Archive for August, 2010

Okay, so it’s a horrible pun. But really, if you’re looking at the historical development over time of the bustle, could you resist? The fact remains that one of the classic elements of refined lady steampunk wear is the bustle. But what people seem to forget is that the bustle wasn’t always part of Victorian fashion and actually changed in style during the course of the Queen’s reign. If you’re going to use a bustle you might want to know exactly what decade (or in some cases as little as five year span) your character is from.

In the early Victorian era, women’s dresses didn’t even sport bustles. From the period of 1837 to 1860, skirts were still the wide-hooped variety you’d see in the costuming of the movie Gone With the Wind. It wasn’t actually until between 1865 that skirts, though still wide with extra crinolines, thank you, started sporting extra fullness toward the back, with an overskirt pulled back over an underskirt.

US patent 131840 circa 1872

Closer to 1870, this had developed into a padding placed beneath the skirt to accentuate that fullness toward the rear. From 1870 to 1875 you begin to see skirts of enormous volumes of fabric (like those designed by Worth) that is in cascades, and bunches, drapes, folds and dragging trains, augmented by a low-placed bustle (that actually would have hit about at the back of your knees – oh joy) to provide fullness to the fabric arrangement.

Dimity bustle of 1881

By 1875 to 1880 the skirting becomes more fitted to the form and nearly cylindrical in the front, yet still gathered in trains toward the back, with low fitted bustles that are more padding to augment the long-curved bodices in fashion. Ruching, pleats, full draping of fabric is still in vogue as are slightly smaller trains.

From the height of the bustle's glory

In 1880 to 1885 the bustle begins to emerge as more of a necessity as the gowns, nearly now all floor length unless you happen to be dragging about a train for an evening gown), sport even more of the overskirt gathered to the back in ever elaborate arrangements, which are so heavy that they drag the skirt down without proper support. The look of a shelf off the back of your bum is at it’s height and bustles come in any number of arrangements from collapsible wire cages, to ruffled, many layer long bustles meant to run the length of the skirt and be secured about the waist.

While still part of fashion, the bustle begins to shrink a bit in 1890 to 1895, probably in response to the enormous ballooning of the tops of ladies’ sleeves (in what’s called the Gibson girl or mutton sleeve look). The skirts still have also widened out a bit into more of a bell shape and are not so confining as they were in the 1875-1880 period, leaving room to wear a bustle without it being too evident, yet allowing it to make the waist, which is nipped in, look smaller. And really, by about 1893, the bustle has been reduced to just a pad.

A variety of mesh bustle designs

In 1895 to 1900, the sleeves shrink back down, big hats take center stage and the bustle is more of a remnant designed to add fullness, as the silhouette slopes forward in a changing corset style which also forces the rear to stick out.

The bustle still remains a fashion item up until about 1905, in the Edwardian period, when waistlines and the silhouette begin to meld together into a more tubular type skirting.

Like fashion, bustles were an evolving item. Knowing just how much to put behind you, and how to make it look, can peg you character from early to late Victorian. So, how much bustle will you be sporting?

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Okay, before I bring you this week’s  post I have the winner of the Gear Ring from Kinekt. And the winner is…

~drum roll please~

*~*~*gabby sullivan*~*~*

Gabby, please email me at suzannelazear (@) hotmail and I’ll tell you how to claim your prize. Congrats!

You just might be Steampunk when…

  1. You own a ballgown, a bustle, and a raygun…and wear them together
  2. You replace your computer keyboard keys with those from an antique typewriter
  3. You have “day wear” and “evening wear” brass goggles
  4. You brass-leafed your cellphone and glued gears on it
  5. Your child points out things she thinks are “steampunk”
  6. Your next major clothing purchase involves boots, a corset, or a bustle-gown
  7. You’re helping your child build a time-machine for a school project
  8. You own multiple top hats
  9. You buy broken pocket watches for the gears
  10. You read Jules Verne to your children as bedtime stories
  11. You try your hand at corset making
  12. You own jewelry made of clockhands and/or gears
  13. Seeing a blimp is an exciting experience
  14. You can’t wait to see  The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec even though it’s in french
  15. You feel you’ve missed your calling as an Air Pirate
  16. You have a made science lab set up in your basement
  17. You covet Alexia Tarabotti’s parasol
  18. You have the urge to restore an old Victorian home or redecorate your house in Victorian furnishings
  19. You’ve made your own ray gun and can explain how it works (in theory)
  20. Your other car is an airship

What are your suggestions?

