So You Want To/Write a Steampunk Story
In which potential authors of the persuasion investing interest and enthusiasm in both the genre of Steampunk as a whole and the exact details of the construction of stories within said genre are advised as to the most appropriate and engaging manners in which they may go about creating works which thrill and excite the reader. Said potential authors are advised to familiarise themselves with general storytelling advice applicable to all genres as well as investing time and energy here.
What ho! You are no doubt here, good reader, because you have an interest in steampunk -- alternate worlds dominated by mighty machines of steel and brass, powered by mighty steam engines forging worlds and empires the likes of which the world has never seen! A fine setting for scientific romance and classic adventure throwbacks, the steampunk genre offers writer and reader alike the chance to explore strange and exotic worlds and thrill to fantastic and unique adventures. If you would like contribute to this genre, then good reader, read on!
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions! Writers' Lounge
- 5 Departments
- 6 Costume Designer
- 7 Extra Credit
"Steampunk", of course, suggests steam-driven technology, so you will need to include this in your story. In a broader sense, steampunk also usually refers to a general attitude and aesthetic around that of the nineteenth century, incorporating the styles and fashions, attitudes and politics. This means, of course, that your story will either be set at some point within the Industrial Revolution or the nineteenth century, an Alternate History which spun off from this point or another world which is based on these stylings.
Steampunk is a genre that relies very heavily on the fantastic; it's usually Speculative Fiction, often of a 'soft' science fiction bent. It tends to run on Rule of Cool rather than strict adherence to scientific accuracy.
Steampunk derives from the earlier Cyberpunk, with which it usually shares a few similiarites; such as slightly cynical outsider protagonists embroiling in adventures with technology, except in steampunk it's the steam engine and in cyberpunk it's the virtual world and the microchip. Since it draws from a body of work which was in many ways quite optimistic and fanciful, it can tend to be Lighter and Softer than many cyberpunk works (although this of course depends on the writer and the story being told).
As noted above, consider the setting your story carefully; a story set within the nineteenth century will need historical research in order to make sure that it is convincing and accurate. A story set in an world with simple Victorian flavor or the use of a original world would not need such historical investigation (or any for that matter), but it still will need great heaps of information for World Building, from macro to micro. Steampunk its in many ways all about details and consistency.
Steampunk tends to run on Rule of Cool; in actuality, a lot of steampunk technologies (particularly those which attempt to replicate modern technologies such as the computer) would have been massive, consumed unsustainable amounts of fuel and would probably have ultimately been unworkable (there's a reason in real life the human race switched from steam to oil and gas). This, of course, does not mean that your story cannot work -- it does, however, mean that you need to make sure you get the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief on side. In general, as it's such a fantastic genre, the audience will accept quite a lot -- but this does not mean they will accept absolutely anything.
Steampunk is also an aesthetic. Technology affects the world around us in great ways, and a world based on steampunk technologies would be quite different in terms of politics, attitudes, fashions, etc. You need to keep this in mind; your reader will not be convinced if you simply transplant modern society with a slightly steampunk makeover. Consider how things would be different. This particularly goes towards Politically-Correct History; attitudes were quite different in the nineteenth century, and a society based on these attitudes would be unlikely to produce many people who thought exactly like a modern human being from a western nation in the early twenty-first century. If you do have someone with these attitudes in your story, at least suggest that their attitudes place them quite at odds with most of the people around them.
At the flip side of the coin, an alternative history would not remain set in stone either. As the dominant political, economic and military power throughout the nineteenth century ended up being Great Britain, there's a tendency to imagine that the sun would never set on the British Empire if they had steampunk technologies. History, however, is unpredictable. This doesn't mean that you can't write a convincing story in which steampunk allows Great Britain to remain in a position of great dominance beyond the end of their empire, but the longer this lasts the more increasingly unlikely it becomes. And try and avoid Alternate History Wank as much as possible.
Perhaps the great steampunk technology doesn't end up changing the world and merely becomes a lost, undiscovered curiosity?
The conflict between Romanticism Versus Enlightenment is popular; this whole debate started to really take off around the Industrial Revolution, when a lot of the steampunk aesthetic was beginning to be developed in the first place. Steampunk enables this debate to be continued: will the wonders of technology free us or enslave us?
