First, be sure to check out Write a Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. Then, get back here for a rundown of the genre-specific tropes that will help you, hurt you, and guide you on your way.
All examples here are, well, examples of examples. Do not try to wrap your head around a story using all of the examples.
From the definition on the main Diesel Punk page:
One of the things you need to establish is a sense of different yet familiar times. Zeerust is your friend here; take something iconic from the time period and use it as a design model for your props. Make sure the retro-futurism is worn down with grease and grit.
The horrifying scale and depressing futility of the Great War led many to believe that warfare had become obsolete — surely no one in their right mind would want to start a war when technology made easy conquest impossible (and they may be right, see Divergence below). To reflect this, choose non-military-types for Action Heroes, too individualistic and too busy exploring, solving mysteries or whatever to join military units. Or go for a Science Hero, a character type that is still fresh in this era. The villains on the other hand are likely to be in uniform and eager to find a way to make war exciting (and effective) again, possibly using bigger battalions or Weapon of Mass Destruction. They can be foiled though, being Fascist, but Inefficient.
You will need to decide at which point(s) your story diverges from real history. A common one is that The Great Depression didn't happen, which is a pretty big one since it changes the economic and political situations considerably. In our timeline, The Great Depression and its aftereffects ended the optimism of the 1920s and left industry and commerce dead in the water. People lost confidence in capitalism and liberalism, and left- and right-wing extremist politicians were able to sway the masses. None of this has happened in a typical Diesel Punk setting.
The next big point of divergence involves World War II breaking out. It doesn't have to: a story can have the Soviets' or Axis powers' belligerence defused or contained. In a Diesel Deco-flavored story, the dictatorships aren't calling the shots; maybe the League of Nations has been successful? The world is open and peaceful, and human and industrial resources are available to raise science and engineering to new heights. Conflict is likely to be vs nature (exploration) or vs some kind of Science villain, maybe someone who wants to set history back on the global conflict track. In a Diesel Noir-flavored story, the different dictators are still in power, but competing in some other arena. A Communism/Naziism Cold War, maybe? This is a more dystopian variant, with democracy in retreat all over the world. Conflict is likely to be vs society, or vs various spies and agents.
Or maybe World War II did break out. Even without the disrupting effects of The Great Depression, it is likely to occur due to a number of reasons, including Soviet visions of a world-wide revolution, German revanchism, or Japanese expansionism. In that case divergence can simply be a technological difference (Diesel Weird War). The period had oodles of war-related inventions, a lot of which never saw practical use. They can in your story, though! Some of the inventions that were put to use can very easily be Turned Up to Eleven; a impenetrable Franco-Belgian-Dutch system of fortresses from the Alps to the Frisian Sea, Soviet Land Dreadnoughts, RAF Airborne Aircraft Carriers, Stupid Jetpack Hitler, nuclear arms in every arsenal (with some kind of phlebotinic countermeasures to avoid having the fun end too quickly).
It is also possible to diverge later, in the aftermath or final stages of World War II. In our history, conflict continued with Cold War, post-colonial unrest, and the perpetual crisis in Palestine. In a Diesel Dystopia story, liberty is a thing of the past as governments feel the need for total control to avoid being overrun by greater or lesser powers. Even worse, in a Diesel Desolation story, the war has finished off civilization completely. Even later divergence lands you in Atom Punk territory.
Conversely, you could diverge earlier where it's World War I that didn't happen and the romanticism of The Edwardian Era wasn't killed off in the horrors of trench warfare. While on the surface this sort of setting seems very un-Punky, all the old, creaking and unstable Imperial regimes are still holding on, continuously one step away from imploding in revolution or dissolution as their populations struggle between the affluence of the growing global economy and the repression of traditionalist monarchies. Intrigue, espionage and social underdogs have lots of room to play in this setting, as do globe-hopping adventurer types since the Great War and The Great Depression didn't scuttle all those grand airship schemes people dreamed about. Care must be taken to distinguish from Steam Punk, as while the technology has left steam behind, the old attitudes linger on, creating thematic overlap.
You'll want to avoid writing a story that is Steam Punk, Raygun Gothic (e.g. going into space), or Two-Fisted Tales (e.g. too much Diesel era, too little punk) rather than Diesel Punk. Also try to avoid ending up with Present-Day Past. As with Steam Punk, some anachronisms are to be expected and are perhaps necessary, but the right period feel is essential.
Anachronism Stew tends to creep down in stories written by modern people and set in the 1930s - and raise a good bit of ridiculousness since there are still people who were alive back then and can quickly point out the Values Dissonance. Generally, the Rule of Cool draws people who are untrained in history to point out the cool features of the era, the Roaring Twenties, the wild parties sprinkled with bootleg booze, shiny and chromed classic cars with bonnets long enough to keep the front wheels in Paris and the back wheels in Berlin, the newly-found sexual freedom under the Hollywoodian glamour. Two things have to be remembered, for they are the staples of the age, the foundation for both World War II and the Cold War:
- First, the social upheavals that generated the Great Depression: the industrialized world of the Diesel Age (which, save China or Southeast Asia, matches the modern industrialized world) struggled to raise itself from the pit of World War I and technological inadequacy ...with strikes, worker's movements, street battles, a milder form of terrorism, revolutions and so on. Nobody could claim he or she was totally safe, the barrel of a Tommy Gun or a Broomhandle Mauser always glinted beyond the corner. There is a reason for the dark, cynical attitude in George Orwell's characters, this being he had actually been, you know, an eyewitness to all these.