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It’s interesting what happens when you begin to write a story. In some ways you discover something about yourself. For instance, I never knew about steampunk as a subculture until I went to the Steampunk Univeristy in Seattle last year. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that my childhood and teen fascination with sewing up victorian clothing for myself and designing victorian oddities actually had a name.

Then I thought about it really hard. I’ve always been a steampunk person at heart. One of the most favorite places of my childhood was the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. If you’ve never been there, may I say, you are missing out on steampunk perfection. Although I’m not exactly sure that’s what Mrs. Winchester intended.

Sarah Winchester, who was married into the family that invented the famous Winchester repeating rifle, dealt with the untimely loss of her daughter in 1866 and the premature death of her husband in 1881 in a very interesting fashion. She built a house. And kept building it.

Well to be more accurate, she purchased an unfinished eight-room farm house and turned it into a sprawling seven-story mansion with 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 40 staircases, 52 skylights, 950 doors, 2 ballrooms, 2 basements, 17 chimneys, 3 elevators and 10,000 windows that spread out in an estate covering 161 acres. http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/index.cfm

The reason? A spirital medium in Boston advised her that the deaths of her loved ones were due to angry spirits – those deceased American Indians, Civil War soldiers and such – that had been killed by her husband and father-in-law’s invention which had made her unusually wealthy. At the time of her mother-in-law’s death in 1889 she owned just under 50% of the stock in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, bringing her in an income of over $1,000 a day in interest on her over $20 million dollar fortune (and this was in the days before income tax when you could still buy things for pennies and the average daily wage for a worker was $1.50).

She was told to build. She had shifts of workers, going 24-hours a day for 38 years. They built staircases that ended in the ceiling, doors that fall off into a several story drop to the outside, windows that look at a wall. Huge wall-sized cabinets with shleves an inch deep. There are windows in the floor (so you could see down into the kitchen). A senace room with only one entrance and one exit (which are not the same door and both hidden). There are priceless Tiffany stain-glass windows that will never have sunlight pour through them, windows that were optically ground to Mrs. Winchester’s eye prescription so she could view the gardens and stair cases that rise and fall in the middle of a hallway like a style over a fence. Perhaps most haunting is the phrasing written in the stained glass of one of the ballrooms that tour guide say was part of a vision Mrs. Winchester had that thousands of people would be walking through her home.

It is reported that Mrs. Winchester never slept in the same bedroom two nights in a row in order to confound the spirits that might be searching for her. She is said to have refused President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt entrance at the front door and made him come around to a side entrance because she refused to allow people in the front door after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. On the day of her death, by heart-failure in 1922, the building stopped. There were even half-driven nails the workmen did not finish hammering in when they heard of her death.

In short, it has everything to make it the perfect steampunk place – oddities, creativity, incredible detail, hand-crafted workmanship, Victorian, mystery, history, and paranormal spunk.

If you can’t visit there yourself, I encourage you to check out the extensive video archive at the website where there are many episodes you can view for free. http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/videogallery.cfm and all kinds of pictures at http://www.winchestermysteryhouse.com/photogallery.cfm

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Another important issue came up during the Steampunk panel I was part of at the RWA 2010 National Conference in Orlando–the darker side of Steampunk.

It can be very tempting to idealize and sanitize the Victorian era in our Steampunk stories. Depending on your world building, this approach could work. But the Victorian era wasn’t all balls and bustles and where I’m not saying we should scrap any sort of idealism, I’m saying that we shouldn’t always gloss over the grit.

The Victorian era could be a dirty, smelly, place full of illness, poverty and despair. There was colonialism, imperialism, classism, child labor, and the oppression of women, among other things. Depending on the particulars of your story, many of the darker issues during that time can add dimension and grit to your world, plot, and characters, not to mention bring up some of the very real obstacles those who lived during that era faced. That’s not to say that you couldn’t play with these concepts, just like we play with everything else when writing any sort of alternate history, but it’s also important to not forget these themes in addition to the usual ones we’ve embraced so heartily.

These themes can bring up interesting plots and subplots, taking the reader into places they have never been and allow them to explore issues they may not have thought of before. What would it be like to have your village invaded…or to be the invader but not sure of the cause? What was it like to be a doctor at a charity hospital, to work in a factory, or live in a slum?

It cause also allow us to meet new characters from varied backgrounds who also have stories that need to be told. Who knows what the conquered child might become when they grow up and what lengths they may go to for revenge. What could a simple act of kindness–or acts of cruelly or antipathy–ignite under the right conditions? What of the street sparrow, the night flower, or the child who toils in the factory to feed their family? What was it like to be an actress, a seamstress, or a member of the fallen gentry?

