Introducing debut author Jeffrey Cook and his unorthodox Steampunk novel – Dawn of Steam: First Light.
Why unorthodox? I hear you say.
Because it isn’t your usual Victorian, bodice ripping Steampunk romantic adventure. No – this is a gritty and action packed adventure. Full of historical details fact and fiction; it is entertaining, informative and funny.
In 1815, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, two of England’s wealthiest lords place a high-stakes wager on whether a popular set of books, which claim that the author has traveled to many unknown corners of the globe, are truth or, more likely, wild fiction.
First Light is an epistolary novel, told primarily through the eyes of former aide-de-camp Gregory Conan Watts, describing the journeys of the airship Dame Fortuna and its crew through journals and letters to his beloved fiancée.
The first recruit is, necessarily, the airship’s owner: war hero, genius, and literal knight in steam-powered armor Sir James Coltrane. Persuading him to lend his talents and refitted airship to the venture requires bringing along his sister, his cousin, and the crew that flew with him during the Napoleonic Wars. Only with their aid can they track down a Scottish rifleman, a pair of shady carnies, and a guide with a strong personal investment in the stories.
When they set out, the wild places of the world, including the far American West, the Australian interior, darkest Africa, and other destinations are thought to be hostile enough. No one expects the trip to involve a legendary storm – or the Year Without a Summer of 1815-1816. The voyage is further complicated by the human element. Some parties are not at all happy with the post-war political map. Most problematic of all, the crew hired by the other side of the wager seem willing to win by any means necessary.
Dawn of Steam: First Light follows these adventurers, as they open up the world. In the process, their journey helps lay the foundations for an age of enlightenment and technology to come.
So, let’s get to know a little bit more about Jeffrey and his writing.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to writing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer all of my life. My start in storytelling came early. My father and I took a lot of road trips across the United States, for various reasons. During these trips, we would pass the time with him setting up a narrative, and having me voice my character within the story and make decisions for that character. Combined with starting reading very early, I developed a love of stories that has lasted all my life.
Other than that, I’m 39, 40 in September. I live in Maple Valley, Washington — about 35 miles from Seattle. I live with my wife of 15 years, a housemate, and 3 big dogs that are the household’s children. In addition to reading and writing, I’m a gamer (mostly tabletop role-playing games), do some writing work from time to time for Deep7 Games in Seattle, and enjoy watching sports, especially American football.
Where did you get the idea for the book and how much research did you do?
I didn’t originally set out to write a Steampunk book. I loved the look and aesthetic, but was a bit of an outsider to it. I had a waking dream that introduced me to two of the characters. Because of their particular set-up, they couldn’t be modern-day, so I did some research and world building to figure out a world that best suited them. Everything else filled in from there and resulted in a Regency-era Steampunk book as the best fit.
The major research went into the alternate history aspects of the book. While there is some obvious deviation, the book is still built on real history: real events come into play; real historical figures are mentioned or have shaped the world. A lot of the dress, mannerisms, etc. are also intended to closely mirror the actual 1815. There are some deviations, but most of them are intended to result from the premise of a single event happening differently, and leaving things alone that wouldn’t have been directly altered by that premise. Some of the events of the book were entirely unplanned initially, but came about due to the research, like the Tambora volcano eruption and the great storm of 1815.
All in all, I put much more time into researching the Regency era and events of 1815 and 1816 than I did writing.
Is Steampunk your favourite genre to write in?
Steampunk is the only genre I’ve written a complete novel in. In truth, it kind of surprised me. I’d been working on a superhero comic book for years and had given up at long last when my seventh different artist flaked on finishing the project. It’s still something I may go back to someday. Before the comic, I’d figured on eventually writing fantasy or maybe space-western-style science fiction.
I’ve done some writing for Deep7 as well, and do really enjoy fantasy work. I’ve also done some YA Science Fiction, which was very different from anything I’d ever planned on writing. Eventually I’d love to play with Westerns, maybe Steampunked, maybe played straight, or some space-western-style sci-fi. Right now, though, I’m definitely enjoying my early-era Steampunk.
Who is your favourite author and why?