- Second, in the modern globalized world we tend to forget most of the ValuesDissonances, as there is a modern set of things most people able to read a newspaper and use a computer have to share in business and everyday life. 70 years ago, the differences between countries, or provinces and regions inside the same country, were immense. Large American and European cities might have walked a tightrope between City Noir and the modern Art Deco business quarters, but rural areas were far away. Things we take for granted today, like electricity, owning a car or having a general store nearby, stood out so much on remote farms or rural towns they were reasons for public celebration. Just as we expect, at least in a "civilized" country, to have some rights and laws set in stone and only trampled upon by a few villains. This is a new invention, a product of the post-World War II era and (in the Communist Bloc) disregarded entirely until recently. Lynchings, for example, had been commonplace and no lawman batted an eyelash in front of them. Rural people were far more religious, even Taliban-like, in the recent past. Things which are thought to be unspeakable today, like mass imprisonment and murder for absurd reasons, could have raised applause from the common population. To put it in perspective, a heroine who looks too much like Lady Gaga and speaks like Britney Spears might have found her life shortened to a much un-ripe age in the late 1930s.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
- Exploration: during this era the last uncharted parts of the world were visited by westerners.
- Social upheavals: world economies experienced massive fluctuations, ranging from stock market crashes to famine, as well as changes in financial theory due to a change in government and the popularity of pitting capitalist theory versus socialist. Social revolutionary movements ousted aristocrats and promoted equality between genders, races and income brackets, while more conservative movements espoused the capitalist theory of Keynes and focused on creating an emergent middle class to balance the vast economic gap in society. A massive war between ideologies ensued, heightened in the Great Depression and during the rise of fascism in Europe and in some eastern countries (such as Japan), while communism gained popularity in other corners of the world as a counter-reaction to right-wing extremism and the preceding workers' demonstrations of the late nineteenth century. However, during all of this, colonialism was far from dead, what with India still being under the rule of the British Empire.
Set Designer / Location Scout
Internal Combustion and New Means of Travel
The internal combustion engine (ICE) has replaced the steam engine as the main power source. The typical power plant is a diesel-powered piston engine, but petrol engines and gas turbines are also used. Compared to the steam engine, the ICE 1) can be made significantly smaller and lighter, 2) is safer (steam engine explosions were common and lethal) and a lot easier to use (they don't require a trained engineer to operate them, for instance), 3) is a lot more fuel-efficient. This means that your story can have a non-engineer operating a light vehicle over a great range.
The ICE also lets the aircraft really take off. Originally a Steam Era invention, the early-modern aircraft is almost synonymous with Diesel Punk. Of the 20 most produced aircraft to date, only two (the Mil Mi-8 and the Piper Cherokee) were designed later than the Diesel Era. New types of aircraft include:
- Airliners such as the DC-3 provide a faster alternative to travel by ship, and a more flexible alternative to railway travel.
- Cargo aircraft, like the C-82 Packet, both made air freight possible and led to development of stronger, more powerful designs.
- High-speed aircraft, most famously the Supermarine planes, were the prototypes for World War II heavy fighters and medium bombers.
- Alternatively, talented but punkish captains of industry pushed the envelope of aircraft construction outside the realm of commercial reason: Ettore Bugatti, George Fernic, Richard Vogt from Blohm&Voss.
- High-altitude aircraft, such as the Caproni 161, drove development of pressure suits and pressurized airframes.
- Jet-powered aircraft: honorary mention goes to the Me 262.
- Rotorcraft takes to the air. The 1920's and 1930's were the golden era of the autogyro or gyroplane◊. Pioneering helicopters also flew in the Diesel Punk era, though they really came of age after 1950.
A secondary but important effect of this is the introduction of aircraft manufacturing corporations. Apart from being plausible actors in a Diesel Punk story, the presence of such manufacturers drives innovation heavily in areas like guidance/cybernetics/electronics, materials (especially lighter and stronger kinds), engines (safer, more powerful/efficient), and production quality control.
If WW2 has not broken out, expect many more flying-boats. Before the war brought an explosion of airfield-building all over the world, water-landing was widely used, especially for large aircraft too heavy to land on grass. The famous Pan-Am Clippers or the Empire Flying Boats flown by B.O.A.C. were perhaps the most famous.
Airships flourished briefly during the Diesel Era as ICEs brought down the power-to-weight ratio. Within a decade or so, the problems with airships (flammability of hydrogen, poor design and materials) made the airliner a much better choice. Remember, The Hindenburg exploding was merely the final and most public airship mishap after a series of military airships lost in crashes and fires showed that the concept was often too fragile, and slow, for the rigors of regular air travel. In your story, airship technology might have improved quickly, using Helium or Hydrogen contained inside inert gases, and more aerodynamic, structurally sound shapes. With the proper justifications, airships are quite feasible as a slower but much cheaper and more efficient alternative- as certain hybrid airships are becoming today. Or you might decide to leave airships to the steampunks.
