Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Steampunk or Victorian Research--Building a Library For No Cost

The present interest in Steampunk makes research into things Victorian quite popular.  There are quite a few websites about both Victorian and Steampunk topics.  But nearly every one I have found is quite generalized, pulling a few facts from various places, but not going into depth on the topics I'm the most interested in.  Since I want to know about the daily nitty-gritty of Victorian life, I started looking up the books these websites use as references, and was overjoyed to find that many of them are available, free, digitized on the internet.

I'll begin by discussing good places to download copies of books that were actually published in the 1800s--absolutely free.  There are several sites I use constantly for finding real Victorian work on the internet.

Project Gutenberg (
This site makes public domain works of all sorts available either to read online or download in various formats (epub, mobi, etc.).  The books are digitized and the scans proofread by volunteers and then put up on the site, free for anyone who would like to download them.  As epubs are much smaller files than pdf files of scanned books, I'll occasionally download these to read on my tablet or smart phone.

But even the best proofread scan often has errors.  For research, I prefer to download pdfs of scans of the actual books.  There are two places to get many of these.

Internet Archive (
This amazing archive has huge amounts of material, not all of it (of course) Victorian.  For example, I filled up far too much hard drive space downloading old issues of early science fiction magazines from the Internet Archive.  But what I've found extremely useful are the books available in various formats.  I generally download the pdf, but they are usually available in epub and other formats as well.  The caveat I have for these is that often the other formats seem to be raw OCR of the scans, with errors introduced.  However, with a pdf copy of an actual scan of the book, unless something is wrong with it (missing pages, torn places, tight binding, etc.), you can read it just as it was printed, over 100 years ago.  I never click on the link for the pdf, for then it takes a long time to load megabytes of data as a pdf into my browser, and I'll just need to save it off from there once it downloads.  Instead, I right click on the link and click "save link as" on the menu that comes up.  When I save the pdf to my hard drive, I change the file's name to include the author, title, and usually the date it was published, as all that information is useful in my research.

Google Books (
The other place I can often find ebooks of old books is Google Books.  When you find a book that has been scanned by Google, hover over (don't click on) the orange box that says "EBOOK - FREE" on the upper left side of that book's web page.  When the menu comes up, under "Read the book for FREE" is the link for "Download PDF."  Click on this, enter the captcha, and you can download the pdf of the book to your hard drive.  I've found that the scanning quality of these is sometimes iffy.  One of my favorites is when the page is pulled away before it's completely scanned, so all you get is a blur.  Also, occasionally you'll find a place where a person has scanned their hand along with the pages.

Something to be aware of when checking a search engine for a book title.  Sometimes the book is available on more than one page for Google Books.  The first one you click on may say "No ebook available," while another one lower in the list may have the ebook.  So keep looking!

HathiTrust Digital Library (
Another place that occasionally has books that can't be found in one of the other places is the HathiTrust Digital Library.  When you click on Full View for a book, it loads the pdf and you can read it.  To download it, unfortunately, you must have a "partner login."

How do I discover books I want to download?  Often I'll read modern books or web pages discussing what I'm interested in.  If, in the text, a title and author is mentioned, I jump on that immediately.  For example, I was reading a modern book about Victorian housing, and found a mention of "The Plumber and Sanitary Houses" by Samuel Stevens Hellyer.  I instantly put that into my search engine, and found, to my delight, that Google Books had the entire volume scanned and ready for me to download.  (  It is also available on the Internet Archive (  If books are available in both Google Books and the Internet Archive, I sometimes download the book I'm interested from both places, to see which scan is best, or if they are different editions of the book.  (In this case, the Internet Archive scan is rather light, and the Google Books scan has someone's hands scanned on most of the pages, but between the two I could get the information I needed.)

In later articles I'll discuss (and include links for) other delightful books I have found, and how they are useful in research.  Reading books written in the period, steeping yourself in the way people thought and wrote, is great fun.  Getting little details (like I wanted when researching Victorian plumbing) can add a lot of verisimilitude to either Steampunk cosplay or writing.


Julia H. West's latest book is Mind Bridges, a collection of short fiction available as an ebook or in paperback from

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What StoryADay Has Taught Me

Welcome to Callihoo Publishing's blog!

We've been offline for a while, but are coming back with a blog from Julia West about her experiences with StoryADay.  Questions and comments are very welcome.


StoryADay is a creativity challenge.  It challenges people to write (and finish) a short story every day during May.  StoryADay was founded in early 2010 by Julie Duffy, a writer, blogger and entrepreneur.  Each May since then participants have tried, during the entire month, to write a story a day.  It doesn't matter how long or short the story is, but it should be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end.

My daughter discovered StoryADay in 2011, and challenged me to do it with her.

At first, I thought it was an impossibility.  Write a story every day?  Me?  I'm the person who brainstorms a story for a week, then takes a month to write and polish it.  Then I send it through my writers' group, and rewrite it, taking another week to a month.  I can write novels faster than I write short stories!  And my stories all turn out long--9,000 to 15,000 words.  How could I do that in one day?

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I tried an online challenge called Dare to Be Bad (I talk about this at  In that challenge, a group got together and encouraged one another to write three stories in six days.  When my writer's group did it, we usually picked a holiday weekend when we'd have more time to write.  But never, in all the times I tried it, did I completely finished three stories in six days.  So what made me think I could write 30 stories in 30 days?

