Welcome to another fabulous World-building Showcase here in Phoebeland. (Darquelingville?) I came up with the idea for this type of interview while participating in CyCon 2019, and now I am opening the floor up for all kinds of different authors to talk about the world of their stories and their process for building them.
My guest today is Geoff Genge, penner of Steampunk tales and one of several authors who will be hanging out with me during the Bookfiends Readerfest in Norwich, CT Nov 9. Find out more.
Take it away, Geoff!
This novel and the ones that follow in the The Terra Obscura Chronicles, were born out of my interests and imagination. It took my wife Michelle’s belief, support and passion for writing to make it into a reality. She and I have worked and reworked each other’s writing so much that you truly can’t tell where one begins or the other ends. It has been a treat and marital boon for us to work on this project together. I am always quite excited to discuss the world we have created. Thank you for your interest and this opportunity.
PD: Before we dive in to the nitty gritty, can you tell us briefly what Terra Obscura: A Knock in the Dark is about?
GG: Sure. Broadly, it’s an adventure set in the early 1900s. The Terra Obscura Chronicles follows Charles Fort, the world’s first supernatural investigator, as he hunts for proof of what science refuses to accept – the existence of the paranormal. With an eclectic crew of allies and support, Fort travels this breathtaking world at the pinnacle of the Gilded Age, investigating classic paranormal cases in an amazing steampunk airship.
As Fort investigates the realm of the unexplainable, he discovers a vast ancient conspiracy spanning the globe that may have humanity already in its grasp. Failing to stop it will lead the whole world towards an unimaginable war.
More specifically, in Casebook One: A Knock in the Dark, people are dying in the new subway tunnels and New York’s highest office wants the truth buried. Only Charles Fort, an ambitious but ridiculed paranormal investigator, is willing to get to the bottom of it.
Fort explores subterranean New York looking for the source of various reports of violent attacks during the construction of NYC’s iconic subway system. What he finds in the dark, no one wants to ever see the light.
PD: Who are your main protagonists and what are their goals, motivations, and foibles?
GG: Charles Fort and his best friend Ripley have come together after several years apart, and Fort has concocted a well-financed (yet perhaps ill considered) plan to travel the world and collect proof of the paranormal. He wants to be an esteemed discoverer – that man who’s name is cemented in history as someone who was right when no one believed him. Ripley is fascinated both by Fort and the bizarre, but can’t say no loud enough for Fort to ever hear him. So poor Ripley, a sweet guy who’s riddled with complex insecurities and phobias, is constantly being dragged along on outings and missions he’s really not built for.
Zoya is an enigmatic and talented immigrant to America who works for Fort as both mechanic and helmsman. Her blunt and exotic nature befuddles most of the men and her high risk taking nature makes her a wild card There’s a shadowy and paranoid mad tinkerer and a manservant with PTSD to round out the cohort. So, as you can imagine, they are quite the crew.
PD: Who are your main antagonists and what are their goals, motivations, and foibles?
GG: There are layers of antagonists for Fort. Subterranean, municipal, and global. Because of the high adventure and mystery, I don’t want to say too much about the antagonists or give away their raison d’etre other than I hope you like your cryptozoology and conspiracy stirred, not shaken.
PD: So, you’ve done a little bit of “punking” the real world. What kinds of things have you changed?
GG: Through Fort’s dedication to investigating the paranormal, he has garnered an artifact of incredible power, something that he barely comprehends. This motivates him to try and build his own flying ship. One of the first in the world. Fort also has a tendency to modify almost everything he touches, from watches to motorbicycles and lanterns to ultimately airships.
And I suppose we “punked” Fort himself. The real Charles Fort was a strange bookworm who obsessively researched the supernatural from libraries in his own life. He was an early proponent of extra-terrestrial life and has the distinction of coining the term ‘teleportation’. We’ve taken him out of the library and put him in the field and in the middle of some iconic paranormal events and gave him a hidden, secret life the world knows nothing about.
PD: Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?
GG: I suppose I did. Not too much, as I’ve really tried to keep a lot of realism to the texture of the world at that time. There are on-going arguments between some of the characters about what to call some things in this age of invention. Also Fort has a tendency to correct other people’s terminology incorrectly, which is a trait I find hilarious.
I also polled members of various steampunk groups on FB to see opinions and ideas for the naming of things. For example, what would you call a cyborg in the early 1900’s? I got hundreds of great suggestions and some active interest in what I was working on, so it was a great opportunity to engage with folks and potential new readers.
PD: Is there any fun new technology in your world? Does it meet a need that is particular to your world, or is it a new, creative way to solve an old problem?
Oh, indeed there is! My main character, Fort, is a tinkerer who likes to modify and personalize everything. It’s something he takes great pride in, and likes to show off in front of his pal, Ripley. When Fort comes into some wealth, he takes it to a whole new level. For example, he was an early adopter of the new motorbicycles of the era, but is compelled to try and improve his bike. He also crafts some experimental equipment, like etherphones and a pneumatic pistol, to aid him in adventuring and hunting the paranormal. In Casebook 2, (coming out this Fall!) there is a huge technological leap happening for our intrepid heroes but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.
PD: What kinds of climates and environments do your characters experience? Do they see a lot of change or is it always the same throughout?
GG: I really want to explore radically different environments in each book of this series, I want to see how my characters and equipment behave in constantly changing environments. We plan to travel to all the extreme places the world has to offer and maybe even some beyond. For example, Casebook One takes place entirely in and below NYC and Casebook Two takes place in Texas but after that we head to the deserts of Egypt.