Throughout the times and places where even a modest motor car was a luxury, from the inter-war Germany and Britain to post-WWII Italy, Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the motorcycle provided the much needed mobility, even better when fitted with sidecar.
Electrical Power and Electronics
Diesel-electric transmission uses a diesel engine connected to a generator to power an electric motor that drives a vehicle. Since electric motors can supply torque down to 0 RPM, this makes the system ideal for trains, submarines, and ships (and heavy tanks: the Elephant tank used petrol-electric transmission).
There are no transistors or other semiconductor components, so electronic devices are bulky, fragile, and require a lot of energy. Radio and primitive radar equipment is cutting-edge technology—no lasers or rayguns.
Also (and much used in modern reenactings) materials like Bakelite and Textolite / Tufnol are emblematic for electrical and mechanical designs of the 1925-1965 age, just like brass was for Steam Punk. Electrical designs of the pre-transistor age were usually massive, strong, heavy, made to withstand high currents, weather and time.
This period in our history saw the first working computers, the beginning of cybernetics, and a feeling that true AI was just around the corner. In a Diesel Punk story, AI (of some kind, most likely Robo-Monkey to Average Joe) has been realized. Contemporary computer designs aren't really advanced enough (and above all not portable enough) for AI purposes, so some kind of Applied Phlebotinum like positronic brains is needed. Usually packaged in a Tin-Can Robot.
Thanks to the seeds sown by Henry Ford, industries became more automated: assembly lines relieved a tremendous amount of manpower and robots were being engineered to take over more and more tasks. Expect monotony and grime to be common complaints of the typical factory-worker.
MediaNewspapers, magazines, and the telegraph are established forms of mass media, but the term "(mass) media" in this usage is a Diesel Age invention. Early on, a kind of telephone-based subscriber broadcasting was used; for instance theater and opera performances were broadcast by telephone. The iconic medium is radio broadcasting, with a wealth of programming music, Radio Drama shows and news. Furthermore, listening was often a communal experience such as depicted in The Waltons with the whole family gathered around a radio roughly the size of a widescreen TV today. Television broadcasting exists in most advanced countries (beginning with mechanical television in the early years) as well (cable radio and cable television also exist), but only a very small scale with the medium barely out of its experimental stage.
For those without a TV set, movie theaters show newsreels. Film has sound and color. While the musical movie is more popular during the Diesel Era than nowadays, most modern genres have precursors in this age, including special-effects-heavy science-fiction and monster movies.
Costume DesignerVery much anchored in Real Life - again, there are still -as of 2014- people born in the 1920s living today to point out the glaringly wrong fashion choices.
What strikes most during The New '10s is the roughneck◊, proletarian◊ design◊ of most clothing◊ prior to the 1950s in the developed world. Most people had blue collar jobs back then, which would expose them to grit and dirt, they had to take the public transport to work, walk the streets in rough weather, so the clothing choice was justified. Tough fabrics, leather overcoats or trenchcoats for protection, knitwear for warmth, hats and caps not only as the fashion demanded, but also as protective headgears. Also they had to don old, worn-out clothes while doing dirty jobs with machinery (which was more oily, sticky and stinky compared to its modern counterparts), to protect their better and more expensive clothing. The elegant pinstriped suit for males was mostly an upper class or Nouveau Riche class thing, poorer people would have donned such clothing for ceremonial occasions like weddings or funerals mostly.
- The Indiana Jones films, which are the Trope Codifiers. Nearly every nuance of the genre can be observed here. The new vastness of planet Earth coinciding with ancient secrets only just being re-discovered; modernization contrasted against the old world; and our hero—a rugged, individualistic adventurer—is pitted against faceless legions of uniformed Mooks.
- Batman: The Animated Series, one of the most influential works of animation to come out the nineties, takes place in a noir-influenced world of zeppelins, art deco, and overlapping shadows.
- Fullmetal Alchemist blends Diesel Punk aesthetics (trains, tanks, dictatorships) with Magitek—a perfect study of how to mix in heavy fantasy elements to a Diesel Punk story and keep it engaging.
- Some works of director Hayao Miyazaki, including Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky.
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is pretty much a love-letter to this genre and Two-Fisted Tales.
- The works of H.P. Lovecraft exemplify the dark side of Diesel Punk. His stories are places where the dark corners of the earth were never meant to be uncovered, where man's accomplishments are dwarfed by the unconquerable vastness of the malignant universe, where digging deeper into the truth only leads to madness. Despite being an author of the actual time period, his works have influenced Diesel Punk writers for decades.
- Terry Gilliam's Brazil depicts several elements from dieselpunk from a very bleak, black comedy perspective. Understandably, considering it was inspired by 1984.
- The Rocketeer is a stellar example, both in the original comics and the 1991 film adaptation directed by Joe Johnston.
- Captain America: The First Avenger, also from Joe Johnston, contains many actual Nazi Wunderwaffen designs which are made practical in-universe and serves well as an alternate World War II.