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tips for writing steampunk

Posted by richardharland on April 30, 2010

Hi! Had a good start to the day today. Hollywood interest in Worldshaker has moved up another level – now the movie agency has a definite ‘client’ and wants to talk film rights. So it goes from my literary agent in Australia to an agency specialising in film rights in LA – and my people talk to their people, as they say!

I promised to produce some writing tips on steampunk, and I’m finally keeping my promise. Here goes –

WRITING TIPS FOR STEAMPUNK (as told to a clockwork angel)

RESEARCH

Should you do a lot of research? I don’t think so. After all, you’re writing speculative fiction, not historical fact. The worst thing in the world would be to accumulate a mass of information about 19th century clothing, furniture, etiquette or whatever – which you then felt obliged to include just because it’s true.

No! The spirit of steampunk is creative anachronism – that is, doing history and getting it wrong. Like steampunk fashion guru Kit Stolen, we’re all anachronauts. What’s matters isn’t the fact but the feel – the feel of a different past era. So, sure, immerse yourself in 19th century novels or non-fiction until you can swim in that world like a sea. Then swim away from it! Use the historical reality as a springboard for your own imagination. Do-It-Yourself—that’s what steampunk is all about!

It helps if something in the 19th century particularly inspires your imagination. For me, it was the gaping difference between the respectable façade of morality and propriety, and the very ugly goings-on behind that facade. The Victorian class structure gave me my inspiration for Worldshaker.

MOOD

I believe 19th century novelists like Charles Dickens didn’t just observe the world around them, they had a vision of it. And their vision still fascinates today—like the Arthurian vision of mediaval times. It’s a gothic imagination – as in forbidding castles, subterranean caverns, romantic mists and storms – but re-applied to their contemporary reality of fog and steam, cities and factories. What I like is that it’s a dark vision and a suggestive vison, not seen in the clear light of day.

Maybe that’s why it was such a great time for imagining horrors. So many classic horror figures come from that time—Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, Jekyll and Hyde, the Baskerville hounds. On the one hand, the official shiny progressive optimism, but on the other hand, a dark and morbid streak of fear and uncertainty.

CHARACTERS

The 19th century produced so many iconic figures – great criminals, great eccentrics, great monsters, great rogues. That’s what I look for in steampunk. Characters like Isombard Kingdom Brunel or Jack the Ripper or Sir Mormus Porpentine (oops, I slipped into my own fiction there).

I think steampunk writers have to steer between two pitfalls. On the one hand, you should never just present modern people in 19th century fancy dress—that’s as bad as futuristic SF where the characters still think and speak exactly like contemporary Americans. On the other hand, you should never become so obsessed with historical re-creation that a modern reader can’t get involved with your characters. They have to live across the ages …

PACE

If steampunk already has its generic traits, I guess one of them is fast-paced storytelling. I don’t say it ought to be be that way–and if you count China Miéville as at least steampunk-related, then great steampunky fiction can just as well have a very slow pace. But … a strong narrative drive is something that publishers may expect and look for.

Every tip I can offer on maintaining narrative drive in steampunk is also a tip for maintaining narrative drive in any genre, so it’s already up on the web in the STORY section of my website, www.writingtips.com.au.

STARTING OFF

Steampunk is in some ways fantasy and in some ways SF. One problem it shares with both is how to introduce a whole world without info-dumping, but it’s not easy to use the classical fantasy strategy and start from a corner. Like SF worlds, steampunk worlds are more likely to be urban, with good communications, so it’s not so easy to arrange for ignorance! In Worldshaker, I take a main character whose very sheltered upbringing has protected him from the realities of his own world; it’s also a world where many of those realities are never spoken about in polite society.

LANGUAGE

Here again, I think steampunk writers should steer between two pitfalls. You wouldn’t want to have characters lapsing into jargon that sounds 21st century, and you wouldn’t want to use such jargon in your author’s voice either. On the other hand, you don’t have to write like someone writing in the 19th century – if only because 19th century novelists were very heavy and over-descriptive by our standards. And your dialogue still has to be lively and spirited, not just historically accurate.

I guess what I’m saying is that anachronism is okay so long as it doesn’t jar and stick out like a sore thumb. In Worldshaker, there’s one moment when Quinnea exclaims:

‘Oh, I will [be proud of you]. But a mother’s heart … a mother’s care … a mother’s panic attacks …’

As my editor pointed out, the phrase ‘panic attack’ doesn’t really belong in this world of juggernauts. I agreed, and I’d have taken it out – except that that bit of dialogue cracks me up whenever I read it. (It is funny, I swear … okay, you have to be there!) So we left it in, and nobody’s objected yet.

Cheers

Richard

32 Responses to “tips for writing steampunk”

  1. Rowena said

    Great post, Richard.

    Steam punk is really interesting and I feel you’ve helped me get a handle on it.

  2. Thanks for the article, Richard – it was fascinating.
    I had a romantic ‘clock punk’ short story published last year with CSFG and am now working on a steampunk series. I found your writing tips excellent, too! Thanks so much for generously giving your time and expertise to other writers.

    • Glad the tips were helpful – and yes, best used together with the http://www.writingtips.com.au tips. I just finished Jay Lake’s MAINSPRING – wonderful concept. I count ‘clock punk’ as another strand of ‘steampunk’ , because I apply ‘steampunk’ to any take on any past technology, not necessarily steam age. But Mainspring does the clockwork angle to the max! Good luck with the steampunk series!
      Cheers
      Richard

  3. Great post Richard. I’m still having problems getting steampunk dialogue just right, and from what you’re saying it’s as much about what the character says, as about how you make it fit in with what’s happening. I’m glad ‘panic attacks’ got to stay. It works much better than a mother’s sudden fear? apprehension? episode?