My favorite book is Frankenstein, so Mary Shelley makes a strong case. Favorite author, though, I would have to give to C.S. Lewis. Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the first novel I ever read, and it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of much more complex stories beyond the children’s books I had. I think I read the Narnia series four or five times before moving on to anything else, and still have a soft spot for them.
Who or what inspired the characters and the story in your book?
Jillian Coltrane and Sam Bowe showed up in a dream. I woke up with the characters in my head, nameless, but more or less formed and demanding to be written. It started out as a comic book idea, since I was in the last stages of thinking like a comic writer at the time, with a premise of having this group of characters start each mini-story in an old-time photograph in some improbable location, then tell the story of how they got there. That turned into the book’s epistolary format. All of the other characters kind of evolved over time, but the original two have stayed largely the same since their inception.
As far as the story goes, because the characters fit best in the Regency, not the more typical Steampunk Victorian, I got the idea for the ‘Dawn of’ theme. Intentionally making the world more true to the real world, and just researching that heavily, and then as the story progressed, intentionally setting the stage for a lot of the tropes of Steampunk. Some of the things I really wanted to work with were expanding British influence across the world to a greater degree, setting things up for more empowered female characters, and laying the foundation for a more egalitarian society in general, to match the aesthetics of a more typical Steampunk setting. The improvements and spread of technology — and progress towards an age of technological enlightenment – was obviously also central. Within the books, the hope is that readers can see the beginnings of those things, which should be somewhat familiar to the typical Steampunk reader, while also still being very clearly early in deviation from real history towards those aspects. By the time the original trilogy is done, the hope is not only that they tell a story in their own right, but that they could, in theory, be one possible backstory for a dozen other Steampunk stories based upon the real world.
Who is your favourite character in the book and why?
I have two of them, but thankfully, they’re sort of combined into one thing. Sam Bowe is kind of the throwback, and a very intentional link to pre-punk times. There’s a lot going on with her, and not all of it is obvious. Along the way, she also gets to bring knives to the gunfights, save royalty with serving forks, and be a royal pain in the ass of the properly civilized. The fact that she adopts the one thing in the book that goes back much further than even Sam and Jillian, namely Bubsy the ornithopter (whose origin is a long story), just makes her even more fun to write at times.
Do you have a special place where you write?
I have a beat-up armchair that’s set up nicely for using my laptop in. I don’t write nearly as well at a desk anymore. The chair is in terrible condition, but still holding together.
Do you have a favourite book that you go back to and read again?
As far as novels go, not really. I have a lot of books I love that cover a lot of genres. Shogun, Frankenstein, the Lord of the Rings books, a number of old westerns and others have all gotten multiple passes, but no one thing I’d say I keep going back to. The things I do read and re-read a lot are gaming books. Odd as it sounds, they have a lot of good material for building characters and settings – and kind of return me to those old days of truly interacting with the story and having choices to make within it. For pleasure reading, though, I tend more towards trying to find something new to read than re-reading.
You say this is your first novel, was it difficult to write?
Not in the least. That first Nanowrimo flew by. I’d recently been laid off, so I had time to write, and after years of working at one of those soul-and-creativity-draining jobs, I had a lot of creative energy built up and suddenly had an outlet for it. I also found Gregory’s voice, writing letters in a Regency style, pretty quickly. I had the whole thing, what’s now three volumes, together by the end of that month.
Re-writes, edits, more edits, more re-writes and more edits took far, far longer. I’m not nearly as good at cleaning up my own work past the rough draft stage as I am at putting new content down on the page.
What has been the best and worst part of becoming an author?
The best part, honestly, is just writing. I love it, and have been dreaming my whole life of making a living at this. I’m not there yet, but I have the business cards that say author, and some good reviews from people who aren’t friends and family to say I may have stories worth telling. I write quickly, and I’m passionate about the creation of stories.
The worst part is a tie between editing and marketing. I have an editor now, which has made a lot of the process much, much more pleasant. I love creating new content. I’m not nearly as fond of trying to fix and adjust it just so or fixing my frequent run-ons and misplaced commas. Trying to find new ways to market the book and move towards the day when I have 7 or 8 books out and can maybe start thinking about calling it a realistic career is also a challenge and a time sink. I do appreciate meeting new people along the way, at least.
