I’m a fan of Steampunk, for those of you who don’t know. So when I found out this week’s feature author, Stefan Bachmann, was going to delve into this topic, I was pretty pumped up. The Peculiar, which released on Tuesday, has some fantastic Steampunk elements in it (my favorite are the flying clockwork messenger birds), and in today’s post he talks about how this beloved genre was implanted into his head as a youth by none other than Disney.
Take it away Stefan!
I’m pretty sure the most common question EVER asked of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” and I’m also pretty sure very few writers would say they like that question. I know I don’t particularly. But then, I like hearing the answer from other authors, so I thought long and hard about it for this guest post, and came to the conclusion that the idea for The Peculiar must have originated from a Disney movie I watched when I was about four.
Yaaay, book based on Disney movie. Sounds not-very-promising, I know, but here’s how it was:
My grandparents had a television and a couple of strange things called video tapes, which were quite exciting to my four-year-old self. The tapes were in German, so I didn’t understand them very well, but I remember watching one Disney movie called Basil, the Great Mouse Detective. It’s one of their 80’s cartoons, not as iconic as the 40’s and 50’s ones, and not as widely-seen as the 90’s blockbusters, but it’s one of my absolute favorites. Part of that is probably because I did watch it when I was young and everything I watched back then was instantly an absolute favorite, but even watching it today I love the storytelling, and the atmosphere, and the STEAMPUNK.
The movie is about an underbelly society of mice and rats in Victorian London, and if you’ve seen it and then read my book you might see how something like that could take root in a silly little brain and morph and change into The Peculiar. They both feature dark and sinister English cities, shadowy quays, clockwork, a sinister toy shop, secrets, kidnappings, air balloons, and some very scary rats. In Mouse Detective, the main plot hinges on a scheme to impersonate Queen Victoria’s mouse counterpart through a clockwork imitation, which is where all similarities stop, but STILL. . . Superficially, there’s plenty to trace back to the cartoon.
Especially the steampunk. It plays a fairly prominent part, I think a bit ahead of its time. There’s a Rube Goldberg-style deathtrap, automatons, laboratories, and an epic battle among Big Ben’s cog-works. It’s not the main part of the movie, but it’s there and it’s important, and it must have made some sort of impression on me because I’ve liked all things clockwork ever since. I’m not sure steampunk would have been quite so appealing to me quite so soon without this movie. Same as Mouse Detective, The Peculiar isn’t straight-up steampunk. I would say it’s mostly a fantasy book with steampunk accents that are vital in several ways to the plot.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but steampunk, to me, is most interesting when combined with other genres. Of course it’s fascinating to look at it on its own in real life, but in stories I like knowing its reasons for existing, where it came from, how it’s used. I think it makes the bells and whistles so much richer. Steampunk vs. Biology as the inciting factor for WWI? Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan. Steampunk used in aiding the British Empire to conquer OUTER SPACE (Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy. Which is really so good, you absolutely must read it.)
Steampunk with FAERIES? Well, maybe not the most obvious combination, but in The Peculiar, steampunk is the tight-laced Victorians’ response to the wild, unruly fairies flooding England. While faery magic is secretly fashionable for its strangeness, organized, mechanized clockwork is the order of the day. It’s used to keep the faeries in check, clip their wings and dull their claws, figuratively speaking. It’s the opposite extreme of the intuitive, disorganized faery magic, and the English most likely employ it out of fear.
Which is why the murders start happening, secret messages are sent in clockwork birds, a beautiful lady kidnaps children out of the slums, and a great deal of mayhem ensues.
So in the end The Peculiar isn’t very much like a Disney movie at all, but I think that’s where it grew from. And I’m still very happy for those German video tapes in my grandparents’ living room.