Part one can be read here.
Airship Ambassador: What kind of research went into creating the The Harpoonist world?
Brent Nichols: My starting point was a vague idea about putting steam-powered superheroes into a Canadian urban setting. I chose Vancouver arbitrarily because it’s a big city that would have been reasonably populous in the Victorian era.
The end result was a story with some neat characters and a solid plot, but a setting that felt generic and unconvincing. I couldn’t figure out how to make the story work, so I set it aside for a long time.
Eventually I encountered another anthology call that specified stories set in Canada, where the setting was integral to the story. That forced me to do what I should have done first, which was to really think about my setting. I started reading about Vancouver in the 19th century, not with any particular goal in mind, just to give myself something to work with beyond my own assumptions.
It turns out Vancouver was an absolutely fascinating place, back in the day. The Harpoonist lives in Gastown, since the story is set in 1885 and the city hadn’t been incorporated as Vancouver yet. The city expanded at a phenomenal rate, and for a time the police force was entirely inadequate. That’s the era where I’ve got superheroes stepping in to fill the gap.
Steampunk is alternate history, so I didn’t want to pin myself too strongly to existing facts. That being said, the actual history of Vancouver is much too interesting to set aside. I read about the city’s origins, looked at maps from before the Great Fire of 1886, and pored over every online document I could find about the history of the Vancouver police.
Some earlier research involved the history of the railroad and the plight of the Chinese who were brought in to build it. I found 19th-century census documents that let me prove that, for instance, there were Chinese women in Canada during that era.
AA: That kind of research sounds really fascinating, to see the early days of the city, what life was like, knowing how it developed from there to become the city it is today. What elements did you specifically include so readers could feel the The Harpoonist history?
BN: The main historical factors driving the plot are the unrest that accompanied the rise of automation in the textile industry, and the explosive growth of Vancouver combined with the much slower growth of its police force. The social woes of the industrial revolution permeate the story. It’s integral. The inadequacy of the police force in 1885 is something the protagonist thinks about briefly as he considers his options.
AA: A call to action because of inaction. Perhaps that is something which drives all kinds of people to get involved, to do something, anything, to make life better in some way. Writing can be a challenge some days. What are some of your methods to stay motivated and creative?
BN: Making writing a habit is hugely helpful, although it’s not an easy state to achieve. Once you get there, though, you wake up every morning fully expecting to write, and you don’t quite feel right if you go to bed not having created anything.
I juggle multiple projects, which keeps things fresh. A novel can bog me down for months, so I regularly tackle small projects so I can get a sense of accomplishment and completion. To keep myself out of self-imposed ruts, I look for strange new things to try. It keeps me from always reaching for the same ideas and characters.
Self-publishing can be a way to sample success on at least a small scale while you’re waiting for an editor to finally say “yes” to a submission.
AA: How is Calgary for writing?
BN: Calgary’s got a thriving local writing scene. I’ve found critiquing partners, and I’m a member of a terrific writing group called IFWA, the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association. There is also a fantastic writers’ conference called When Words Collide which I attend every summer. I find myself regularly surrounded by people who inspire me, support me, and collaborate with me. Calgary’s a great place to be a genre writer.
AA: That’s really great to have people like that around you. Most of the authors I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job. What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered begin a published writer?
BN: Writing is such a strange, solitary activity. Most of us aspire to full-time writing, but I suspect day jobs are quite good for us. I’m a contract trainer. It’s intermittent work that pays reasonably well, but it gives me a lot of time off, which has helped me to be one of the more prolific writers I know.
AA: There’s only so much time in a day – what interests don’t you have time for?
BN: I keep wanting to learn to draw and paint. Dramatic, vivid, comic-style art fascinates me. I want so badly to create art like that, but my skills fall terribly short of my aspirations, and when I try to improve I get frustrated. Sooner or later the sheer length of the road ahead discourages me, and I decide my time and spirit would be better spent writing. Maybe next year, though….
AA: Three quick-fire random questions – what is your favorite tv show, movie soundtrack, and metallic color?
BN: I’m going to go with Firefly, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I have no idea.
AA: Any final thoughts to share with our readers
BN: There’s nothing like artistic creativity. Go ahead and create. Share it with whomever can appreciate it. Those who don’t like it or don’t approve don’t actually matter. Every single awesome thing in the world has people who just don’t like it, and that’s okay. They don’t matter. The ones who appreciate and enjoy what you create are the ones who are relevant. So go create.
Thanks, Brent, for joining us for this interview and for sharing all of your thoughts. We look forward to hearing about your next projects!
Keep up to date with Brent’s latest news on his website.
You can support Brent and our community by getting your copy of Clockwork Canada here.