When I sit on panels, I get asked questions all the time about how to make a story “sound” steampunk. The answers are as diverse as the authors who sit on the panels and the stories they create. Everyone has a different process and everyone’s stories have different needs (not to mention different editors will have different expectations.)
Some people try to recreate the feel of literature from the era. Other’s go for “steampunk lite” – sprinkling in Victorian slang like seasoning, or simply trying not to use any words that weren’t used then.
I really struggle with getting “sound” right (which is very different from voice). Getting the right blend of period language and accessibility can be tricky. YA, which is what I write, can especially be a difficult balance to strike. Where you want your story to feel like it’s from that time period you also don’t want it to feel like it’s an English class assignment.
Language and dialogue is important in Steampunk since it adds so much to your characters, aesthetic, and world building. Your characters don’t need to sound like they escaped from a period novel. However, their language should work for your world, while being accessible to your audience. Depending on what you’re writing you may not want to sound like Dickens or Verne.
With Innocent Darkness and Charmed Vengeance I try not to make my teen characters overly formal while avoiding modern words, though they are from the upper class so it’s a fine line I really struggle with. Also, if your story is not set in England or some place under English rule, avoid making them sound too British—which can be easy to do (I’m guilty of this.) Also, don’t fixate one or two words and use them to death (I also do this unintentionally.)
Sometimes you may want to use the correct word for an era and it just doesn’t work for the story. For example — Innocent Darkness has a heavy Victorian influence, though it’s set in America not England. At the time, even in American, legs were referred to as “limbs.” When I tried to reflect this in my story I got major giggle fits from my teen beta readers who either didn’t get it or thought it was so funny they couldn’t stop laughing. So, I use “leg” even though it’s not correct because it is more accessible.
In Innocent Darkness, because my kids are upper class teens, I ended up making up the silly swear “flying figs.” Even though my main girl character fixes cars and hoverboards, she’s still a Victorian lady at the core, so I was looking for something that not only she would say, but V and James might let slip in mixed company.
In Charmed Vengeance I introduce some characters that are rougher around the edges, yes, air pirates. They speak differently from my kids, use different words—and swears (though they tend to watch their tongues when Noli is present, partially because her brother is aboard the ship and he’s a bit protective). One of my favorites of these phrases is “I don’t give a gear.” It’s fun and colorful, even if it’s not that strong.
Sometimes I re-purpose pre-existing words. For example, where “dollymop” is an actual Victorian word, Noli uses it more colloquially to mean something closer to “skank” or “ho” than “amateur prostitute.”
If you choose to use period slang in your story (and you don’t have to) there’s plenty of resources out there. But don’t overload the story with slang–just use a few words here and there for flavor (though be careful not to overuse them).
Slang changes a lot based on class and even area. The way someone from a lower class will speak, and the words they’ll use, will differ from those of the upper class. So keep in mind that if you have classes, the socialites will sound different from your air pirates.
Also, different characters will have different vocabularies. For example, your scientists and inventors may use more technical language.
Here’s a link for British lower-class/underworld slang:
Old west slang for those of you writing Weird West
Here’s some more dictionaries and such:
Also, naughty words:
Suzanne Lazear is the author of the YA Steampunk fairytale series The Aether Chronicles. INNOCENT DARKNESS is out now. Book 2, CHARMED VENGEANCE, releases from Flux 8-8-13. Visit the series site at www.aetherchronicles.com.