PD: Did you create or embellish any kind of faith system in your world? Did you draw inspiration from any real cultures, living or dead?
GG: Not any faith based systems in a traditional sense, but one belief system I embellish which I believe requires a modicum of faith is cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the study of animals and creatures no one can prove to exist. I think you must have some type of faith to really be a cryptozoologist. The way I have tweaked it is that these legendary cryptids exist and there is ultimately a reason they do.
PD: What do the characters in your invented world do for fun? Are there special sports, games, or other hobbies they do in their free time that are particular to the changes you’ve made?
GG: Each of the characters has their own idea of fun. For Ripley, it would be reading a great periodical or sketching. Ripley loves to draw what he sees and we have a handful of his sketches printed in the novel. It helps create a palette for the reader. Fort is always looking for adventure and testing out his new inventions. He also likes to gamble. Fort thrives on excitement and peering over the edge. Nikola and Zoya love to constantly build and create. Their work is their fun. Plus they are living and working in a gorgeous hangar with a glass roof. It’s like an atrium of mad science.
Geoff Genge’s Process
PD: When you build a world, what is your process like? Do you do a lot of research upfront, wing it completely, or something in between? Is there someone who helps you figure out your world?
GG: I think I’d fall into something in between. As I said, I really want the world to have the feel and texture of the era. I have always had a high interest in history and especially of this era we write about, so I feel like I’ve been researching this stuff my whole life. I was one of those kids fascinated by the mysteries of the ancient world and the things that history couldn’t explain. I love the research aspect of it, especially when you find that little nugget in the past and it fits perfectly in with what you’re writing about. I also have a dear friend who is a bit of a history savant, especially when it comes to wars, the weird, and conspiracies. I often send little queries his way, to get some tips and insights.
PD: How central is the setting of your story to the story itself? Is it more of an interesting backdrop, or is it integral to the events of the story?
GG: In A Knock in the Dark, old New York is almost a character itself. When Ripley returns to the city after several years away, the reader sees through his eyes how much the city is technologically ramping up in this era. Also, the plight and effects of the thousands of recent immigrants to the shining city are woven throughout the tale.
PD: When helping the reader get to know the world you built, what techniques do you use? Do you tend to be upfront about things, or keep the reader in the dark and feed them only bits at a time? Do you have any advice for other authors on how to clue the reader in?
GG: We feed it out to the readers slowly throughout. I don’t care for info-dumps in the things I read. I like for the world to keep growing as I continue to read. So, we use various opportunities and techniques like historical news articles of the day and developing the background of our characters in the actual context of their time. Often I feel like I’m just reminding people of what an amazing time it would have been to be alive. The period after the Napolenic wars and before the Titanic and WW1 was an incredible era. There were so many leaps in electricity, industry and aviation which fuelled ingenuity. So many inventions were being introduced and optimism was high with many larger than life characters like Teddy Roosevelt, Aleister Crowley, and Harry Houdini. People thought the world was getting better and better, and it was. Just not in some standardized way. Everyone thought they could make a different and better lightbulb so they did.
PD: How much of a role does realism and hard scientific fact play in your world-building? Do you strive for 100% accuracy, or do you leave room for the fantastical and unexplainable in your world?
GG: I like to work around realism. If it wasn’t invented yet, it shouldn’t be there. Unless our characters invented it. And when there is something fantastical or anachronistic there needs to be a reason and an explanation as to why and how it’s there. This works really well, because it forces you to find a way to make it work and still keep a lid on the pseudo techno-magic. This creates opportunities for characters to be creative and clever to solve their problems and sometimes the lack of technology can be an engine of conflict. So – I wouldn’t say we write with 100% realism of science but we work very hard to make things plausible to even the hardest critics and so far it seems to be paying off. I had a delightful conversation with an engineer recently who had read Casebook One and he was quite interested in where we were going with our tech and liked that it all made logical sense. It felt like very high praise, which I turn into fuel for writing even better.
PD: Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building?
GG: You mean aside from a lifelong love of science fiction, adventure and old comics? I am a bit of a handy guy and enjoy working with older technology and building things. This combined with 15 years working as a sailor definitely inform the minutiae of the world we’ve created. Those little details like the proper names of things and the physical way something actually works all seem to give the world of Terra Obscura a realistic feel.
PD: How do you keep all of the details of your world and characters straight? Do you have a system for deciding on different factors and keeping it all organized, or does it live more in your head?
GG: I have a notebook and a lot of it in my head, but I think as we continue to write more stories in this world I may need to keep better records. I want to build all our clues and references right into the very beginnings so that astute readers will see that this story and character arcs have been developing for a long time. I want a series that rewards people who reread it a second time. It’s what I enjoy and appreciate in a good narrative.
PD: Did you experience any difficulties while building your world? Any facts that refused to cooperate or inconsistencies you needed to address while editing?
Yes, occasionally. We had some small problems settling in on specific years. Originally the story was set in 1903, but that created a few issues, so we eventually changed it to 1906. Because we like to use real historical characters, occasionally we have to blur their actual ages so that things mesh together better. But I think readers are willing to look past those smaller things for what is ultimately an exciting story.
PD: Where can people find you on the web?
This has been a lot of fun and I really appreciate the opportunity. I love talking about the world of Terra Obscura. Thank you for your time and interest.
Our new novel Terra Obscura: A Knock in the Dark by Geoff and Michelle Genge can be found in multiple formats on Amazon now and IngramSpark soon. Please visit our website at www.terra-obscura-chronicles.com for direct links and a gallery of Ripley’s sketches by Greg Webster or to just learn more about Terra Obscura. Find us on FB and on Instagram at terraobscuraofficial.