A letter from the colonies…

Summer’s lease hath proved once more all too short a date, and with her warm embrace but a memory we return to the ebb and flow of life.

In the coming weeks we will explore much in the way of British culture, from riots to crumpets, and many points in between.

But to start the new season I am proud to present to you a guest blog by one of our dear friends Ms Philippa Ballantine. As our kiwi correspondent she shares with us her recent challenge of writing a novel set in Victorian London while she was sat in New Zealand and her co-author Tee Morris was stationed in the US.

I hope you enjoy her musings, and please feel free to ask any questions that it provokes by placing them in the comments.

So, without further ado…please be upstanding for Ms Ballantine.

Dunking ourselves into Victorian London (like the preverbal biscuit).

By Philippa Ballantine

When you’re a writer delving into another city, country or world is always a bit of a risk. People know the places—right down to the smells and sounds—that you are using. However it also gives you a wonderful basis for story that can inspire and spice up your story in many ways.

In London’s case it is distinctly tea-flavoured.

When writing Phoenix Rising; a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel, my co-author and I were working in the steampunk genre. (Tee has written this page describing what exactly that might be.) Since steampunk is the past that never happened, that does give us as author a little wriggle room. Writer’s do love wriggle room.

A very recent steampunk video describes the genre as ‘it’s not bound by period, but it is informed by it.’ Huzzah! So we were off and running on the novel, set in London. Neither of actually live in London. Tee is a born and bred Virginian, and I am from Wellington, New Zealand.

So we weren’t locals, and that meant we had to rely on experience and research.

First of all Tee and I have both spent time in London. Tee lived there for four months and I have visited several times. Honestly, there is nothing to compare with the first hand experience of going to a place. So we had impressions and memories and photos to go on. (My memories of a night watching football, eating fish and chips with mushy peas at a pub, have yet to prove useful).

The look of the Thames, might have changed since Victorian times (the lack of caustic fog and pollution being just two things missing) but you get some idea of the rivers appearance, how it snakes through the city. In the sequel to Phoenix Rising, called Of Cogs and Corsets, I spent a great deal of time in the Natural History Museum, and the beauty and typical English majesty of the building made quite the impression. That was why when it came time for a certain villain to break into building to steal something, I knew it was within this particular museum.

So, having been there gives you an advantage, but since this in Victorian London, and neither of us are in possession of a time-machine (as yet), we had to do a certain amount of research. Personally, as a librarian I love digging around in books. There are many online resources that you can use, plenty of encyclopaedias of Victorian London, but one of the best resources for getting the feel of a place and time are images. There are even some early film footage of London available on youtube. Also there are many fantastic books that cover, not only the lives of the aristocracy, but also lives of the poor struggling souls on the street.

But what do you do if you haven’t been there, or have been unable to find the answer in your available resources? Why, turn to your social media buddies! As authors and podcasters Tee and I are lucky enough to have a lovely—and helpful—group of listeners and readers.

If you need Victorian swear words, information on armaments, or how a steam engine really work, these are the people you turn to. Honestly, it’s amazing the variety of talents that are out there. That is something the Victorians never had—though they had more corsets and cups of tea.

But my final refuge of research on being English is my Nana—the most proper lady I ever met. When ever I have a moment of thinking about how a lady in London at that time would have acted I always see her face.

And there is always a cup of tea in her hand…

Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the co-author with Tee Morris of Phoenix Rising: a Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence novel out now from Harper Voyager. It contains airships, archives and large amounts of derry-doing. Find out more at ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com