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David Barnett: Five Things I Learned Writing Gideon Smith And The Brass Dragon

Nineteenth century London is the center of a vast British Empire, a teeming metropolis where steam-power is king and airships ply the skies, and where Queen Victoria presides over three quarters of the known world—including the east coast of America, following the failed revolution of 1775.Young Gideon Smith has seen things that no green lad of Her Majesty’s dominion should ever experience. Through a series of incredible events Gideon has become the newest Hero of the Empire. But Gideon is a man with a mission, for the dreaded Texas pirate Louis Cockayne has stolen the mechanical clockwork girl Maria, along with a most fantastical weapon—a great brass dragon that was unearthed beneath ancient Egyptian soil. Maria is the only one who can pilot the beast, so Cockayne has taken girl and dragon off to points east.Gideon and his intrepid band take to the skies and travel to the American colonies hot on Cockayne’s trail. Not only does Gideon want the machine back, he has fallen in love with Maria. Their journey will take them to the wilds of the lawless lands south of the American colonies—to free Texas, where the mad King of Steamtown rules with an iron fist (literally), where life is cheap and honor even cheaper.Does Gideon have what it takes to not only save the day but win the girl?


This is true in all things, especially if you decide to relieve yourself after several pints of strong, Continental lager near a live railway line. But it’s especially true of history. Gideon Smith is billed as an alternate history series, which means I look at what happened in real life and then make loads of stuff up that didn’t happen, and which change the course of what did. The second book in the series, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, is set largely in America – in this timeline the American Revolution never happened, Britain still controls New York and Boston and some points south and west. There’s a breakaway Japanese faction on the West Coast, and what we know as Mexico is still New Spain. I made all this stuff up and my editor at Tor, Claire Eddy, wanted to know how it all worked. So I had to take a crash course in US history, ably assisted by Claire and a pal going back a way, Grant Balfour, who told me all the stuff that happened and let me know whether what I wanted to happen really could have. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert now, but I learned a lot of things I hadn’t known before. You’re quite interesting, you Yanks. Anyone ever told you that


Up there I described the Gideon Smith series as alternate history. It’s set in the 1890s. It has advanced (for the era) steam-powered technology. It has airships. It has a girl who’s largely clockwork powered. So, you might say, if it walks like a steampunk duck, it quacks like a steampunk duck, then it’s pretty much a steampunk duck, right? Well, if you like. The thing is, I meet a lot of people in the SF community who really, really hate steampunk. They think it’s some cretinous cousin of “proper” SF. I’m not a great one for labels on books – I tend to divide them into “good” and “not so great”. But I understand the need for marketing and sales types to pigeonhole a book. Thing is, I try to just write good stories. I think a lot of people who are into SF who say they hate steampunk are missing out on some good stories. Mine, specifically. An addendum: I went to steampunk festival last year. At last, I thought, people who are going to get the book. I’d say 80 per cent of those in goggles and top hats who walked past my books said something along the lines of: “Yeah, I love steampunk, me. Don’t really read books, though.” Go figure.


I am a white, straight male from a working class Northern English background now doing a job and living a lifestyle that is probably filed under “Middle Class”. My unconscious default position – and I hate this, I really do – is to make my characters straight, white males. That’s not always how they end up, but when I come up with a new character what flashes into my mind is a white man (unless, of course, they’re obviously not white, or a man). This is not acceptable, and I know that. So I have to work a little harder at thinking about who that character is and who they should be, and what they’re going to do. Looking back at the first book, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, I could probably have done better at this. I’m not saying diversity in SF should be a box-ticking exercise, but I do need to question my initial ideas about characters, which I try to force myself to do. Now it’s like a new-born character is a white, straight male golem made of mud when they first pop into my head, but what they become on the written page is hopefully a little more representative.


This is my first attempt at writing a series. It was quite a steep learning curve in terms of making sure the second book is a standalone novel that, conceivably, anyone who hadn’t read the first one (I’m looking at you here. And you. And you.) could pick up and enjoy without needing to know what had gone before. It was quite interesting working out how to bring readers up to speed with the first story without getting in the way of what happens in the book they’re holding. It’s also been interesting to take the characters on to further development, while still leaving room for more in book three (yes! There is a book three!). I’ve written a couple of other novels before, but at the end of them I generally left my main characters dead or gibbering wrecks. So it’s nice to give characters space to grow and thinking about their future development.


I read widely, and I read plenty. I read books where people drive cars and take plane journeys. I don’t particularly know too much about the workings of the internal combustion engine or what lift is required to get a 747 off the ground, and I don’t really require that in the fiction I’m reading unless it’s absolutely pertinent to the plot. Thus, in Gideon’s Victorian world, there are airships and steam-omnibuses and a mechanical girl with a human brain. You don’t really need to know how this stuff works, do you? People there take it for granted. So should you. OK, so in the first book there’s quite a bit about just how a clockwork woman can have a human brain and be half-alive, but the book is called Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, so hopefully it was quite useful information. But I still don’t really know how a steam engine works, and don’t plan on infodumping that on my readers anytime soon.

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David Barnett is an author and journalist based in the north of England. Tor Books in the US and Snowbooks in the UK have published the first two books of his Gideon Smith series – Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (September 2013) and Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon (September 2014). A third, Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, is out in September 2015. He is married to Claire and they have two children, Charlie and Alice. He’s represented by the agent John Jarrold.

David Barnett: Website | Twitter

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