Tag Archives: writing

When You Know It’s Bad


Ira Glass from “This American Life” describes one of the biggest struggles any creative professional has to deal with. We know what makes an awesome work of art, but our beginning attempts can’t seem to reach the standards we hold ourselves to. We try and try, and we know it’s not good enough. So what do we do?

As a writer, it’s important to persevere, no matter how hard it seems. The strategies listed below are more like vital parts of a balanced writing life. When one area falls, the equilibrium of creativity falters and crumbles.

Write 

The most important thing to do as a writer is to write. That seems obvious, but many writers get lost in the editing loop, in which they limit their production by continuously editing what they have already written. Every novel you write requires time to create freely and brainstorm through prose without limitation. You might realize halfway along that you’re going to rewrite most of what you’re typing, but that’s the point. Every draft involves a rewrite in some way, big or small. Too many writers think every draft has to be a cohesive story, with everything covered from beginning to end.

Let me tell you now – that’s impossible on the first try.

Talented writing involves stacking layers of drafts and weaving threads together. The more you write, the more skill you acquire. Ira says to increase your volume of work, and I wholeheartedly agree. When I was younger, my dad told me to “practice, practice, practice.” While I always rolled my eyes, I knew he was right. Writing more, and writing often, will keep you in good shape. 

Read

Ira also talks about having taste. Most writers have a taste in prose because they have been reading for a long time. It’s essential to keep reading, to keep exploring new ideas and concepts to keep up with changing trends and standards. While increasing the volume of what you write, also increase the volume of what you read. A delicate balance between the two will keep your creative soul well fed.

Relax 

It’s important to read and write, but creating stories is mentally taxing. Take time to breathe and enjoy life. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that while you’re relaxing, ideas start flowing in. Sometimes just letting go is all you need to work through a plot hole, character crisis or query letter. 

Create

Being creative in other ways, whether it’s painting, dancing, singing or Jazzercising, can help keep your mind in shape. Writers need to express themselves in some way, and break the barrier between thought and expression. Freeing yourself, and opening yourself up to ideas, makes it much easier to work through a draft. 

Socialize

Most people think writing is a solitary profession, but it really isn’t. After all, writers do what they do so they can connect with readers. Writers work for their audience. Writing groups and conferences are essential to professional growth and craft knowledge. As terrifying as it is to expose your craptastic first drafts to someone, conversing, critiquing and empathizing can greatly help you in your journey.

I hope you are as encouraged by Ira’s video as I was. It’s a hard journey, but it’s a worthy one. And remember, no one can write your story better than you.

– Dani Nicole

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The Importance of Reading as a Writer

I’ve become quite the book collector over the past year. That has something to do with the fact that my idea of the perfect date night is to swing by the bookstore after dinner. Attending the Teen Book Festival in Austin and several author panels also contributed. I’ve become obsessed with meeting authors, and hearing about their journeys.

booksIt wasn’t long ago that I was reading such amazing stories that I felt like writing one myself. In fact, this happened at a very young age for me. In elementary school I gifted short stories as presents, and throughout middle and high school I became an avid poet. After college I began to write novels and read everything I could. Here’s why: It’s important to read.

That seems like a “duh” concept but so many writers become consumed by their projects and forget to feed themselves inspiration. They forget to research their genre and compare their book to books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Knowing your genre, even subgenre, is essential when you pitch to an agent. They need to know how to market your novel, which means you need to know how to market your novel.

There’s a part of the query letter where every writer is supposed to offer some comparable titles to their book. These comps are not identical to your novel; often, they only have a few elements in common. But the idea is to tell the agent what type of audience would enjoy your book. And to know that, you have to be well-read.

Regardless of it being your duty as a writer to read all the things, it’s fun! Expose yourself to new worlds, new characters and new plot twists. Many writers are afraid to read something too similar to their own work, or feel intimidated by the great books already out there. But those great books, most likely, are what inspired you in the first place.

So read on my friends! Comment below with the titles on your February book list!

– Dani Nicole

Flash Fiction Friday

In Polite Company, by Hannakin and Mr--Jack, deviantART

In Polite Company, by Hannakin and Mr–Jack, deviantART

Obsolete

by Paige Duke

“You know Mom and Dad are going to toss her out and get a new one, right? I mean, I won’t need her, but you will of course,” Tabi said in that new haughty tone she’d been trying out on her sister.

