Z is for Zachary Connor and Zhijian Mei #AtoZChallenge

Cigarette packet I made for Zachary, ca. 1900

Cigarette packet I made for Zachary, ca. 1900

I wrap up my A to Z gaming adventure with two wonderful characters from a GURPS Steampunk game Scott ran back in 2002—possibly the first game he ran, although I’m not certain of that. I’ve already written about my intricately detailed character backgrounds, and Zachary Connor certainly had one. Janica created a wonderful background for her character as well. I forgot until researching for this blog that both characters’ names started with a Z. How fortuitous! I’ve shortened the description for reasons of space, leaving out Zhijian Mei’s history before she met Zachary, although that part is fascinating (illegitimate daughter of a Scottish engineer in New Mexico and a Chinese laborer named Jian Ying, born in 1883).

The cousins [in New York] were aware that Ting Mei wasn’t full-Chinese, but they felt honor-bound to Jian Ying to care for her daughter. Cong Xi was an herbalist; his wife a cook. Ting Mei was no longer the vivacious, happy spirit she once was. She was silent and sad, carrying her secret guilt about her father’s death.

Ting Mei continued to learn, now from her cousins. She learned to write by labeling the containers of Chinese herbs. For five years, she studied the herbs and foods of her mother’s people.

Cong Xi never asked Ting Mei about her parents; it was of no concern to him. He knew his duty to honor his family, which was of utmost importance. He expected Ting Mei to honor him as a father, and when her willfulness began to show once again, he was quick to reprimand her.

The pressure of the strict life under Cong Xi, coupled with the extreme guilt Ting Mei felt about her father, finally caused a breakdown for the eleven-year-old. In a fit of tears and shouting, Ting Mei revealed the truth as she understood it: She had murdered her father. Details weren’t necessary. The horror of her action was enough. Cong Xi immediately turned her out onto the street—the shame and dishonor of Ting Mei’s actions was beyond anything he could allow for his family.

Ting Mei felt that it was no more than what she deserved. She lived as a beggar, scrapping on the streets. Word was that money could be made at the baseball stadium, if you could get enough of a concession to sell. It was illegal without a vendor’s license, but after two years of straightforward begging, it seemed a solid opportunity to Ting Mei. She’d learned to steal as needed, so she managed to score a tray of peanuts from an inattentive (but licensed) vendor.

Ting Mei actually enjoyed the stadium. There was green grass and blue sky and cheering people. They looked at her without pity or disgust—they just looked at her as a servant—infinitely better. She was bolder, more confident with money in her pocket, when the very vendor she’d stolen from caught up with her. His apoplectic rage terrified her. “It was only peanuts!” she stammered ash he grabbed hold of her, shouting vile obscenities. Ting Mei had seen this sort of thing on the street, but she had mostly been able to avoid such conflicts. As she trembled in the harsh grip of the enraged man, she realized that one of the players had left the field and was coming toward them. She watched silently as the tall, strong man calmly extricated her from the vendor’s grip. Her shock that a complete stranger would act so kindly toward her amazed Ting Mei. Without her knowing quite how, the man had solved the problem. The vendor was gone, and she was sitting quietly with a cool drink and hot meal before her. Gratitude shone from her eyes.

“My name is Zachary. What’s yours?” he asked.

“Ting Mei.”

“Ting Mei. That’s pretty. It suits you.”

As the food and drink worked their magic on her empty stomach, Ting Mei relaxed. She spoke less guardedly than she had in years. There was kindness in Zachary’s eyes, kindness like her fa—

Softly, Ting Mei began to cry.

“Hey! No, no. Don’t cry. It’s ok now. You’re ok,” Zachary awkwardly tried to comfort her. Ting Mei continued to sob, but she tired to stop, for his sake. He looked so uncomfortable, so upset by her tears. And he’d been so kind to her; to repay him like this was wrong.

Zachary learned that Ting Mei had no place to stay, that she’d been on the streets for years. He couldn’t bear the thought of this delicate young woman subjected to the horrors of street life, and offered to take her home with him. Ting Mei gratefully accepted.

For weeks, she lived with Zachary. She cleaned the flat, cooked for him, shopped (or stole) for him. She managed to procure a large amount of his favorite beer. Ting Mei cooked a fine meal, and liberally refilled Zach’s glass. Zach was getting drunk, and Ting Mei was flirting with him. She was drawn to him, to his gentleness toward her, and she knew that she owed him for all he’d done for her. He’d’ given her a warm bed—shouldn’t she share it with him?

