Steampunk is the hybrid genre, the aesthetic you did not know you needed. It is what happens when you mash historical society with technology that could have been if humanity had gone in a slightly different direction. Steampunk writing is composed of three elements: research, imagination, and more research.
To write a good historical steampunk society, you need a point of diversion, which is the event that started the cascade towards steampunk technology rather than the technology we use today. What changed? Was something developed with steam technology that eliminated the need for our current technology? Did a discovery or invention that occurs in the real world never happen? This is integral to world-building, even if it is not featured heavily in your book. Having a solid point of divergence is also an indicator that you have been doing sufficient research.
Basic knowledge of 19th-century technology, where everything is powered by steam, is also needed. Compact, easy electronics–the little chips in our phones, the seamless coordination of our LED lights–does not exist. Part of the aesthetic is the complicated technology, where the gears show, brown and rusted, where innovation does not just develop, but instead, is a large part of life. Futuristic science fiction often takes the reader to a world where technology is easier, but steampunk utilizes technology as a major plot point in the opposite way.
You also need to research the society you are writing about. While steampunk is most commonly associated with Victorian society, it is completely possible to move it to another part of the world. Steampunk television and writing are associated with the Wild West and there is a sliver of East-Asian-inspired steampunk literature out there. As a writer, you already know how essential research is to any work, but when writing steampunk–a genre derived from the subversion of history–it is essential to know your history. All these points in time included hierarchical societies with rules and customs, where certain people were at the top and others at the bottom. What does this mean for you? It means research. And lots of it.
Know your gender roles, know your racial roles, know the societal structure–the hierarchy, the caste system, the class divide. Writer Sarah Noé suggests reading literature from that time, which is a great way to get a feel for the society and its rules. As we grow as a society, it is integral for us as writers to be informed and acknowledge societal issues and challenges, which are ever-present. That said, it is important to know that the historical aspect does not always have to be perfect. Most readers are not too bothered with historical accuracy, but it needs to be fair to the people affected by the society of that period.
If you are deciding whether or not to integrate a steampunk setting into your half-formed work in progress, you need to consider the relationship a historical society and retrofuturistic technology would have with your plot. The setting and story should depend on each other, whether you are writing in steampunk or a new magic world. To get the most out of your steampunk setting, you want it to be alive in the story. It is not just a small element you can shoehorn in to get an extra oomph out of your descriptions; it is something that works best when it is a living, breathing factor of the story, contributing to the plot and affecting the character’s lifestyle.
Consider the society your story needs to thrive. If it is a cute historical romance crossing over class divides, perhaps a steampunk setting is not for this story. Since steampunk is so focused on technology, most steampunk books and shows tend to be action-packed, where characters use technology to their advantage.
Two shows that feature steampunk are Arcane, which heavily relies on its steampunk and biopunk technology to further the plot, and The Legend of Korra, which more subtly combines elements of steampunk with the show’s bending magic. These are great shows, but more importantly, they are a great way to visualize steampunk technology in action. Arcane also includes the class tension that is often present in the societies steampunk work is set in.
Some quick steampunk classics are Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, a series about a European war with futuristic machines and biotechnology; Infernal Devices by K.W Jeter, a book that uses steampunk technology to add to a compelling aesthetic and reflect the obsessions and ideologies prevalent in our world today; and The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which centers quite heavily on the impact of its “point of diversion” to propel its historical thriller plot. These books are great reads and great ways to learn about the steampunk genre.
Steampunk is so much fun to write and so rewarding to research. Just learning how to innovate outside of our world or figuring out a way to research effectively will make you a better writer.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.
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