Like with anything else, you don’t need to necessary force these concepts into a story for the sake of inclusion, but it’s good to be aware of them. Don’t think you have to shy away from the darker side of Steampunk. Who knows what stories could these characters tell or what they could they teach the other characters…and us?

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When I recently was part of a panel of Steampunk at RWA 2010 we got some very interesting questions from the audience. One of which was “What roles can women play in Steampunk stories, given the traditional roles of Victorian women?”

My answer was somewhere along the lines of “In Steampunk women can do whatever they want.”

Women and girls can be anything in Steampunk–from ladies to air pirates. They could be pushing social norms or they could be the norm. In Leviathan, Deryn works on an airship (though she pretends to be a boy). In the Girl Genius comics, Agatha is the one inventing things and going on adventures. In Clockwork Heart Taya is a winged courier.

A woman in a Steampunk story could wear *trousers* like Madame Lefoux in Changeless or could be like Captain Octavia Pye in Steamed who captains an airship in a skirt and corset.

Steampunk women can still be ladies. Perhaps she doesn’t defy society at all–but that doesn’t have to mean she’s sitting at home drinking tea. Alexia in Soulless is a lady, granted she’s a spinster and a bluestocking, but she’s a lady. She also makes it work for her, going on adventures, solving mysteries, and whacking Vampires with parasols. Percy in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is a student. Lyra in The Golden Compass gets into all sorts of trouble.

She could also be chafing under social norms. In my Steampunk YA, my main character doesn’t want to take the path her mother, and society, has laid out for her. The themes of coming into your own in a society (or family) that frowns on your choices can make for a great read–especially in YA where it’s all about grey area, pushing the boundaries, and finding where you fit in the universe.

Maybe she’s stuck in a situation that she feels powerless to get out of–or she’ll fight tooth and nail to improve her situation. The Victorian era has a darker side that I think could be explored a lot more in Steampunk stories. She could have been forced into a loveless marriage, perhaps she’s a prostitute, she could be a child who works in a factory, a “street sparrow”, or a victim of Imperialism. These, too, could make for stories with great character development and tell stories that aren’t yet being told. Darker stories have a place in Steampunk, too.

She could be plucky or permissive, a fighter or a nurturer, turning life on it’s ear or making the system working for her, dreaming of a better life or giving up everything to go after what she wants. She could be wealthy, poor, or self-reliant, should could live anywhere, anytime, anyplace. She could be driven around in a enabled carriage or be building an airship. She could barely read or be a professor.

That is the sheer beauty of Steampunk. So go ahead, tell the story that needs to be told of whether it’s the tale of a bold air pirate, a scrappy street sparrow,or a fine lady.

Women in Steampunk can be anything. They can be anything at all.

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by Marie-Claude Bourque

STEAMPUNK WORD OF THE WEEK:  Abbess – Brothel Madam (from Steampunk Lexican for iPhone)

Doing those workshops with Lolita Theresa gave me lots to think about, especially when we started to talk about steampunk archetypes.

Since I’m writing an adventure, I was pretty much focus on plot, looking at my 3 acts and the main conflicts both internal (my mystic witch heroine confronted with characters that are not quite human) and external (fighting the bad guys).

But then, as I always do, I dug out my good old Donald Maass workbook to fill up the questionnaires, mostly those about characters, and especially the secondary ones.

And a funny thing happened, I fell in love with them. I already love my hero and heroine but now, I feel for my “fallen” Victorian lady and her love of beauty, my witch/widow/emporium owner who believes in love and also for my silent chief engineer who sacrifices his life to give a good future to his orphan niece.

I realize that all stories are mostly about characters (and you do want to see them sort stuff out, i.e. plot). Loving our characters is the true solution to writers block because you can’t wait to spend time with them!

So tell me, writers out there! Plot or characters or both?

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There’s only a few days left to enter to win the gear ring.

Today we welcome debut YA Author T.K. Richardson, author of Return the Heart, which is now available.

Return the Heart is T.K. Richardson’s debut novel, and like much of her writing, is subtly influenced by her love of Russian history and literature. Raised on the West Coast, she improves the lives of children near and far by advocating for abused and neglected children in her community, as well as sponsoring a Christian based orphanage in India. She lives with her husband and children in California where she is at work on her next novel.

To a casual passerby, Lilly Paige is anything but special. As a seventeen year old, she is faced with all the complications of a teenager, but deep down there is much more. Lilly has a gift, though sometimes it seems to be a curse.

Lilly can peer into the hearts of others – their deepest, darkest secrets are there for Lilly to see – but to what end? Raised by aloof parents, Lilly has been independent her whole life, but soon she will need to rely on her friends to evade an evil that has sold her gift to the highest bidder on the black market. Lilly and her four closest friends are immersed in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, that will not only reveal more about Lilly’s gift, but also her link to an old Russian prophecy.

