At the turn of the 20th century, Evaline Amstel’s inventor husband Heinz has been murdered—leaving her in dire straits. He has indebted her fortune to a mysterious Southern millionaire with a promise to build a fantastic airship, The Empress of the Clouds. The widow faces treacherous escapades in her search for the missing aircraft before it is used for unspeakable evil.
Targeted Age Group:: adults
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I began thinking about my steampunk adventure / alternative history novel, The Empress of the Clouds, in early 2011. I wanted to have the main setting take place in a mining town, and Colorado seemed to fit the bill. But as I began researching the minerals involved, the southwest part of Missouri was rich with the mining history I wanted to incorporate into my story. I had traveled through Joplin in April of 2011, and being a Missouri resident since I was a kid, it appealed to me to use a town from the area. Plus, the terrain in that part of the country would be much more conducive to airship travel, without the mountains and weather extremes…barring tornadoes, that is. I was developing the plot when the terrible Joplin tornado hit on May 22, 2011.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2013. After surgery to remove the benign tumor in July of that year, I needed some recovery time. Although I continued to work as a graphic designer, I cut back my hours in 2014 and spent the “down time” working on fleshing out my novel.
With The Empress of the Clouds, I attempted to weave lots of historic facts into the story line. Several of the minor characters in the novel are actual historic figures, including David Schwarz, a real-life aeronautical designer from the time period. His connection to Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was key to my story line. I wanted to coordinate the time-line of my novel with the “Great Airship Mystery of 1896,” which had interested me even as a child.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I wanted a strong heroine, but I wanted her to "earn her stripes," so to speak. Evaline had to face adversity in several forms, and to triumph through her own courage and willpower. She faces off against a formidable villain, Erasmus Marchand, with the help of a strong ally in the form of an older, seasoned lawman, Sean McTavish. A deep friendship develops between Evaline and McTavish, bordering on romance, but ultimately Evaline must stand alone to face the enemy. A widow who has no children of her own, my heroine also cultivates an abiding connection with a young girl left in her care.
Evaline Amstel adjusted the brim of her black velvet bonnet and pulled the veil closer to her chin. She was grateful the fabric was tightly woven and obscured her face. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to detect that she wasn’t showing the customary hallmarks of grief—a downturned mouth, rubbed raw nose and reddened eyes. Her eyes at present were clear and bright, their usual gray-green color, and her face appeared unruffled and serene. Her maid Ruby drew up her corset especially tight this morning. So tight that she found it a bit hard to breathe and she was somewhat shaky on her feet.
She would bow her head at graveside, her small frame trembling in the brisk March breeze, and that would be a sufficient performance from the Widow Amstel so that all would acknowledge her profound sorrow. The only possible impropriety would be that, although her basque and traveling coat were black, her skirt was a rather bright indigo and gray pinstripe. She possessed no black skirt and could be forgiven due to the quite unexpected death of her husband Heinz. But Joplin, Missouri, despite its remoteness from city manners and sensibilities, still had its unspoken codes of civility, and appearances must be maintained. She had on order three simple black dresses to last the year. She still possessed the mourning dresses from a few seasons ago when her father died but the last few years had seen her waist thicken slightly and the extra inch or so made them a bit snug. She supposed she could have Ruby let the seams out. She did not want to sew black crape onto her existing clothing so what she was wearing now must suffice.
She gave one more look in the mirror, pulled a bit at the bodice to straighten one pervasive wrinkle, and turned on her heel to descend the stairs to the drawing room where the minister John Parnell and her lawyer Aloysius Gordon waited to accompany her to the cemetery.
The somber men rose from the dark green brocaded chairs when Evaline entered the room. The minister bowed from the waist slightly and took one of her black-gloved hands in between his, patting it solicitously.
“My dear,” Rev. Parnell said. “A sad day indeed. But we must have strength and take comfort in knowing Heinz is in a better place with our Lord.”
She allowed the elderly minister to help her don her neatly pressed traveling coat. He crooked his right elbow toward her and Evaline gripped his forearm with her left hand. The burly, blond attorney took her other arm and the two men escorted her out the front door and down the red brick sidewalk towards the carriage that would take them to the cemetery. The day was gray and blustery, but not overly cold. The snows from February had melted and the ground was no longer frozen solid, thank goodness, so Heinz could be buried properly. In fact, she had noticed purple crocuses blooming in the back garden just yesterday.
The conveyance taking the three of them to the cemetery was draped in black, as was the accompanying hearse that held her husband’s casket. The carriage and hearse were each drawn by a pair of wonderfully matched black horses. Evaline glanced over to the gaunt man seated next to the hearse driver—it was the mortician, who tipped his hat slightly in her direction. Gordon assisted Evaline as she stepped up into the wine-colored, velvet-seated interior of the black carriage. She settled back into the plush upholstery with a sigh.
Beautiful, really—but expensive. The undertaker in Carthage had taken care of all the details but by the time the stonecarver’s fees were discussed, Evaline had lost patience with the whole process. Just yesterday, the wording on Heinz’s headstone was the final topic of business. The price was set on a per letter basis.
