Over the past twenty years, steampunk has transformed from an obscure and tiny subgenre to a cultural phenomenon. It’s a great genre for writers who want to create something fun while also saying something substantial about the world.
What Is Steampunk?
Steampunk uses real or imagined 19th century technology with some sort of unreal twist. The technology and social structures of the setting are important and the unreal element usually involves technology. It can be the calculating machines of Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine, the airship armadas of Ferriero and Chou’s Skies of Fire, or any other variation on past technology. It’s usually driven by steam or clockwork.
Steampunk draws on both fantasy and science fiction for inspiration. Like fantasy, it tends to look to the past for material to work with. Like science fiction, it explores where technology could go.
The interest in Victorian social structures is often reflected in social critique. It’s common for real divisions of class, race, and gender to be highlighted, subverted, and criticised. For example, Gail Carriger’s work is filled with female characters challenging Victorian ideas of what women could do.
Despite this serious element, steampunk plots tend to be action-packed and filled with adventure. Fights, chases, and tense stand-offs are common.
Different Styles of Steampunk
There are many ways to approach steampunk.
If you’re keen on history, then you can focus on the alternate history part of steampunk. Pick a point in real history to start from. Decide what event or technology made things different from then on. Work out the consequences and explore them through your story. Drop in lots of references to real people, places, and events. This will delight readers who know and enjoy history.
If you like fantasy then you can mash this up with steampunk, as seen in Kate Elliott’s Cold Magic. This lets you throw together strange and exciting elements, with Victorian technology sitting alongside magic. Some steampunk purists may grumble about the magical elements, but it can freshen up fantasy and draw readers of both genres.
If you’re interested in high adventure or social commentary, then you can focus on that. Work out what technological or social changes will let you tell your story. Work out how they happened and what their consequences are. Then get set into writing your ripping yarn or exploration of inequality.
You can combine these approaches or take an entirely different one. These are starting points, not restraints on your creativity.
Understanding the Appeal of Steampunk
To write steampunk well you need to understand its appeal.
For some folks, it’s about dreams of technology. So make sure to throw in strange machines, show a bit about how they work, and make them matter for the plot.
For many, steampunk is about excesses of style, from brass goggles to top hats to corsetry dangling with gears. So include characters with exaggerated style, manners, and more than a little panache. This doesn’t mean that everybody should be upper class. A chimney sweep can be a paragon of style if he wears his hat right and has a good line in imaginative curses.
Tied to this sense of style is a love of anachronism. Most steampunk fans are more interested in technology that’s interesting than technology that’s realistic, so be willing to go out on a limb for an interesting machine.
Above all, steampunk is a DIY subcultural, full to bursting with creative people. They like to see themselves reflected in the fiction, so include engineers, crafters, inventors, scientists, and others who are good with their hands.
Making Your Steampunk Stand Out
All sorts of plots can be made to fit the skin of steampunk. If you want to stand out, look for something unusual. Perhaps you want to write a steampunk war story or a medical drama. Perhaps you’ll mash up several story types in one – that’s about as steampunk as you can get.
Steampunk stories are often set in Britain, especially London. By using different settings, you can make your work stand out. The American West is perhaps the next most common, but what about an alternate history China or a technologically driven Arabian nights?
All the usual advice for good writing applies – well developed setting, strong characters, and a coherent plot matter. Tying everything to the setting is particularly important in steampunk. Your weird technology should matter to the people and the plot.
Above all, have fun. Steampunk fans are looking for fun and excitement. If your enthusiasm seeps from your story then you’ll have them along for the ride.
With a few odd machines, a dash of style, and a twist of your own, you can make a steampunk story that really stands out.