Sunday, July 29, 2012

Unlike approximately 89.3% of American females, I detest clothes shopping with a deep and heartfelt passion. To me, it is a futile and time-consuming process to wade through endless stacks of clothing looking for attire that fits well, slenderizes, and matches my anemic fashion sense. Most fashions today I spur as hideous and patently unsuitable for someone with a bosom and a short waist, so clothes shopping is a dreaded task that I would love to pass on to someone else should it ever be economically feasible for me to do so.

Costume shopping, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish (or to coin a lovely Terry Pratchett phrase I read, "a different pocketful of rats"). Although technically in the same category as clothes shopping, costume prowling is infinitely much more fun than the former. I'll happily peruse thrift stories for hours looking for likely pieces and waiting for steamy inspiration to strike. Take yesterday: I had 30 minutes to kill so I ducked into a Goodwill to try to find some work clothes that compensated for both the extra 5lb I have gained lately and my complete lack of fashion sense. I left clutching an awesome braided leather bracelet perfect for steampunk and a fluffy pink window valance that will soon be the bottom of an underskirt. All this for $5! Alas, I still had no new work clothes but when I visited a friend that night, she happily unloaded a pile of clothing she had outgrown which made me inordinately gleeful since the clothing was both free and did not require an hour of flipping through clothing racks to acquire.

Later on that evening, I was killing time in downtown Omaha and, for lack of anything better to do, wandered into Basic Tease, a rather naughty lingerie shop. There among the home stripper pole kits and stacks of jeweled pasties, I roamed the aisles thinking to myself, "Wow, they have awesome choli tops for that steampunk bellydancer costume I want to make, and these stockings are absolutely perfect, and these earrings look kinda steamy...."

So yes, costuming does tend to do funny things to one's brain and inspiration can strike in the oddest of places. A few weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with my eye doctor about steampunk and he directed me off to Harbor Freight, a place my father refers to as "the big boy toy store." Although I did not have an immediate need for welding rods or an air compressor, they did have these awesome clip-on lenses which will help form a pair of steampunk glasses I need to put together for a costuming event next month. Standing at the counter surrounded by burly men in sweat-stained shirts, I felt like announcing loudly that Harbor Freight was an awesome place to get Victorian costuming stuff, but that probably would have made the guys feel a little weird about the store, so I refrained from comment. I also eye-marked stuff I want to go back for next paycheck.

And it continues, bits of leather bracing, an old canvas Army tote, rivets from a flag, a torn lace curtain, scuffed boots with a broken heel. Stuff keeps coming in and finding its way to my basement where a steampunk workshop is in full swing. My wallet goes anorexic and the credit cards melt from overuse. My regular wardrobe which I wear everyday remains unfurbished and gradually aging while my stacks of steampunk costumes grow exponentially. Costuming shopping trips with my girlfriends replace browsing at the mall. Sundry items are seized and carefully assessed for their steampunk value and/or judged to see how much modification they can rightfully withstand.

The solution to my utter lack of variety and skill when it comes to dressing myself for normal activities is, of course, to simply to wear steampunk costumes everyday since then I will take far more care over the daily dressing process and probably look much more attractive to boot. Other friends of mine have agreed that we look far better in period costume than anything modern designers can dream up. In fact, it is always a small shock to encounter a fellow steampunk out of costume because quite often people look very different in civilian clothing. The joke is then, as it was in my martial arts days when you rarely saw your friends out of uniform, "Oh, I didn't recognize you with clothes on!"

This isn't the first time I have spurned modern clothing. During my seven years of college teaching, I longed to return to the days where teachers wore academic robes to class. This way choosing my clothes each morning would take about 30 seconds (i.e. I could wear the same outfit with different shoes every day) and the robes would have lent a touch of pedantic class and old-world charm to the campus. Alas, it was not meant to be as I think the daily steampunk wardrobe also is not meant to happen. Certainly with Omaha basting in regular 100 degree days, I am not exactly keen to done a corset daily, not to mention long skirts and full boots. But it would be a fun world if I could go about in costume as my daily attire!

Friday, July 27, 2012

The question I was chewing over on my way home from work was, "If the boiler blew on an airship and it was no longer producing steam, how long before it would start sinking?" Chapter One of my book has this very scenario and the aforementioned ship started dropping almost instantaneously; however, today I was mulling this over and wondering if I was creating a lifelike scenario. Considering the model of a hot-air balloon, it does not require constant infusions of blasts to maintain its balloon, so one would surmise that an airship could stay in the air for a certain amount of time before starting to descend.

This is just one of the many, many issues to research as I embark on this considerable task of bringing the genre of "historical steampunk fiction" to life. Alas, a quick google search has told me that there are nine hits for the term, so clearly I am not the only person who has envisioned this particular genre. As I define, it is steampunk with clear answers for both the steam and the punk - whatever mechanical/scientific/steamy apparatus appears in the story has a reason for being there and plausibly works. Granted, from what I have read so far, a working airship as steampunk envisions it is in all reality not possible for a variety of reasons: the weight would be too much for it, a steam engine would not be efficient enough, lugging fuel around would add too much weight, etc.

I was particularly intrigued by a post on that states there are two types of envelopes for an air machine: rigid and soft. A rigid envelope for an airship would most likely render it unflyable while a soft envelope would result in a vessel so affected by every gust of wind that it could only fly in mild weather and not over great distances.

So in summary, I have a burgeoning list of topics to research, everything from nautical terms to opium production in Turkey. But the pressing question now is bring the airship Horizon to life and figuring out exactly how it is she works.

