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So You Want To / Write a Steampunk Story

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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 before 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 formidable steam engines forging adventures and empires the likes of which our 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!


Necessary Tropes

"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).


Choices, Choices

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 is in many ways all about details and consistency.

Although Steampunk is usually considered primarily about machines, one of the things worth developing at least a partial knowledge of, is the New Thought movement; works by Christian Larson, Charles Haanel, and Wallace Wattles in particular. Although class stratification was a huge problem, in terms of the upper class at least, the Victorians were optimists, (as exemplified at times in H.G. Wells' works) and New Thought described the specific form that said optimism took.

For those wanting to go further than merely gluing some gears on, achieving authenticity with Steampunk, is also an excellent excuse for giving yourself a classical education in general terms. The Victorians took both intellectualism and overall refinement, far more seriously than the average Millenial. Work on improving your vocabulary and grammar. Some appreciation of Monet and other contemporary art from the period, as well as classical music will also help.


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.

Also, Steampunk has become the 'vogue' thing of late, which means that there's a lot of it about, which means that it's possibly a bit over-used and over-done as a genre or an aesthetic. Try and find something new and different to say about it.

Potential Subversions

Perhaps the great steampunk technology doesn't end up changing the world and merely becomes a lost, undiscovered curiosity? Perhaps the consumption of wood and coal at such an accelerated rate hastens environmental catastrophe as people attempt to fix the planet with the very same steampunk that destroyed it? What if the Victorian England isn't the Politically Correct Theme Park Version, and instead the one where the fantastic Steampunk factories are just as hazardous to the workers as other factories of the real Industrial Revolution, London is a Jack the Ripper-Era Wretched Hive, and the British Monarchy blatantly uses its Steampunk technology to rule the world with an iron fist? What other kinds of Punk might you bring in — Leonardo Da Vinci's Clockpunk machines having permeated everyday life, or Cattle Punk, Bamboo Punk?

What Is Steampunk? by the author of The United Federation of Charles analyzes common steampunk tropes as well as the genre's "mood."

Read GD Falksen's The World is Not Enough, and think about how steampunk technology might play out across the world.

Suggested Themes and Aesops

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? Can science really explain all of the strangeness and chaos of the human mind, let alone the world entire?

Potential Motifs

Wood and brass furnishings, curlicues and flowers as decoration on machines — why? Only to be pretty. This is, literally, worlds away from Apple computers' aesthetic of white, slick, minimalist surfaces. In a widening world full of wonder, frills and adornment are welcome. They reflect the particular spirit of the time.

This will also not just be visually busy technology, but loud — these are burning, broiling steam engines, clacking gears and pounding pistons.

Heroes of a Steampunk story might be a well-to-do, well-educated, respectable white man, in a top hat and tailcoat — but even the Victorians were just as likely to turn that archetype on its head, as Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Frankenstein can attest. When re-exploring a lost era, why not look to the fringes of society — unconventional women trying to hew their own path in life, racial minorities, come to London from the outskirts of Empire and facing prejudice as they win their fortunes; and you can't go wrong with a Dickensian Heartwarming Orphan with a promising destiny. Charles Dickens immortalized a dirty, overcrowded London — and such a city will produce all kinds of heroes.

Suggested Plots

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 its oil supplies, it's a region of great global influence and, correspondingly, great global conflict and strife. Steam power, however, works just fine with any combustible fuel, and Europe and America have so much coal that Middle East oil can be dispensed with (apart from small amounts for lubrication). Where are the new political hotspots in your steampunk world?


Set Designer / Location Scout

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 — and the darker side of British imperialism. What does steampunk look like from the point of view of a sugar plantation in the West Indies?

You could avoid London altogether; it's really overused as a steampunk setting. Try the old US of A: you can mix pure steampunk Back East and Cattle Punk Out West. Consider Imperial Germany with its rapidly growing industries and proud military tradition. Or, if you want to focus on the gritty aspects of your meat-grinding factories, or the clash between unrealistically high tech and an ignorant, semi-feudal society, try Imperial Russia and the beginning of the struggle of its workers and peasants for the Revolution. Red October itself, or your equivalent thereof, is a pretty good chance to mix and match themes of steampunk and post-apocalypse.