Wood and brass furnishings. Technologies based around huge steam engines and mighty pistons. Top hats and tailcoats, and corsets for the ladies (if they're traditional, that is; steampunk also tends to produce more unconventional heroines as well). Dirty, overcrowded cities based on Charles Dickens' London. You can't go wrong with an overall Victorian Britain aesthetic here.
Jules Verne-style scientific romance adventures are quite popular. Considering that most of these were set before the great influx of scientific advances that were heralded in by the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, you might want to consider how you're going to incorporate this; will your Victorian-style space explorers have to face the problems of weightlessness, the vacuum of space and the great problems in launching a spacecraft out of Earth's gravity? Or, will you adopt the spirit of the Victorian scientific romances and imagine a fantastic universe where these are not considerations?
Consider also how a reliance on steam technology rather than oil or gas would affect politics on a local, national and international scale. Are anti-technology Luddites still a problem? Does steam technology have a better or worse impact on the environment? Consider regions such as the Middle East -- because of the West's dependence on it's oil supplies it's a region of great global influence and, correspondingly, great global conflict and strife. Steam power, however, requires wood and coal, neither of which the Middle East nations have in great abundance. Where are the new political hotspots in your steampunk world?
The nineteenth century or not long after, and worlds which are heavily influenced by same. In Alternate History, a popular setting is somewhere in Europe. Often London -- London was to the nineteenth century world what cities like New York are to the modern world, and was pretty much considered the centre of the world -- it was the capital of the most industrially and economically prolific empire on the planet, was one of the (if not the) most populous cities on Earth, and was heavily chronicled by writers and journalists of the day (not least Charles Dickens).
The landscape of the poorer parts of the Western world has also been dealt with by authors like Emile Zola and Hector Malot in France, just like Arthur Conan Doyle in Britain - a realistic steampunk work should portray accurately the difference between the luxury of the upper and middle-upper classes and the depressing industrial quarters.
Here's where you can let yourself go wild. Lots of steam-powered stuff. Computers and cars are popular, but you may consider other everyday technologies and how they can be run on steam (or other nineteenth century equivalents). Zeppelins are popular, as are flying ships.
Fashions are usually inspired by nineteenth century fashions. For the gentlemen, this means top hats, frock coats, tailcoats, waistcoats, cravats, fob watches, etc. Ladies fashions were a lot more conservative -- long dresses, corsets, stockings, etc -- but a popular way of playing with this is, much as women's fashion gradually started incorporating clothing that was previously considered 'male-only' (trousers, shirts, etc), to do something similar with nineteenth century clothing -- women wearing cravats and tailcoats, etc.
Also dirt. A lot of it. Similarity of clothing and appearance of the Steam Age people to modernity makes us think of them as the old uncles and grandparents - only a bit wacky. The Steam Age was dirty. Coal burning is smoky as Hell. Northern European climate is foggy, damp and muddy. Colonial climate is horribly hot for people who did not have air conditioning and who insisted to wear thick wool clothes in the tropics. Formal clothing was expensive, hard to replace for people who were rather poor, but who needed to have an appropriate appearance and hard to wash by hand, so they were worn until they were torn away for good. Bathing was difficult and expensive in cities, nearly impossible in the wilderness. The weary, sweaty and dusty appearance of the cowboy and man of the West was the norm rather than exception. James Clavell, as a modern man, did not have the squeamishness of a 19th century author and touched with great detail the dirt of everyday life in the 1840s and 1860s.
Mighty battles between steam-powered behemoths, sir or madam! What else would you expect?
Although they were obviously written well before steampunk came along, it's usually a good idea to check out the great works of nineteenth and early twentieth century science fiction (or 'scientific romance') -- Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley etc. -- to get a sense for the overall aesthetic we're shooting for.
Similarly, although they might not be scientific romance, the great works of nineteenth century literature in general are recommended to get a sense for how people lived and how they thought (and, if you're interested in taking a few stylistic cues, how they wrote); Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola...
Steampunk-specific, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine is widely credited with spearheading the whole movement, although there are plenty of other, earlier works doing similar things that are worth checking out.
Although written earlier than the genre is generally said to have taken off, Michael Moorcock's '"The Warlord Of The Air is an excellent example.
The first two volumes of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neal's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also demonstrate a prominent steampunk art style, drawing heavily on fantastic technologies and also the standard styles of advertisements, short stories, correspondence etc that was common during the era.