Can Lilly and her friends escape the danger that is so close they can practically feel it? Where will their perilous journey lead them – to darkness or light?

Lolita Suzanne: Welcome, thank you so much for visiting us here at Steamed! today. Congratulations on your first release. Can you share the story of “the Call”, the “email” or how you broke through into publishing with us?

T.K. Anderson: Like so many other writers I queried for what seemed like forever. Finally, when I felt the manuscript and I were both ready I sought out different publishers to submit to. I’m very happy with my publisher and the work they have put into Return the Heart.

LS: The cover is absolutely beautiful. Now, can you tell us what your book is about?

TKA: Return the Heart is the story of 17 year old Lilly Paige who has the secret gift of reading the heart. When that gift is exposed and sold on the black market she discovers her gift is more than the target of criminal obsession – it’s somehow linked to an old, Russian prophecy.

LS: Ooh, who doesn’t love a good prophecy? What inspired this story?

TKA: Return the Heart was inspired by my children, my love for Russian history and literature, and a desire to create a captivating story that would delight teens. What followed is a story filled with action, secret gifts, a seedy underworld, and more twists and revelations than the reader expects. Toss in a Russian element and Return the Heart is like an action movie about teens and for teens.

LS: I confess, I am an utter and total folklore nerd. What genre would you characterize this story as and why?

TKA: The book is intended for young adults, but I’m finding that people of all ages, from 10 to 92, are reading and enjoying the book. As an author I am very excited that the story is reaching so many different people and age groups.

LS: That’s really great. I love finding stories everyone can enjoy. When it comes to actually writing a story, are you a plotter or a pantser?

TKA: Oh, I’m definitely a panster. I’ve tried outlining before and I’ve tried plotting the story, but I work better when I just wing it and let the story take on a life of its’ own. It’s more fun that way, too. Of course, it probably makes it harder when I’m editing, but it’s the price I’m willing to pay.

LS: Hehehe, I’m a pantser, too, and seeing the story and characters take on a life of their own is half the fun. Do you have a favorite character?

TKA: Hmm… Well, I really love all the characters, so I don’t have a favorite. Each has qualities that I find admirable and that I love.

LS: If your characters went on summer vacation where would they go?

TKA: They might go to Disneyland, or the beach, or somewhere most any other teens would enjoy going.

LS: Do you have any writing habits/quirks/superstitions?

TKA: I don’t think I do, but my family may think differently. I do like to write at night, though. I love it when the dark surrounds everything and blankets my world in mystery and shadows. It’s my ideal time for writing, and it’s quiet.

LS: Quiet can be a good thing, especially when there are kiddos around, lol. Did you always want to be a writer?

TKA: No, I never dreamed of being a writer and it was never something on my list of things I wanted to be. One day the main character, Lilly, “appeared” and I rushed to write her down. Six weeks later the first draft of my first novel was complete, and I’ve been writing ever since. I love it, and I wouldn’t change the way it came about. Although I never dreamed of being a writer, I can see that my love for reading and history really prepared me and opened the door for my writing.

LS: Those dang, pushy characters, lol. Where would we writers be without them? You mentioned your love of reading, what authors inspired you growing up? Who are your favorite authors now?

TKA: Growing up I was really inspired by history and biographies. Corrie ten Boom and Chaim Potok were probably my favorite authors and very influential as a kid. As an adult my favorite authors are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol –all Russian authors from the past. To me their work is the pinnacle of writing, outside of the Bible.

LS: Okay, last question. If you could be stranded on an island with one fictional character who would it be and why?

TKA: Oh, that’s a tough question. I think it would be Prince Andrey from War and Peace by Tolstoy. I always had a secret crush on him and I wished his story was happier. He’s one of my very favorite characters and one that has stayed with me.

Thank you so much for joining us today, and we wish you the best of luck on your release.

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The fabulous Lolita Donna, aka Donna Ricci, proprietress of Clockwork Couture has come to my rescue and put together an amazing post about building a Steampunk wardrobe from the ground up.

Building a Steampunk from the grubby ground up

Creating a Steampunk ensemble requires imagination, ingenuity and creativity. The New Victorian movement is rarely portrayed accurately in movies in the true style of genre. To say that it “Damns the factory but celebrates the machine” is one of the most accurate quotes stemming from the budding subculture. Aristocrats are not fine lords and ladies but rather ship captains, yard bosses and storekeeps. This is the working class Victorian. Creators, inventors, metal smiths, dressmakers, musicians and explorers are the celebrities of the time and with that comes a more practical ensemble.

