Let’s face it: coming to it as an outsider, steampunk is a pretty damned intimidating genre. There’s a fully-fledged (and fully-pledged) fan base, with its own unique and burlesquely beautiful sense of fashion and a deep knowledge of the Victorian era, their own genre of music (shoutout to my friend’s brother’s band Clockwork Quartet.) Seemed best to leave well enough alone, and let steampunk authors cater to steampunk tastes.
But I couldn’t. There’s something deeply alluring about steampunk, and it’s not just the dapper gentlemen and women in corsets. Perhaps it’s the deep sense of history, the suspicion that we haven’t gotten the future we were promised, the grit and grime of cyberpunk (or anything ending with the suffix –punk) mixing with a society and an era that is typically portrayed as being overly formal. We are given the Jane Austen version of history, rather than the Dickensian.
I am, truth be told, a newcomer to steampunk. The genre itself seems like high fantasy, sometimes bizarre and over the top, sometimes so truthful it catches the breath in your throat and tugs at unguarded heartstrings, so truthful it hurts. The genre is eccentric and weird, sometimes flirting with ‘hard’ science fiction, with intricate details, page upon page about vast, grinding machinery. It can tell the stories of the wretched, of criminal minds, of the wealthy, the aristocratic, of high fashion, or of murder, most foul.
I came to steampunk rather underhandedly. As a teenager I read writers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Dystopian science fiction and “pure” science fiction. I eventually read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, stolen from my sister’s shelves as a bored 19 year old. I read China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station last year. This year I was writing for one of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds flash fiction challenges. This particular challenge led me to write a steampunk/Men’s Adventure hybrid, and so, The River of Crawling Death was born.
It was my first foray into writing steampunk – although since then I’ve written a few short stories, ranging from stories about steampunk superheroes (The Mosquito Flies, on Gossamer Wings), about aviatrix pirates (Letters of Marque), and about Arabic automatons (as yet untitled.) Clock-punk, steampunk – the most difficult part about writing what is essentially science fiction set in the past is getting the details right. Doing your research.
I have a problem with research. It’s not that I find it boring or anything like that. Quite the opposite. My problem with research is that I do too much. I’ve got a nineteen page dictionary of Victorian criminal slang sitting on my hard-drive. I’ve read article after article about the “toshers”, the sewer-sifters of London, about the miniature coffins pulled from Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, about bushrangers and pickpockets, all in the name of “research” for few short stories that feature none of these things. History fascinates me, always has, always will, and Wikipedia searches tend to develop into forests of tabs, each open to another beautiful, damning facet of Victorian society.
Do your research, and do it thoroughly.
The other thing that I think is important (not just in steampunk, but in every type of fiction) is to remember that the setting is not the character. Again: the setting is not the character. Your setting can play an important role in the plot, as villains (and heroes, or love-interests) disappear into the notorious pea-soupers of London, as vast, nefarious engines shake the ground beneath the cobblestones, or gas-lights obscure more than they reveal. The setting influences characters, the setting can drive the plot, the setting is important. But it’s not the most important component. Characters are.
Humans are – even if they’re not human, even if they’re quasi-sentient Babbage differential engines, or monsters, hidden behind human faces, or even if they’re the city itself, or some Coughing Devil, anthropomorphised.
Everything else is window dressing.
Your setting can help to create your characters, though. When I sat down to write The Mosquito Flies, on Gossamer Wings all I had was an idea – a Victorian-era, steampunk superhero. I knew I wanted to write the story as a pulpy, noir detective story, but that was it. The steampunk/superhero theme painted the rest of the character out for me, and London gave up her beautiful contrasting maze of leaning, drunkard tenements and opulent palaces, of drug addicts and pickpockets and serial killers. It gave my character a backstory, and it gave me the plot. But I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Introducing steampunk (or fantasy, or science fiction, or magic realism, or whatever) elements into your story shouldn’t be difficult, but it isn’t easy either. Smuggle in your gadgets and devices, but have them occupy the world you’re creating. As Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Don’t tell me, in intricate detail, about these fantastical machines – tell me about how they change the world, tell me about how they change society, politics, warfare, love, lust, death. Tell me how they change the humans in your story. Otherwise it’s not a story; it’s a description of events, in an imaginary world.
Write your stories, write your characters’ lives, write them large or small, write about schemes to tilt the Earth from its axis or about a shanty-town perched in the sewers, huddled near exhaust pipes for warmth, sifting through the refuse for scraps.
Write your stories.
First published as part of the Steam U series of essays about Steampunk, curated by Melanie Karsak.