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.