    • Hi Carol!

      I think being true to the character is – as always – the most important thing. If your characters isn’t simply a modern personality dressed in period costume, as hopefully not, then I think they’ll let you know the way they need to speak.
      I’d have dropped Quinnea’s lines there entirely if she hadn’t been able to say ‘panic attacks’, there’d have been no point without the final words.

      Cheers
      Richard

  4. Anonymous said

    […] For those of you interested in writing steampunk, Richard has done a post about it here. […]

  5. […] Oh! And speaking of steampunk, Richard Harland recently wrote a post on how it’s done. http://ripping-ozzie-reads.com/2010/04/30/tips-for-writing-steampunk/ […]

  6. […] workshop attendees were also intrigued by the steampunk genre. Here is a link to Richard Harland’s post about how to write steampunk. And here is a link to Richard in his outfit, about to set off on his […]

  7. PlanetaryRust said

    Big help! I’m delving into my first steampunk novel and was afraid of getting too tied down by being historically accurate and such. But now, I have no fears! :]

  8. Matt said

    I’m always interested in all the angles and ideas that make up steampunk. Thanks for the great info!

  9. […] Australian author, Richard Harland is currently on a US and UK tour to promote his YA steampunk book Worldshaker. For those interested in Harland’s take on writing steampunk see this article. […]

  10. […] the meantime, here’s a link to Richard Harland’s steampunk writing tips. http://ripping-ozzie-reads.com/2010/04/30/tips-for-writing-steampunk/ and the clockwork angel picture that goes with […]

  11. Daniel Servitje said

    Many thanks for the article Richard, I live in mexico but write in english as what is mostly a pleasureable hobbie, altough I’ve had some business articles published. I had my first novel worthy idea a few weeks ago, it had a clear steampunk setting but both your website tips and this article helped me gather the courage to put it on paper(or microsoft word as it is) I will continue to reference them in what I hope will be as fun a journey as the book itself.

    • Hi Daniel!
      I’m really chuffed to think that my steampunk tips helped you. Always good to help authors – but especially good to help an author get launched on his very first book! I hope it keeps on being fun – you sound as if you have a really good positive attitude. Enjoy – and be patient – and just keep working away at it. It’s amazing how the pages mount up (or the bytes and word count).
      If you need more tips on making a story move along – I think we all need as many tips as we can get on that – check out the website I set up on writing all forms of fantasy and SF – at http://www.writingtips.com.au.
      Good luck!
      Cheers, Richard

  12. Princess Cinderalice said

    Thank you very very very much for this vital info! This article really helped me because I love speculative fictions a lot… And eventhough I can’t write well, I’m trying… Wish me luck!<3

  13. Brandon Davis said

    This is my first time on this site, I really like this post. I have been racking by brain trying to get the mood and language down for the Steampunk epic I’m trying to write. So thanks, you made it a lot easier for me.

    • Hi Brandon! Glad to know the steampunk tips helped! I really care about steampunk having the right ‘feel’ – not archaic and wilfully old-fashioned, but also not contemporary. I think the language should reflect the 19th century mood, without imitating a book actually written by a 19th century author. I’ve just finished the final copyedit (phew! at last!) on LIBERATOR, which is the sequel to WORLDSHAKER, and I think I’ve finally learned to hit the right groove all the time.

      Interesting you say ‘epic’, because that normally goes with epic-heroic-medievalish fantasy. But why not steampunk epics? I think LIBERATOR is a kind of epic – bigger and broader than WORLDSHAKER, a whole world of big public events (as well as intense private ones)

      Anyway, good luck! If you want more tips on writing all kinds of fantasy including steampunk, check out http://www.writingtips.com.au.

      Cheers
      R

  14. Mouldy said

    i’m glad i found this site, because i’m trying to write a steampunk story right now and i’m sure your tips will come in handy. i also read your book by the way, it’s freakin awesome! can’t wait for the sequel and movie.

    • Hi!
      Thanks! Great to know the tips helped, and great to hear your reaction to WORLDSHAKER. Acoording to my editors and sample readers, LIBERATOR outdoes WORLDSHAKER – first time I’ve ever achieved that with a second novel! It comes out around April. As for movie – well, it’s gone to one of the top ten scriptwriters in the US to see if she wants to do a movie script for it, but there’s a million miles to go before anything actually happens. In the meanwhile, I’m just happy to hear so many people say it would make a great movie!

      Cheers
      Richard

  15. Thanks for the advice. I’m working on a steam punk like story, but its not exactly set in the 19th century. Its more of a sci fi story in the sense that its about interdimensional travels, and one plane you can reach is Modern Earth. Its only in its beginning stages though… Yeah, don’t remember where I was going with that. Anyways, thanks for all the tips. I’m going to need it!

    • Best of luck, Kya.

      it’s just a matter of sticking to it.

    • Hi Kya!

      Your story idea reminds me of Dr Who, where the time and space travel takes him to Earth in the 19th century. They did a few great episodes like that – I reckon early ones were really big influences in getting steam punk up and running. So following in Dr Who’s footsteps is a great way to go.

      Hope the story works out! Good luck, and, if the tips help out, who knows? I may have played a role in launching a new steampunk author!

      Cheers
      Richard

  16. […] I ran across an article about how to write steampunk by Richard Harland. (see article). […]

  17. Kaitlin said

    Just letting you know that this article is still read and appreciated 😀 Thanks!

  18. reviews said

    reviews…

    […]tips for writing steampunk « Ripping Ozzie Reads[…]…

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