dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

Gears of BrassIn honor of the release of Gears of Brass, a steampunk anthology published by Curiosity Quills, I am bringing you an interview with S.A. Larsen  (aka Sheri) on the craft of writing in the genre of steampunk …

  1. Sheri, how did you come to be involved in the Gears of Brass anthology?

I was approached by another author, who heard that Curiosity Quills was interested in putting together a group of young adult stories with a steampunk edge. This was an area I’d never worked in before, which gave me pause. But growth as a writer comes from leaping into what we’re less familiar with and learning. That’s what I did.

  1. For those readers who are uncertain about the term, how would you define steampunk?

Ooh, Susan Kaye Quinn explained it wonderfully in the forward she wrote for the book, but I’ll give it a try. I see the world of steampunk  as science fiction meets gadgets and gears powered by steam all weaved in mystery, intrigue, and romance. And lots of times lace, corsets, and some really cool boots. 😉 Steampunk is a form of world a story grows up in and how that world affects the characters and storylines—a unique battery with which to tell a tale.

  1. I know from your post on the cover reveal that you did a lot of research into steampunk before beginning your story. How does one go about researching a technology that doesn’t exist?

Great question! Initially, I searched for images dealing with already existing steampunk. These photos or drawings gave me visual insight into the world of steampunk and the Victorian age. From there, my imagination took over. I began comparing what I saw to today’s world of clothing, transportation, food, gadgets, social behaviors, architecture, and employment.

The idea of a spinning wheel producing more than mere yarn has always fascinated me. Call it a writer’s twitch that would never leave me alone. So when I saw all the time pieces within the steampunk images I found, I just had to somehow relate time to a spinning wheel. That led me to some cookie baking to entice detailed terms out of my husband about how car engines, stereo systems, and other electronics of today work. The rest I simply plucked from the far reaches of my brain.

  1. The closest I have come (so far) to writing steampunk is my Tesla-punk manuscript based on the science of Tesla’s inventions – the real ones, the ones he envisioned but never made, and the ones that conspiracy theorists think he did make but were covered up.  What kind of science is your short story based on, and did you have to coordinate with other authors – or is each story independent?

Each story is independent. It would be fun to coordinate them, though. Steampunk elements were our only criteria, though it was suggested that takes on fairytales or folktales would be great.

Honestly, the story is loosely based on the workings of time and most of that I stretched to meet my story goals. I actually incorporated elements from a young adult story idea I had a while back. It was a take on Rumpelstiltskin—thus, the spinning wheel. And then, as I began developing the story, my female lead became one whose way of life had been stolen from her, making survival a struggle—thus, my Cinderella elements. When I began writing TIME SPUN SOULS, I never intended to lean on any fairy tales. But the more I wrote, the more these fit.

5. Can you give us a logline for your story?

Trapped in the clutches of her step-mother’s quest to marry wealthy, a girl is thrust into the underground of forced labor, where yarn is not the only thing she spins.

Sheri LarsenBio:

S.A. Larsen is a wordsmith, book cover designer, and avid reader. Her quirky view of life urges her to create unique worlds for exploring the joys and angst of the young adult years, the awkward middle grade years, and the curious younger years of picture books. She is represented by Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary.

Her vineyard-set YA novel, MARKED BEAUTY, has received multiple offers of publication and currently remains on submission. She lives in the land of lobsters, snowy winters, and the occasional Eh’ya, with her husband of over twenty years, their four children, a playful pooch Gracie, and two kittens Chloe and Molly.

 

 

 

Recently, The Spirit Game, the 6-minute film short based on my novel, We Hear the Dead, directed by Craig Goodwill and starring Katharine Isabelle, Katie Boland, and Charles Shaughnessy, was posted on YouTube, where you can now watch it for free. Yay!

 

If you haven’t been following my blog for long, you might not know the story of how this film came to be made.  A long time ago I posted How I Got My Film Option — which involves feng shui and painting the front door — but the shorter version is that my book was optioned for film back in 2009 by Amy Green of One Eye Open Studios. It wasn’t even published as We Hear the Dead at that time. The original option was for the self published version, which was called High Spirits.

Shortly after acqNew film posteruiring the option. Amy talked me into writing the screenplay (in spite of my telling her I didn’t know how). She and I worked together and over the course of about 18 months — and 8 drafts — we collaborated on a full length movie script. Now I can technically say I’m a screenwriter … even though no one ever made a movie with that script. I got a lot of compliments on it, but no backers.

Eventually, director Craig Goodwill became interested in the project. He and Amy decided to apply for a grant from BravoFACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent). Amy and Craig are Canadian; most of the cast would be Canadian. But I’m not. So at that point I had to bow out, and they brought in a Canadian screenwriter. (I did however get to act as a consultant on the historical details. Fun!)

