Writers are often asked where their ideas come from. It can be difficult to pin down all the factors that lead to a story, but in the case of my upcoming release No Rest for the Wicked, I can tell you exactly how I became inspired to create my psychic grifter character.
Back when I worked in the library of the California Academy of Sciences, I discovered a wonderful and witty nonfiction author, Mary Roach. She’s written plenty of books on a wide range of subjects, but my
favorite has to be Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Her approach in all of her books is to take one “big idea” and come at it from every possible angle. In this book, she spent a lot of time examining the foundation of the Spiritualist movement and the rise in the belief in ghosts during the 19th century. I was fascinated how this “enlightened” time in human history also saw people turning to supernatural explanations, which could make them fall victim to hoaxes. I fell in love with the “mad science” of the steam era and it is still one of my favorite areas of research.
One of the most famous of these hoaxes involving ghosts happened in 1848. Two sisters in New York City claimed to be visited by a spirit, and the newspapers – hungry for stories that would sell – at it up. By the late days of Queen Victoria’s reign, a huge percentage of the population in the English speaking world claimed to have communicated with the dead, or at
least believed it was possible. The Spiritualist movement was born, and it’s avid believers included Mary Todd Lincoln, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Queen Vic herself.
Nowadays, we keep death neat, tidy, and far away. In the old days, not only did most people die in their own homes with family members at hand, this was considered the definition of a “good death.” During conflicts like the American Civil War, soldiers carried photos of their loved ones with them. Not just to remember them by, but so if they died on the battlefield, the living could arrange the photos around them as if they were near their family. Because if you didn’t have a “good death,” there was a good chance you would never get to rest.
It didn’t take long for con artists, primarily female ones, to start offering their services as mediums. Another type of lucrative hoax was to offer “spirit photography” services. This was also early days for photographic technology, and people were eager to believe that the be-sheeted figure in the background of a double exposure was actual a phantasm.
So, back to my character. During the fall of 2015, I spent a few weeks in training to be a tour guide at the Sacramento History Museum. Ultimately, the drive proved to be too long and the working hours too few for me to continue, but I gained something so much more valuable than money. While we crafted our tours, we were asked to create a character and choose a theme. As I went through the training, I was struck by how many of the stories centered on gamblers, grifters, and thieves. This became the focus of my tour, and when it came time to choose a persona, I decided on a fake medium. Though I never did give a tour, Viola Thorne was born.
The premise was too good to let go of, and it continued to percolate in the back of my brain. As I daydreamed, I saw a woman and her assistant testing out the pulleys and various levers to create her special effects. Then a ghost walked in to answer her advertisement, and everything changed. Though this exact scene does not appear in No Rest for the Wicked, which takes place after the recalcitrant Vi has become fed up with running errands for the dead, it served as the basis for my Mistress of None series.
If you’d like to find out more about No Rest for the Wicked, stop by my blog to read some excerpts and sign up for my newsletter (the bar floating at the bottom of the screen). This Gaslamp Fantasy novel is set to come out from Black Rose Writing on March 28, but in the meantime I am also going to send my subscribers a free ebook called The Steampunk Handbook this fall. In its pages, I go into much more detail about the spooky and the supernatural side to the steam era.
Here’s to a Haunting Halloween!
About Phoebe Darqueling
Phoebe Darqueling has hung her hat in many places as she and her archaeologist husband have chased their dreams around the world. When she isn’t sharing tips for writers on OurWriteSide.com or editing SteampunkJournal.org, she writes curriculum for a creativity competition for kids in Minnesota. You can find more of her writing in the novels Riftmaker (Feb 14), No Rest for the Wicked (March 28) and Army of Brass, and her short stories in Chasing Magicand Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales.