Motor Airship “Kestrel”

Good morning, all.  Today I’m going to take a long, loving look at the Kestrel,  home, transportation, and sanctuary of the core characters of Beyond the Rails.  I debated whether to categorize this entry as a setting or a character, but as the vessel isn’t sentient (and I’m aware of at least one steampunk airship that is), and only “comes to life” in the hands of her gifted pilot, setting it is.

I love the whole concept of airships in literature, always have, and I knew from the first moments that my crew would live and work on one.  The first thing I considered, before I established any characters, where the stories would be set, or what the crew’s profession would be was the design of the airship.  I first looked at, and immediately discarded, the modern “Goodyear blimp” design, with the gondola built into the frame, and appearing to be attached to the bottom of the balloon.  Firstly, the balloon would have to be longer than a football field to accommodate living and working space for a crew of five, and once I decided they were a cargo/passenger ship, well, this just became unworkable.

The alternative design is the “hanging gondola,” in which the working area, motors, cabins, and all are all contained in a structure hanging below the gasbag, which is exactly that, a gasbag, and nothing more.  This felt much more steampunk to me than the modern design, and opened up a whole new area of jeopardy should the suspending cables be endangered, exactly as happened in the story The Heiress.  My final decision to make was the form this craft would take, and given the crew and circumstance that was coming to the fore, I decided it would be cobbled together as opposed to a professional design, something the owner/shipmaster had caused to be built by local talent.  I then realized that the most economical expedient would be to purchase a laid-up boat hull that was no longer seaworthy, and hang it beneath an envelope.  The boat would have cargo and engine spaces, cabins, controls, stove, toilets, nearly everything you’d need to do your job, already aboard.  At this point, my notepad came out, and I produced this:


As you can see, I am neither artist nor photographer, but this is my original pencil drawing of the Kestrel’s internal layout.  It is based on the deck plan of the Elco PT boat of WWII, and is envisioned to be about 75 feet in length.  As she is more interested in lifting capacity than performance, she hangs below a fat, football-shaped gasbag about twice her length.  Not present in the drawing is a steerable frame hanging below the stern holding two electric motors with two-bladed propellers.  I once set about the project of modeling the gondola.  I finished only as much as I needed to visualize everything clearly, and the derrick has snapped off during her years in storage, but she’s held up surprisingly well considering, and these pictures may help you visualize my baby.


All I needed now was a source of power, and as I didn’t want this to become a major issue, impacting every story with the same old problem ad infinitum, the decision was made to hand-wave a solution, and the Cheadle & Gatley Closed Circuit Steam-Driven Turbine was born.  Basically, this uses a coal-fired boiler to produce a stream of steam that turns a generator before passing through a condenser outside the hull to turn back into water and be boiled again; basically, every system is electrically-powered.  There would naturally be slight water losses in the system, but as the ship rarely makes journeys longer than a day, they can easily top off their water supply at any aerodrome.

And thus was Kestrel born.  A little ragamuffin of a ship, she would be laughed out of the air in the European trade, but thanks to the knowledge of her captain and the skill of her pilot, she is the queen of the East African cargo trade.  Hardly the starship Enterprise, but a cozy refuge for her closer-than-family crew, nonetheless.  What do you think?

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A couple of excellent items came in on the newsfeed this morning.

David Lee Summers, as part of the Steampunk Hands Around the World project, is paying a virtual visit to Tokyo, scene of much of the action in his novel Brazen Shark, the latest installment in his Clockwork Legion series.

A wonderful site that I’m mentioning for the first time here is Writers Helping Writers.  Today they’re taking an in-depth look at the role of the Personal Assistant, and the many ways that character can be used to drive a story.  A site very much worth bookmarking if you’re any kind of writer.

Finally, the Writers After Dark are offering a podcast interview with Brandon Ax, whose novel Elemental was one of the Platinum Award Winners in their Chapters of Excellence book awards.  An interesting author, and an interesting book; well worth a listen.

And that’s it for this outing.  Read well, write better, and if you can spare a moment, let me know how I’m doing here, and what you might like to see in the future.  My hope is that this site will become interactive with fans and colleagues, so let me know what you think, and keep me on my toes!


Why Kenya?

Good morning, all!  I trust everyone is feeling chipper and regret-free after National Singles Day?  Good!  We hosted a double birthday party for two of the grandkids last night, so I’m not getting anywhere near a scale until at least Sunday.