“Toss her out? What do you mean?” Evi squeaked, sounding shaky.

Lonnie stood at the door to the playroom, just out of sight where she’d stopped at the sound of her name.

“You’re so dumb, Evi. She’s old. She can barely do anything anymore without breaking. Her bug eyes are creepy. And she smells—she’s so rusty it’s all flaking off and stinking up the house.”

Blinking her big “bug eyes”, Lonnie looked down at her joints, where her once-shiny green paint was turning orange. She’d noticed her rusty bits, but she hadn’t thought they were that bad, and she wouldn’t know about it smelling, of course.

Evi’s sniffles drifted out from the playroom.

“Well, it’s nothing to cry about!” said Tabi. “A new one will be so much better. You’ve only ever had Lonnie, so you don’t know. The newest NannyBots have all kinds of built-in games, ones you’ve never heard of before, they do sports and music with you, you’ll see.”

Lonnie waited only long enough to be sure Tabi wasn’t picking a fight with her sister before she backed away. She went the long way around to the girls’ room so they wouldn’t know she’d heard.

Not that it matters.

Because she would get tossed out, she knew. She had a purpose, she’d served it, and soon they wouldn’t need her.

The girls’ room was tidy, just as she’d left it. Their beds on either side of the room were made—Evi’s draped in a pink, lace coverlet, Tabi’s in a new pale grey comforter. She was too old for all that baby stuff, she’d told her mother. The shelves were tidied and dusted. And now for the laundry.

Lonnie clunked to the dresser and dropped the basket. The girls’ mother would be pleased; she was always kind to say that Lonnie was doing good work, though she could see the woman was impatient—she had a taste for novelty. And Tabi was right about that. Lonnie was old. And she did break easily now. So she would be more careful.

Not that it matters.

It was only prolonging the inevitable.

Sometimes she thought of the days when she was new, when her programming was nimble and quick and self-correcting. She could fix anything then, solve the family’s problems before anyone even realized them, could impress the girls with her jokes and the tea parties she set for them and the stories she pulled from her internal library.

There was a feeling there. Her generation had such little capacity for feeling … she searched to identify it. I miss it, she thought. Yes, that was it. She couldn’t go back, only forward, and it saddened her. Now she understood why that phrase kept coming to her: Not that it matters. But then why did she still feel it did?

Lonnie grew comfortable in the motions of putting away the girls’ small folded things, trying to make sense of the words and feelings that came to her.

Then she heard one of the girls crying from across the house. She stopped to listen, decide if she should intervene. After so many years with those two, it was nearly instinctual. How she loved them.

Could she call it love?

Of all her feelings, it was the strongest, the most she could feel.

She decided she could call it love.

The cries grew louder, closer, and Lonnie was surprised when she realized it was Tabi crying, coming to find her. The child burst into the room, tears stained her face, and blood dripped down her outstretched finger.

“Lonnie!” she cried, coming close. “I stabbed my finger on my ruler, it’s bleeeeding,” she wailed.

Lonnie took the girl’s finger in her hand. She had always noticed how soft their skin was, how warm it felt against her own stiff and cold metal. Tabi looked up at her, she was still such a child.

Effortlessly, Lonnie flipped her med panel over and pressed the girl’s tiny injury to the glass. With a swipe of light, the wound was clean and sealed, as if it had never happened.

“Good as new,” she said.

But Tabi didn’t hear, she was already bounding back out the door.

The Trade-In

By Dani Nicole

It’s been a year since we got our Dadbot. It was Isabelle’s idea. She’s younger, going through that pre-teen phase where Dad just seemed like an annoying resident of our household, hell-bent on destroying her social life and fashion choices.

She saw a commercial for the new line of Dadbots and came running down the hallway, catapulting into my bed.

“Personal space,” I said, flipping the page of my Cosmo magazine.

“Kiera, look. Look.” She slapped a paper ad into my hands that she’d printed from the Internet. “The new Dadbots are on sale, and they have upgrades. Upgrades Kiera. Do you understand what this means?”

