Today we’re lucky to have Shanna Swendson on the blog to talk about her sequel Rebel Magisters!
1. What inspired you to start writing Steampunk and the Rebel Mechanics series in general?
I’ve always loved Victorian-type things. I remember being utterly fascinated as a small child by a particular episode of Captain Kangaroo that showcased “olden days” stuff. I’m also fond of adventure stories, so Steampunk seemed like the perfect combination of the Victorian aesthetic and adventure. I wanted to try writing a Steampunk story for a long time before I finally came up with a plot, and that happened largely because of a juxtaposition of two books on my bookcase. My copy of Jane Eyre was next to a romantic adventure story, and I found the basis of my plot in that mix.
2. What kind of research did you have to do in order to write Rebel Mechanics and Rebel Magisters? How much of historical New York is actually in it?
I did a ton of research — reading at least 50 books — to write the first book, and then a bit more for the second book. First, I focused on reading about life in the time of the setting — Gilded Age New York. That was such a crazy era with such immense extravagance set against abject poverty with no protections for workers or poorer people, with technological and cultural change going on all the while. Then I read about the American Revolution and the events that really did happen, so I could see what events might happen in a different time and place. I also read about steam engines and airships, about the early days of electricity and the war between Tesla and Edison (which I ended up not using — I keep trying to write Edison into the books, and his scenes keep getting cut). I read autobiographies and memoirs of people who lived at that time. I read novels written during the time, from classics to obscure dime novels, to get a sense of the language of that era. And I read novels set around that era written by people who lived through it (a lot of Edith Wharton and Henry James).
I tried to keep the Rebel Mechanics version of New York as closely grounded as possible to the real thing, aside from the major alternate history differences. You could find some of the locations even now in the city. For instance, there aren’t a lot of the Gilded Age mansions left along Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, but there are a few still around, serving as museums. The West Battery Fort (what it was called when it was first built for the War of 1812) is now known as Castle Clinton, and is where you buy your ticket if you’re taking the boat to the Statue of Liberty. In the real timeline, it was never really used for military purposes the way it is in the books’ altered timeline. I have a historical atlas of New York that I keep by my side when I’m writing to give me ideas and to look things up.
3. What was your writing process like for writing Rebel Magisters? Did you have any difficulties that you didn’t have while writing Rebel Mechanics?
I had originally plotted out a trilogy and wrote a one-page synopsis of each book when I’d finished the first three chapters of the first book, as part of an overall proposal for the first book. So when it came time to write the sequel, I thought it would be easy. But it had been more than five years between the time I wrote the first book and the time I started working on the sequel, and the process of writing the first book had somewhat altered the way I saw that world and the characters, so a lot ended up changing, and that made it a little more challenging. I almost didn’t know what the book was really about until I finished the first draft, and that meant I had to do a lot of rewriting. I also had a lot of starts and stops, where I’d write something, realize that section was all wrong, do more research, then write something completely different. Once you’ve written the first book in a series, you’re stuck with what you established, and that means you have to be really careful about what you do next that doesn’t contradict anything. Characters also have a habit of taking on a life of their own that doesn’t always fit with my original plans for them.
4. Your covers are probably the most beautiful Steampunk covers I’ve ever seen! Did you have a say in how either of them turned out?
I just gave general input to the designer at the publisher of the first book. They asked me for some ideas, and there were three possible directions I came up with. One was using the Rebel Mechanics gear and ribbon emblem, one was the girl in a ballgown look that’s possibly overdone in YA but that actually applied to this story, and one was maybe using some vintage city photography. They combined all three concepts and created a lovely cover. The second book is independently published, so I worked with a member of my agent’s staff on it, and we wanted to stick with the look of the first book so it would be clear that it was a series. I found the photo of the girl with the teacup that was right out of a scene in the book, as well as images of keys, a vintage photo of the city skyline, and an airship image that we incorporated into the skyline (you have to look carefully for it). The designer put it all together beautifully.
5. The beauty in your main characters is that they’re extremely well rounded, logical, and down to earth people in a series that loves to throw a little science and a little magic into the mix. How would you say your main characters have developed since Rebel Mechanics?
I think both Verity and Henry are feeling more comfortable in their own skin since they’ve revealed their secrets to each other. They now have this one relationship where they don’t have to put on an act or hide anything, and that gives them a confidence that carries over into the rest of their lives. It’s been fun seeing how Verity is growing stronger and more vocal as she gets more devoted to her cause and to the people she cares about. She was kind of meek and naive at the beginning of the first book, and she probably would have fainted then at the very thought of the kind of stuff she’s doing by the end of the second book.
