Woman vs. Machine: The Origins of “The Clockwork Nightingale”

by Jean Marie Ward

(appearing in Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales funding now:

I was tempted to title this “Woman vs. Editor”, not because I have any problems working with my editor and friend, Danielle Ackley McPhail. (I don’t. We don’t.) But whenever we get together to collaborate on a project, things go a little…sideways.

The classic instance was “Lord Bai’s Discovery” in the anthology Dragon’s Lure. I originally pitched a story about an Imperial Chinese concubine who became an empress thanks to the intervention of a dragon. Danielle approved the pitch, only to write a few weeks later that she needed a story about a dragon and a virgin. Then she called to say what she really needed was a story about dragons and bacon, which is what she ultimately got.

I’m not complaining. The story and the anthology were nominated for several awards. But it does show how things can…evolve.

So it was with the story that became “The Clockwork Nightingale” and the entire Gaslight and Grimm anthology. When Danielle approached me for a story, my first response was: “I’d love to do ‘The Robber Bridegroom’.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. The characters (a scamp and illusionist taking on a Colin Clive-esque mad scientist dismembering people to recreate his lost love), the setting (the weirdly western world of the New Dominion Territories) and the tech sprang fully formed into my mind.

“Sorry,” Danielle said. “That one’s already taken.”

I should’ve seen that one coming. And as frequently happens when my first idea is shot down, I was stumped. I could sort of, kind of see a way to update “The Musicians of Bremen”, but it wouldn’t be particularly Steamy.

Then Danielle said, “It doesn’t have to be a Grimm story. I’m open to other traditional faerie tales.”

When she put it that way, there was only one possibility, the original Steampunk story: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”.

What? You didn’t know it was Steampunk? It’s all about the contest between a living creature and an automaton for the soul of an empire. What could be more Steampunk than that?

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about 19th century Chinese history and culture to properly set the story in that milieu. (Neither did Andersen, but he never worried about stuff like that. I do.) What I do know is the whacked-out Western worlds that played the rerun channels of my youth. (Have you ever tried to chart American history as depicted in Maverick? Talk about a fantasy land—but that’s another blog.) Its tropes are much more comfortable to my mind (and my lungs) than the sulfur-laden fog of Victorian London.

So instead of the court of Imperial China, the contest between songbirds takes place in the Empire Saloon owned by Big Roy Lee (Li being the most common Chinese surname, though the character isn’t Chinese). The songbirds are women—one flesh and blood, one a mechanical marvel. Then there’s that Japanese ambassador. Why, oh why, did he bring that machine to town?

Well, you need to read the story to find out. To help you out—or drive you crazy, depending on your perspective—I’ve posted an excerpt here:

Not enough? Check out the Kickstarter at You won’t be disappointed. The anthology features many more wonderful stories, and a treasure chest of free fiction.

But there is one thing you won’t find: a story based on “The Robber Bridegroom”. Somehow, that story never made the final cut. Like I said, things evolve…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s