Thursday, March 07, 2013

FUNKY HISTORY: Building the world and characters of my Steamfunk story

cover art by Marcellus Shane Jackson
In 2004, I decided to set all of my science fiction stories (that's all I was writing back then) in Chicago, my hometown.  I made that decision for a few different reasons:

·         My wife (who is Canadian) and I had just moved with our one-year-old daughter to the Greater Toronto Area  after teaching English in Japan for three years. My wife had taught mostly in Tokyo, and I'd taught in its far-flung northeastern suburbs.

·         I was homesick. I hadn't spent more than a few months in Chicago the previous five years. Immediately after I graduated from college, and before I went to Japan, I moved to Montana for two years to work as a youth development coordinator with AmeriCorps VISTA. 

·         And I'd just read Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring, set in Toronto, and re-read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, set in Los Angeles. Obviously, I was (and still am) fascinated with dystopian stories.

So what does all of this have to do with steamfunk and world-building? Well, I wanted to big up my hometown in my stories. I wanted to build my Chicago based on my experiences.

Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler had incorporated Toronto and Los Angeles so smoothly into their novels that I was inspired to do the same with Chicago. Besides, it wasn't like there were a slew of speculative fiction stories out there featuring Chicago.
But as I started to write my stories, I found it difficult to use Chicago as my setting. I'd been away for too long. Chicago had changed a lot in those five years. It was hard to ground myself there while living in Canada.

And then I got a job in Chicago, and my family and I moved to the Northwest Side. I'd never lived there before. I still didn't feel grounded.

So I went back to my roots. 

I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Jeffrey Manor to be exact. Affectionately, we call it 'The Manor'. 

(Don't let the name fool you, though. While it may sound a bit bou'gie, The Manor is anything but that. It's not Cabrini-Green, either, though.)

My moms was one of the millions of African Americans who went North from Down South during the Great Migration. She came to Chicago from Mississippi (by way of New Orleans) because her older brother had done so years earlier and found a good job. 

That was my personal history, and I wanted to incorporate it into my stories. That pride to fictionalize my history had also been inspired by Brown Girl in the Ring. Nalo Hopkinson's use of West Indian/Caribbean culture in that novel and in Midnight Robber fascinated me to no end. 

I wanted my stories to be just as interesting, just as rich, and just as personal as hers.

And now, almost ten years later, I think I'm on the right track.

Petal McQueen, the main character of "Mud Holes and Mississippi Mules", my short story in the Steamfunk! anthology, is a mix of my moms and my one of my more colorful aunts.

Petal's attitude is all my aunt. But her way of speaking, her word choice, is mostly my moms. 

My moms still calls bad-ass kids 'no-good chaps'. 

She, along with a fair number of people I know from Down South, still says, 'I'll whoop you like you stole a Mississippi mule.' 

And one of her favorite sayings is, 'Now between you, me, and the fence post...' 

All of that characterization made it into my story. All of that characterization gives Petal McQueen and the steamfunk world I built in "Mud Holes and Mississippi Mules" some breadth and life. 

And all of that characterization made this story so fun to write.

Here are some of the other contributors to the Steamfunk! anthology who share their experiences writing, reading and living steamfunk:

Milton Davis – Milton Davis is owner/publisher of MVmedia, LLC . As an author he specializes in science fiction and fantasy and is the author of Meji Book One, Meji Book Two and Changa’s Safari. Visit him: .

Ray Dean – Growing up in Hawaii, Ray Dean had the opportunity to enjoy nearly every culture under the sun. The Steamfunk Anthology was an inspiration she couldn't pass up. Ray can be reached at
Valjeanne Jeffers – is an editor and the author of the SF/fantasy novels: Immortal, Immortal II: The Time of Legend and Immortal III: Stealer of Souls, Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds and The Switch: Clockwork. Visit her at: and

Rebecca M. Kyle – With a birthday on Friday 13, it's only natural that the author is fascinated with myths, legends, and oddities of all kinds. Ms. Kyle lives with her husband, four cats, and more rocks and books than she cares to count between the Smokies and Cumberland mountains. Visit her at

Carole McDonnell – is a writer of Christian, supernatural, and ethnic stories. Her writings appear in various anthologies, including So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonialism in Science Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson; Jigsaw Nation; and Life Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: Writings by Mature Women of Color among others. Her reviews appear in print and at various online sites. Her novels are the Christian speculative fiction, Wind Follower, and The Constant Tower. Her Bible study is called: Seeds of Bible Study.   Her website is

Balogun Ojetade – Author of the bestselling “Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within” (non-fiction), “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman” (Steamfunk); “Once Upon A Time in Afrika” (Sword and Soul); “Redeemer” (Urban Fantasy) and the film, “A Single Link” and “Rite of Passage”. Finally, he is Co-Author of “Ki-Khanga: The Anthology” and Co-Editor of “Steamfunk!” Visit him:

Hannibal Tabu – is a writer, a storyteller, and by god, a fan. He has written the novels, “The Crown: Ascenscion” and “Faraway” and the upcoming scifi political thriller “Rogue Nation”. He is currently the co-owner and editor-in-chief of Black geek website Komplicated at the Good Men Project, and uses his Operative Network website ( to publish his poetry, market what he's doing, rant at the world and emit strangled cries for help.

Geoffrey Thorne – Geoffrey Thorne has written a lot of stuff in a lot of venues and will be writing more in more. It's his distinct pleasure to take part in another of these groundbreaking anthologies. Thanks for letting me roll with you folks. For more (and God knows why you'd want more) check out

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