The Big Idea: Cherie Priest

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big ol’ fan of Cherie Priest’s work — I blurbed one of her previous novels, you know — but even factoring in my enjoyment of her work, I have to say that Boneshaker, Priest’s latest, very simply rocks: It’s not only the steampunk adventure you’ve been waiting for, it’s the steampunk adventure you can give to friends of yours who wonder what the hell’s up with all those Victorian overcoats and goggles. This one’s got dirigibles, it’s got alternate history, it’s got zombies, and it’s got a mother bear of a protagonist in Briar Wilkes. I could go on, but it would just be more squee.

And besides, Priest is here to talk about the book herself, and specifically how to make steampunk not only attractive and interesting, but logical for the world and setting in which she places it. How much does it take? Well. I’ll let her explain.


I’m a big nonfiction nerd because, well, let’s face it—nothing I make up could possibly be any weirder than some of the stuff that’s already happened in real life. I think that’s one reason I’ve been drawn to the steampunk vibe for so long: It very often draws from historic characters and events, merrily warping actual people and stuff to better fit somebody’s narrative (or costuming) needs.

But I’m also a context geek and a setting dork, and when I came around to trying my own hand at steampunk, I talked and wrote myself in circles trying to find a good reason for advanced Victorian technology to be rumbling around in my alternate-history universe. Merely waving a magic wand and saying, “Because I said so, ta-da!” didn’t quite cut it; I wanted a better grounding and excuse for the tech I was determined to employ.

If I intended to throw a monkey wrench into history, I wanted it to be a good, worthy, marginally credible monkey wrench.

So I was talking with a friend of mine about the two things that drive technology most efficiently—that would be, (1). pornography, and (2). warfare. Tossing aside option #1 as a bit improbable for a pulp adventure’s genesis (though I’m still considering it, mind you), I turned to option #2 and began brainstorming. To help my brainstorming along, this same friend (Andrea Jones, can I get a what-what?) sent me a wonderful quote from a wonderful tome written in 1862:

In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.*

Perfect. Yes. And I was off.

Though most of the steampunk I’d seen was grounded in a gaslamp London setting, I wanted to do an American piece; and gosh darn it, if only America’d had some big, monstrous, catastrophic war going on in the nineteenth century … OH WAIT A MINUTE. We totally had one of those. It only lasted four years (give or take), but a quick poke through a library’s archives or even a good internet search turns up a whole mess of patents for war devices that were never made. If only the inventors hadn’t run out of war …

So that’s where I started. To create the steampunk universe that scaffolds Boneshaker, I dragged out America’s Civil War another fifteen years.

Not as easy as it sounds, of course. As a mostly-life-long southerner, I’d heard all the hypotheticals that could have let led to a Confederate victory; but I didn’t want a Confederate victory. I wanted a hideous, protracted, drawn-out struggle that would leave the west unincorporated, lawless, and still largely populated by Native Americans. Really, was that asking so much?

I started small. More extensive English involvement. Better transportation infrastructure. Cinched off the immigration (and seemingly unending soldier supply) to New York City.

And then I thought … Texas. Oh, what the heck—let’s keep it a republic. And let’s give it Spindletop (where oil was first discovered in that territory in 1901) a good fifty years earlier. Furthermore, let’s make Texas a technological superpower, since it would have had such wonderful incentive to develop machines to make use of the black gold. While we’re at it, yeah. Let’s give ‘em diesel power. After all, the patent for the first diesel engine went into play several years before Texas had oil. In real life. Which is not what we’re talking about here. Just imagine what a powerful ally Texas would’ve been to the south. Unless, of course, they were having their historic issues firming up the lines between the republic and Mexico. Hmm…

So you can see how I got off the rails there a bit. After all, I was setting out to write a story set in Seattle, Washington, where frankly not a whole lot was going on before the late nineteenth century. BUT I COULD FIX THAT. All I did was jack up the Klondike gold rush by forty years, which would’ve swelled the population tenfold by the 1860s.

And after all that map-drawing, history-tweaking, and time-reworking, that’s what I came back to—Seattle, all but destroyed by a mining accident (of sorts) in 1863, walled up, and filled with zombies stewing in a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, the war back east has prevented any federal help from the United States, and war technology has filtered all the way to the west coast. Combat dirigibles either stolen or bought from the military now move guns, drugs, and less contraband supplies back and forth over the Rockies. Weird weapons are de rigueur, and military deserters sneak into the western population, hoping to disappear.