Figure out who you identify or can lose yourself in. After that, you must create the wardrobe to support it.

Thrift stores can be a great source to find sacrificial items to be altered. Many a prom dress was reinvented into a Victorian Steampunk gown. Do a little research before going in so you can keep an eye out for what makes sense.

If you want to do a period recreation, consignment shops and ebay can be a great source for authentic late 1800’s that is still very wearable. Beware that storage and sun are factors in how well a garment can withstand a soiree. Showcase it knowing that it may be a one shot deal and have a backup (or at the last great underclothes) should it fall away during the night’s revelry.

You can also either commission or buy off the rack at one of the online Steampunk Clothing stores opening up. A helpful salesperson can even guide you to get pieces that support your ideal self.

For ladies, you can never go wrong with a swag-front bustled skirt, ruffle-front blouse, granny boots and great little hat. Do remember your foundation when dressing, utilizing a corset to get the hourglass silhouette of the time. An underbust corset helps create that look while giving you more “breathing room”. Literally.

For men, a true gent can never be without coat and tails and a proper topper. Men’s clothing largely hasn’t changed over the years too terribly much. A pair of dress slacks and shirt will go well under a well tailored frock coat or tuxedo jacket. A bowler or top hat complete a dapper look. Spectacles or a dangling monocle distinguish a literary man from the uneducated worker and a cravat or ascot can cover up an unsightly or non period button up shirt. Don’t be afraid to show some frill. The Victorian gent was the first metrosexual.

Some pointers: Like a towel, a Steamer can never go wrong if he knows where his goggles are. It’s much like a passport, you should have a pair because you just never know what adventure awaits you today. Flights on dirigibles were as common as train rides in our alternate history, and one really does not fancy a bug in the eye.

Every subculture has had it’s ”symbol” as it were. The punks wore anarchy symbols stitched, painted or drawn on clothing and jewelry and the Goths had the ankh. Steampunks unite under the cog to show their avid love for invention, mechanics and time travel. Never be afraid or ashamed to don one.

Not unafraid of social qualms, Steampunk-styled ladies are NOT afraid to show their well fashioned corsets on the OUTSIDE. Cinch up a well curved waist over a skirt and show off 2” of backlacing. I dare you.

Being a celebration of technology, adventure, hopefulness and travel. It’s not uncommon to see the everyday tinkerer strapped into a homebrewed invention or altered object. Perhaps you could make a better pocketwatch or tietack. Perhaps they are both the same thing?

Because many period images were in sepia, many Steampunks have fancied themselves in browns and blacks. Partner that with the working class appreciation, and they tend to shun the acid dyes of the Victorians. This is not to say it’s not allowed, just know with Steampunk, brown is the new black.

Movies to watch for inspiration: Wild, Wild West starring Wil Smith and Kevin Kline, Steamboy (animated), The Prestige, Sherlock Holmes and Firefly. Recommended sounds: The Unextraordinary Gentleman, Tin Hat Trio, Emelie Autumn, and Rasputina.

With your help, we can create a night of Neo-Victorian opulence. A new Utopia with elaborate dress, impeccable manners, renewed chivalry and undeniable kindness. I hope to see you at the celebration.

Yours truly,

Captain Donna Ricci of the S.S. Clockwork Caravel


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Today we welcome Steampunk Icon G.D. Falksen.

Show, Don’t Tell; or, The Importance of Worldbuilding in Steampunk

As a writer known for my steampunk fiction, I’m often approached by people who are curious about how one “writes steampunk.” This is not an unusual question, and the process is much easier than it looks.  As with all genres, steampunk stories should have well-developed characters, an engaging and well-woven plot, both rich and efficient use of language, and a setting capable of containing all of these aspects.  However, because the steampunk genre is more a matter of setting and environment (as opposed to a specific set of plots or themes), the art of worldbuilding is perhaps the most important part of the process.  Worldbuilding is a major aspect of writing regardless, and it’s also a favorite passtime of mine.  To give examples of the process of steampunk worldbuilding, I will reference my two principle steampunk settings: first, the Cities of Ether, probably best known for the story The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday; and second, the Edwardian-era adventure world of An Unfortunate Engagement.

