The Interconnectedness of Everything Redux
Here’s a guest blog I wrote last year for the excellent Age of Steam blog. I wanted to repost it here because I think it’s still very relevant to what I’m doing with my fiction, and I’ve added a new postscript that serves as a bit of an update.
I love Easter eggs.
Yes, the chocolate variety, and also the type you find on innumerable DVDs or Blu Rays, but what I’m really referring to here is the kind of Easter eggs you sometimes find hidden in books. What I mean by this is those little references or moments in a story which seem perfectly in keeping with the narrative, but take on extra meaning for those chosen few, an author’s constant readers.
These Easter eggs might take the form of a throwaway reference to a previous adventure, the casual use of a familiar name, a recurring location, a plot point – anything, really – that rewards the reader and raises a knowing smile, all without alienating the casual reader or leaving them with the feeling that they’ve somehow missed something important.
I love those moments. It’s as if the author is speaking directly to you, winking at you and thanking you for paying attention. It makes you want to dig deeper into those stories, to see what other little treasures the author has hidden away, waiting to be uncovered. It always makes me think the author was probably having as much fun writing the book as I’m having reading it, too, and that only works to increase my enjoyment all the more.
When, then, it came to sitting down to start constructing the background for my novels Ghosts of Manhattan and Ghosts of War, it seemed only logical that I should do so in such a way that it provided me with the opportunity to seed in a few of those little references. Not only that, but I was keen to use this new series to add depth and flavour to the alternate history I’d already constructed in some of my earlier novels, to shed light on things I’d already written and to open up opportunities for more stories down the line.
I wanted the backdrop of the Ghost stories to be distinct and different from my existing Newbury & Hobbes series. Those books feature a duo of secret agents gadding about in a steampunkish version of Victorian London. For the Ghost books I was aiming for more of a noirish feel, something steeped in the atmosphere of 1920s New York – but a version of 1920s New York that seemed at once both familiar and yet strange. I was also looking to capture the fun of those early American pulps, with outlandish action sequences and rousing adventure, and to add to it a gloss of steampunkish invention.
So, where to start?
It took me a while to realise that the obvious thing for me to do was to take what I already had – an alternative history, a timeline of events leading up to 1902 – and roll it forward another 25 years. This raised all sorts of questions. How would the USA respond to the growing might of the British Empire? Had the First World War still happened? If so, who were the players? What had been the outcome and how had this altered the political landscape? How had technology moved on? What does the world look like 25 years after a Victorian steampunk revolution? This seemed like a great opportunity to explore the answers to some of those questions.
The new series, of course, had to be distinct in its own right, independent of anything I’d written before, but a lot of that could come from the tone and style, from the characters and the type of stories I wanted to tell. I’m a great believer that the backdrop of a novel is only a stage – that the crux of any tale rests with the characters – but I could see opportunities for stories emerging from some of the questions I’d been asking.
More than that, too, I could see opportunities for the sort of cross-pollination I was talking about earlier – for Easter eggs.
So, in Ghosts of Manhattan, the British monarch is Queen Alberta I, who has recently succeeded Queen Victoria, her mother. There is a cold war going on between the USA and the British Empire, stemming from the end of the First World War, during which the British unleashed a terrible weapon upon the enemy forces.
Now, in this first book in the new series, there aren’t too many Easter eggs. But they soon began to fall into place the moment I went back to write the next Newbury & Hobbes novel, The Immorality Engine. In this story, the seeds for Alberta’s forthcoming reign are planted. It’s not explicit – you don’t need to read one to appreciate the other – but if you do, you might find you gain an extra little bit of insight into how it all fits together. Not so much pieces of the same puzzle, but complimentary paintings of different landscapes.
Ghosts of War looks more closely at the political climate between Britain and the USA in this turbulent time, and introduces a new character into the Ghost’s world – Peter Rutherford, a spy for the British Secret Service – with whom the Ghost is forced to form an uneasy alliance if together they are to stop the outbreak of all out war.
This, in turn, gave me great material for the N&H books, and it wasn’t long before I started seeding in the roots of this fledgling secret service in those stories, too.
The thing is, once you start doing this, it spirals. In my Doctor Who novel for BBC Books, Paradox Lost, and there’s a retired secret serviceman, Professor Angelchrist, who hints at some of the bizarre adventures he’s had, and who happens to own a clockwork owl, given to him by a dear friend… Is this the same owl that appears in one of the N&H stories? Surely not? What about the policeman who helps that most famous of detectives, Sherlock Holmes, in the audio play The Reification of Hans Gerber (soon to be revised and expanded – with even more Easter eggs and connections to the N&H universe – as the novel, The Will of the Dead).
Then there’s a charity story I wrote for the anthology Voices from the Past, which features Peter Rutherford from Ghosts of War, visiting Professor Angelchrist from Paradox Lost to discuss an old case involving Newbury & Hobbes. Oh, and there’s a very particular teapot in it that’s been used by a certain Doctor…
I love this kind of interconnectedness. As a writer, it opens up all sorts of opportunities. As a reader dipping in, I hope people will find the stories all work well independently of one another – the Easter eggs are, after all, just Easter eggs – but for those who might read further, I hope these little hidden references might raise a smile.
Since writing this little essay last year, I have, of course, been exceptionally busy. I’ve written the next N&H novel, The Executioner’s Heart, which also features Professor Angelchrist as a main character, as well as the return of an occult organisation known as The Cabal of the Horned Beast, which first appeared many years ago in my Time Hunter novella, The Severed Man. They’re back again, too, in the fifth book, The Revenant Express, and they were the main villains in the short story, ‘The Sacrificial Pawn’.
New short stories have continued to establish links between my various characters, too. In ‘A Night, Remembered’, an aged Newbury explains to Rutherford what really happened that fateful night on the Titanic; in ‘Old Friends’, Rutherford takes Angelchrist to a surprise Christmas gathering with Newbury, Veronica and Bainbridge; in ‘The Albino’s Shadow’, Rutherford goes up, against Zenith the Albino, after taking advice from Veronica and Angelchrist; and in ‘The Case of the Night Crawler’ Doctor John Watson seeks the help of Newbury and Veronica when he finds Sherlock Holmes is otherwise indisposed.
There’s lots more to come, too. This year has been a relatively quiet year in terms of new published fiction, but next year is going to be a bit of a whirlwind. There’ll be Easter eggs in pretty much all of it.