I read The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook, the first book in The Iron Seas series and found a complex world filled with layers of mystery and a lot of secrets, some of them explained and some not. I wanted to know more about Meljean and how she created this intricate world so I asked if she would stop by for a brief interview. Here is Meljean now.
Meljean: Hi Jo! I’m so glad you enjoyed The Iron Duke! I’m sorry about the delay in getting here — it’s been a hectic week so far!
Jo: Hi Meljean. Sit down, take a deep breath, relax and we will get started. What made you decide to write a steampunk novel?
Meljean: On a personal level, it’s simply that I’ve always liked steampunk and have wanted to write one for a while. It helped that there weren’t too many steampunk romances out there, because it gave me a little extra reason to try my hand at it — I’ve always written the types of books that I want to read, and I really, really wanted there to be more steampunk romance. So I pitched it to my editor, and she bought the series.
But I also find steampunk itself — the aesthetic, as well as the sense of adventure and invention, combined with a changing cultural landscape — incredibly appealing, and well-suited to romance. By exploring their world, my characters also reveal this new world to readers, and the more challenges that they have to overcome, the more fun it is (especially if some of those challenges come in the form of monsters or giant robots.) It also allows for incredible amounts of class and cultural conflict, which allows me to explore the characters’ relationships with each other. Altogether, the steampunk world itself simply allows me (perhaps even forces me) to examine every side of the developing romance, to let my hero and heroine overcome obstacles together, and really dig into their relationship. So that’s probably my last reason for writing steampunk: It really challenges me to build a world that can reflect and reveal the characters as they fall in love (and they reflect and reveal the world, in turn.) It’s a lot of work to build this kind of world, but work I really love.
Jo: I read Mad Max’s story, “Here There Be Monsters” in the anthology Burning Up first. It was novella set in the same world as The Iron Duke and was published first. I noticed you made frequent use of novellas in your previous series. Is this a trend you are going to continue and if so why?
Meljean: One reason is the business aspect: One of the best ways of letting readers know about your work is by getting it in front of them … but if no one knows about your book or your name, it’s difficult to do that. So novellas and anthologies are often used by my publisher to promote the series, and we always hope that new readers enjoy the shorter stories enough that they’ll look up the full-length novels. (This only works, though, if the novellas aren’t terrible … and some of mine are definitely better than others.) So whenever my editor asks me if I want to write a novella for an anthology, I never say no.
But the second (and more important) reason is that it allows me to fill in little pieces of the world that wouldn’t fit in a full-length novel. There are always characters and stories on the side that are waiting to be told, but that can’t be included in the overarching storyline. Novellas are a fantastic way to add these stories to the series without paring them down into a secondary storyline or skipping them altogether.
And I enjoy writing novellas. They often contain simpler plots and a stronger focus on the romance, and so they are a nice breather between the long, complicated novels.
Jo: The story in The Iron Duke starts fast and furious with no introduction to the world that you created for the story. I wondered about the world but because of the way you presented explanations for the world I was never confused. Did you have this world mapped out before you started writing? How did you decide when and where to drop the hints that explained the history and facts about this world?
Meljean: Oh, phew! Ha! this is always the most difficult part of worldbuilding — making sure that you give the readers enough to understand the world, but not so much that it sounds like you’re reciting a history lesson. I don’t think that I always strike the right balance, but a rule that I’ve lived by in the past few books is: Give the reader everything they need to know to understand what the heck is going on, and give it to them when (or before) they’ll need to know it.
So if I mention something that I know will confuse a reader, or that doesn’t have an explanation behind it, I try to explain (through context or within the dialogue/narrative) everything that they need to understand the information I’ve just given. This doesn’t always work, and sometimes the explanation will come a few pages later — but if I can, I’ll include it beforehand.
It also helps to know what will be familiar to readers, and what I’ll need to point out as differences. And so with The Iron Duke, for example, I begin the story in a ballroom — a setting that is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Regency-era costume drama or read a historical romance. So everything FEELS comfortable for a reader, and that’s when I can begin pointing out the changes I’ve made to the history and culture, both large and small: the differences between the bounders and the buggers, why the buggers are infected with nanoagents, and (while pointing out those differences) I can throw in a quick explanation of how the Horde conquered England.
I also think that is why steampunk is so accessible: Even though the world has a history much different from ours, there’s just enough that is familiar that readers don’t have to work TOO hard to imagine the world. Even the giant robots and squid aren’t too far of a step to take for anyone who is a little bit familiar with science fiction movies or Jules Verne novels … these are ideas that are a part of pop culture, and so bringing them into a steampunk novel might create a world that is very different from our own, but it’s not *alien*.
As for planning it out … Yes, I definitely have maps (of historical events like major wars and revolutions; of cultural/national migrations when the Horde conquered Europe, Asia, and Africa; of trade routes; of the areas that the different monsters inhabit and the locations of new settlements.) So the alternate history of this world is complete, for the most part, and it allows me to really integrate the history into the story, because it feels very real to me and to the characters.
That said, I find that I add layers as I go along. For example, I might have a general sketch of the history of a region or a city, but as I write, I’ll find new conflicts and pressures that exist within that city. Much like characters, I think it’s important that the setting is three-dimensional, with as many facets and as lively a personality as the hero or heroine.
Jo: That leads to my next question. I am fascinated by the craft of writing and the different approaches authors take. How do you structure you novels and what is your typical writing day like?
Meljean: I’m a pantser and an edit-as-I-go type of writer, for the most part. When I begin a novel, I usually know the main points that I want to hit, both for the plot and for the romantic relationship. And so as I write the story, I try to keep that in mind, and (if I can) develop them in a parallel manner, and in such a way that the world and the conflicts it creates is intertwined with the romantic conflict. That allows me to build the world and the relationship together, and it’s incredibly satisfying when it all comes together at the end.
That doesn’t always work perfectly, though, and so I’ll often get stuck in the middle of the book and try to figure out where I went wrong. Usually I find that I just tried to cram too much into the story — so I’ll pare it down, and begin writing forward again.
As for my daily writing schedule, it’s very simple: I get up, write, get the kid (and husband) ready and off to school, write, pick up the kid and husband from school, write, make dinner, write, then finally sleep. Then it starts all over again the next day 🙂
Jo: Meljean I can see you have a very busy life. Thanks for finding the time to stop by today. I’m looking forward to reading other stories The Iron Seas series so keep writing.
To learn more about Meljean visit her web site at http://meljeanbrook.com/books.
Penguin published The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook in 2010.