Why not steal a horse? The perils of steampunk tropes

By Angelia Sparrow

I have a new book forthcoming. I just sent the proofs back Monday.  The Sweet Science of Bruising will be out soon from Purple Sword Publications.  It’s steampunk adventure with strong erotic content, mostly heterosexual, although both leads are bi, and Lillian is disguised as a boy for most of the book.

Lillian is an inventor of vibrators who is swept off to adventure with an itinerant bare-knuckle boxing outfit. In her escape, she essentially invents a motorcycle.

When I was writing this, our Fearless Leader, Elizabeth, asked “Why don’t they just steal a horse?” The thought had never crossed my mind. It’s rather like when Gabriel asked “Why vampires?” and I stuttered a moment and said “I’d looked damned silly trying to have a vampire apocalypse without vampires.”

Other questions were raised by early readers, including the feasibility of dirigibles, and why cities don’t have balistas on city hall if airship pirates are a problem. Those were tabled. (Answer, figured out much later: because Abilene is not quite that advanced or that wealthy. Balistas are used in Kansas City and points east, which is why the pirates prefer to operate out west)

But my point is tropes. These recognizable conventions in a genre are useful shorthand for readers, and save the author a lot of explanation. They are almost a visual or literary shorthand. If I say “They climbed the winding steps up the tower to the sorceress’ workroom,” you have a mental image of the tower, the narrow, steep stairs that climb it (always turning counterclockwise, makes it easier to defend), the room at the top with shelves and work tables, and bubbling huggermugger that will play no part in the story but sets the tone. Likewise, if I talk about the dusty streets with board sidewalks and hitching rails, a lone tumbleweed drifting along, and the complete silence, you’re either expecting a gunfight or a post-apoc western. And your mind supplied a saloon, a livery stable and a sheriff’s office without me saying anything.  Tropes are very useful.

Until you hit a beta reader who is not conversant with that subgenre’s tropes. (Which is why, if I taught creative writing, genre fiction would be covered in the second semester, when we address the tropes as well as the story mechanics)  Then you find yourself questioning your airships, your wizard workrooms, your FTL travel methods, why the vampires don’t just shoot the hunters and even your mechanized vacuums.

I’ve had to deal with all these questions from beta readers and editors.  They are good questions, even if they are annoying. I’m caught in the story. I understand it’s steampunk, so I’m expecting goggles, and airships and contraptions. To have a simple, non-mechanical solution offered might be throwing a wrench into the works. Then again, that’s what writers are for.

One reader actually questioned the gadgetry and invention, saying “people don’t just do that sort of thing.” I referred him to the photo of Mr. Daimler and the motorized bicycle and reminded him that the motorcycle was invented in four different places within three years of each other. And then I wrote this, to show that the theory was sound, even if I don’t have the mechanical skill to do it myself.

 

A rider used an up and down motion, pushing pedals around in a circle, which drove a small wheel connected to a larger wheel. It was a very simple machine. She visualized one of her preventative machines and its own simple engine.

A simple steam chamber, heated by the gaslights, drove a single piston engine. The motion went in a straight line from the motor to her toy. She regulated it by turning the valve as to how much steam she wanted. She really should come up with a several stroke engine, one whose drive she could interrupt to control the velocity of the phallus, starting it slowly and then letting it pound.

She reminded herself to borrow the pen from Turlough’s desk at first light, and make the note on her shirtsleeve, having no paper to hand. She didn’t want to forget the idea. That way, she would not be tempted to interrupt the escape for forgotten notes, since she would be wearing them.

Another cheer from the fight drew her attention back to her escape plan. The engine would need to be quite small as most bicycles were built for one passenger, not two and an engine. It still needed to be faster than a man could run and faster than a horse and rider.

She played with the design of the bicycle, trying to figure a way to mount the engine and seat the both of them. Turlough would need to steer. She would have to ride backwards and mollycoddle the engine along. It would be a touchy and temporary thing, but she could do it.

The steam would rise, but she wanted the stroke to move downward. The memory of a carousel she had ridden with her parents on a trip back east to St. Louis returned. The great steam organ in the center had moved the axles around and round. But the horses had gone up and down because of a bend in the bar. The same should work in reverse, with the up and down motion causing a round and round motion.

If she mounted that over the back wheel and hooked it right into the axle…but no, that meant one stroke would move the bicycle one wheel-turn and she needed it to go faster than that.

Gearing, of course. If one stroke spun the tire three times, that would be good. Especially if she could make the piston move faster than a human leg.

So, back to the original question, why don’t they steal a horse?
I’ll let Lillian explain.

She explained the plan in hasty whispers in the dead of the night. Turlough shook his head.

“‘Twould be easier to just take a horse,” he said for the dozenth time.

“Have you seen the horses with this outfit? Two of them nearly as old as I am and the others slower than slugs. Draft horses aren’t built for running. Besides, they hang you for stealing horses. Tell Wulf you want to try a new training exercise and have him find you a bicycle.”

“I can’t ride one of those contraptions, lass.” The admission finally came, Turlough sounding embarrassed. “Horses I understand but not those things.”

“That’s why you practice before I attach the engine.” She smiled.

To find out the rest of Lilian and Turlough’s adventures, and enjoy seeing scenic Kansas by motorcycle, airship and train, look for The Sweet Science of Bruising by Angelia Sparrow, coming soon from Purple Sword Productions.

 

Angelia Sparrow is a bus driver who lives quietly in the MidSouth. She has been writing professionally since 2004. Unofficially called the Queen of Cross-genre, she has been a finalist for the Darrell Award, the Lamnbda Literary Award and the Gaylactic Spectrum award. She has a husband, kids and grandkids, and enjoys a variety of handcrafts as well as writing. Web presence.

 

 

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