Opening the Steampunk Toolkit
With steampunk, the answer to everything is “maybe.”
Is steampunk set in the Victorian era? Yes, unless it’s not.
Does steampunk include the paranormal? No, unless it does.
Is it full of futuristic technology? That depends on what you consider “futuristic.” If you’re in 1888, the answer is probably yes.
What I can say with certainty is that writing steampunk requires a broader toolkit than some other genres. Not only is one dealing with the usual considerations of a good book—fascinating characters, a tight plot, and so on—but there is typically more worldbuilding, more technology, and a historical element to cope with. But happily, steampunk is new enough that audience expectations are wide open. It mixes science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and adventure stories with wild abandon. If you enjoy coloring outside the lines, this is a great place to play.
Despite all the “maybes” above, steampunk usually involves a nineteenth century setting showcasing alternative clockwork or steam technologies. Often there is a theme of social rebellion involved (hence the punk part of steampunk). And just as a paranormal story needs to explain its supernatural elements, among the first questions that need to be answered for the steampunk reader is where the technology fits in and/or who is rebelling against what and why. In many cases this sets the backdrop for the overarching story conflict.
If an author is going to include steampunk AND a paranormal element, they need to bring both onstage in an organized fashion, as well as individual conflicts, romance, character arcs etcetera. This procedure can be equivalent to stuffing an octopus into a teacup, with story tentacles going every which way. The only encouragement that I can offer is that the more thoroughly the worldbuilding is worked out, the easier these various elements can be integrated. This is one of those cases where some work up front designing your story world in detail will pay off once you start typing. Good planning is everything. As my trilogy, The Baskerville Affair, has a number of tentacles both steamy and magical, I speak from the heart on this one!
In a world where technology is showcased, the author is obliged to talk tech in order to integrate it properly into the story world. I found this by far the hardest leap. How would a mechanical squid work, anyway? Anyone who knows me is well aware I’m hopeless around mechanics, going cross-eyed and hazy when confronted with automotive emergencies. Anything more complicated than a zipper gives me pause.
I confess, gentle readers, that I cheated horribly in some places. Airships in particular are tricky beasts to justify in terms of actual physics, and in order to do what I wanted I think I would have needed a hydrogen balloon the size of a small city. The magic airship I introduce in the second book, A Study in Darkness, was an easy way around the problem. However, I didn’t want to fudge every piece of steampunkery I invented. This meant research, asking people who understand those strange greasy shaped under the automotive hood, and just thinking about how steam technology could have actually been used. Truthfully, a lot of it wasn’t very practical but its shortcomings are great fun to explore, too. And I actually learned some nifty things. Ever heard of a Faraday suit?
And then there is the history part of steampunk. Here I’ll speak out as Emma the Reader, who like any consumer has her quirks and bugbears. When I’m reading any book with historical elements, I can slide past a few factual hiccups—I’m basically a nice person, and I try not to be a snob about these things—but a host of history faux-pas and clichés will throw me out of a book. The late nineteenth century is not the Regency. The two eras had some things in common but they were no more the same as 2013 is the same as 1943. If I get frustrated enough, I need to stop reading.
Historical accuracy is an area where it’s easy to shine. It’s one of the few areas of writing where there is a definite right or wrong answer. Take the easy win! And if you’re going to veer away from fact to enrich your steampunk worldbuilding, do it in a way that fits logically with the rest of your story premise. Your readers will love you for it.
It’s possible to drone on and on about this stuff (and I’m sure folks will tell you that I do), but I’ll stop there. First and foremost, steampunk is fun to read, and so it must be fun to write. For me, that means adding a dash of comedy to the mix—because how can a genre that has taken the octopus as its mascot take itself too seriously? And, it means reveling in the sheer energy this new genre has going for it. Steampunk—mystery, romance, and all the rest—is more than the sum of its parts. I feel absolutely privileged to be able to dig in and enjoy the ride.
(originally published at Reading Urban Fantasy)