The first thing to consider when crafting a steampunk world is the question of whether it will be “the real world” (ie, the historical Victorian or Edwardian Era) that has developed into a science fiction version of itself, or whether the setting will be wholly fictional.  Of course, even an entirely made-up steampunk world will resemble the historical world in some degree in terms of fashion, technology and structure, just as high fantasy worlds resemble the Medieval or Early Modern Periods.  And conversely, a real-world steampunk setting may well deviate from the details of historical fact while remaining true to the major events, circumstances and technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

To explain what I mean by a “fictional steampunk setting” allow me to outline the premise of the Cities of Ether for those of you who are not already familiar with it.  The Cities of Ether, which has been best described as an “Edwardian X-Files”, takes the basic principles of 20th century deep space science fiction and re-imagines them in a context that would have been understandable to a Victorian audience.  It accepts the premise of space as ether, creating an environment that has oxygen and atmosphere but no gravity.  As a result, civilization is based not on enclosed space stations but on open flying cities; travel occurs on flying ships that resemble turn of the century naval craft or aeroplanes; and the “planets” of the setting are continent-sized land masses called “Islands”, which float through the sky.  And while the setting is entirely fictional, its civilizations are closely based on historical examples.  The primary setting for the most familiar Cities of Ether stories is the dystopian city of Salmagundi, which is based on a mixture of Belle Époque Paris and Gilded Age New York.  Other major civilizations are inspired by a range of difference cultural concepts, including a financially cutthroat Victorian England and its industrially-advanced Meiji Japan ally; a dynamic military alliance centered on a democratic Germany; a multi-cultural confederation of cities inspired by India; an old and power-hungry aristocratic union containing the worst excesses of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires; a Central Asian federation; and a nomadic Imperial China.  As you can see, the setting has an extremely large scope and includes a range of historically-inspired but entirely fictional concepts.

For an example of the historical setting, consider An Unfortunate Engagement.  This story is set very clearly in the early-mid Edwardian Era and its scope is specifically focused on England, France, Germany and Russia.  Aside from the events of the story, the background of the setting conforms to the historical reality.  But at the same time, the setting itself is larger than life.  It involves daring chases, gunfights, exploding airships and dastardly spies that clearly give it a fictional (indeed, often tongue-in-cheek) edge.  In fact, there is a distinct dualism between the adventure of the story and the otherwise historical context surrounding it, which adds to the fun.

One of the other key decisions to make when outlining a steampunk world is the role of sci-fi technology and the degree to which it exceeds historical fact.  Because steampunk is Victorian sci-fi, there is a whole range of technological options, reaching from very historically accurate “hard science” equipment to the much more over the top creations of various 19th century authors (indeed, many of the 19th century proto-steampunk authors spanned this range themselves, describing both very realistic inventions and far more outlandish ones).  Regardless of where on the factual-fictional spectrum your steampunk world rests, it’s important to remember that a steampunk setting, like any setting, should feel plausible and internally consistent.  One of the biggest risks a writer new to steampunk fiction faces is trying to overstate the point.  When you start trying to “prove” that the setting is steampunk, it inevitably feels forced and has the opposite effect.  As with anything in writing, the objective is to incorporate the various themes and icons of the subject into the setting so that they feel real, just like any other feature of the landscape.  In the case of steampunk, this means that the advanced technology should be emphasized only as much as it is unusual for the setting: if most of the setting conforms to a historical Victorian level of technology, the advanced science will probably stand out; if the entire setting enjoys advanced steampunk technology, it will seem as “ordinary” as a computer or electrical lighting would be in a modern story.

In the Cities of Ether, steampunk technology is everywhere, from steam-powered automobiles and aircraft, to mechanical computers, to complex communication networks based on telegraph lines and pneumatic tubes.  Steam even fills many of the roles of modern electricity, by powering household machines connected to the building’s heating pipes.  But because all of this technology is commonplace in the setting, to over-emphasize it would undermine the believability of the world.  Instead, the technology is described when there is a reason to describe it, such as when it is being used to set a scene (just as one would describe the presence of automobiles, the paintings on the walls of a room, or key pieces of furniture).

Contrast this to An Unfortunate Engagement, where the steampunk technology is the purview of a small number of mad scientists.  In this setting, even comparatively mundane steampunk technology (for example, a difference engine that can mimic the role of a modern computer) is not widely understood.  The key events of the story are kicked off by the theft of plans for constructing a rigid frame airship along the model of Zeppelins that will eventually be in use ten years later during the First World War.  Additional equipment includes vacuum bottles that can store steam in the manner of batteries, and time bombs of extreme complexity designed by a master clockmaker.  All of this technology stands out in contrast to the remainder of the world, which otherwise enjoys the normal science and machinery of the Edwardian Era.

