Inside the World of The Department of Curiosities, an Interview with Karen J Carlisle

Welcome to another installment of my World-Building Showcase interview series. We’re taking a little breather from my effective goal-setting series to talk about creating fictional spaces for readers to explore. Karen J Carlisle and I have been internet buddies for a while now. I featured a spotlight of some of her characters as part of her launch festivities, but she’ll be talking about a different subject today.

Welcome Karen!

Before we dive in to the nitty gritty, what is The Department of Curiosities about?

The Department of Curiosities is a steampunk tale of adventure, a heroine, mad scientists, traitors and secrets. All for the good of the Empire.

Miss Matilda  Meriwether has a secret. Actually, she has several. One of them has shaped her adult life. Another now controls it. Her Majesty Queen Victoria has control of the Empire. She is the Empire, and creator of its secrets. Sir Avery works for The Department of Curiosities – the keepers of secrets – especially if they are useful to the Empire.

When Tillie finds herself in the employment of The Department of Curiosities, she realises this is the perfect opportunity to uncover the truth she has been searching for. But the Queen has other plans for her.

What are the main differences between the “regular world” and the world of your story? Did you choose a moment in time or certain technology to punk to get there?

I do a lot of historical research on the timeline and settings I choose for my stories. I want to make them as believable as possible (since I’m going to twist a few facts). I’ve borrowed historical figures, but given them added responsibilities, fictional events and motives. There is, of course, steam-powered technology. Vacuum tubes and electrical technology is rare, restricted by law, and unknown to most of the general population. (My third steampunk series will explain why.)

Much of the population in the Victorian era, still believe in fairies, spirits and the supernatural, though science is all the rage. It’s this amazing time when all things are possible, or at least probable. I can delve into both fantasy and science, and create a believable world straddling the two.

I also focus on secret societies, mad scientists and plots – as is expected in steampunk. (They were there in the 19th century, but most likely not as prominent… Well, they were ‘secret’ societies, so we may never really know.) My main protagonist is a strong woman trying to make her own way and break free of her expected (restricted) role in 19th century society.

I chose the early 1880s as technology is growing, but communication is still restricted. In my alternate version, telephone technology is slowed worldwide, and has stalled in Great Britain. The Industrial Revolution is restricted to those with permission to own, use or experiment with ‘mechanicals’.  As a result, England has lost its ‘real-world, historical’ edge in the industrial advances.

I chose 1883, specifically, as that is the year John Brown dies and Queen Victoria has an accident that affected her for months. The Department of Curiosities is set five years before the Viola Stewart adventure, Doctor Jack. At the end of the Adventures of Viola Stewart series, we meet a Department of Curiosities operative.  I wanted to delve into the Department’s background, and that of several other groups mentioned in the first series. You’ll also learn a bit more about the Gadgeteers – a group pushing to promote ‘mechanicals’ and lobbying for the right to sell them in Great Britain. (That’s enough on that. We’re heading toward potential spoiler territory here.)

What is the main way people travel in your world?

There are the usual methods of transport available in 1883: horse, carriage, train, walking. Bicycles, such as the ‘ordinary’ (later known as a penny farthing), tricycles (aka plectocycles) and quadracycles were in use on occasion. Steamships are used for long sea voyages.

Being an alternate steampunk world, there are steam-powered versions of these transports. However, there are caveats. If you are fortunate (and rich enough) to have the correct license papers (under Queen Victoria’s Mechanical Ownership Act) then you may own a steam-powered vehicle.

And, of course, there are dirigibles! They are used, by the rich, to travel over land. However, The Dirigibles Act forbids any airship, dirigible or balloon to travel over the London and Windsor areas, following the Airship Armada invasion, in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Did you invent any new technology or energy sources to power your story?

Yes… and no. I tweaked ‘real’ technology (like Ascension Chambers – i.e. elevators), gave it a Victorian twist, and pushed a few scientific boundaries into the fantasy realms on occasion.

In my alternate steampunk world, various plant chemicals can be used, on occasion, for illumination. There is an oxygen mask that concentrates traces of oxygen and allows one to breathe in rarified atmosphere and a special Magic Lantern camera that can capture living creatures on film. (Research is ongoing to return these creatures to their original state.) This is also known as the Brewer-Carlisle camera (when borrowed by a writer friend, for her novel).

I also steampunked up a monocycle and a plectocycle (in my previous series). One of my brilliant characters also created a way to convert water, with a compact machine able to fit on a dirigible, into Hydrogen and Oxygen (perfect for long distance air travel).

The Department also has an alternate (and rare in my world) form of telegraph for secret communications.

Does language play any role in your world? Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety? Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?