For the folks who survived the destruction of Seattle, help never comes.

Out of this—this messy, elaborate, amateur restructuring of history—came what is essentially a very small story. Boneshaker takes place over seventy-two hours, and centers on only two people: a mother and her son. Because at the end of the day, the most interesting thing about the Clockwork Century (my catch-all term for the world-setting) is the people who occupy it.

And all this set-up aside, that is the big idea.

* From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell. Naturally, we used this as the introductory quote to Boneshaker. The copy editor nearly had a fit.


Boneshaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read the prologue to Boneshaker. Visit The Clockwork Century, Priest’s site for all things steampunkish. Follow Priest on Twitter.

37 Comments on “The Big Idea: Cherie Priest”

  1. I bought Boneshaker the same day you did your Big Idea about it. I haven’t yet started it because I’m in the middle of Battle Cry of Freedom, which is an amazing book on the Civil War. It’ll be interesting to see what she changes in her book.

    (I visited Antietam on Friday, and Gettysburg on Sunday. Valley Forge was Saturday, but that was a different war. And Fort McHenry was Friday, but again, different war.)

  2. Oh man. I need to hurry up and finish demolishing Leviathan so I can get to the next bit of steampunk war goodness!

  3. Book looks nice, ordered the Kindle version. Side note: You might want to get Amazon to rework the product pages so they link to each other, I was all ready to write a rant about Tor and Kindle book availability based on not seeing a link to the Kindle book on the main product page [as most books have]. Then I searched the kindle store, and found it :)

  4. Joe M.

    “You might want to get Amazon to rework the product pages so they link to each other”

    It’s warming you think authors have some control over that.

  5. Hmmm. I’ve never really dug the whole steampunk thing – my abortive affair began and ended with The Difference Engine, of which I only got halfway through before throwing it across the room – but add zombies… well, now. That, as it has been said, is a horse of a different color.

    So I took a peek at the sample chapter over at Cherie’s place. And now I’m all, like, really interested and stuff. Hooked, even.

    Dammit. Add another book to the queue. And, having trolled through the rest of the Clockwork Century site, might as well add Clementine and Dreadnought, coming in 2010, to the list, too.

    I look forward to having the cash on hand to be able to purchase this most enticing volume, forthwith!

  6. If my wife every finds out that this is why I am suddenly purchasing books again whatever will start getting filtered on the home network. “Everytime you go to that whatever site you end up dropping $15 – $25 of your hard earned dollars!”…

    Time to start hiding my tracks… oh and thanks for another very intriguing recommendation…


  7. Darn you. This post was the last straw in moving Boneshaker to the front of my book queue. I was going to wait until December and ask for it, but it’s zombies and it’s in Seattle and I’ve been looking forward to this since Cherie first announced it on her blog.

  8. Oh, my. This does sound very cool. And do I infer that there could be more books coming set in this universe?

    (This also sounds like a great SF gateway drug for my civil-war-history-nut-teenager…)

  9. I was totally going to skip this book despite all my blogging buddies’ praising it. Hearing the author’s own words, though, put it on my wish list.

  10. Man, it’s like most of my reading list comes from your big idea articles — I’m in the middle of Liar right now, and loving it; it reminds me a little of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but feels like it will hold together better.

    One day I will have to read a book by this John Scalzi guy. I hear he’s good.

  11. Besides being an incredibly wonderful and engaging story, it is, physically, a beautiful book.

  12. So if one wishes to look up “steampunk” references, they need only goggle it apparently.

    I wonder if war really drives technology efficiently? Why do we complain about overspending on DoD projects if they are being efficient about things? Ever look over the wacky battle machine plans of Germany during WWII? War probably drives technology like a drunken-colonel with three whores in a VW.

  13. Rabid_Android @10: She wouldn’t care if you’d let her read the books after you finished them.

    tudza @16: War may drive technology in symmetrical wars. I’m unconvinced it drives technology in the same directions or nearly as hard in asymmetrical wars. When the people you’re fighting have neither an air force nor radar stations, is that stealth bomber ever going to get the field-testing it needs?