When constructing a story world, it’s also very important to determine the cultural background of the people in the setting.  This is as important in steampunk as it is in any other setting, but in steampunk we have an added advantage.  Because steampunk is based on the 19th and early 20th centuries (a time period that saw the development of film and photography in addition to the growth of the modern newspaper industry), it is very easy to reference both the aesthetics and the philosophies of the age.  These form a solid background to any setting, and they can serve as a sort of shorthand to help you develop the culture of your world without having to construct it entirely from scratch.  When creating a steampunk world, it’s useful early on to determine which decade it is set in and which world cultures make an appearance.  Technology, ideas and fashion all developed dramatically over the course of the 19th century, and really each couple of decades can represent an entirely new steampunk setting.

To put this into examples, the Cities of Ether is based on a very wide range of cultures set around the turn of the 20th century (variously from about the 1870s through the 1910s).  This is an example of a very large and complex steampunk setting, which as an author I find very useful for variety but which can be daunting at times if one isn’t used to the scope of it.  An Unfortunate Engagement is much more contained, being set in a specific year and confining itself entirely to Europe.  Both of these are equally valid approaches to the scale of worldbuilding.  And as you may be aware, one topic that is near and dear to me is multi-cultural and non-European steampunk, which I’m very proud to have brought into the steampunk discourse several years ago.  I cannot emphasize enough that any culture that existed during the 19th or early 20th centuries is a viable option for a steampunk setting provided you can create an explanation for its possessing advanced industrial technology.  Europe and America are often easiest because historically they were on the cutting edge of industrial development, but they are not mandatory in steampunk by any stretch of the imagination.

Steampunk settings need the usual components as well: politics, social structure, economies, etc.  However, all of these can be approached in the same way you would approach them in any kind of setting.  So long as you have the contextual framework already set up, the rest of the worldbuilding process will flow comfortably into place.   While worldbuilding is most useful for authors, anyone interested in the creative process will find it helpful.  If you enjoy creating characters, knowing what sort of world they live in will help inform their ideas and habits.  Fashion and accessories will vary depending on the world they are made in, and designers, craftspeople and artists can create an entire mythos and a defining look for their work simply by having their personal “world” in mind when making their art.  Most people have a world of their own that they want to create, whether actively or not.

While I have used steampunk settings as examples, these guidelines actually apply to any setting or genre.  The place to start when building any kind of world is with the larger framework, and this is made significantly easier by following a comparable historical example.  For example, European fantasy settings are based on the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, and non-European ones are likewise based on the feudal or imperial models of other cultures, like the various Caliphates during the Golden Age of Islam.  Having a historical model to build from gives you a shorthand for the world.  In addition to providing inspiration, historical frameworks help make the setting ring true to the reader.  If the setting has a military equipped with bows, historical examples such as the English longbowmen can provide details as to how the weapons are used and what sort of tactics work effectively with them.  Historical references can be used to create realistic socio-economic structures, political ideologies, and technological developments.  And should you ever doubt that the utterly fantastic can still benefit from the careful application of reality, remember that the most believable dragons are based on various animal models ranging from serpents to lizards to cats.


G.D. Falksen is a history student and author of fiction whose work includes pieces from a wide range of genres, including steampunk, pulp adventure, historical fiction, horror, sci-fi and fantasy.

In addition to writing, G. D. Falksen is a student of history, covering a range of fields but focusing on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries. He is a noted figure in the steampunk subculture, and has given lectures on the subject at various conventions.

For more information please visit his website and facebook page.

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While the other Lolitas were living it up large at the Romance Writers of America national conference in Orlando. Lolita Marie-Claude and I (with the cyber help of Lolita Suzanne) gave both a two-day workshop and a live chat on the glorious genre of steampunk.

 One of the things I love about giving workshops is that most of the time you learn something in return for sharing with others. This time around I learned a few vital things.

 1. Writers are very confused about what is steampunk.

 For most writers (especially those in the romance genre) steampunk elicits a plethora of questions. What is it? When is it set? What do I have to do to turn my romance into a steampunk? 

 The (highly) condensed version of the answer Marie Claude and I gave is this: Steampunk is part steam, part punk. The steam comes from setting your story in the Victorian steam era (anywhere from 1830s to 1890s), before the use of the combustion engine. And while you may have outlandish inventions for your characters to use, they must be created from era appropriate materials (glass, wood, metals, natural fibers, clockworks, electricity, gun powder, steam).

The punk comes from tweaking your characters, clothing and history to suit your modern sensibilities rather than adhering strictly to Victorian social structure and morals. This means women can have far bigger roles than possible. They can be airship captains, military leaders, captains of industry, explorers, inventors and if they are past 18 and not married, their hardly spinsters. They can be set anywhere (even alternate universes, timelines, etc.) as long as they are based in the steam era.