Props Department

Here's where you can let yourself go wild! Lots of steam-powered stuff. Bronze-colored gears on everything, even if they serve no evident purpose — in addition to floral motifs, curlicues, and fancy-schmancy calligraphy. Stylish canes, hats, gloves, and, the crowning touch of any steampunk ensemble, goggles. 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.

Costume Designer

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 restrictive — 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. If you're focusing on a military, the uniforms of World War I are also a good starting point (especially since you often see a cross between Napoleonic and World War II-styles).

On the other hand, women wearing top hats, Stetsons or bowler hats, maybe together with visible corsets, and smoking in public, were definitely not a staple of polite society in the Steam Age. The visible corset which left the shoulders naked was the mark of a prostitute's attire, men's hats (like bowlers and top hats) and clay smoking pipes were used by Gypsy women and rough utilitarian clothes like the heavy canvas skirt, jacket and Stetson or sombrero were for peasant women. When a writer dresses characters like that, he or she outlines the "punk"-ish, fringe of society part in Steampunk. Just like no 19th century man would imagine a woman carrying a Derringer in her garter belt could be anything else than prostitute or madam, thief, card crook or swindler.

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.

Casting Director

Stunt Department

Mighty battles between steam-powered behemoths, sir or madam! What else would you expect?

Oh, perhaps a battle won't go as planned, and the hero and dastardly villain will have to fight one another — on the bridge of a zeppelin, as it plummets from the sky! Who's to say a poisoned saber, cleverly concealed in a rosewood cane, won't be as handy in a pinch as a mighty Mecha piloted from within?

Extra Credit

A good discussion of what sort of themes and motifs can be found in steampunk is here. What Is Steampunk? by The United Federation of Charles.

The Greats

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, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jack London, Leo Tolstoy...

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 The 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.

On the video game side of things, one can't go wrong with Arcanum, the Thief trilogy and Dishonored.

Arcanum has the most traditional steampunk setting of the three, but combines it with a gradual and very thorough examination (both humorous and sobering) of how typical Tolkienian races would fare in a steampunk setting. It also takes a close look at how the industrial revolution in Arcanum and the conflict over preferring either magic or technological innovation have affected that world's society, in both unifying and divisive ways, and how they played into both progress and prejudices. The overarching story even visits some genuinely philosophical conundrums about the nature of life and death, in addition to the nature of technology in the lives of people.

Thief and Dishonored in particular are rather different takes on the whole esthetic altogether, all the more that they also cross over into the New Weird genre/style. The Thief series is set in a world reminescent of the late-medieval or early modern era, filled with lots of mysterious folk magic, where the industrial revolution also arrived early thanks to church influence. Despite how incongruous these setting elements might sound at first hearing, the developers actually took great care to integrate the alternate technological developments into the fantasy setting's society in a convincing way. Even one that is deliberately timeless (medieval-level technologies seamlessly coexisting with archaic takes on 18th and 19th century tech). Many rivalries and power plays between various technological and cultural factions, such as the Hammerites, Pagans, Mechanists, Keepers, city authorities, etc., occur in the setting. The series is also explicitly Fantastic Noir, with the protagonist a snarky, but humane master thief, who has the mannerisms of a classic Film Noir antihero. Dishonored chooses a similar approach to that of Thief, but goes about it in its own way: The society might look quasi-Victorian at first glance, but culturally and religiously, they're an odd blend of 17th century Cromwell-esque puritanism and a form of atheism, they also have some Georgian era features in fashion and esthetics, and the main power source of the industrial advances is neither coal or (crude) oil, but whale oil - it's used to power everything from lamps (the original use) to firearms (instead of gunpowder) and even vehicles. (Not as daft as it might sound.) In the first game, the protagonist's tale of clearing his name and enacting vengeance also has a vibe reminescent of The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Epic Fails

While The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie mostly suffers from comparison, the film shows many of the common pitfalls which might turn off fans. The treatment of RL locations, mixing up dates regarding when Historical Domain characters were supposed to have lived, and places it swerved from the fiction it emanated hurt the narrative overall.

The Wild Wild West movie starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline had the potential for being a great steampunk film. Its giant spider mecha still remains visually impressive. However, the film squandered a lot of its opportunity for James Bond-style actuon-adventure in the 19th century for screwball comedy. Unfunny screwball comedy at that.


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