SteamU; Author Laurel Anne Hill Discusses Steampunk Beyond England

Today's Lecture by SteamU Professor: Author Laurel Anne Hill

Author of: "Heroes Arise" and numerous short stories which have appeared in a variety of publications, most recently in the anthologies How Beer Saved the WorldA Bard in the HandHorrible DisastersFault Zone, and Shanghai Steam, a steampunk-wuxia collection. In April, 2013, Shanghai Steam was nominated for an Aurora Award in Canada.

Further Discourse Available:

Books Available Here: "Heroes Arise" at

Today's Lecture:

Steampunk Beyond England

Cho Ting-Lam, the Moon-Flame Woman, speaks out:

Tips for Unpublished Characters


by Laurel Hill

I dangled down the side of the mountain.  The hanging basket holding me rocked.  My hand wedged an explosive stick into a hole in granite.  I lit the fuse.  Would my fellow workers pull me to safety in time?

Such excitement.  Such terror.  Before this, I'd only dreamed I'd help build a section of the transcontinental railway through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1866.  Now here I was, Cho Ting-Lam, living my dream on the published page — despite the plethora of potholes which had peppered my path toward story character success.

Please forgive me, dear readers.  The idea of a nineteenth-century Chinese woman mentioning a plethora of potholes probably surprises you.  I should have first explained.  Many people — including writers — don't realize the truth about story characters, their origins and their journeys.  Each character knows more than you might guess.

I once lived in a shadow world of fictional and nonfictional characters, all searching for authors to tell their tales.  But our stories weren't about what really happened to us.  They described our imagined adventures ― some from the world's actual history and some not.  Although I was a nineteenth-century Chinese woman in my heart, I had come into consciousness as a twentieth-century American woman of Chinese ancestry.  It was a challenge to portray a character who struggled with English, for I spoke the language well.  I was a character and actor looking for a job.  But no writers wanted me.

What joy when author Laurel Anne Hill chose and named me!  I moved from the shadow world into her head to help create the short story: Moon-Flame Woman.  Only then did I comprehend the compromise part of our arrangement.
Point #1 for unpublished characters to understand and remember:  Writing has rules that affect how stories appear on the page.  Laurel calls these rules, "conventions."  She expected me to adhere to them when I entered "the zone" with her to write.

Of course I agreed to cooperate.  Laurel planned to submit Moon-Flame Woman to SHANGHAI STEAM, a steampunk-wuxia anthology.  Most steampunk point-of-view characters were British, mainland Western European or North American.  I was proud to depict nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants as individuals and show the dishonorable way American barbarians had treated them.

First of all, as a steampunk point-of-view character, I promised to personally use or confront steampunk technology in action scenes.  Thus, disguised as a man, I would operate the moon-flame gun to drill holes in rock.  This light-ray gun was powered by a combination of qi and solar-charged crystals.  I also would practice the martial art, Baguachang.  But could I do these things and still remain in character as Cho Ting-Lam?  Many brave women in nineteenth-century China had been warriors in the peasant uprising.  My answer to my question was "yes."

Next, Laurel explained how I must avoid using unrealistic dialogue or thoughts designed to dump information on readers.  For example, qi is a life force or vital energy that flows through everything in the universe, but qi has more than one definition and there's more than one type of qi.  I understood qi and always had.  Laurel didn't have to worry.  I would never ponder the word's meaning in my story.  I wouldn't explain qi to Master Ye, one of my fellow characters in Moon-Flame Woman, because he understood it, too.  Instead, I would show that qi permitted me to achieve oneness with my moon-flame gun and call forth strong energy.

"Steampunk - Asian Persuasion" by deviant art artist Fragile Whispers
Laurel also had definite ideas how I must deal with back story: information that happened before the official story had started.  New point-of-view characters should keep the following in mind.

·         Combine short clips of back story with forward story, when possible.  For example, my father had sold me into slavery.  Laurel and I handled that information with the following sentence: Failure today would further erode her dignity, although far less than when her father sold her into slavery.

·         When using multiple sentences to detail back story, consider leading with the most vivid image rather than adhering to strict chronological order.  Real people recall past events in such a manner.

Then there was the subject of point of view.  I still remember the very first time I entered the writing zone with Laurel, the place in her head where she and I shut out the rest of the world.  I started acting out my story in first person point-of-view.

"Use close third," Laurel said.  "We have too many cultural-knowledge deficiencies to get any closer than that."

Had I heard correctly?  In my imagination, I had always narrated in first person.

"Don't you think I know enough," I said, "about nineteenth-century Chinese women?"  Was it shameful for me to confront my author?

Check out Laurel's "Moon-Flame Woman" in Shanghai Steam

Point #2 for unpublished characters to understand and remember:  Confrontations between authors and characters happen.  Work them out for the good of the story.

Laurel pulled a book from a nearby shelf:  Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  She pointed to a comment printed on the back cover.  "Vivid and memorable characters aren't born.  They have to be made."  Laurel and I went over Chapter Seventeen: Third Person.  Indeed, close third had the potential of being quite powerful.

