Phoebe Darqueling is an author, blogger and wife. She’s spent the better part of the last few years making her way around the World sampling various steampunk cultures. That’s helped her immensely with her blog forwhomthegearturns.com which is a popular steampunk website that has an avid cult following. In this interview, she tells us about her writing, a visit to Asylum and her involvement in the Creative Writing Collaboration challenge. Which is happening right now!
Phoebe Darqueling, you originally hail from Minnesota and currently live in Michigan. Was that a direct move or have you lived anywhere else?
You’d think so, considering they aren’t that far apart, but I’ve been both hither and yon in the intervening time. I got my MA in Museum Studies right after college and spent time working at the California Academy of Sciences. My husband is an ancient historian, so we spent time in Northern Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania collecting data he needed for his dissertation. As icing on the cake, we also spent a month in the UK for my 30th birthday, so I visited the Edinburgh Fringe Fest before spending a few weeks exploring the places I could find in London that might interest Steampunk fans.
And have any of those places inspired your writing?
My current series-in-progress, Mistress of None, starts in the Sacramento area, but will take my heroine all over the US by way of the Transcontinental Railroad and the Mississippi riverboat circuit. I’ve spent lots of time crisscrossing the country on road trips over the years and I wanted to make a Steampunkish story that took place in the US rather than Europe.
At the same time, I’ve also absolutely fallen in love with eastern Europe during my year in Bulgaria and the surrounding area, and I definitely plan to incorporate that region into a book or series at some point. I’ve got a project simmering on a back burner that is inspired by the Balkans and specifically the Bulgarian conflict with Turkey in the 1870s, but there is a lot of history and culture there both before and after to play with. I have the first chapter of a story just waiting to expand when I get done with my serial.
You studied anthropology and art history. Would you say those studies have helped your research for your writing?
I definitely think there is a connection between my anthropology degree and love of science fiction and fantasy. I can’t honestly say which came first. For me, the greatest strength of these fantastical genres is an opportunity to explore different ways that people can live their lives. Be they aliens, humans, fairies, or any other sentient being. When people are asked to stretch their minds to believe in a world built by an author, they are flexing the same mental muscles needed for tolerance. At the same time, the illusion only works if worlds are built on systems of logic and culture that hold together, and studying anthropology has given me examples of different cultures as well as a framework for thinking about how to build a coherent whole.
You recognised yourself as steampunk for three years now. How have you found the community has treated you?
I may have started my blog three years ago, but I tend to think I’ve been a steampunk at heart even before I knew the term. When my friend first defined it for me and gave a few examples, my thought was “Those are things I already like, just all mushed together!” As for the community, I think that steampunks are some of the nicest people, at least in person. The internet makes it easy to do damage and then scurry away, so I’ve seen some less than kind stuff occasionally on Facebook or in book reviews, but everyone I’ve met at conventions and the people I’ve reached out to have all been really supportive and eager to help spread the word about my projects.
Are you a member of any American steampunk societies?
I’ve been moving so often and spending so much time abroad that I haven’t felt settled enough to really dive into any societies. I do write articles for The Pandora Society, which is both an online magazine and the gears behind the International Steampunk Symposium (ISS), and since coming to Michigan I’ve been attending a few local events. As the ‘trailing spouse’ of an academic, I have to be open to this nomadic existence for at least a couple more years until the Mister gets settled into his career, so I mostly participate with Steampunk online and at conventions, but nothing regular.
You spent time recently in Britain, did you attend any UK events?
Yes! I got a chance to attend Weekend at the Asylum in 2014 as part of my “Steam Tour” project. Lincoln was a beautiful place to hold the event. Right before that, I was at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and there were at least a dozen incredible performances that were more or less Steampunk.
How do you think they differ to American ones?
One major difference I noticed between Asylum and the US cons I’ve attened is that the amount of press coverage. Asylum was crawling with professional photographers. It was clear that many of the attendees were getting really annoyed with how often they were being asked to pose. There are definitely fewer cameras and a more chilled atmosphere at the US cons I’ve attended. It is also possible that this had more to do with timing than anything else, because the exploitation of (especially female) cosplayers has been a big deal at the major comic cons in the US the past couple of years, so maybe the photographers just got more sensitive in the mean time?
The US cons I’ve attended also tend to be held at hotels. It doesn’t offer the grandeur of a place like Lincoln, but does make everything easier to find. These large conference hotels have lots of spaces for lectures. As well as offering wind-free areas for dirigible and teapot racing. Whereas the sheer amount of space in the old quarter of Lincoln allowed several different large spaces for markets and a designated book tent.
Tell us about CWC
Collaborative Writing Challenge was started for mature writers, so they could contribute a chapter to a novel that gets published. The idea is to give writers some self-esteem, and an accomplishment that will allow them to believe they can finish their own novels. The writers get to see a structured, paced approach, and are prompted with notes. It’s a great opportunity for writers to build up their publishing credentials, write more, and be part of a great organization. Every book is at least 30 chapters long, and each chapter is chosen from 3-5 chapters that different writers submit each week. CWC plans and organizes two collaborations each year, in the genre with the biggest demand. When the project is finished they edit, print, and market the book. 10% of the profits go to charity.