The movie was filmed in November of 2012 and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. (No, I didn’t attend.) This 6 minute story does not come from any particular scene in my book, but it does neatly capture the main premise: Three sisters run a fraudulent seance business. One of the three may also have real paranormal talent, but since she’s also addicted to laudanum, her sisters don’t believe her.production photo

After Cannes, the producer and director began pitching the idea for a television series, with the film being used as a teaser. They even wrote a pilot episode, and once again I got to be the consultant on historical details. I wish I could say that a series was sold and in the works, but no … not yet at least!

I still think this is all very cool. Lots of books get optioned for film and nothing happens after that. But I’m honored to have one unsold screenplay to my credit, a script for a pilot episode, a series “bible”, and a short film with some well-known faces in it that went to Cannes!

 

 


Last week, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from a descendant of the Fox sisters! This lady, who lives in a neighboring county of PA (and whom I hope to meet up with this summer) is a great-great-(great?)-grandniece of Maggie and Kate Fox.

This is really exciting – and also kind of nerve-wracking. Since my characters are real, historical people, I knew (theoretically) that there might be real, living descendants who could encounter my book.

And read it.

One of the first things I did when I exchanged messages with this very nice lady was apologize, because her direct ancestor, Elizabeth Fox doesn’t appear in the book at all. Maggie and Kate had four older siblings, but since two of them had no direct role in the spiritualism business, I ended up cutting all mention of them in order to streamline the story and reduce the word count. In We Hear the Dead, there are only 4 Fox children: Maggie, Kate, David, and Leah. The other sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were left out altogether.

We Hear the Dead is fictional, after all. I collapsed the timeline of events and sometimes changed their order. I took the bare facts of these people’s lives and created full-blown fictional characters out of them. A biographer can simply state what happens to their subject. A novelist must provide personality and motivation. That’s all fine and dandy until I remember I’m writing about somebody’s great-great-grandmother.

There are descendants of the Kane family living too, and I wonder what will happen when/if they stumble on my book. Maggie did NOT have a good relationship with Elisha Kane’s family. His brother Robert plays an important and unpleasant role in We Hear the Dead, putting obstacles in the path of their relationship. Maggie calls Robert “detestable” and “vile.” When she hears he has fathered a child, her reaction is: Robert Kane had produced offspring? What a repugnant idea!

Yeah, wait until somebody emails me and says, “Excuse me, but that was my great-great-granddaddy.” Gulp!

I guess that’s all part of being a historical novelist.

And yet, it feels strange. Writers feel possessive toward their characters. It’s a little unnerving to realize that “my characters” actually belong in someone else’s family tree.


In writing We Hear the Dead, it became necessary for me to focus on one of the two Fox sisters. Maggie was my obvious choice, because she was the morally conflicted sister who faced a mob at Corinthian Hall, a violent attack in Troy, and the one who was drawn into a star-crossed romance with a man above her station.

Many readers have wanted to know more about Kate, but unfortunately the timeline of the novel didn’t allow me to fully address her strange life. Although she was a central figure in the Hydesville incident and the early Rochester spirit circles, Kate was subsequently shipped off to school by her family and remained out of sight for a couple years. Horace Greeley took an interest in Kate’s schooling and housed the girl in his home while she attended a private school. This seems very generous, unless you know that Mrs. Greeley was mentally disturbed. Grief for her dead son had made her a morose, temperamental, and difficult companion. Horace Greeley installed Kate Fox in his home and then vanished to his private Manhattan apartment — he rarely inhabited the same home as his wife. Kate attended school during the day and performed private séances for the unhappy Mrs. Greeley at night.

Kate was miserable. She wrote countless letters begging her family to bring her home. Unfortunately, Horace Greeley was too important an ally to cross, and Kate was left for months at a time in Mrs. Greeley’s less-than-tender care. It’s no wonder that when she finally escaped, the poor girl wallowed in the social activity which her fame allowed. Sadly, she developed a taste for alcohol – so much so that Elisha Kane remarked on it warningly in some of his letters to Maggie.

Did Kate really have “the second sight” as I suggest in We Hear the Dead? Obviously, I have no way of knowing. However, unlike Maggie, Kate never confessed to fraud and worked as a spirit medium for most of her life. Kate was subject to fits and migraines, and even before she started drinking alcohol, her family dosed her with a tonic that may have been laced with morphine (as many were at that time). This might explain some of her “visions.”

Kate’s work as a medium grew increasingly strange in her early twenties (beyond the timeline of We Hear the Dead). She performed a series of séances for a banker named Charles Livermore in which she supposedly produced a physical manifestation of his dead wife. In the pitch darkness of the room, the wife’s spirit held Livermore’s hand, stroked his face, placed her fingers in his mouth – and he reported fingering the ribbons on the bodice of her gown. (What was going on in that dark room??)

Kate married and had two sons, one of whom was diagnosed with epilepsy – lending credence to the idea that she had some mild form of epilepsy herself. During her marriage, her life stabilized for awhile, but after her husband died, she allowed her fondness for alcohol to take over. At one point, her sister Leah attempted to seize custody of her two sons, and only Maggie’s intervention prevented this from happening.