"Cho Ting-Lam is brave," Laurel added, "but quiet.  She sometimes lacks self-confidence.  First person narrators often have an attitude she wouldn't have.  Third person will work better for her in several ways."

Laurel read me the openings of two of her many stories to demonstrate how she has used close third-person points of view.

·         Laurel's award-winning steampunk short story: Flight of Destiny

     (Horror Addicts Podcast, 2011)

The Destiny lurched and swayed toward the steamship's flight deck, the stiff winds almost more than the sluggish dirigible could manage.  Sir Addison James proceeded down his landing checklist, flashing a reassuring smile in the lovely Carlotta's direction.  Based on her tight-lipped expression, his newest paramour had little stomach for the adventure of aviation.

Too bad Meg wasn't in the co-pilot's seat this afternoon instead of Carlotta.  Addison's deceased wife had designed this four-passenger aircraft and, by Jove, she'd always made her flying machines perform to perfection.  He did miss her assistance sometimes.  Truth be told, though, he missed her pecan and current cake far more.

"Notice how," Laurel said, "the reader feels closer to Addison in the second paragraph than in the first?"

Yes, and the added distance in the first paragraph suggested aloofness.  The closeness in the second one showed Addison's self-centered attitude.  I listened for her second example.

·         Laurel's award-winning novel, HEROES ARISE (KOMENAR Publishing, 2007)

Gundack glanced back into the darkness. His caravan of drivers and sandship lizards had settled for the night and now only awaited his return at Jular Plateau. He would join them again when he had concluded his business at the merchant encampment before him. Crumbled rocks encountered on the climb down irritated the webbing between his toes. Less bothersome though than the predictions of that soothsayer. A human, not a fellow kren, held vital information, if not his very future. Not a desirable situation. Humans were so unpredictable.

HEROES ARISE was not steampunk, but it did deal with a different culture.  Laurel had designed the opening paragraph to show Gundack wasn't human and to set the scene for trouble due to human unpredictability.  Notice the way Laurel avoided identifiers such as "he thought" and "he wanted," which would distance the reader from Gundack.  Laurel uses such identifiers only when necessary for emphasis, rhythm or clarity.

By the way, the above opening paragraph to HEROES ARISE wasn't in the version Laurel first sent to KOMENAR's editor.  Gundack had jumped right into his story as fast as he could.  So please make special note of the following:

Point #3 for unpublished characters to understand and remember:  Don’t be impatient.  Help your author make your story the best it can be.

Now, dear reader, let us travel forward to the time when Laurel and I completed the third draft of Moon-Flame Woman.  Laurel submitted the manuscript to friends.  Her writing group had some excellent suggestions for improving the piece.  So did her writing mentor, Charlotte Cook.

Still, had Laurel and I correctly portrayed nineteenth-century Chinese culture?  Laurel's friend — author and writing coach Teresa LeYung Ryan — read the story.  It is a good thing she did.  In the lunch scene, I had waited for Master Ye to ask me to pour him more tea.  I should have paid closer attention to his needs and refilled his cup without his prompting.  How embarrassed I would have been if my thoughtlessness had shown up on the printed page.

Well, all our hard work brought reward.  Absolute XPress/Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing included Moon-Flame Woman in SHANGHAI STEAM, launched at the 2012 World Fantasy Con.  In April 2013, SHANGHAI STEAM was nominated for an Aurora Award in Canada.  I remain so honored.

As for Laurel, she is considering writing another Chinese steampunk short story.  I know an unpublished Chinese character whose imagined adventures Laurel would adore.  True, this character grumbles at every pothole in her path toward success.  But Laurel and I could enlighten her.  I'm sure.


About the Author:


Laurel Anne Hill's award-winning novel, "Heroes Arise," was published by KOMENAR in 2007. Two-dozen of Laurel's science fiction/fantasy/horror short stories have appeared in a variety of publications, most recently in the anthologies How Beer Saved the WorldA Bard in the HandHorrible DisastersFault Zone, and Shanghai Steam, a steampunk-wuxia collection. In April, 2013, Shanghai Steam was nominated for an Aurora Award in Canada. Visit Laurel's website and podcast at


Please join me next Friday for another fantastic Steampunk feature! Thank you very much to Laurel Anne Hill for joining us today. I feel like my characters "find" me as well. It is nice to see another writer discuss their characters in this way. I makes me feel more normal. Thank you for sharing. Until next Friday . . .

Class Dismissed!



  1. It's a wonderful post! Thanks for participating, Laurel!

  2. Dear talented Laurel Anne Hill,
    What an engaging interview!
    I was honored that you had asked me to read your "Moon-Flame Woman." I didn't even know what steampunk was until you and Cho Ting-Lam got involved in the anthology. Hearty congratulations on your contribution to SHANGHAI STEAM and your continuing success with HEROES ARISE.
    22-Day Writing Coach Teresa LeYung-Ryan