Posts Tagged ‘world building’

Gail Carriger at Lone Star Worldcon 2013

Gail Carriger at Lone Star Worldcon 2013

About a month ago, at /LoneStar/WorldCon in San Antonio, I attended the “I Married A Werewolf” panel on Paranormal/Romance. The panel was made up of authors: Darlene Marshall, Carrie Vaughn, Charlaine Harris,  and also two authors with Steampunk credentials, Gail Carriger, well known author of the The Parasol Protectorate and the Finishing School series, and Jean Johnson, who in addition to her paranormal and sci-fi books wrote, Steam, a Steampunk short story in the The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance.

The label of paranormal romance came up and Gail Carriger mentioned that Orbit struggled with how to label her first book, Soulless. The label on the spine read – Fantasy/Horror.  Jean Johnson said, “I considered my book The Sword to be a Fantasy/Romance, but I don’t deal with labels, that’s the marketing department. The publisher labeled The Sword as a Paranormal/Romance.”

Gail Carriger explained that she played with actual genres in Victorian literature in her five books in the Parasol Protectorate series. The first was based on Gothic Romance, the second on Gothic Cozy, the third on an American Boy’s Adventure, the 4th on a Sherlock Holmes Cozy, and the fifth is in a Travel Journal style.

In another LoneStar/WorldCon panel I attended, Gail Carriger spoke about world building. Along with Gail Carriger — Bryan T. Schmidt, Amanda Downum, and Robin Hobbs made up the “Intricate Worlds Panel”. The first question the panel addressed was what are some of your world building pet peeves?

Bruan T Schmidt’s answered, “Things that get overlooked.”

Amanda Downum’s said, “A static world or a world that hasn’t evolved. Where things have always been this way. For example, they have always used swords and horse drawn carts and nothing will change.”

Robin Hobbs said, “Cities that have no reason for being there. Cities that are hard to get to, so the characters have difficult challenges in reaching them but there doesn’t seem to be any other reason for the location of the city.”

Gail Carriger mentioned her pet peeve was not making use of objects representative of the characters’ culture. “Don’t discount objects your characters own or have with them as they can be very telling to the readers about those characters.”

Steampunk at World Con 2013

Steampunk at World Con 2013

Ms. Carriger also gave advice for research and world building: “Call your local university. They are one of those untapped resources. Also, one of the secrets of world building is to piggy back on a culture that is little known or pick and choose and meld two cultures that never did blend in actual history.” She further advised, “You are the god or goddess of your own universe – you just have to explain the rules of your universe properly. You’re drawing up your own laws for this universe, so you can’t break those.”

The panels at LoneStar, WorldCon in San Antonio were great, full of interesting information and advice for my writing. Feel free to comment below with your own world building pet peeves or world building advice.

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Maeve Alpin, who also write as Cornelia Amiri, is the author of 19 published books. Her latest Steampunk/Romance is Conquistadors In Outer Space. She lives in Houston Texas with her son, granddaughter, and her cat, Severus.

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First off, we’re going to give away a copy of Saundra Mitchell’s The Vespertine. 


Shannon, you are our winner.  Please email me at suzannelazear (@) hotmail to claim your prize.  Didn’t win?  You can still win a bunch of things, like books by Mark Hodder,  a bag of swag from RT and The Vampire Dimitri.

Today we have another great Pyr author, Andrew Mayer, author of The Falling Machine.  We’ll be giving away four copies of his book!

The Falling Machine: The Society of Steam, Book One by Andrew Mayer

In 1880 women aren’t allowed to vote, much less dress up in a costume and fight crime…

But twenty-year-old socialite Sarah Stanton still dreams of becoming a hero. Her opportunity arrives in tragedy when the leader of the Society of Paragons, New York’s greatest team of gentlemen adventurers, is murdered right before her eyes. To uncover the truth behind the assassination, Sarah joins forces with the amazing mechanical man known as The Automaton. Together they unmask a conspiracy at the heart of the Paragons that reveals the world of heroes and high-society is built on a crumbling foundation of greed and lies. When Sarah comes face to face with the megalomaniacal villain behind the murder, she must discover if she has the courage to sacrifice her life of privilege and save her clockwork friend.

The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam, Book One) takes place in a Victorian New York powered by the discovery of Fortified Steam, a substance that allows ordinary men to wield extraordinary abilities, and grant powers that can corrupt gentlemen of great moral strength. The secret behind this amazing substance is something that wicked brutes will gladly kill for and one that Sarah must try and protect, no matter what the cost.

When he’s not crafting stories, Andrew Mayer works as a video-game designer and digital entertainment consultant. He has created numerous new concepts, characters, and worlds, including the original Dogz and Catz digital pets. Andrew calls Portland, Oregon, home (although he’s been traveling a lot lately). You can find his musings on writing and media at www.andrewpmayer.com. This is his first novel.

The Writing Process by Andrew Mayer

If, back when I first started writing, someone had told me that my first published novel was going to be a Victorian era adventure about a girl and a mechanical man, I would have thought that they were nuts. I was, after all, going to be a Science Fiction Writer™. There was nothing I wanted to do more than tell amazing stories about spaceships, aliens, and far-away worlds that took place in humanity’s glorious future of unlimited galactic conquest. I was certainly wouldn’t been interested in becoming mired in some fantastical age of steam based on the past.

And my complaints wouldn’t have just been about the setting—writing pseudo-historical fiction is hard. You don’t just make things up, you have to look them up as well. And at some point in the process you find yourself researching details that can simply be invented in a story of the far future. You need to figure out the little things, like how people cleaned their teeth in 1880, the finer points of Victorian home heating systems, and whether or not the term gangster was actually used before the turn of the century.*

But right or wrong, easy or hard, I discovered that the story in my head that needed telling was a steampunk story. And I set about trying to write it.

Soon after starting I realized that I actually kind of liked researching things. There’s a great feeling that comes when you find the answer you’re looking for, whether it’s buried deep in the internet, or hidden in the pages of a dusty library book. And after a few months of uncovering these hidden historical gems, I discovered that that I’d done so much spelunking in the past that I either already knew the answers, or I knew exactly where to look.

Part of the skill of writing is accepting that motivation can come from the strangest places. Because starting a novel is easy, but to finish one you need to find a story that excites you enough to get your butt into the writing chair for the days, weeks, months, and years that it takes to drag your story from the first character description to final copy edit. You have to feel the passion for your fiction, and it’s that love that keeps pushing you to keep hitting the keys long after you’ve lost any sense of perspective, and to write some more after you’ve gained it back again. And it was as I wrote this story I discovered that I had a true passion for the Steampunk genre. And I wanted to not just tell a ripping tale, but also to try and write the kind of book that would infect people with my growing love for the genre.

And as I read the reviews for the book I’ve written I’m less concerned with whether someone “likes” it or not (although people who like it are nice) than discovering if I’ve managed to communicate my passion to the reader. And if I have, even just a little bit, it gives me the fuel to back and do it again. And the aliens will just have to wait a little longer…

* Europeans did use boar’s bristle toothbrushes in 1880, but brushing didn’t take off in American until around 1885.
Central heating was popular in wealthy Victorian homes because they believed still air caused diseases.
Gangster is a perfectly fine word for the period, although it still doesn’t sound quite right to me.

~Andrew Mayer


What has been the strangest (or most difficult) thing you’ve had (or wanted) to research?  We have four copies of The Falling Machine (The Society of Steam, Book One) to give away to four lucky commenters.  You’ll have to wait to recieve your prize until May, but it’s open internationally.

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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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