Kate Fox may have been the nineteenth century version of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. Which reminds me that there are 2 days left for you to enter the Teenage Celebrity contest and win a We Hear the Dead t-shirt!


The Fox sisters had a clever little hoax, but it certainly would never have become a nationwide movement and a religion without the endorsement of some key, influential people. During my research, I was astounded to discover that intelligent, educated, and shrewd people such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass fell for what was later confessed to be a fraud. No matter how surprising, however, their actions and opinions are recorded in history, and as I worked on writing my narrative, I searched for an explanation that made sense to me. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that – just like today – people endorse things that benefit them.

Abolition and Women’s Rights were sometimes called the “twin causes” of the mid-nineteenth century, and their membership circles largely intersected. Leaders in these movements wanted to get their message out to the public, and my “take” on their support of spiritualism is simply this: Seances were the 19th century version of Twitter.

Picture it — People gathering together to receive brief, cryptic messages sent by faceless entities from a far away place. That pretty much describes both a séance and Twitter, doesn’t it? And just like with Twitter, one can never be really certain of the sender’s true identity. Senator John Calhoun was a staunch (even rabid!) advocate of slavery. Yet, after his death, spiritualists attending séances with the Fox sisters received messages from Calhoun which recanted his former position. His spirit (@johncalhoun if you please) claimed that he had been enlightened by the Truth in the afterlife. A feather in the cap of abolitionists – if you believed the message, which many people did.

Stanton, Mott, Douglass, and countless other reformers knew exactly what they were doing when they endorsed the Fox sisters. They had a message they wanted to spread, and the Fox sisters, abolitionists and fledgling feminists themselves, were more than happy to cooperate. As @benjaminfranklin said in one of their séances, “Great changes are on the horizon!”


The history of spiritualism in America began in 1848 with a house in Hydesville, New York that was supposedly haunted by the spirit of a murdered man. Instrumental in the spread of this story and the consequent spotlight of attention on two adolescent girls (Maggie and Kate Fox) was a pamphlet published by a lawyer and would-be journalist of a neighboring town.

A Report of the Mysterious Noises Heard in the House of Mr. John D. Fox in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County by E.E. Lewis is a curious little document consisting of nearly 20 authenticated certificates relating the events which took place in April of 1848. In a series of repetitive and nearly identical accounts, the residents of Hydesville described how some unexplained rapping sounds gradually resolved themselves into a sort of coded communication with the spirit of a dead man buried in the cellar of John Fox’s house. The “ghost” revealed his story by answering yes-and-no questions, even going so far as to identify his killer as John Bell, a former tenant of the house.

In time, focus would shift from this house and its ghostly inhabitant to the living occupants, especially the two girls Maggie and Kate, who were later identified as gifted spirit mediums. However, it is interesting to note that the girls are never named in Mr. Lewis’s pamphlet, and, in fact, they are mentioned as having only a minor role in the entire affair. It is even difficult to tell, based on the narratives in the pamphlet, exactly how many girls were present on the night the rapping began. Margaret Fox reports, “The whole family slept in that room together, and all heard the noise. There was four of our family, and sometimes five.” The four people were most definitely Margaret and John Fox and their daughters Maggie and Kate. Historians have speculated that the fifth person may have been Margaret’s granddaughter, Lizzie Fish, but it is difficult to tell from this pamphlet whether Lizzie was present on the night of the first rappings or not. In my fictional retelling of the tale, I have chosen to include Lizzie in the night’s adventures.

In any case, the girls were considered of little importance to the incident. Reading the “authenticated certificates” of the Fox family and their neighbors requires wading through some extremely repetitive narrations, but one is definitely struck by the “snowballing” nature of the affair. Each individual wants his or her own moment in the limelight, and one can almost imagine them jostling each other out of the way to tell Mr. Lewis their stories. For the most part, their accounts agree, although every person brings a unique angle to the story. For example, Mrs. Mary Redfield claims that when asked to guess her age, the ghost rapped 33 times. “This is my age,” she proudly states. Considering the method by which the Fox sisters confessed making the rapping sounds later, this seems an extremely unlikely event. Plus, I was immediately struck by the oddness of any woman volunteering her age for publication—unless she was attempting to shed a few years by encouraging Mr. Lewis to print an age that was (ahem) slightly reduced.

The pamphlet concludes, oddly enough, with a certificate circulated by the residents of Hydesville testifying that none of the signers believed John Bell guilty of any crime. This testimony to Bell’s innocence is signed by over 40 people, including many of the same ones who submitted sworn accounts of the ghostly rapping that accused Bell of the crime in the first place. What are we to infer from this? Well, my conclusion was that people in 1848 were no different from people today: everybody wants to get in on the action until it looks like they might get in trouble. Then it’s time to pedal backwards.

Mr. E. E. Lewis’s pamphlet may be read online here.