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Alexia and Lord Maccon from Gail Carriger's Soulless

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The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

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GUEST POST | Lev AC Rosen on Shakespeare and All Men of Genius

It’s funny. I didn’t expect everyone to focus on the Shakespeare thing so much. To understand why I used Twelfth Night as inspiration, I should probably give you a bit of backstory as to when I started the book and what I was thinking then.

I was in my final year of graduate school, working on my thesis – my second novel, similar to my first, a moody, literary work with multiple points of view in a New York City that I wouldn’t call paranormal (no vampires, no fey) but which I’d call magical. Literary magical realism. That’s what I was working on. When asked what the book was about I’d say ‘three people dealing with losses of various kinds, and the way the subway system and these strange people who come into their lives help them.’ I don’t need to go into more detail – I like the book, and I still hope to sell it one day, but it was very similar to my first, which my agent had sent out to many editors, with similar replies: we love this book and the characters, but just don’t see it making any money.

Fair enough. But I was growing tired of it. I knew I was a good writer, but at this point I also knew what my weakness was – plot. Characters I could do, language, mood, structure… but when asked to say what my books were about, it would always be something thematic, metaphoric. The books I wrote are good (I think, in a totally unbiased way) but they weren’t big on story, in the classic sense of the word.

And I wanted to do something steampunk. I’d been in love with the genre and the aesthetic since I took a class called Victorians and the Machine, my junior year of college. But really, having been raised on Star Trek: TNG and Victorian literature (Wilkie Collins, especially), and still insisting that Final Fantasy VI (or 3, whatever you want to call it) is one of the best video games ever, I suspect I’d loved the genre even before that, I just didn’t have a name for it.

First, I went to the Wilde. I have studied Wilde extensively, have many biographies, two collections of his complete works. I wanted to use Wilde somehow, to be inspired by that Victorian humor and wit. So I went to his best known work: The Importance of Being Earnest. The problem with Earnest, or at least the problem I faced, was that it’s too silly to actually be a good plot skeleton. It’s about many things: dual identities, lies, love, symbolism, the superficial, etc, but when you look at the story, it’s most about two pairs of star-crossed lovers and the mystery of “where did that boy in the handbag come from.” Which is amazing for a play, but not much to use as the basis for a novel. And I knew I needed something else. Plus, isn’t that what steampunk is about? Assembling different pieces from different places into a new whole?

It all started as emails to myself. I would write emails back and forth, arguing with myself like a crazy person. I didn’t want to write anything down yet – that felt like it was taking time away from my thesis, which I Really Needed To Be Working On. So I emailed ideas back and forth. I had pretty much decided it was okay to steal someone else’s plot when I decided to use Wilde. But whose? Another Victorian? Collins would be too convoluted for me to use, there was no way to copy all the complexities. Hardy was too much about manners – I couldn’t see a way to bring in mad science. Using Wells or Verne would be too literal and unimaginative. And then one night, as I sat there literally emailing sentences to myself one at a time, my thesis open on the computer, but forgotten, it hit me: Shakespeare. Shakespeare, my post-modernism-voice told me, had all the plots. After all, there were only so many actual plots out there. Shakespeare might not have created them all, but he codified them into archetypes people still identify. Why not borrow from the best?

I’d studied Shakespeare. I had a theatre minor. But I wasn’t – and I still don’t think I am – an expert. But I knew enough to start thinking. I wanted a comedy. So much of the steampunk literature I had read was serious, even gloomy. I wanted something that echoed Wilde, as I said – Victorian wit (I’ll let you be the judge as to my success in that venture). So I went to the comedies. My favorite of the comedies, and I know people will groan, but my favorite is Midsummer. I love it. I love that the interchangeable lovers, are in fact, interchanged: I love that the play seems to both mock and celebrate love, I love the fairies and the mechanicals. But it wasn’t going to work. It had too much of the same problem as Earnest. Oh sure, I could write some wacky brain-switching love story, but it didn’t have any danger in it. And also… I was too close to it. I knew that. I’d want to preserve everything (I’m using it for the third book in the series right now, in fact, and facing all these problems), make sure every amazing line was used… I decided fairly quickly not to use Midsummer.

But my second favorite of the comedies? That would work. Twelfth Night had so much in place already – the drag aspect would easily translate to Victorian times, and I knew about the state of education in Victorian times, and how they were generally starting to let women into colleges… but what if there was one that didn’t? The one that my protagonist (Violet, obviously, couldn’t use Viola, too archaic, but a little tweaking and Viola and Sebastian became Violet and Ashton) most wanted to go to… a school for mad science. Then it all started falling into place: brilliant female scientist, male twin brother she could dress up as, school for mad scientists, a broody but handsome duke/headmaster. I brought Wilde back to make the Olivia/Cecily character the Duke’s ward, and used various names of attendants and butlers as other characters who had nothing to do with the source material. In fact, most of them don’t line up at all with the characters whose name they share, and trying to line them up and look for comparisons is a pointless venture (I’m not trying to impress theatre people, after all – just trying to write a good book). I like to think that while there are a few obvious correlations between characters in my book and those in the plays, all my characters are unique, but the tone and flavor of the book definitely comes from the source material.

That said, this was never intended to be a “mash-up” in the style of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And I don’t think it is. I do use quotes from both the Shakespeare and the Wilde, but not very often, and usually in a way that I like to think is a fun twist. And because I was already using a genre as post-modern as steampunk, I found the idea of the polyvocalism in the text to blend right in. I threw in other little tributes to classical works of mad science, literary or cinematic, like Dr. Voukil, and one of Fiona’s hairstyles. Details large and small are derived from a multitude of sources beyond the Shakespeare and Wilde. And it all worked (for me anyway, you’ll need to buy and read the book to decide if it works for you. That was a hint). I had successfully blended everything, and kept my own voice distinct (again, I hope).

But the most interesting thing I discovered - and this was after the book was finished, and bought – was that I could suddenly do plot. Not expertly. But using Shakespeare as a crutch had helped me develop my plot-muscles. I started writing a noir, using no actual specific work as a skeleton, just my knowledge and love of film noir. And it’s working. It has a plot that I developed completely on my own. It’s sort of a strange feeling, knowing I somehow learned something, changed my way of thinking, without knowing how I did it, exactly, or when it changed. And hey, I finally sold a book.

Of course, there is the alternate theory about where my inspiration came from…

Nah. That would be silly.


LEV AC ROSEN was born and raised in New York. He attended Oberlin College and received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence. His work has been featured in Esopus Magazine and on various blogs, including He currently lives in Manhattan. ALL MEN OF GENIUS is his first novel.

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