When I was in third or fourth grade my teacher , knowing I had Mad Reading Skillz, made me read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) for an illustrated book report project.
Maybe I shouldn't have pretended to read The Army of the Potomac cover to cover earlier that year ... (I read the first few chapters and concocted a book report based on that. And no, I wouldn't even finish it today if it was in front of me).
In any case, this project was ridiculous because it was a 500+ page book and I was supposed to finish it in three weeks. "Read every other chapter," she said. Like this was any more reasonable. "Just let me read that one over there with the color pictures on all the pages," I thought but didn't say because I knew this wouldn't fly.
So I did it--reading every third chapter, and maybe only grasping a third of the material I did read. I wouldn't recommend 20,000 Leagues for third graders any more than I'd recommend Army of the Potomac. And despite whatever my teacher thought it would accomplish, I still don't like to read such dense books. Still, I have fond, if rather fuzzy, memories of the book; it was a slog but I liked it. It introduced me to the Victorian world and, though I didn't know it then, the concept of steampunk; two things I appreciate quite a lot, even if I don't often write in these modes myself.
I probably need to read a lot more steampunk even though I'm currently writing such a tale myself--I almost feel unqualified to write of an era I didn't live in even though, heck, that's true of 90% of my fiction. I also didn't live in ancient Mexico or the Wild West or any of the places I've invented in my own mind (well, maybe that last is up to debate?) but a little research and confidence can go a long way. I've read a lot of stuff by Jay Lake, who's a master of steampunk, and lots of other quality fiction from places like Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Shimmer Magazine, and others. And honestly you can only read so many of the half zillion books in the world today before another half zillion are published. After a point you just have to step out with what you know, what you've gathered and what you want to write about, and then just write it!
So that's where I am. I have an obtuse and unfounded fascination with the Victorian Empire, with daguerreotypes, with pseudosciences, and with the multiform, often quite confused Spiritualism that existed then. Ectoplasm, anyone? All these things have gone into the blender of my mind, been pureed on high, and then an additional twist folded in--anthropotheres. That's not a real word per se but, ah, sometimes it's good to know a bit of Latin. I have not read The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells) but I suppose it would be something the same? Then again, the blender which is my mind also has lots of frayed memories of Victorian-era anthropomorphic animals; Peter Rabbit, etc. So this is just another of those connections that has always existed for me: anthropomorphic animals could quite naturally exist in Victorian society. And Victorian society, being rather structured and rigid, would treat different 'species' in different ways...
So I took that and played with it. And now I'm 20 pages into a rather quaint little vignette into steampunk-anthropotherian life in Victorian England.
I've never really read Dickens either so I don't know much about Victorian England ... oh, well. Just write it!
*Another thing you may find interesting, if you find this interesting, would be this web page:
http://www.wackyowl.com/victorian-portraits-animal-heads/, which I found while browsing portraits of Victorian gentlemen. Some of them are quite good, and though I was deflated a bit at first to realize someone else has already had the same idea as me, maybe in truth it means other people view the Victorian era the same way I do? And that's not so bad.