To the library!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Successfully lacing yourself up in a corset is, I have discovered, not nearly as complicated as it seems if one has sufficient practice. Saturday, I had myself ratcheted in snugly in about five minutes and was on my happily gasping-for-air way. While self-corseting does require some flexibility of the neck and arms and a mirror sufficient for effective contortion, I am starting to realize why one woman I heard about claimed, "I am the only person I trust to put on my corset." Putting on your own does allow you the chance to cinch it in as snugly as you like and adjust it as you see fit, with the added bonus of not having to track down a willing tugger to help you tighten your corset. 

The more I wear a corset, the more I am growing attached to doing so. On one of those days where you've consumed one too many brownies, pinching irritably at that muffin top around your waist and wondering if it is going to take a diet of ice cubes and two hours of gym time a day to lose weight, a corset has you sleek and hour-glassy in no time at all. 

Then there is the added bonus of external scaffolding and support that a corset brings. Granted, said garment does little to aid mobility and flexibility and while laced up, easy activities can have you panting for breath (bosoms heave quite nicely when hoisted aloft by boning and stiff fabric). However, I've found that a properly fitting corset is rather comfortingly supportive and bracing and keeps jiggle out of the places you wish it not to be found. The other day I was suffering from lower back pain and seriously pondered wearing my corset to work for extra support. 

Then there is the rich scope for amusement to be had whenever one decides to don a corset and try to do something aside from standing there and looking pretty. It generally takes me whole minutes to successfully enter my car and buckle my seatbelt when I am corseted in snugly, and I am often left to swipe fitfully at the air-conditioner knob and stereo button which are just out of my reach. Retrieving a fallen object generally requires a wide-legged plie to lower myself to the floor. Sitting results in an awkward, unladylike sprawling of legs and leaning back in the chair as lungs strain for oxygen and boning digs itself determinedly into tender thighs. And restroom breaks are neigh on impossible - recently I visited the ladies room while wearing a corset over a pair of slacks and as I stood in the stall pondering the necessary engineering required to commence operations, I said, "Forget it" and walked out.    

Which is why I occasionally wonder why corsets pop up in steampunk costumes whose basic concept requires freedom of movement? A few weeks ago, I was in full steampunk engineer costume for a shoot in 95 degree weather at a train depot. Yet in all reality if I was actually faced with a hissing engine to repair or mechanical process to complete, my absolute first step would have been taking the damned corset off so I could move. Likewise with the steampunk cowgirl getup I fashioned last week: surely someone whose day was spent wrangling cattle and shoveling manure would be less concerned with appearing skinny than she would of being able to flee from an irate Brahma bull which was irked with her. 

Yet I doubt that few things could pry the corsets from our fingers, we ladies of steampunks. Other women may have their Hatha yoga and Abs Diet: I will take a cookie, thank you very much, and hide the evidence behind a bastille of boning. 

Just as long as I never attempt to make a corset again. But that is for another post. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Fluid bed boilers are currently on my mind now as I decide the best way for my steampunk airship (the Horizon) to achieve liftoff. A simple question to my dad about steam engines lead to a half hour discussion replete with far more information than I could intake in one sitting, but the gist of the conversation is that conventional steam engines are far too inefficient for use in an airship. This pretty much summarizes what I have discovered so far with research and what the good folks at have said (to writ, a functional airship that would be of useful service is probably not possible), but fluid bed boilers show some promise.

According to the denizens of wikipedia, fluidized beds hold solid fuels in suspension as jets of air blow upwards during combustion, creating a volatile mix of solids and gas which churn about and create much more effective heat transfer and chemical reactions.

This would all be perfectly understandable to someone with an engineering mind, but alas I have a Master's in medieval English literature. If you need to know what letter the International Phonetic Alphabet uses to designate a velar lateral approximate or are positively aching for a concise summary of the Battle of Hastings, there I can help you. But this strange new steampunk world of thermodynamics, Kpascals, and mean efficient pressure is all quite startlingly bewildering and dazzling in its novelty, so much removed from my normal study of verb tenses and obscure historical facts.

Yet, an expert in steampowered engineering I am determined to become because I deeply desire the steampunk trilogy I am plotting out to have a fairly solid grounding in reality. Much of the steampunk literature I have read so far neatly skips over quite a lot of questions that demand answers, the main one being, "So just how does that work?" While an occasional willing suspension of disbelief is part and parcel of any good piece of fiction, I am determined that my trilogy will make a decent attempt to answer these questions and be fairly grounded in reality. I don't wish to simply scatter gears, goggles, and steam liberally throughout a plot and call it steampunk but marry art and science, fantasy and reality into something lovely and unique.

As the Horizon slowly takes shape in my brain, I have been earnestly seeking out answers to questions such as...
   - How much does she weigh?
   - How fast can she go?
   - What fuel is she using? How much of it does she need?
   - Does she run 24 hours a day?
   - How much weight can she take on?
   - Who does she need as crew and what jobs do they do?

All of these questions and more are demanding research and thought and daily I come up with more ideas to consider. For example, I recently decided that her captain, Gavin Roberts, is a prodigious reader with a natural knack for languages. He has a library on board but to save on weight, he has removed all the covers and unnecessary pages from his books. This somewhat reminds me of my backpacking days when I would purchase a waterbottle simply because it weighed a half ounce less than another one, and I am realizing that weight, weight, weight is going to be the name of the game with the Horizon.

This is the start with much more steam, engineering quandaries, and load distribution problems ahead. All which will require copious amounts of research. My former graduate student soul is dancing merrily in anticipation of reviving a long and profitable relationship with UNO library.