This story emerged directly from my writers of the future volume 28 story, The Command for Love.
My first draft of that story was an abysmal attempt at an artificial intelligence story, featuring lots of incomprehensible jargon about Turing Tests and Chinese Rooms. It didn’t work . I wanted to meet the deadline for the quarter as I’d just decided I was going to enter every quarter of Writers of the Future until I won or died of old age.
I had no idea how I was going to re-write it until a conversation with another writer, Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, sparked the idea that I should re-write it in a different genre. I was reading Gra Linnaea’s Writers of the Future volume 25 story A Life in Steam at the time, so the decision was made for me: Steampunk (luckily Fifty Shades of Gray wasn’t around at the time).
After writing the story, I sat back and realised two things: I enjoyed writing in the world I’d created and I knew nothing about the Victorian era where a lot of steampunk draws its inspiration. I wanted to explore the world further and I wanted my explorations to fit comfortably within the steampunk genre.
I started to read about the Victorian-era. Because I’m lazy, my research petered out after a few days, but one of the books I read was The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna. It was a fascinating and disturbing read. By any standard, Oscar Wilde was a sexual predator, but the dark side of the Victorian era was the intertwining of sexuality and class. By the time he’d accepted his sexuality he was doing to young underclass men what many (or even most) respectable Victorian gentlemen did to young underclass women; he exploited them for his own pleasure (and some of them exploited him back via blackmail). He was a complicated and courageous man who was also a selfish monster. Like many martyrs for a cause, he wasn’t necessarily an admirable man on a personal level but he was a talented monster who was willing to sacrifice everything for his beliefs.
Oscar had an unhappy marriage to Constance Lloyd. He’d married her out of genuine friendship, a mistaken platonic love, ambition, and the desire to “cure” himself of what was socially unacceptable. Constance Lloyd was a pretty young woman who was tremendously psychically scarred from a difficult upbringing. It wasn’t hard to make Constance the centrepiece of the story and make her scarring physical.
As time went on, Oscar became more determined to be open about his sexuality and to use his art as an expression for that sexuality. Society be damned; he was what he was and he refused to back down from his principles even when it was the smarter thing to do.
All that went into a story set in the same world as The Command For Love, which eventually became Constance’s Mask. By the time Constance’s Mask was in its published form, a lot of the common-world story had been stripped out for reader comprehensibility, but the core remained. It was still about blackmail and masks, the discrepancy between our public and private selves, genius and monsters, the power of stories to both enslave and liberate and bringing your true self into the light.
-- Nick T. Chan