But my daughter talked me into StoryADay, and on May 1, 2011, I started writing.  I generated a random occurrence from a story generator (more about them in the next blog post), and began writing.  Much to my surprise, I was able to start--and finish!--a story that day.  It was fairly long--5682 words--and I didn't like it much once it was done, but I had started and finished a story in the same day!

Much heartened by this success, I continued the challenge.  On a few days, I wrote story poems (I had just come from a month of writing poetry for National Poetry Writing Month--NaPoWriMo).  Though shorter, story poems were almost more difficult than writing prose, because not only did there need to be a story, there also needed to be scansion, rhyme (because I usually write rhyming poems), and all those poem-y things.

That first time, I burned out about halfway through the month.  I was trying to write stories that were 5,000 to 6,000 words, every day.  That's a LOT of writing.  And to come up with an idea and write the story, all in one day--well, it was tough.

But even though I didn't write a story every day that month, I learned something about myself and about writing.  I learned that it was possible for me to write a story in a day.  Some of the stories were even pretty good.  Others (like the first one I wrote) I've never even shared with my writer's group.  Another thing I learned about my writing is that, since I've been writing for decades, and I'm used to looking at things, and banging ideas together to come up with something different, I could use that ability in these quick stories.  I learned to trust the storyteller inside of me to come up with a story on the fly, rather than brainstorming and outlining until the story started telling itself.  Without the weeks of brainstorming, some of the stories were a bit bare of bone, but that's easily taken care of afterward.  A maxim I learned years ago is, "If you don't write the story, you can't rewrite the story."  If I don't have anything to rewrite--however badly written, however scant on detail--I can't fix it.  Learning to trust my inner storyteller was the most valuable lesson I learned that first May.

My daughter likes to drag me into writing challenges.  I've done National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, since 2008, and "won" every time.  To win, according to the NaNoWriMo graph, one must simply write 50,000 words.  I write long, and it's usually pretty easy for me to come up with word count!  My challenge, for NaNoWriMo, is to FINISH the novel I start.  A novel for adults has to be considerably longer than 50,000 words, so I have usually written more than that--and haven't yet completed a novel in the month.

Several years ago, for NaNoWriMo, I learned to brainstorm for the next day's writing just before I go to bed.  With something fresh to mull over, with new ideas that my mind can work on as I sleep, it's much easier to pick up and continue writing the next day.  I was very seldom stuck, at a loss for what to write.  I discovered that worked so well that I decided to try it for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in April and StoryADay in May.  Generate a prompt, brainstorm on that prompt, then go to bed.  Let my mind stew over what I'd come up with.  Often, by the time I started the story the next day, I'd have new, interesting things that hadn't come up in my brainstorming the night before.  This worked even better!

Another thing I tried was taking days off.  I scheduled days during May that I would finish a story I had started before but not finished, or to rewrite a story I had finished, and had critiqued in my writers' group, but not rewritten.  This way, my brain didn't have to come up with a whole new idea every day!  That worked fairly well.  Also, as some of my other writer friends do, I took Sunday off.  Having a day with no writing helped me be all the fresher when I opened my word processor up on Monday.

I started playing with story structure.  I had judged a Micro Short Short Story contest at the local science fiction convention for decades (, but had never written one.  After all, I write long!  How could I write a story that is only three (however long) sentences?  I analyzed how micro short short stories worked.  They're kind of like jokes, with a setup and a punchline.  I tried to get as much description, backstory, and characterization as possible in the first two sentences (which could be VERY long, with judicious punctuation), then give the payoff in the third sentence.  This actually worked quite well.  So, since there is absolutely no wordcount max or minimum in StoryADay (in fact, flash fiction is encouraged), I found I could write a story that was only 200-300 words!  That was very different from my usual "short" story being 6,000 words.  Always before, I'd approached story writing with the attitude that it should be a story I could fix up and attempt to sell.  Something I could finish, polish, and send off to a publisher.  This time, I was a bit more lackadaisical, a touch more whimsical, and it paid off.  I wrote several short short stories (some more than three sentences, but still only a page or two long).  How freeing that was!

So, what has StoryADay taught me?  It has taught me that I can write short.  I learned that I can get an idea, brainstorm a story, and write that story in one day.  I learned to trust my inner storyteller.  I learned that, with the proper polish, I can sell a story I wrote in one day.  Yes, one of the stories I wrote in May 2011 sold exactly a year later, to the day, to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXVII. (  I learned (when I handed out some of the stories I'd written that I thought were pretty bad, and found that people actually liked them) that I shouldn't trust my own inner critic.  I should let others read the stories I have written and make the decision as to whether they are worth putting more work into.

Taking the StoryADay challenge four times now has given me a large file of story rough drafts.  All I need to do with them is re-read each one, grind some of the rough edges down, and send it through my critique group.  Before I started the challenge, every story I wrote was a months-long process, and I often felt I had too much invested in them to be able to say, "Oh well, this one just didn't work out."  I can do that with the StoryADay stories.  I can gut the really bad stories for ideas that worked, even if the stories themselves weren't good enough to keep.  I allow myself to do that that because of the sheer number of stories I've generated.  Even though I've burned out about halfway through the month each time, that still gives me about 50 stories that I didn't have before.  Amazing!

I would encourage others to at least try StoryADay.  Read the encouragement emails that Julie Duffy sends out, brainstorm beforehand, work up to it if you must--but at least try it.  If you only get ONE story out of the experience . . . fantastic!  It's one more story than you had before.


Julia H. West has been writing science fiction and fantasy for years, and many of her stories, which have been published in various magazines and anthologies, are available as ebooks through Callihoo Publishing.