So, today I’m going to look at settings, the reasons that they come about, and the uses they can be put to.  Many, maybe most, indies don’t understand the importance of the where and when that they place their stories.  They seem to feel that with a few words about weather and the surroundings to establish the location, they can then launch into their story without paying it any further mind.  And it’s largely true, you can do that, but every time you do, you are squandering a priceless opportunity to enrich your story.  Setting can be used to challenge a character, to highlight a skill or quality, to set the mood of a scene without overtly saying a single thing about it, and a host of lesser impacts too subtle and numerous for me to list here.  You might think of it as a print artist’s equivalent of a movie’s mood-music.

It took me a while to get the concept of Beyond the Rails to gel in my head.  The idea came fairly early for a small group of people fighting for a living on a rugged frontier.  At the time, I was laboring under the false belief that the main component at the heart of all steampunk was its Britishness, so that ruled out the American west from the get-go.  That wasn’t any great handicap, as I’ve always been an Anglophile, and the British Empire covered half the world, so there was plenty to choose from.  But where, specifically?

My first concept of this crew was that they were basically criminals, smugglers most likely; “any job, anywhere, no questions asked.”  This would have them matching wits with the cops of one sort or another, most likely a recurring character, so naturally, they’d need to be out on the fringe somewhere, some place where the Old Bill or its colonial equivalent couldn’t bring its full weight to bear on them.  That ruled out metropolitan Europe of course, India, South Africa, Australia, Hong Kong, and the middle eastern colonies out of hand.  What remained was Canada, where I didn’t like the weather as a venue for the adventures I had in mind, and the Caribbean Island colonies.

I had settled on the early 1880s as my time period, as it gave me far more leeway with the technology than the 1840 period my friend and I had originally discussed.  Fairly early in the process, I decided not to make my crew criminals, because that’s not the way that I personally approach life, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do my best work if I was struggling to make a group of criminals sympathetic to a reader, so they became honest people eking out a living away from the restraints of civilization.  So I wanted more land that was less thoroughly explored than the Caribbean Islands.

Kenya met my requirements perfectly, with a port city, an inland trading center, and oodles and oodles of unexplored territory where, in a work of fantastic science-fiction, literally anything might be encountered.  It had escaped my initial attention, because the British East Africa Company didn’t establish an outpost there until 1888, and the British government didn’t get serious about colonization until around 1900.  Once it dawned on me that I was writing a fantasy, I just changed the timeline, and loosed the hounds.  It all came together perfectly; an unexplored area the size of Texas, a thousand-mile border with a hostile Prussian colony, and an utterly inadequate garrison just getting its feet under it, and beginning to take stock of its surroundings and the problems inherent with trying to manage such a vast wilderness.  It was gold, and the plots began to develop almost faster than I could write them down!  Though I haven’t returned to this particular world for a year, the pot is still simmering, and more meat might be scooped out yet.


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Why, you might ask, is nothing being produced yet?  Well, it is.  I have just begun this, my “professional” author site.  I have fooled around before on Blogger, on, on Weebly, and a couple of other places I don’t even remember right now, but every one of those sites has gotten diluted as I’ve taken side trips to things that have nothing to do with writing.  This site right here will be my “official author page,” whatever that actually means, and on this site, nothing but writing will be discussed.  As this is its first week of existence, I have determined to blog every day for the first seven days to get some momentum up, establish the feel of the site, and make my presence known.  Beginning next week, I envision a 3-1 ratio in which I spend my mornings working on writing projects, then service this site every fourth day instead.  I realize that no plan survives contact with reality, but at least I have an idea of what I want to accomplish this time.

Now, with that settled, let’s have a look at what some of my friends are up to today.

Sarah Zama, a roaring twenties yarnspinner, has chosen to take a good look at one of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, Murder in Montparnasse.  She is of the opinion that it is one of the best in the series, and includes a trailer for that episode of the brilliant Australian television adaptation to illustrate her point.  Very entertaining…

S.K. Anthony and Raymond Esposito, the Writers After Dark, have listed the winners of their Chapters of Excellence awards.  Be sure to explore their site while you’re there; they offer more cool stuff than you can shake a stick at!

Lynda Dietz, a professional editor, has posted part three of her in-depth look at how-to-write-books books; my personal “bible” was featured in the second installment, but unlike most of my friends, who are authors, Lynda makes her living telling authors what they’re doing wrong.  Very much worth getting to know!

And that will do it for today.  I’ll be back tomorrow with something… Well, I have a couple of ideas.  I’ll make a decision sometime today, and get busy on it.  Have fun, be safe, and read more indies!