbo as I stare at the small golden lamp, sitting beneath the light on its stone sanctuary. Nothing about the lamp looks different. It hasn’t moved. Pivoted. Broken. That means that my ass is still covered, and also that I’m seeing things.

Great just more proof that I’m batshit cra–

There it is again.

I throw the rat on the ground. Stand up. Walk to the lamp. After ten years I’ve never touched it. I’ve never dared to break the king’s rules. But suddenly I am filled with an overwhelming urge to pick up the lamp. I want to hold it. I want to trace the intricate scrolling with my fingertips.

I stop inches from it, squatting so I’m at eye level.

“Hello,” I say to it, because when you’ve been in a cave for ten years, sometimes you talk to inanimate objects.

The lamp sits there mockingly, glimmering under the light.

“To hell with this,” I say.

But just as I turn to walk away, the ancient lamp starts to shake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of Them

Image from myselfaswritten.blogspot.com

Image from myselfaswritten.blogspot.com

When I was a little girl I used to write stories and give them to my parents as presents. I’m not sure how they felt about getting paper instead of ties or necklaces, but parents usually like that sort of thing.

I guess it was pretty evident from an early age that I was a writer. It’s not really something you can just not be, when you are one. There’s a certain way you think and imagine things. Anyone can learn to write, and anyone can learn language, but I believe that some of us are simply called to it, as if it’s an irresistible force.

I was always meant to write.

And while my career goals shifted as I grew up it eventually came down to the truth that writing is the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do. I have enough interests to hold a career while I write, but in the end that’s what my existence boils down to: I have to tell my stories.

Having a dream like that isn’t easy, especially when you graduate from school and stop having people that tell you to write. When you don’t have to turn anything in for a grade or read materials that are selected for you. You’re on your own.

Over the past three years I’ve been working my way into the professional writing world. My first step was to start writing and seek out writing buddies like my life depended on it. I befriended a published coworker (shout out to Jennifer August), and found myself constantly lost in conversation with her.

When I found my primary writing group, things started to become more serious. I started growing as a writer and as a person. I started soul searching and observing and constantly staying in contact with my dreams and ambitions.

But for the past few years I have rested in the safety of trusted friends.

Until last week.

I attended two new writing groups last week, making my first true effort at networking with professional writers. I brought my work and had it critiqued. And to my delight, my fellow writers acknowledged my talent and supported me. They offered me constructive feedback, and they inspired me.

What I found is that I was one of them.

I was no longer the little girl who dreamed of being a writer, but the woman who was consciously making an effort to take action toward achieving a lifetime goal.

And that was incredibly rewarding.

 

-Dani Nicole