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[GUEST POST] Beyond Historical Fiction: Fear, Fantasy, and How Beth Cato Came to Steampunk

Beth Cato resides in the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ. Her husband Jason, son Nicholas, and crazy cat keep her busy, but she still manages to squeeze in time for writing and other activities that help preserve her sanity. She is originally from Hanford, CA, a lovely city often pungent with cow manure. Her debut novel is The Clockwork Dagger.

Beyond Historical Fiction: Fear, Fantasy, and How I Came to Steampunk

by Beth Cato

I was eight years old when I fell for historical fiction. Laura Ingalls Wilder was my gateway drug to endless hours of medieval romps and pioneer adventures. I hungrily sought out all the Rosemary Sutcliff and Patricia Beatty books to be found.

Beatty’s books–in particular, her Hannalee books–pulled me into a stint of fascination with the American Civil War. In 5th grade, I won the school district’s annual library essay contest, writing that I wanted to grow up and write books about the Civil War, maybe even from a horse’s viewpoint.

In my teens, my interest turned towards fantasy, but my desire to write historical never went away. For years, I entertained the idea of writing an epic fantasy based heavily on the Inquisition. I would write a page or two and browse books on the subject matter, but I never made a serious effort.

The reason: fear.

As a perfectionist, I wanted to get my historical details right. The clothing–would that color be available in a dye in that time period? What about the politics? As a protestant, I was largely ignorant of the structure of Catholicism–how could I get it right?

This fear played out in subtle ways. I would examine the nonfiction books at the bookstore, but none of them provided exactly what I wanted (note this was in the infancy of Amazon and bookstores online). I’d check out books on the subject at the library, but didn’t finish them, or took them back unread.

In hindsight, I realize that my excuse about accuracy was really about a whole mess of issues: fear of criticism from readers, fear of rejection, fear of being told I was stupid. Fear of making myself vulnerable, period.

I let fear rule my life for a long time. By my late teens, after heavy criticism about my interest in fantasy, I stopped reading the genre. With that, I stopped any efforts to write. It took me a decade to mature, grit my teeth, and return to fantasy and historical fiction.

That led me to the glorious marriage of the two genres: steampunk.

First of all, I have to say historical accuracy is still important in steampunk, even when it’s secondary world (i.e. not on Earth) like mine. The setting must be believable. If something anachronistic exists, there should be a reason for it. In the case of my world, the kingdom of Caskentia is based on post-World War I Europe. It’s bleak. The economy has been destroyed. Generations of men have been slaughtered or returned with severe burns and amputations. Leftover horses from the war are now food for a starving populace.

Since my heroine is a healer, I also worked in medical knowledge of the time period. A soldier’s Great War diary taught me that iodine was used to treat tenderfeet. A Civil War book featured examples of how amputations should be properly cut.

At the same time, I do have wiggle room because it’s not a strict historical novel. Airships drift in the sky. War machines engage in gladiatorial combat to amuse gamblers. There’s also magic–healing magic arising from a world tree called the Lady, air magic to control aether for airships, fire magic to wield in battle.

If steampunk had existed as a known subgenre when I was a teenager, I would have adored it. Maybe it would have encouraged me to work through my fears and write sooner–but I doubt it. Cliché as it sounds, I needed to live life and find myself… and find a genre that melds the fantasy and historical fiction that I have loved for so long.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Beyond Historical Fiction: Fear, Fantasy, and How Beth Cato Came to Steampunk

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // September 16, 2014 at 7:33 pm //

    Steampunk, at its best, is a reflection and refraction of our own history, past and present and addresses the very checkered nature of the past head on. It sounds like healing, and war are the issues *you* are tackling.

    And as you have said elsewhere–there aren’t many novels where the healer is a hero(ine) instead of a sidekick

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