“Come on Izzy, dad’s not that bad.”

“Last week he set my crop tops on fire… in the kitchen. That’s not even legal.”

I roll my eyes. “Well what were you thinking showing off your skin? You knew he’d lose it.”

“They’re in style Kiera. Don’t you ever get out?” She slaps the ad back into my hand. “Think about it.”

After months of Izzy’s persisting, I finally gave in. After all, my friends were all upgrading to Dadbots and they got away with all kinds of stuff. Sneaking out at night. Riding in cars with guys who were a lot older. Maybe having a Dadbot wouldn’t be so bad. Though I couldn’t think of a single guy who’d want to ride in a car with me.

When they delivered our Dadbot, they took our real dad to a vacation home in Hawaii. They sent us pictures of him sipping from an umbrella straw on some sunny beach. He’d be okay. And when we booted up our Dadbot and he gave us each $50, I decided Izzy and I would be okay too.

Dadbot was great. We didn’t have a curfew. Izzy wore whatever she wanted. She could be hormonal and yell and scream and the only person who had a problem with it was me. I’m sure she wished they’d developed Sisterbots.

Things were looking up. I enjoyed my freedom as well, mostly using it to stay at the library all night, which worked out in my favor. There was a hot librarian assistant who took to me and showed me around the library I had so long ago already memorized.

He offered to drive me home one night so I wouldn’t have to take the bus. We hesitated in the driveway as the moon shone down on us. Wes, the hot librarian assistant, reached for my hand, and when I gave it to him he grabbed my knee instead.

“Whoa,” I said, thinly hiding my nervousness.

He slid his hand further up my thigh and I reached out to stop it.

“What are you doing?”

“Just showing you a good time,” he said, smiling.

I heard the front door open, and Dadbot wheeled out to the driveway, pausing near our open window.

“Is everything okay Kiera?” he asked in his robotic voice.

“It’s okay Dadbot.”

That should have shooed him away, but he stood still. Wes smiled and kissed my bare knee.

“I think something is the matter,” Dadbot said.

“We’re fine,” Wes said. “Go reboot somewhere.”

“I cannot do that.”

We both looked up. Dadbots always did what we told them.

“You can go reboot,” I said, thinking he needed it to hear it from me.

“I must protect Kiera.”

“Get lost Short Circuit.” Wes’ kisses rose higher up my leg. I squirmed.

“Get the hell off her, dirtbag,” Dadbot said.

Before I could register what was happening, a fist punched through the open window and wrapped around Wes’ throat. The bare fist was coming from beneath Dadbot’s exterior, which was now ripped.

“What the heck?” I asked.

Dadbot released Wes’ throat, and Wes scrambled out of the car and ran away. Dadbot returned his fist to his broken exterior, and began to pull it away. There underneath the façade of a robot, was my actual dad.

“You okay, Kerbear?”

Tears escaped and I couldn’t slow my racing heart. I was furious, furious that they’d given us our real dad instead of our Dadbot. But I was also kind of grateful that he’d saved me from Wes’ wondering lips.

“I’m okay, Dad.”

He opened the door and helped me out of the car. We lingered on the doorstep.

“Izzy is going to be so pissed,” I said.

“Should I keep hiding out as Dadbot?”

“Just for a day or so, then scare the crap out of her at the right moment. She’s getting annoying these days with all that freedom.”

Dad chuckled.

“It’s good to have you back,” I said. “Sorry about trading you in.”

“Then I would have missed the look on that guy’s face when I started choking him.”

We laughed together as he wrapped his arms around me. And in that moment I realized a real dad hug was so much better than a Dadbot hug.

Flash Fiction Friday

920 by scheinbar, deviantART

Originals

by Paige Duke

The tall man in the fedora walked brusquely through the library’s lobby, unaware that every eye turned to follow his progress. He had become accustomed to being watched because, well, shifters weren’t usually hired to impersonate normal people. But it wasn’t that. He was still thinking about what he’d seen. About the knife in Mr. Calvert’s desk drawer and how he just wanted to be holding his box of originals in hand as soon as possible. He hadn’t meant to go snooping, it was a rule he upheld at all times. No snooping into clients’ private business. That was the quickest way to get into trouble in this line of work. He’d only meant to find some paper to take down a note from Mr. Calvert’s secretary, and there it was. The thing was lying in the desk drawer, covered in blood, sealed in a sandwich baggie. It was a miracle he’d managed to get the secretary’s note down at all after that little shock.

