How to Write Steampunk

Some people have fun creating steampunk-styled items. (click photo for full article)

I found a thread on steampunk over on one of my writing forums, and made the mistake of doing the asker’s research. I got intrigued. In an attempt to get it out of my system, I am now writing a post all about steampunk, but more specifically on how to write it.

What is steampunk?
Steampunk follows an alternate history route, asking, “What if the Victorians had more advanced technology using steampower?”  It can be based off real science, and thus be science fiction, or use anything to make a good story, and be fantasy.  Steampunk stories usually take place in the underside of society and have a gritty feel to them, matching the typical wood and brass of the apparatuses around which the stories are woven.

Subgenre Staples
Writing.com has an excellent list on the staples and ploys of steampunk. I highly recommend it as one of the first articles to read on the subject. Now, I don’t want to repeat that list, but I do want to touch a few common themes.

~Exploration
Many steampunk stories involve exploration; whether to the moon, the center of the earth, or the depths of the sea, it is a staple. Stories depicting the future as Victorian’s envisioned it often take this route.
~Flying
Hot air balloons existed, but they were novelties, queer things to be stared at. No jetpacks, no planes, no blimps, no Hindenburgs, and certainly no rockets. But, of course, we’re adding steaming technology to our stories. Maybe Victorians do fly.

Kerem Beyit created this Chinese Terror. (click photo for her site)

~Robots
Whether it’s swarms of spiders or giant robot men or dragons, they’re steam powered and traditionally created by the mad scientist.
~Subversive
Secret societies were not just stuff of conspiracy theorists, and strict Victorian society and etiquette begged to be disregarded. More conflict. And more plot possibilities.
~Tinkering
Since there is always the steam-powered something in steampunk, there is always the tinkerer who creates it. It may be a mad scientist, a wunderkid, or an incredible tired of humanity who wants to get away. They may work in their watch shop, attic, or private island. But somewhere they exist.

Steampower or Clockwork?
Some steampunk doesn’t even involve steampower. Instead, everything is run by clockwork. Instead of having steaming robots, there are robots with wind-up keys out their backs. Everything looks like the inside of a clock. This is a fun alternative, but remember never to make a clockwork rocket.

Science fiction or fantasy?
There is something of an argument about whether steampunk is science fiction or fantasy. My opinion? Both. It depends on whether you are writing “hard” steampunk or “soft” steampunk. Hard steampunk has technologically plausible ideas. Soft steampunk, eh, you can skimp on the science for the sake of story. As you can see, hard steampunk has some serious limits. There is a reason steam got left behind in the course of human events. However, if you are the type of person who likes their stories to be plausible, it is for you. Soft steampunk uses steampower (or clockwork) as a plot device to set mood. Somewhere in between the two are stories that use futuristic technology as Victorians envisioned it.

Researching the Era
Fantasy and science fiction usually require you to create your own world from scratch.  Every single detail must be different and exciting.  Steampunk requires you to research the era.  Every single detail must be correct (unless, of course, you story calls for an altered detail!).  World, decor, food, and clothing are all important when creating a setting, so make sure you research their Victorian equivalent thoroughly. Especially integral to Victorian times are social ideas, class separations, etiquette. I recommend Victoriana.com and Victorian-Era.org as good places to start.

But what if you want to use an era besides Victorian England? Well, England – and even Europe in general – wasn’t the only bit of land around with steam. America, China, Australia, and Africa all had enough contact with Europe to warrant a steampunk setting. This post on The World of a Steampunk Hero is very interesting, and covers some of the major conflict of the time. And we all know conflict makes a story.

Other settings help make a steampunk story unique. Of course, you have to make a way for the steam-power to get to your continent, and you need to research that particular country. Don’t get it wrong!

Everyday Changes
Every steampunk writer endeavors to make not just their plot unique, but their world different from all others. Steampunk is alternate history, and sometimes more than just the inclusion of steam is different. Sometimes higher steam technology is part of the everyday life. Little things like this keep your world separate from all the others. Think about how the Victorians would have responded to these changes.

The Language of Steampunk
Do not write in such a style that would recall in the minds of readers Victorian usage; far from adding culture and flair to a scene, it merely violates common rules of the trade now in place. Not to mention makes you sound like an idiot.

Neither should you use words that were not in use in the aforementioned era. (OK, after practicing that last paragraph, I still have frills in my writing system.) The point is, the phrase “teen angst” did not exist in Victorian times. Actually, neither of those words did, much less the phrase. Avoid this. Mimicking Victorian authors does not help the scene, but using out of era language (especially from the mouths of characters) only breaks the spell of the world.

This is cutie was made by Eos for Pullip. (click for flickr stream and more information)

Now here’s a do: write normally. Don’t be overly concerned about language just because I pointed out two common mistakes. If you accidentally commit one, you can always edit it.

Steampunk is different and strange, just like speculative fiction should be.  It begs to be taken to new heights.  I believe there are many untapped variations just waiting to be discovered! What do you think of steampunk? Do you have any recommendations? Have you ever tried writing it? Any more advice on how to write steampunk?

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About Kathrine Roid

I'm an science fiction and fantasy author living in Texas with an undead parakeet and teleporting cat. Think about that for a moment.

Posted on February 5, 2011, in On Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Yes, I’m working on two steampunk projects, an espionage thriller and my other blog at http://www.roydenandco.blogspot.com .

    One thing I’ve found, steampunk is often has the cynical, dark feel of the old film noir mysteries. It’s also eccentric, zany, and an interesting mirror into the human soul.

    The number one tip I have is to go original. Completely original. Try and break away from the secret societies in late 19th century London. Philip Reeves, author the “Mortal Instruments” series and the “Larklight” trilogy, discusses that excellently on his blog at http://philipreeve.blogspot.com somewhere towards the back I think. (Warning, he’s a very left wing British author)

    • Feel! I should have devoted a couple paragraphs to feel. I may update that later. Thank you, Varon.

      I figured you would comment quickly, knowing your steampunk projects. Philip Reeve’s blog seems interesting.

  2. Thank you for this post! I’ve always been interested in Steampunk, after reading Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, and this was a great summary of the genre in general.

    It would take a lot of tedious research, but it must be fun to read and write.

    • Actually, I almost started researching while I was looking into the genre. That’s how I found those two recommended sites. The Victorian Era is quite fascinating; you just have to do that tedious research when you’re in a “fascinated” mood.

  3. I have a few book ideas that might be considered “steampunk” So thanks for compiling links and info, Kat!

  4. Has there ever been post apocalyptic steampunk?

  5. hi i wrote a short steampunk story and want to get it out there just to see what others think how do i go about this

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