“Would you like to add a verse, madam, or perhaps a simple tribute? May I suggest…Beloved Husband?” said the obsequious funeral director as he peered at her over the round-framed eyeglasses perched on his hawk-like nose, his liquid brown eyes affecting the look of a shy, abused hound. His pen was poised over the final invoice of the funeral services.
“No, I don’t believe so. Simply Heinz F. Amstel, 1858-1896.”
“But no month or day? It is now customary to put the full dates of birth and death, at least,” the undertaker remarked as he shook his head slightly, placed the pen down beside the inkwell and reached for the blotter with his long thin fingers to dab at a large black drop of ink on the paper’s surface.
“That will add cost and I have already loosened the purse strings quite enough,” Evaline said flatly. “Besides, it is of no consequence. My husband is dead and we will no longer be celebrating his birthday.”
She now reflected upon that last remark as the horses clip-clopped briskly on the brick-paved street leading to the site of her husband’s interment. It was quite improper to have said that, she thought, the corners of her mouth turning up slightly in a wry smile under the black veil. But nonetheless, quite amusing.
“Oh, Evvy, look!” said Rev. Parnell, pointing outside his window to the south.
Evaline leaned forward to look out the carriage window and lifted her veil to peer into the distance. There, silhouetted against the overcast gray sky, floated the three remaining dirigibles from the Amstel Airship Company. The filtered morning sun was directly behind the buoyant trio and their bloated oval shapes were illuminated as if emitting a slight luminescent aura. Like clouds with silver linings, Evaline thought. A ray of sun broke through the clouds and caught a fin or rudder here and there and the reflected light glinted and sparkled as if it was bouncing from mirror to mirror.
It had been at least two years since Evaline had seen all the airships in the sky at one time. From her view in the moving carriage they were still a magnificent sight. Only when the vehicles were grounded and housed in their oversized hangars did they reveal their true decrepit, dilapidated state with various patches marring the smooth surface of the metallic painted balloons. And one soon noticed that the aging seams on the hulls of the gondolas had been sanded, primed and painted numerous times but the paint continued to bubble up and peel away, exposing large rusted spots along the soldered edges. The ships’ exteriors were grimy and sooty, and the interiors were shabby with threadbare seats and stained carpeting in the aisles. But on this day, seeing all three airships gliding along the southeast horizon, Evaline felt the long-forgotten thrill of pride and excitement for her husband and his wonderful dream ships.
“Whatever possessed Hubbley to do this?” Evaline whispered. Marcus Hubbley was the shop foreman and chief mechanic for the company. At one time he supervised a half dozen men in the maintenance department that kept the airships running as if they were a finely tuned fleet of oceanic cruisers. Nowadays the team was reduced to himself and a lone journeyman mechanic hired for a few days’ repair at a time. Hubbley, who also served as the sole pilot, flew few-and-far-between excursion trips as a tourist experience.
The Kraut Follies. Evaline knew what the people of Joplin, Missouri, called her husband’s airships. The Equatia, the Savanthia, and the Revolutia were the ones floating serenely in the skies above Joplin this day. The Equatia and the Savanthia were twin blimps of the same design and construction. They were strictly small passenger airships constructed in 1884 that Heinz had purchased in used condition—non-rigid aerostats filled with hydrogen for buoyancy with limited maneuverability. For forward propulsion each was fitted with a small steam engine that powered three propellers affixed to the gondola, one in back and one on each side.
The Revolutia was newer, designed by Heinz after the Amstels married. The semi-rigid dirigible boasted a flexible aluminum keel which Heinz had shipped (at great expense) from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company. The craft’s onboard electric motor drove four six-bladed propellers that allowed for a much more controlled flight and the sliding weight compensator provided better balance. Heinz designed the airship with the dual purpose of carrying a few passengers as well as serving as a shipping transport vehicle. The Revolutia was equipped with a winch powered by an elaborate pulley system that allowed cargo to be lifted and stored inside the gondola, bypassing the necessity to bring the ship in for a landing. Really, it was an astounding piece of machinery! Now it languished in a storage hangar. It was by far their most expensive ship to take to the skies.
There had been one more dirigible: the Innovatia, a deluxe passenger vehicle exquisitely appointed for the upper classes that had been destroyed by fire in January 1894. While the ship was undergoing a few repairs, sparks from a workman’s soldering iron strayed into the trail left by a leaky container of flammable sealant, resulting in a flash explosion that killed the torchbearer and a nearby construction worker. The blaze spread rapidly, devouring the canvas ballasts and attacking the hull of the ship in minutes. Its fine Honduras mahogany and teak wood paneling, velvet upholstery and gilt-edged embellishments were consumed in flames. Its hangar also burned to the ground.
And, destroyed in the conflagration was Heinz’s grand plan of a transportation hub in the Midwest. The company went belly-up with the loss of such an expensive, fanciful creation, a cost that would never be recouped.
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