So he’d made some excuse and got out of there fast. That was the second biggest rule: Don’t run out on the job. But he thought this might be an exception. Dean wasn’t squeamish. He had been willing to look the other way, that was practically part of the job description. You didn’t hire a shifter unless you were into something on the side, it was always shady. But Calvert’s desk was like a crime scene now or something. He’d called to tell Mr. Calvert he was terminating the job early. Had redialed so many times he’d lost count. Why won’t he pick up?

Dean was sweating, he realized as he stood in line at the front desk. He prayed the two people in front of him would be quick. Usually he didn’t mind shifting. It was fun—being someone else for a few days, driving nice cars, flirting with beautiful women, stuff like that. But this was crossing the line. He was not gonna let the likes of Mr. Neil Calvert III get him caught up in something illegal.

The thought made him go cold. No, he had done that to himself already. He was underage. He was only trying to stash some money away for college, but the courts wouldn’t care about that. He was shifting illegally.

Oh my god.

If I get caught, I am in the shit.

Hurry up!! He pleaded under his breath. Miraculously, it worked. The person at the front of the line stepped away from the counter. Only one guy left, then Dean would just get his originals and go.

Most of his colleagues kept their originals, as they called it in the business—clothes, keys, wallet, ID, the usual effects along with their DNA pills—at banks or other high-security companies that dealt exclusively with shifters. But, as Dean was trying to keep his operation under the radar, he’d had to go with something less institutionalized. The local library rented out lockers for community members and guaranteed they were vigilant about security. It seemed suddenly ridiculous, irresponsible, he felt so exposed—keeping his originals in the library!

Dean forced himself to calm down, to be reasonable. John Malcolm has the only spare key. It’s alright, you’ll be back in your own skin in no time. Yeah, he was being ridiculous. He would hand John his key, the man would go back to the lockers, return with his box as usual, he’d make a quick trip to the bathroom to shift back, and he’d be out of there. Home free.

The man in front of him moved, and the scene played out just as Dean had seen it in his mind, as he had done it hundreds of times before.

But in the quiet of the bathroom stall, as Dean was finally calming down, lifting the lid to his box of originals, he began to shake.

The box was empty.

The Dark Witch’s Dagger

by Dani Nicole

17 was the worst one.

50 was better.

When I got to 100 I stopped feeling the pain. But it came back at 200.

920… 920 lashes. 920 piercing cries. 920 fingers breaking and forging again. 920 times my body will be taken apart by the Dark Witch, and 920 times it will be put back together again.

She hovers over me, her face delicate and pale. I wonder how it would bleed. Would her blood be the same violet hue as mine? Or would it be something wretched and ugly as her heart?

She cursed me to this, and oh… the things I would do to her… as she –

901.

That one stung. It was a lash. She likes those. The sound of the whip on my bare skin, the crack of flesh, the oozing blood. She delights in it. She chuckles, giggles, with a hint of mania bubbling beneath the surface.

905.

My curiosity peaks as we get closer to the final number, but 906 feels like I’m dying. She breaks four of my left fingers. They shrivel, turn gray. Then I breathe life into them and they heal, the bones poking the tender flesh, the nails piercing beneath cuticles.

Do this, let her do this, and you will get yours on 920.

As she cuts my arm with a blade, number 914, I wonder if the words I hear chanted in my mind are just false hope. What if this prison of torture is my permanent home? What if I’m not even alive?

917 is more lashes.

918 is a broken shin.

919 is the sound of my mother’s voice when the Dark Witch murdered her. Her screams fill the cavern. The chains which bind my wrists and ankles quiver. Or maybe it is me. Shaking with the fury of 919 strikes, cuts, broken bones. 919 moments of pain.

She circles me once, looks into my eyes. “Let me try something special. Something to change things up. I’ve lost count by now, but it seems as though I’ve been doing the same thing… over and over… and yes, how I’d love to see a new look of pain on that pretty face.”

