Chris Patrick Carolan is an author, editor, and hovercraft enthusiast, originally from Glasgow but now based in Calgary, Alberta. He writes science fiction, fantasy (urban and epic), and steampunk, though he has also been known to turn to crime to make ends meet. Crime fiction, that is. His first novel, The Nightshade Cabal, was published by Parliament House Press in 2020 and was a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence ‘Best First Novel’ award. He can be found on Twitter as @cpcwrites but—consider this fair warning—it’s mostly Simpsons memes and wisecracks about McNuggets.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
I’m originally from Glasgow, Scotland. My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, but I’ve spent most of my life in Calgary, Alberta. I probably belong somewhere more coastal, though. I write a bit of everything under the speculative fiction umbrella—science fiction, fantasy, a little horror—and I dabble a bit in crime writing, but most of what I’ve published to date has been what I call paranormal steampunk.
2. What drew you to that particular genre?
It almost happened by accident! I didn’t set out to write any variety of steampunk. The character of Isaac Barrow started out as a technomancer living and working in a Victorian setting, though I didn’t know where exactly that would be at first. In the earliest drafts of what would become The Nightshade Cabal, the story was a pretty pure urban fantasy set against an historical backdrop. But as I worked through the story and explored Barrow’s world, I quickly realized that magic being part of that world would have an impact on the pace and scope of scientific progress and invention. Some of the things we see are purely mechanical steampunk tropes, like the steamcarriages and automatons, but there are things like Barrow’s lightning gun that are only possible as a fusion of the scientific and the supernatural.
Now, I know there are some steampunk purists who will say magic and the supernatural have no place in steampunk, but I enjoy the relative freedom I get from mashing genres. I’ve written a few spinoff short stories that have no supernatural elements in them at all, and others with almost no steampunk. The next book in the series definitely leans more toward urban fantasy, and the third book—at least the way it’s rattling about in my head right now—will focus far more on the steampunk.
3. What’s your best known work?
My debut novel, The Nightshade Cabal, which was released last year. It was a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence ‘Best First Novel’ award, which was a bit of a happy surprise to me. I didn’t end up winning, but my book is rather adjacent to the crime genre, really, so even being named to the shortlist wasn’t something I was expecting! I’m currently working on a sequel, which I’m hoping to finish up by the end of June or mid-July, and then I’ve been invited to submit short stories to two very different anthologies this summer.
4. What inspired you to write it?
I don’t think I can point to any specific inspiration. The book I ended up writing came from a few false starts. Writing about a technomancer came from a fantasy novel idea I had about a clockmaker’s apprentice. That draft went nowhere, but planted some of the seeds that would lead to The Nightshade Cabal. The next iteration was the first to star a character named Isaac Barrow, but the first version of Barrow was pretty uninspired riff on Sherlock Holmes – but with magic! – complete with a Watsonesque narrator named Mr. Pendleton chronicling the tale. This was around the time the BBC Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch was at its height, but I was really channeling Jeremy Brett’s take on Sherlock from the 80s and 90s. That draft also went nowhere, and it’s definitely for the best. Pendleton was a fun character, though, and I sometimes think about bringing him back in some manner.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between? How do you research?
When I’m starting a new project, I almost always start from a character and build the story around them. That might be a bit backwards to some writers, but it works for me. For whatever reason, my characters have a tendency to make themselves known to me long before I have any idea what they’ll be doing in their stories. That’s what leads to those false starts I mentioned before, I think. In terms of the writing process itself, though, I guess you could say I’m a plantser, if that’s a thing! I don’t work from rigid outlines or anything, but once I get started I usually know roughly where the story will end up going and many of the plot points I need to hit along the way.
Something new I’ve been doing for my current manuscript is writing by hand instead of drafting on my computer. I’m terribly easily distracted by the internet and social media and I have a tendency to edit every sentence a few hundred times as I type it, so I decided to take screens out of the process entirely. My word count per writing session has really ramped up! Plus, I get to do a pass of edits as I transcribe what I’ve written.