6. Speaking of characters, who is your most fun character to write, and why?
In Rebel Magisters, I have to say that Flora was probably the most fun because she turned out to be such a surprise. I always knew she wasn’t quite what she seemed to be, but then she went even beyond that. She’s not necessarily a favorite character or one I identify with, but seeing her rise to the occasion in ways that none of the other characters ever would have expected has been a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
7. Did you put any of yourself or your life into Rebel Magisters? Are there any characters that you’ve brought in from real people in your life or from yourself?
I think the main thing of myself that shows up in this series, and particularly in Verity, is that sense of not quite fitting in anywhere. I’ve always been the kind of person who can move easily between a lot of different kinds of groups without really being part of any of the groups, so no matter where I go, I’m a bit of an oddball. That’s a major theme of the series, being the person caught in the middle and then finding that to be a useful position, while at the same time not really belonging anywhere.
I also gave her my hair. I have long, curly hair, but I’d never written a heroine with curly hair before. I don’t get into that too much in the story and it doesn’t really show up on the covers, but it’s my hair I picture when I’m thinking about her. I have friends who are kind of like the Mechanics, without the revolutionary tendencies. They’re big into the Maker movement and like inventing things or finding new ways to make things. I think some of the energy and personalities of the Mechanics in general may have been inspired by that aspect of my friends.
8. As you may know, I’m a huge lover of Steampunk, especially in the YA age range and reading your books started that love of Steampunk for me. Do you have any recommendations for other Steampunk books that you love, or authors who have inspired you?
Philip Reeve has a couple of Steampunk-related series for younger readers. There’s the Hungry City (I’ve also seen it called Predator Cities) series, starting with Mortal Engines, that’s YA post-apocalyptic Steampunk (society has rebuilt to a Victorian-like level, but with a lot of twists and differences), and then there’s the more middle-grade Larklight series, which is sort of Steampunk in space and much lighter.
I also really loved the Scott Westerfeld Leviathan series. That one may be more “dieselpunk” because it’s set during World War I, but it has the same sort of spirit as Steampunk.
When I was researching the concept for the series, I read a few Jules Verne novels, which you might call proto-Steampunk — at the time, they were science fiction and were meant to be somewhat futuristic, but now they read to us like Steampunk because they’re an alternate past with different technology.
9. Do you have any advice for other Steampunk authors and writers?
I would suggest really thinking about what the Steampunk elements mean to the story. There’s a funny music video on YouTube about “Just Glue Some Gears on it and Call it Steampunk“, and it’s a sometimes apt criticism of some Steampunk, where the elements are really just set dressing and costume design. If you’re going to create a society that’s different enough to have these changes, you need to do the world building that goes with it and explains the changes and makes the changes matter. You need to do more than just glue a gear on it. Put some thought into it.
10. Last question, and hopefully a more fun one: You named a few of the machines in your books, with my favorite one being Bessie. I have a name for my GPS (Gertie) and my car (Marsha) which gets a few laughs now and again. Do you have any names for any machines in your real life?
Strangely enough, I don’t! I’ve tried to name cars and computers, and the names never quite stick. I just end up calling them “the car” or “the computer.” The closest I come to that is referring to my cell phone as “Mr. Phone.”
Shanna Swendson earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas and used to work in public relations but decided it was more fun to make up the people she wrote about, so now she’s a full-time novelist. She’s the author of the contemporary fantasy Enchanted, Inc. series and Fairy Tale series and the young adult steampunk fantasy Rebel Mechanics. She’s also contributed essays to a number of books on pop culture topics. She’s a frequent guest at writing conferences and science fiction conventions, where she gets to talk about books and television and consider it “work.” She lives in Irving, Texas, with several hardy houseplants and too many books to fit on the shelves.
Tea, Love … and Revolution!
The Rebel Mechanics aren’t the only group plotting revolution against the magical British Empire. There are rebel magisters, as well, and Verity Newton and her magister employer, Lord Henry, know that the only way for the revolution to succeed is if both groups work together. A diplomatic mission seems like the perfect opportunity for them to meet with rebels in other colonies and gather support—right under the governor’s nose.
From drawing rooms, ballrooms, and the harbor in Boston to the streets of Charleston, Verity and Henry find themselves up against stubborn factions of both magisters and Mechanics and increasingly aware that they can only really count on each other as their relationship deepens. It may take a real crisis to unite the rebel movements and rally them to the cause—but could such a crisis also tear them apart?
Thank you so much Shanna for taking the time to answer all of my questions! I really appreciate it!