She takes her dagger from the stool, places it near my heart. “For someone so indestructible as you, I wonder if a blade to the heart would finally bring you down. You see… you see at first,” she laughs “at first it was just a game! The look of pain on your face was just too much fun. And the way you reacted to your mother’s screams… oh yes, you gave me quite the show. But now…” she yawns, “now I grow tired.” She grips the knife, presses it against my skin. “Now it’s time to end this.”

She smiles, her teeth perfect and white, then drives the knife into my heart.

Pain rips through my body, cuts me in half. I fight to sew my sides together, to keep my soul rooted in my being as it begs to drift elsewhere. When she removes the dagger, the hilt starts to glow violet – the color of my blood.

A voice fills the room, this time not my mother’s. The same voice that’s chanted in my mind all this time. And in the moment of the Dark Witch’s greed, the one she captures will be freed. The victim’s blood will pay the price, the Dark Witch shall end her gruesome fight.

The purple swirls up the hilt, onto the Dark Witch’s hands. It stains her skin and sears into it, causing smoke and the smell of burning flesh to permeate the air. It spots her skin in hundreds of places, until she falls to the ground writhing.

The knife she holds turns on her, and drives itself into her heart.

As the sizzling stops, the smoke fades, the chains around my hands break. I walk over to her, tapping her body with my shoe, but she falls limp, the dagger still stuck in her heart.

Number 920.

 

Flash Fiction Friday

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

Counting

by Paige Duke

Ten cherry red fingernails.
Two bruised knees.
Twelve succulents in a crate.

My finger halts its counting, resting above the prickly bunch . . . succulent. That’s a word used somewhere else, isn’t it? A succulent roast, maybe. The two ideas stand together in my mind, totally incongruous. So absurd—the roast and tiny cactus sprouting stick-figure arms and clasping hands in my mind—that I can’t stop giggling.
I bury my face in my elbows until it passes, I don’t want anyone to find me and spoil the whole thing, my five minutes of privacy, this glorious and rare distraction.

Four pristine white walls (painted last week).
Six tall windows.
Eight zigzag boot prints (Mom’s rain boots) across the slat wood floor.
Mom . . . in my mind I see her out in the rain yesterday, drenched, but still insisting on the boots. She can’t have kept an inch dry, the way it was coming down. I count to cope; Mom plants. Despite the fact that everything she puts in the ground dies shortly thereafter. It’s something of a joke—has to be, I suppose, otherwise it’s just too sad. Too ironic.

Three orphaned shoes no one ever bothers to toss out.
Two towering stacks of books, Dad’s overflow.
I squeeze back tears—for the first time today, that has to be a record. It’s just that overflow . . . it’s so opposite of everything DAD right now. I count; Mom plants; Dad stares. Sits and stares, where he used to sit and read. Where can a mind go for so many hours? Nowhere good. To blame or darkness or self-loathing, surely. Wherever it is, it’s not here.

Two identical frog umbrellas for two identical boys.
The twins, a godsend of noise and busyness, the forgivable interruption to our collective grief. They force us to be normal again in a million everyday ways. And break our hearts in the same breath because they can’t understand, will never know who they’ve lost.

I search the room—this mudroom, the time capsule of our house—for anything else. But I’ve counted everything already, everything but one.

One growth chart, its six penciled names glaring, conspicuous for the truth that we are now only five without Michael.
Michael. Our light, our miracle. The boy who was supposed to die but who lived seven years, seven years of borrowed time.

But death forgives no debts.

Flash Fiction Friday

Charles Bukowski, theimpossiblecool.tumblr.com

Charles Bukowski, theimpossiblecool.tumblr.com

“Find what you love and let it kill you.”

Charles Bukowski, Los Angeles, 1982

Note: We tried something new for this edition of Flash Fiction Friday, we asked someone else to pick our prompt. Thanks to Jeremy Duke for the inspiration for our stories this week! We want to make this a regular thing, so if you’d like to pick our prompt for a future Flash Fiction Friday, leave a comment. We’ll feature you on the post and link back to your blog or website! Now, on to the stories.

