Archive for August, 2010

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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