The real world has many cultures and many languages. I want to reflect that in my work. It wasn’t until my third book, I realised I’d put a smattering of French, Italian, Latin and even Coptic in them, to reflect the characters within. They come from many places, so it’s not surprising they will speak in their native (or adopted) tongue. There is a smattering of Russian in The Department of Curiosities. And, yes, it is a clue to a plot point. (You’ll find out why in the next book of the series, Against the Empire, scheduled for 2021.)

Myths and legends that inform the setting or characters? Did you draw inspiration from any real cultures, living or dead?

I draw on reality (with a twist) for settings, and use real, created (such as Frankenstein’s monster), superstitions, and the mythical for some characters and creatures to fill my stories. All are possible when the fantasy realm is folded into our reality. I’ve been inspired by Scottish, European and Australian stories and history.

The Department of Curiosities is more grounded in reality than my previous (and upcoming) steampunk series.

Are there interesting creatures in your world?

I’ll just say: yes. A few. In The Department of Curiosities they are creations of scientists not restricted by our modern laws and ethic. Creatures in the other series are implied, and inferred, because of characters superstitions. Other creatures linger in the background of The Department of Curiosities, orchestrating their own plots and machinations – as yet unseen. You’ll find out more about them in an upcoming series, The Wizard of St Giles. Beyond that is spoiler territory. Sorry.

Karen’s Process

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?

Research is Queen! I spend months reading in the library, diving down the internet research hole and picking brains of experts. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to do a road trip or find a local museum exhibition. I store the research for each book/series in boxes.

When I come up for air, I let all the information bubble away while I’m doing another project. This can be writing a short story, designing a cover, filming a book trailer, costuming, or even gardening. After a while, various info-fragments pop up to the surface and form plot points, sometimes from the strangest sources and with most interesting combinations.

I write down major plot points, character or event ideas. Sticky notes are great for jotting down bits of information; I can arrange them on my cupboard later. I then let my imagination run with them, creating connections.

I’ve recently started a ‘story bible’ for each series, so I don’t forget (I hope) to write down story facts for future use. (I really need a Wiki thing to keep it all up-to-date.) I can’t rely on my memory to remember every detail, and it is time-consuming to re-read things to double check, when I could be writing new things instead!

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?

I love the Victorian milieu, but it’s the characters and events that usually are more important in my stories. I did, however, start The Department of Curiosities (and The Adventures of Viola Stewart) in London, as that is more familiar to non-Australian readers. The plan was to introduce readers to steampunk in an Australian setting (of which there will be more, btw!)

When helping the reader get to know the world you built, what techniques do you use? Do you tend to be front load with context, or keep the reader in the dark and feed them only bits at a time? 

I find it fun, as a reader, to explore and discover worlds as I go. Because I often write mysteries, I prefer to feed bits as it’s needed. It also helps to increase tension and curiosity.

Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building? 

I draw on many areas. I have a Bachelor of Applied Science in Optometry. This provides both a physics (visual optics) and medical science background. I use this background in The Adventures of Viola Stewart (she’s a Victorian optician).  I try to keep ‘real’ science-stuff accurate and the fantasy-science at least believable. I did photography at school, and it remains a keen interest of mine (hence the Magic Lantern/Brewer-Carlisle camera).

Another big part of my life has been historical re-enactment (for almost twenty years). My specialty was mid-16th century Florentine women’s clothing. (I even attended a costume conference in Florence in 2008.) I’ve been interested in Victorian clothing for over a decade.

I’ve sewn (and hand sewn) historically accurate clothing based on research during this time. Knowing the construction of clothing comes in handy when describing how the body functions when wearing specific items of historical clothing. This is extremely useful when creating characters and writing their exploits. (The same goes for Renaissance fencing, which I did for over a decade; the practical application comes in handy when writing fight scenes.)

Does D&D world-building count? I’ve been DM-ing and creating my own campaign worlds since 1978. I still have the notes and maps from my early campaigns. (It’s so much fun creating worlds!)

Thanks for sharing all your insights with us! Where can people find you on the web?

Find my blog and book info on my website

You can support me on Patreon

Or you can chat to me on social media via: Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Check out my book trailers and buy my books on my website.

Thank you, Phoebe, for inviting me to chat about my steampunk world-building. Right from the beginning, I’d planned three levels for my alternate steampunk world: the world of adventure easily accessed to most characters in the world, the gaslight world where lines blur between reality and legend (think Sherlock Holmes meets Frankenstein), and the Underground world where remnants of the faery world and myths still hold sway. There are hidden overlaps between the three, which affect my steampunk world.

The Department of Curiosities is the second series, and represents the adventure in the ‘real’ world. Much of the world-building information I’ve given is general, as it was created for all three of my (currently) planned steampunk series. Some information hints at the Underground world I as The Department of Curiosities is set in the same alternate steampunk world as my first series.

Thank you, Dear Reader, for sharing your time with me. I’ve added in some (almost) spoilers in the above, for you, as a reward for reading it all!


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