Ting Mei loved Zach as only a thirteen-year-old could—obsessively, wholeheartedly. He was her whole life. She had told him everything of her past. Zach held her tenderly as she cried, explained that it wasn’t her fault—merely an accident. He never convinced her, but Ting Mei knew that he loved her in spite of it all, and that was enough.

Ting Mei and Zachary had only one argument—his gun. As a policeman (baseball players didn’t make enough to live on, and most had other jobs), he always carried a gun. Ting Mei had long since vowed never to touch a gun again, and she feared for Zachary. After one particularly heated argument, Ting Mei stormed out of the apartment. It took her a long time to go back. She loved him, after all. And If he could love her with all her terrible history, couldn’t she love him in spite of his carrying a gun? It wasn’t like he’d killed anyone with it.

When Ting Mei returned to Zachary, he was in bed with another woman. The betrayal was beyond anything Ting Mei had ever felt. She ran from the place, never to return.

The next few years were spent back on the streets. Ting Mei was dead—she no longer felt graceful and lovely. She felt cold. Never again would she be so hurt. She wouldn’t ever be so vulnerable. With firm resolve to survive, she changed her name to Zhijian Mei, “firm in spirit,” and did whatever it took to live.

 In 1901, Zhijian Mei was eighteen. She’d heard about the new airships, and she was determined to get on the one headed to San Francisco. The thought of an adventure and a new start was enticing. Tickets were impossible to obtain (by legal means), and she didn’t relish the idea of stowing away for a transcontinental journey. Zhijian Mei learned of a wealthy couple who had bribed their way into obtaining two tickets. She made sure that their cook would be unable to show for work, and applied for the newly open position. Pleased with the exotic cuisine Zhijian Mei created, they hired her full-time. Zhijian Mei had kept up with her study of Chinese herbs as she could, and she created a Chinese feast laced with enough medicine to ensure undisturbed sleep for the master and mistress of the house. Sure of their slumber, Zhijian Mei stole their tickets. She sold one of the tickets on the street to enable her purchase of the fine clothes she would need to travel on the airship without being questioned. Zhijian Mei was ready to leave her old life behind her.

Of course, Zhijian Mei met up with Zachary in the adventure.

Thank you so much for journeying through the alphabet with me! I hope, if you were unfamiliar with gaming before, that you learned a new appreciation for it.

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How to avoid writing

The cabinet of curiosities

The cabinet of curiosities

Okay, honestly, I didn't start out looking for a way to avoid writing. No, really. Here's how it happened.

We (my husband and I, not the royal “we”) finally finished our long-term project of stripping the wallpaper from the kitchen/eating area and repainting. It's not that big an area, but it took us at least six months to complete. With the advent of guests at Christmas, I felt the need to get things in better shape. We moved the wooden cabinet back in from where it and the kitchen table had languished for quite awhile. I'd considered replacing the furniture, because it seemed too “country” for my current tastes. We didn't find a table we wanted in time, so the old pieces went back in place.

As I was deciding what knick-knacks to go back into the cabinet, I decided on a steampunk theme. I found some old-looking clocks

The clocks

The clocks

at World Market and Target, as well as a ring of skeleton keys, and hung those on the wall to the left of the cabinet. We already had some cool items, including a genuinely antique mustache cup and bowl, and a spice rack with test-tube bottles. My husband loved the idea, and we set out to find other bottles to adorn the shelves.

Aqua Regia label

Kinda cool, but too crisp and modern

Being Donna, I couldn't just let the bottles go unadorned. I've loved making props ever since I freaked out a visitor to an early-1980s Call of Cthulhu game with an aluminum-foil covered dagger (for a campaign-starting auction). I recently read and enjoyed Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim, so I decided to add a label to a cool bottle related to a beverage (maybe not so refreshing) mentioned in the book.

Finished label

Finished label

My first attempt wasn't so great actually. It looked a bit too fresh. I went in search of methods for aging paper. I based my aging process on this article at Curbly, but it uses coffee. Nobody who lives in or visits my house drinks coffee, but I have plenty of tea, so I substituted that instead. I printed out the label, preheated the oven to 200 degrees and laid the printout in a roasting pan. I brewed a cup of jasmine tea (loose leaf, itself in a most excellent tin, which I'd photograph, but one of my cats is on my arm at the moment), which proved not to be dark enough, so I added some English Breakfast to it. I poured the cup, with bits of leaves in it, and tucked it in the oven.