I’ve done a fair bit of historical research for The Nightshade Cabal and the other Isaac Barrow stories. I believe that part of playing with any actual historical setting and bending it to fit your story necessitates that research. For one, there will always be some reader out there who knows more than you do and will helpfully point out your errors. But I also think you owe it to yourself and your story to put forth the best effort you can, and that includes research. For one quick example, I knew I couldn’t use Google Maps to look up street names in Halifax. My story is set 140 years in the past, and street names sometimes change over time. But through the local university library, I was able to get a copy of the 1879 Halifax Fire Insurance Plans, which outlined not just the streets as they were at the time but also the specific buildings on each street. It even included details like what each building was made of... wood, brick, ironstone, etc. That’s just so cool to me!
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
There was a short story I wrote a few years ago that had dinosaurs causing trouble in 1880s Halifax (‘Things Better Left Buried,’ published in Tesseracts Twenty-Two: Alchemy and Artifacts). I spent a fair bit of time double-checking to make sure certain species I wanted to work into the story had been discovered and identified by 1881. Paleontology was very much in its infancy at the time! I might have spent more time reading about the Bone Wars than I did writing the actual story.
For another story I had to look up whether there were any lunar eclipses in 1881. Most of my Google searches are little things like “When were typewriters invented?” or “How fast can a steam train go?” or “When did Nikola Tesla emigrate to America?” but I’ve also had to research a few dozen things that could land me on a watch list. Effects of cyanide poisoning, how is opium made from poppies, that sort of thing.
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
I’ve written a few scenes for a novel I’ll be writing this fall, once my other projects are in the can. It’s going to be a fantasy novel, but it’s largely about my own anxieties as a new father in an uncertain world. My son was born last year, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was really setting in. It was always going to be a year of major change for us, but the pandemic turned all of our expectations upside down. When case counts spiked and restrictions got really tight we found ourselves largely cut off from family and a lot of the supports we were expecting to have as new parents. That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the situation we found ourselves in. I mean, I know everyone freaks out a bit at the idea of being a parent, but keeping a baby safe during a pandemic has really been a level of anxiety I never contemplated. It definitely wasn’t something we covered in our prenatal classes! Anyway, this book is going to be an exercise in exploring my feelings and fears about fatherhood. I’m looking forward to working on it, but writing it is going to be an emotional kick in the gut.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
The biggest influence I can point to would probably be Harry Turtledove. He writes fantastic adventure stories, of course, but there’s always a depth of character and maturity to the themes in his work that I find lacking in a lot of speculative fiction. His novel Prince of the North was one of the first books that made me sit back and say, “I want to do this one day.” It was just the right book that I happened to read at the right time. I still go back and reread that one once a year or so. David and Leigh Eddings are another big influence, even though I haven’t had much fantasy published yet. My sister wouldn’t let me read her Belgariad books when I was young, so I knew they had to be something special. When I finally got my own copies, I was floored by the worldbuilding. Not many of my characters are named after real people, but Inspector Eddings is one of those few.
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
I just finished Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-Bye. It’s probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’ve usually got a short story anthology or collection on the go, too... I’m in the middle of Sheree Renée Thomas’s Nine Bar Blues and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Entirely worth your time.
Aside from that, I’ve always got a few non-fiction books on the go as research for my writing. The two I’m reading right now are Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent and The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodward. I’ll be voting for the Aurora Awards this fall, so a lot of my summer fiction reading list is going to largely be made up of the finalists. I might try to squeeze in the original Shannara trilogy before then, though. I’ve never read them, and it feels like a bit of a gap that I need to address.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
The Nightshade Cabal is available on all ebook platforms, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon. The audiobook is also available on all platforms, and I have to say my narrator, Dean Ruple, did an absolutely killer job of bringing my book to life. I’ve got a list of the anthologies featuring my short stories on my website www.cpcwrites.com too!
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