 Steampunk is actually a very well established sub culture created from people who appreciate science fiction the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. They like hand-crafted items rather than mass-produced machined items and they are a bit obsessive about details, crafting and history.  You need to respect this sub culture if you want to write in this sub genre. They are as passionate about steampunk as Star Trek fans are of their sci-fi fix.

 2. People are curious about the archetypes in steampunk.

 There are several beloved archetypal characters in steampunk. You can mix and match these archetypes and even set them in other locations to change them up a bit. Here’s a partial list, but certainly not everything, and again, these are broad, general character types: Adventurer, Aristocrat, Dandy, Explorer, Lolita, Hunter/Fighter, Cowboy, Mad Scientist/Inventor, Airship Captain/Crew/Aviator, Mechanic, Military, Femme Fatale/Soiled Dove.

 For more specifics may I suggest you look at http://www.squidoo.com/dressingsteampunk  Putting this together with any location you could certainly see how a Femme Fatale in China might come across as a Dragon Lady or a Dandy in the Wild West might have a more Southern Gentlemen styling to his clothing. 

 3. Writers are worried that their work won’t be Victorian enough.

Stop worrying so much. There is something for everyone. Yes, editors in New York might be looking for something with a more clear Victorian setting or flair, but if the writing is good, you will find a home for the story no matter where it is set. I predict you’ll be seeing a lot of growth in this segment and a broadening of the concept of what is steampunk in the next few years.

 For the most part a more Victorian feel comes not only from the clothing styles of your characters, but also with the way they speak. People were much more formal in their conversational styles at the time. For instance a man didn’t call a woman by her first name until they were practically engaged (or intimate) with one another. It would be a social faux pas. But then, normal society rules don’t apply to airship pirates, now do they?

 4. Writers are unsure what kind and how much research they need to do.

As Diana Vick, organizer grand dame of SteamCon is fond of saying, “steampunks need historical accuracy like dirigibles need goldfish.” 

You are looking for a taste of the time period, but inevitably you are going to punk it up. Things aren’t going to be the same. History might even be different. It’s like having a taste of vanilla in your whipping cream rather than actual ground vanilla bean, if that makes any sense.

Yes you can use historical facts. But you can also have things that never happened, like the great airship wars, or submarine travel or even cities underground.

If you don’t understand mechanics, fake it. As long as your inventor/mad scientist/ genius/ heroine understands how to make it work, let them fiddle with the knobs, springs, gears and levers. They’ll know how to work it and your reader will be fine with that.

 Now obviously this is hardly the complete two-day workshop in total, but if you happen to be going to any of the conferences we’ll be attending in late 2010 and through 2011 you might be able to catch the whole thing…

In the end steampunk isn’t as confusing, nor as difficult as writers are making it out to be. It should be fun. It should be filled with wonder, excitement, adventure, discovery and science. If it isn’t, well, all I can say is you’re not doing it right.

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As you read this I’m on my way back home from Orlando, which is a terrible, horrible multi-plane hike across the time zones. Not very fun.

But the Romance Writers of America 2010 conference was fun indeed.

Fellow Lolitas Shelley Adina and Cindy Holby and I did a Steampunk panel along with agent Jennifer Jackson. I’d been terrified that no one would come, since we were opposite some great workshops. But as it turned out, it was standing room only with some very interesting people in attendance.

We got great questions ranging from women’s roles in steampunk to the darker aspects such as colonialism, imperialism, and child labor. Overall, I thought it went well, especially since I didn’t have the vapors…and with the outfit I was wearing I thought I might.

Another highlight of the conference was the Steampunk ball and Prism awards, hosted by the RWA Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal online chapter. Everyone was welcome to come in costume, so, of course, Shelley and I dressed up. I came as a Steampunk Princess, complete with tiara made of clockhands. Considering I was walking through a hotel at the happiest place on earth, I got quite a few looks from little girls.

I am convinced that fellow Lolita Leanna Renee Hieber is my long lost sister–and not because people get us mixed up. She was nominated for not one, but two Prism awards. There were a few jokes since she wore all black and I wore all cream. Does that mean one of us is the good sister and one of us the bad sister?

Leanna ended up winning in both the fantasy and best book categories for The Strangely Beautiful Tale of miss Percy Parker . Cynthia Eden also was a double prism winner, taking both the dark paranormal and novella categories.

Since the ball/awards was steampunk themed, there were some amazing costumes. I didn’t win the costume contest because my steampunk princess costume lacked gadgets.

Hmmm….what gadgets would a steampunk princess have?

Anyway, the conference was amazing, and I attended some excellent panels on everything from social networking to DNA and got to hang out with my fellow lolitas and YA writers (more about that on my personal blog over the next few days.)

I leave you with a couple of pictures from the Steampunk ball.

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