What have been the themes over the previous years?
One of the quirks of CWC is the writers get to vote of a chapter that starts the novel. CWC sets the genre, and the writers can submit a story with any theme that falls into that genre. The broad scope of submissions is inspiring, and the story really has endless potential. At times, you may not know exactly where the story is going when it starts. Themes can morph as the story does. The Map (Project 5) began as a mystery/romance and became more a thriller about love and betrayal. Esyld’s Awakening (Project 6) is more of a sword and sorcery tale, and Ambition (Project 2) is a story set primarily 1920’s London, but flashes back and forth between the past and dramatic events of the present.
What has been your role in the project?
I am the story coordinator for our next collaboration. I’ll be choosing the chapter submission for the book each week and do the first round of editing for voice & continuity. I will be the primary point of contact for all the writers who sign up. I have the added support of Laura, who mostly works behind the scenes to keep everything ticking along. When I came across CWC, I had a strong instinct that a steampunk collaboration would be wonderful. I reached out to Laura. She was impressed by my passion, giving her the confidence to give steampunk a chance. Until the project starts, my main role has been to help get the word out to writers to let them know about the project. (Hey you! Yeah you! There are still slots open for Project 7)
Has it been easy?
I can’t answer that fully until a good few weeks after the collaboration starts, but I did participate in a collaboration for CWC which gave me added insight into how it all works. Writing a chapter is not easy. But it is insanely challenging and fun. You really have to let your imagination take you anywhere and have confidence in your direction. I am really excited about this upcoming collaboration, so shouting about it from the rooftops has been really easy. We also recently selected our top 3 starter chapters that the writers vote on from 12 submissions. Wow, we have some extraordinary talent, and it wasn’t an easy choice at all. I think it will always be hard rejecting chapters each week, but that comes with the job, and as a writer, it’s nice to see it from the other side too.
How many applications do you have?
For every project we have 140 chapter vacancies. We couldn’t schedule any more than that. We now have only 30 vacancies left, but due to the nature of a long project spanning 8 months, we lose writers and gain writers along the way. So far, CWC has done very minimal advertising to fill projects which is just perfect at the moment. The demand-supply ratio is really on point, and we are developing best practices with each new project to get the best out of the concept, and to give the writers the best experience possible.
What’s the next step?
Now that we’ve got our starter chapters narrowed down to three finalists, it’s out of my hands. We’re posting 700-word excerpts of the finalists and it’s up to the writers to choose their favorite and voting will run Dec. 16-23. Only folks who have signed up for the project get to read the full excerpts (which are often hailed as ‘the ultimate writing prompts’) but I did get permission to share a little teaser from each one.
- …They were a silent congregation of frozen warriors, just waiting for battle to come and call on them, the Army of Brass…
- … There’s only one time period it would have gone to, and we’re going to go back and stop it.”…
- … The passengers on the beach froze, silent, staring into the trees…
The writers who have signed will soon be receiving their designated chapter dates, and before long, I will be able to tell you what our steampunk story is all about!
What happens to the starter chapters that don’t get accepted?
They remain the property of the writer who submitted them. I’ve already talked to a few people who would actually be relieved to get their chapters back because they liked their idea so much they want to develop it themselves. We know of at least two stories that writers have developed after submitting to CWC, and that’s just incredible! We are really proud of what our participants achieve.
How does the voting system work?
We’ve done the hard work of choosing the three we believe have the most potential for collaboration, so voters get to choose from those three. The one with the most votes becomes the basis for the book, and the title of the project.
How will the subsequent chapters be chosen?
When it is their turn, writers have five days to turn in their chapter attempt (Friday-Tuesday). To help them with their submission, they receive the full chapter immediately before the one they are trying to write. They also get summaries and notes about the progress of the story so far. Along with prompts from the coordinator about questions that still need to be answered. Once I receive the chapters I take two days to read them. I choose the one I believe moves the story along the best, and send it to the next round. The CWC announces the winner(s) for each chapter on their Facebook page and website, and I send critiques to the writers who weren’t chosen. Then it all starts again until we’ve got a book.
What do readers have to do now?
If this concept intrigues you, please go to our website www.collaborativewritingchallenge.com. There you can learn more about our published novels and projects. Pick up a copy of one of our novels on Amazon. They support a great charity IBBY and helps CWC continue to pump out projects that writers love. If you want to join the steampunk project I will be coordinating (and you know you do!), fill in the contact form, and we will get you scheduled. It’s that easy! What are you waiting for?
Sign Up Page: http://www.collaborativewritingchallenge.com/contact-us
CWC on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Collaborativewritingchallenge/?fref=ts