What are going to write next?
I have four books done in various stages of edits. The next thing I actually write probably won’t see the light of day for at least a couple years. That said, I’m working on both the fourth book of the Dawn of Steam series, taking the youngest member of the crew from the current stories (Matthew starts book 1 at 10 and finishes book 3 at 15 years old), jumping ahead 5 years, and making him the main character. I’m also working on a fantasy novel set in Deep7’s Arrowflight universe called Masquer’s Dance. I don’t know where anything but the Dawn of Steam series is going to go, but I’m pretty sure that the Matthew Fisher-Swift books are going to be another trilogy, while next year’s Accidental Inquisitor and the eventual Masquer’s Dance are one-offs, for now.
Is there a quote that you would like to share with everyone that sums you up as a writer?
“Write now, edit later.”
Not nearly as ground-breaking or inspirational as a lot of things out there, but that explanation of the Nanowrimo process made all the difference in the world for me in going from a poet (the only thing I’d had published previously) and would-be comic book writer to being a novelist. Learning to not restart and restart, and just keep moving forward, with no internal editor pauses was critical. Yes, the first drafts were horrid. They needed tons of rewrites and cleaning up. Despite that, they were first drafts that outlined a story from beginning to end.
Thank you Jeffrey for your in-depth answers to my questions. As a taster, here is an extract from the book.
“From the diaries of Jillian Coltrane (Translated from Greek)
February 24th, 1815
James, I know you shared some of my misgivings regarding this mission, though it is almost precisely the sort of opportunity we have been hoping for. I assure you that I am making some discreet inquiries into Elliott Toomes, per your request. His name is not entirely unknown to me, and my limited research with the resources present here within the house indicates that he served with distinction during the Colonial conflict, and was not unknown to our father. Likewise, he has some presence in the Royal Explorers Society.
Although all seems in order, he is quite difficult to read. I certainly did not care for the way he was looking at me and was grateful for at least the efficiency of lemon juice and the distraction of Harriet. I do not trust him, nor should you, though I believe that was abundantly clear. Pray, entertain him with drink and cards and see what more he might let slip in less guarded moments in the coming days.
Mr. Watts is entirely what he seems. I know you are passingly familiar with his work from his writings during the war. I have found numerous of his articles, and verification of his story regarding how he came into possession of the camera device. If there is something more to this offer than it first appears, I do not believe he is any more a party to it than we ourselves.
Whatever my concerns, I still believe this venture into the unknown is well worth it. Only a short time returned from the war, and already I have begun to find the court scene tedious. This should also allow me to further delay our search for suitable candidates for marriage a time longer. I will continue to keep in touch with numerous hopeful mothers, of course, in case something should catch your fancy.
The funding for the venture is secure, and I have already seen to making sure that our former staff are all available to continue in our service aboard the airship. I am certain the Fishers will resume their excellent works, and at least most of the engineering crew should still be available.
Given how much we were forced to retrofit the dirigible to suit our needs, I would be loath to bring anyone new in now. I will be sure to let you know if there are any difficulties, though to be certain, you may want to pay some of the crew personal visits and make certain they know that their loyalty, and, of course, their discretion, will be well rewarded.
The other names on the list Mr. Toomes presented us with are still unknowns, but I am doing what research I may while we have all the resources of our library and files at my disposal. I will let you know what I find out. In the meanwhile, as you are better able to travel in society circles without need for extraordinary circumstances, I strongly recommend you make some inquiries of your own into Giovanni Franzini. That we are asked to work with a European seems odd, though Mr. Toomes assures me that he has connections and friends in places few Englishmen would, and such we may need. This may be the case, but if I do not trust Mr. Toomes, I am certainly not going to trust anyone else on his say so alone.
When all the research is done, be certain to pack well for the trip, and add a handful of concealed weapons to our list of supplies. If we are going to travel with so many unknowns with so many of our secrets close at hand, best we be prepared for any eventuality. Despite these cautions, I am quite excited to be involved. I remain entirely unready for our shared adventure to end just yet.”
You can contact Jeffrey and learn more about Dawn of Steam here:
Dawn of Steam: First Light is available to purchase on Amazon.com