Way too soggy, so after about five minutes, I poured off the liquid. That did the trick. The instructions say you know when it's done when the edges begin to curl. That observation made me realize I needed to trim the paper down to the label, or my edges would be too flat.

The finished label, complete with wrinkles

The finished label, complete with wrinkles

Within another two minutes, the label was ready. The writing on it was largely washed away, particularly the red letters. I did achieve an old, faded look and decided to use it until I try again. I affixed it with double-sided tape, and you can see the result below.  I left in the wrinkles, figuring it had been on the shelf a long time and the heat of years got to the glue.

I also obtained some tiny bottles from Advantus by Tim Holtz and 7 Gypsies from Supermart, and used those to create some small labels, using the wonderful set online from Seeing Things that Aren't Really There blog. Be advised, these bottles really are tiny. I intend to put liquid or powder in them at some point. And hope the police never visit and decide it's got real wickedness inside.

Lovely tiny bottles full of wickedness

Lovely tiny bottles full of wickedness


So there you have it. I've found a new way to avoid the writing that I really need to do on my work-in-progress, Revival. I have some more time-wasting craft projects to tell about, but I'll save that for another post. Happy procrastination!

How do you avoid writing? Share in the comments below.

I Like My Steam with Pulp!

Thanks go out to Hugh Ashton for prompting this topic! We were explaining steampunk on a thread in the Indie Authors Group on Facebook, when I brought up the term “steampulp,” coined by my friend and sometimes collaborator Scott Carter. Hugh was kind enough to write about the term in his blog, so I'm returning the favor.

Steampunk itself is an unknown term to many people, but as a genre it's starting to make its way into the public consciousness via movies such as Sherlock Holmes. Even our local magazine, b Metro, featured a steampunk photo shoot at Sloss Furnace back in February of this year. The term refers to a fantasy genre usually set in a dystopian Victorian era Britain or America, characterized by an industrial timeline in which Victorian “tech” is extended into the future. Gadgets and engines are prevalent. K.W. Jeter is credited with the invention of this genre (to describe his and Tim Powers' books, notably the wonderful The Anubis Gates), but The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling popularized it. Cherie Priest is my favorite writer in this genre, with  her Clockwork Century books. In them, the Civil War is still going on, being fought with engines of destruction. Books in the genre aren't necessarily set in England or America. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Iron Council (and others) are certainly steampunk, but are set in a fictional world.

So what is steampulp? It's steampunk, but without the dystopian view. There are no underground factions struggling against tyranny (the “punk” in steampunk). It's lighter in tone, with the feel of old pulp serials (like Doc Savage and The Shadow). Larger than life heroes and villains predominate, and above all, there's wonderful tech. Airships and steamships and steam trains steal the spotlight, providing transportation and escape routes and thrilling platforms for fights. My forthcoming novel The Source of Lightning is one of these. It is set in America, centering around the Great Airship Flap of  1897. Another is Red Wheels Turning, by the aforementioned Hugh Ashton, set in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Let's hear it for steampulp!

In fact, I'd like to hear from  you with your thoughts on steampulp and other examples in this new genre, in the comments below.

Devious Journal Entry

Nerf Maverick Steampunk Mod
by ~aimeekitty on deviantART

I can just see that as Lady Dianna Faraday-Smythe’s weapon. (Heiress and adventuress. At the dinner party establishing diplomatic relations between the Southwick Empire and Aquavania, a guest morphs into his true form—that of a Oceanian terrorist—right in the middle of the fish course, grasps the crown princess of Aquavania  around the throat with one stinger-tipped tentacle, and threatens her life if the diplomatic discussions are not broken off immediately. Lady Dianna frowns. “Good manners are the glue that binds society together—without them we are primitives.” Swift as thought she draws her specially modified Maverick and fires precisely at the only spot in which Oceanians are vulnerable—a spot centimeters from the princess’s head. Crisis averted. For now.)

Clockwork Cabaret


A lovely diversion may be found at www.clockworkcabaret.com and also www.myspace.com/clockworkcabaret. Enjoy the adventures of two sisters aboard the airship Calpurnia!