The Story Behind Iron Souls

From alchemy to magical metallurgy…

My new steampunk flavored fantasy is a bit different from the urban fantasy I’ve written before, but those who have given it a chance seem taken with the unusual setting and unique magic system. I’ve had quite a few folks ask about the inspiration behind this story, so I thought a blog post was in order.

An Epic Journey On a Slow Moving Boat

Back in 2010, I discovered steampunk and decided I’d like to try my hand at writing one—once I finished my Final Formula series. My first consideration was where to set the story. One of the defining features of steampunk is the Victorian setting, but I wasn’t comfortable writing a story set in London. I wanted to keep it closer to home. But what was going on in Ohio during the late 1800s? Then it hit me. What if the story was set on a canal boat?

As with my Final Formula story, I was once again taking the familiar and giving it a magical twist. The overgrown bed of Ohio & Erie Canal is just a few miles from my house, and with today’s modern roads still following its path, I travel along it everyday on my way to work or into town. Though it ceased operations after the flood of 1913, there were people alive when I was a child who remembered the boats. The old timers even called the road into town the towpath.

But I needed more than a setting, I needed some characters and a conflict. With my story set on a canal boat, I decided to make my main character a boat captain. The conflict would deal with the railroad because the two transportation systems were in competition, and since I was shooting for steampunk, I needed some gadgets and advanced tech, which is where the magic came in. What if I had a race of people who could create a magical alloy that gave them a technology more advanced than the steam power of their day? And what if one of them was working for the railroad? Voilà! Ferromancy was born. But had I written a steampunk story?

By definition, steampunk is science fiction, not fantasy. It’s based in science rather than magic. So I hadn’t technically written a steampunk tale. It was steampunk flavored fantasy. While trying to define it, I stumbled onto something called gaslamp fantasy. It’s a subgenre of historical and fantasy fiction, and is typically set in a Victorian time period. My story fits those qualifications, but with its mechanical constructs and such, it does have an element of steampunk. Since steampunk is a more common term, I’m going to keep calling it steampunk fantasy.

I find it funny that I struggled to define this series. After all, Briar is all about avoiding labels, but to sell a book, it needs to be in a category so that readers who enjoy that sort of story can find it. (Sorry, Briar, I had to label you.)

I’ve really enjoyed the research behind this series. I love history, especially local history, and it’s been fun learning more about that. Once I shared the story, I was surprised by the number of folks who had never heard of the mule pulled boats and canals that used to be the lifeblood of so many communities. It was flattering to learn that my escapist genre fiction actually had a little educational value. 🙂

So that, in a nut shell, is the story behind my new series. If you’ve enjoyed the Final Formula series, I hope you’ll give Iron Souls a try. With its smart-mouthed characters, action, humor, darker elements, and a little romance, the two aren’t as different as you would think. After all, alchemy and metallurgy went hand in hand. I just threw in a little magic.

15 comments

  1. I love both series.. have not finished The Final Formula series yet.. sometimes I like to take a break and not finish quickly so I have more adventures to look forward to. So now I’m looking forward to reading more Briar adventures!
    Thanks for the blog about writing the series.. I use to live on a canal as a child but did not really know the history of it. I also don’t like labeling things but understand the need to define your books. I like steampunk fantasy as a category for your books.. it fits well.. anyway..way I love the adventures you write and you develop great characters

    • Thanks! I’ve been having a lot of fun writing this series. Glad you’re enjoying it.

  2. Janet Dees

    Thank you for letting people “relive” the functions of the canal boat days. It had never occurred to me people did not know this part of pre-locomotive history. We live near 2 rivers and a large part of the old canal route! We walk along the now paved towpath!

    • How cool! We have only a few preserved locks in the area. I’d love to visit Roscoe or Cuyahoga Valley National Park one day. 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed the “Ferromancer”. It might be my favorite (so far)…”The Final Formula” is a fantastic series right up there
    with “Gone With the Wind”… can’t put your books down….they keep me up at night…..Please continue. I got the second book, “Soul Singer” on Kindle and can’t wait until my tablet has recharged…..Thank you for the enjoyment of reading….

  4. Lauri Shaw

    I was surprised when you said people were not familiar with the boats drawn by mules. I recall learning a song when I was young that went like this:

    I’ve got a mule; her name is Sal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. She’s a good old worker and a grand old gal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. Low bridge! Everybody down! Low bridge ’cause we’re going through a town. Oh, you” always know your neighbor; you’ll always know your pal as long as you travel on the Erie Canal.

    • That surprised me, too. And we sang that song in elementary school. 🙂

  5. I found Ferromancer on my historical fantasy Facebook group (it’s our group read for next month), and I devoured it. I just went and bought book 2, and I wanted to swing by and see a little of the behind the scenes. I love urban and historical fantasy that really bring the setting into it. It’s one thing I loved about Black Magic Outlaw, because he really brings the mixed community of Miami together, reaching back to the Spaniards and farther. So fascinating! Anyway, I much enjoyed the canal boat/railroad rivalry of Ferromancer. I kept humming “Sixteen miles on the Erie Canal” the whole time I was reading. 😀

    • Thanks! Great to hear that you’re enjoying the story so far, and very cool about the group read. 😀 I almost added a Youtube link to that song while writing this post, lol. (Now I’m humming it.)

  6. I just finished “Soul Singer” you make the characters seem alive … Yes, I too remember the song “Sixteen Miles on the
    Erie Canal”. We have several canal locks here in southern Ohio. One lock is maintained and kept in pretty good repair. It is there just north of the McDermott Pike on Route 104. You do the Erie Canal and the tow paths a lot of historical justice. I remember my father telling me about the towpath and why it was called the towpath (the road going into Portsmouth).
    Please continue writing. I look forward to your books.

  7. Hi there – I am a fan of Final Formula and enjoying Iron Souls as well! I was wondering if you could point to an image of a canal barge similar to the one you describe in the books?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Selina. Sorry for the slow reply. It’s surprisingly tough to find decent pictures of an Ohio & Erie Canal boat online, but here’s a short Youtube video of the St. Helena III, a replica canal boat in Canal Fulton, Ohio. This replica was modeled after an actual boat (although the cargo holds have been converted to haul passengers in this case). That said, boats could vary in appearance and layout quite a bit. This isn’t the Briar Rose, but it’ll give you an idea–and it’s really cool to see it in motion. 🙂

      The St. Helena III – Youtube

  8. Dan Gross

    Becca:
    I, too, am from southern oHIo. Wheelersburg. From the description, you must live somewhere in the Scioto river valley if you are near the old canal path. Something that wouls add to the reading experience of your book would be to add to the small map of the oHIo/Erie Canal would be the topographic map of the canal. Going north out of Akron must have been exciting, almost like a ski slope… The number of locks was amazing… Have you ridden the old canal boat near Coshocton?
    Just out of curiosity, where are you employed as a chemist?
    Looking forward to the next volume…

    • Hi Dan, thanks for giving the Iron Souls series a try. I’ve had a lot of fun researching this one. Unfortunately, I haven’t made it to any of the restored canal villages or taken a ride on one of the replica canal boats, but I hope to. Yes, boating through the northern stretch of the canal must have been quite the adventure. There was a stretch around Akron that took six hours to travel two miles due to the drastic change in elevation and all the locks. No need to get in a hurry. 😉

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