Loud Man

by Paige Duke

Loud Man stood in line, silently waiting his turn. This was the only moment all week he was silent. They called him Loud Man for a reason. At the bars. They called him this at the bars, for where else would anyone call him anything? He was the kind of man a bar was made for, the kind of man the Elephant was made for, which was why he was waiting in line. Waiting silently for his turn, restless hands in pockets to keep the rest of him still. Silent so that he could think how best to speak to the Elephant. You’d think coming every week to the Elephant would accustom a man to how to speak to it, but then you’d be the wrong kind of person.

The Elephant. Loud Man had laughed loudest when he’d first heard of the ridiculous notion, of standing in line to speak to an elephant—a rusted, faded, cutout discarded by some passing circus maybe. But that was before he’d tried it. Before he’d stood silent long enough to gather the words together that rattled around inside him. Constantly. Louder than a rumbling train. Meticulously, silently gathered the words, lovingly calmed them like some shaking rabbit, tentatively offered the right ones like a prayer. Before he’d seen the Elephant’s kind eye watching him as he spoke his carefully, silently crafted thoughts.
The line shortened one transgressor at a time, bent beneath the woes or hopes or fears they’d been collecting all week; no one knew what another said to the Elephant. That was the point, wasn’t it? Loud Man was nearly there, his words lined up in a neat row, his now-silent tongue occupied with their repetition. Whispered, a fledgling in the mouth of this man with the busy jaw. And there now, he felt the calming that grew with every shuffled step.

His turn came at last. He stepped forward, realizing suddenly why he came. He brought the Elephant his words, as he brought the bartender his coin. Payment all the same, but the difference is in their eyes, he thought. The Elephant’s eyes were kind. Oh, and the mouth of rusted tin, it said nothing back to Loud Man.

He leaned in and whispered his confession to the Elephant’s wide, welcoming ear.

A Concise List of Things That Don’t Kill Me

by Dani Nicole

There’s a rule, you know, that if you find something you love it will kill you. Because that’s the only way to be in love. To die a little, in some way.

Sounds poetic right?

Bullshit. I hate rules. I love ice cream, but it doesn’t kill me. At least not immediately. I love my dog Chauncy but he hasn’t tried to attack me in my sleep like a Nylabone.

I’m not exactly counting the seconds until he plots his revenge for being locked in a kennel. In fact, I’m so fired up against this rule, I made a list.

1)   The stars. What kind of motives do the stars have to kill a seventeen-year-old dude? I mean I let them exist, I ogle at them when they come out, say poetic shit to impress my girlfriend. I draw maps of constellations and sometimes make up my own. One time I found a penis in the sky. Seriously, a penis. I dubbed it the Great Penisarium. I’m a genius, really. But I’ve been looking at the stars and planets and cool space shit since I was like three. And at three you don’t really get to pick what you love.

It just kind of picks you.

I stare at the sky everyday waiting for it to kill me, but it doesn’t and it probably thinks I’m an idiot kid who suspects the Great Penisarium is somehow phallically lethal.

2)   Naked women. As much as my health teacher wants me to think touching a bare breast will lead me to my imminent death, I’m not buying it. I’ve touched Rose’s breasts before, and if that’s dying, I’d do it a million times over. They are like natural pillows. No, like travel pillows. Always there to lean your head against when you’ve had a hard day or your pet snake died or you had to flush your cigarettes in front of the principal. Whatever. Boobs are worth dying for.

3)    Freaking Harpists. I’m not sissy enough to actually play the harp, but I swear to the God that might be up there it’s an instrument of the angels. Just do me a favor, have a girl play the harp for you and try not to look at the way her fingers pluck the chords and wonder what it would feel like if they traveled elsewhere.

Listen to those notes and try not to fall into a trance where you think the world is made of pizza and you can only play football as a profession. Rose plays the harp, but mostly she just plays me. I’m like putty in her hands, as malleable as harp strings. I have this fantasy of walking up to her while she’s playing and leaning her back in her little stool and… I digress. Harps are the shit.

So take that messed up, screwed up society in which we’re all brainwashed to think that love is like Liam Neeson, that it will find you and that it will kill you, because I’m here to tell you I love many things. I love stars, breasts, harpists. Hell, I might even love Rose. What can I say? I’m complex. Maybe even the exception to the love rule. I guess you could say in some way, invincible.

 

 

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