  14. Tudza,

    i wouldn’t say ‘efficiently.’ We push the tech to win the war and then, in the aftermath, discover the other uses.

  15. Thank you so much everyone – and to those of you who pick up the book, I very much hope you enjoy it. (I’d natter on longer about how excited I am, but I think I was plenty wordy up above, there … *ahem*)

    And thanks especially to Scalzi, of course, for he is wise and awesome, and very entertaining.


  16. Coincidentally, it arrived today.

    If only I didn’t have a Japanese midterm on Thursday. :-(

  17. I -really- need to get this. Me loves this kind of stuff.

    Not only that but she graduated from some Adventist Schools. I did too. For whatever reason this endears me a lot to her and I want her to suceed.

    Am I an easy win?
    Well, yeah. I guess so. *shrugs*

  18. Just bought this an hour ago, and I’m second in line to read it after my son. Of course, he has a psych paper to finish first.

    I own it, I can be patient.

  19. Excellent column. I’m glad to read about these kinds of ruminations and discoveries. It’s quite inspiring!

    I am looking forward to reading Boneshaker, but sadly can’t afford it at the moment. I did, however, get the director of my local library (who is also my upstairs neighbor!) to order it for le bibliotheque. And I get first dibs for suggesting it. . . .

    Um, do you have a citation for that quotation about the “age of invention?”

  20. John Ginsberg-Stevens – Thanks dude – and I hope you enjoy it when you do get to read it.

    As for citation, follow the asterisk at the bottom of the entry. :) There’s a reason I didn’t put it right there with the quote …

  21. Definitely will try to read your work Cherie. I’m of the older generation who thinks it is really kewl that Steam Punk has come about. Luv it really. I hope that duznt spoil it for you :)

  22. Cherie,

    I’ve wanted to read your stuff for a long time. Some of my favorite authors (Mr. Hill and Mr. Scalzi) have raved about it, but I’ve just been busy with a huge to-read pile. Well, Boneshaker came out and I finally had to give in.

    I ordered Boneshaker and picked up Four and Twenty Blackbirds to read while I wait for its arrival. I started Four and Twenty early this afternoon and have had trouble putting it down. If you bring the same kind of freshness and inventiveness to steampunk that you do the Souther gothic genre, Boneshaker is going to be an outstanding book.

    Enough fan ranting, just wanted to say how much I was enjoying the book and how pleased I am to see that you have quite a few books in publication already.

  23. @loganbraswell – Wow, thank you so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying what you’re reading, and I hope you like Boneshaker, too.

    Yes, Dear Mr. Scalzi has been immensely supportive, for which I am very grateful. He is (and let’s be honest here) pretty darn groovy.

    But what’s this re: Mr. Hill? Surely you don’t mean Joe Hill? Whose stuff I totally love with a nerdy-girl love that gets dorkier all the while? I’m certain you must mean a different Mr. Hill. Yes. That must be the case… Still. Gave me a jolt there for a minute.


  24. Cherie,

    Actually, I am 99.99% sure it was Joe Hill on his blog. This was before I knew who Scalzi was (I’d never visited his blog) and you and your writing were mentioned on Joe’s blog.. I went to Mr. Hill’s site, but most of his old posts got erased when the site crashed and had to be redone, so I couldn’t find the article in question.

    I remember thinking you were a writer I had to check out because I love Mr. Hill’s writing and it seemed like high praise coming from him. Anyways, keep on doing what you do.

  25. I picked this up last week while visiting Seattle and am thoroughly enjoying it. Having equal love for dirigibles, zombies, and Seattle this book is perfect for me.

    Nice job!

  26. Gah, my “To Read” queue is at about 12 books now, and that’s not counting the ones left on my “To Buy” list.

    The trouble is that I love me some steampunk and zombies both. Now where to put you….

  27. I received Boneshaker in the mail yesterday from Subterranean Press (Thanks Bill!) It grabbed me right away – I’m way impressed with Briar Wilkes as a character, and am really loving the book! Can’t wait to get home tonight and pick it up again!

  28. From Canukistan here, I was just wondering, but why would the west be chaotic? The United States wasn’t the only nation expanding westward. And Imperial Britain was a rapacious beast. I might have to get to some research. There are some interesting ideas to poke at there, too.