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Goggles and Gears! 5 Tips for Writing Steampunk

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When I was little, I read constantly. I mean, constantly. The biggest fight was to get me outside and playing like a normal kid. I preferred to lay in my room with my books, particularly either my giant book on mythologies from around the world or classics. Of all those classics, there were some that always stuck out—The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of my top favorite books. Edgar Allan Poe was, and still is, my absolute favorite writer. The imagination and detail of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine were breathtaking. While everything was interesting to me, there was something about the Victorian era that really held my attention. To this day, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia whenever I see anything fashioned after the late 1800s.

When I discovered steampunk, it was that same excitement all over again. I can stare at any picture for an embarrassingly long time, taking in every detail of gears and cogs and moving parts. I absolutely love the Hayao Miyazaki movies Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, both based on steampunk themes. As for books, I’ve been listening to Shelly Adina’s Lady of Devices on the train to work for the last week.

The draw of steampunk is much more than just Victorian literature; steampunk is an imaginative blend of fantasy and sci-fi, often based in historical periods or in future times that see, for whatever reason, a society that has reverted to steam power and counterweighted-clockwork. As many a steampunk fan will point out, the genre is very difficult to convey the intricate and brilliant beauty through storytelling. Though it lends itself to a visual style, rather than a written style, there are a few tips that will help make any steampunk story stand out.

  1. Lots of Parts Mean Lots of Noise.

If you’ve ever wound up a music box, you’re familiar with the clicking and ticking sounds of the gear as you wind it. Unless you’re creating illustrations to accompany your book, you may find describing every gear and every weight and every pipe of your machine to be both tedious and overwhelming. If you aren’t a mechanic or have a lot of experience in clockwork, the task can seem impossible, as well.

Consider the following:

  Another test of the machine would satisfy him. He checked the gauge on the lower panel,  making certain that the coil was heating enough to convert the water in the chamber above. The pressure of the rising steam moved the large gears, their cogs catching the smaller gears and moving along the surface to catch the sprockets. When the chains of the sprockets began to move, the mechanical arm was raised with the pulley. This was a success; phase one of his robot was officially completed.

This sort of writing is difficult to follow. The description is so lost in technical terms that the reader must spend all of their imagination’s energy trying to build the picture in their head and likely have very little left over to enjoy such an important moment.

Let’s look at a different way of describing this scene.

Another test of the machine would satisfy him. His eyes flickered down to the gauge for a moment as the water began bubbling inside of its tube, steady and loud at first, but then stifled as the conversion from liquid to gas took hold. Just moments after the bubbling became a soft hiss of pressure, the click-click-click began as the gears above the tube slowly came to life. Unlike the water, the sound started modestly and rose with each newly stirred wheel, as though every piece was awoken by the movement of its neighbor. The chains on the sprockets ticked sharply with every drop of their links as they moved with the cogs.  The unison of clattering pieces tightened the chains of the pulley with a groan, and with slow, laborious raising of the arm, he felt his joy and pride rising with the sounds of the concert of parts. This was a success; phase one of his robot was officially completed.

Notice that with the use of sounds, we can still envision the pieces, but we are able to follow the progression of movement with more ease. Whether we notice or not, we’re familiar with the relationship of sounds and the workings of machines. Anybody who drives is familiar with the frustrating sound of a stalled engine. When you boot up your computer, you wait for the breath of the motherboard as it slowly begins to awaken. The deafening sound of the plane engines both screeching and vibrating tell you that you are in the midst of takeoff. Even if you aren’t aware of every moving part of these machines and how they work together, you are often very aware of the sounds they make when they’re working as expected or when there’s something wrong. In steampunk, this relationship can be used to bring some familiarity to your reader. They may not know what a sprocket is by name, but they will understand the tick of the chain on gears if they’ve ever ridden a bicycle (which, coincidentally, is exactly what a sprocket is). Remember that one of the appeals of steampunk is how mechanical marvels are created using no electricity. You may lack the ability to show every gear and pipe and tube, but you can make up for it by letting your readers hear the movement and the machine coming to life, instead.

  1. Set the Tone.

When you write steampunk stories, it’s a great idea to read some of those Victorian works (or wild west stories, as it’s a popular theme in steampunk, too). The allure of steampunk is often the same allure of those stories: the tone of the writing is capable of being poetic, dark and thrilling all in the same book. While the language you use will be more current, you’ll find that certain descriptions, such as dark alleyways, old houses, gardens or people tend to have different points of interest in Victorian literature. While we may describe a modern home by the number of rooms, the style of décor, or the size of the yard, Victorian literature had a knack for drawing your attention elsewhere—the molding on the banisters, the arches of the support beams, the material of the curtains. These were all details that painted a very clear picture of the times. We were often dragged into a gritty, dirty flat that welcomes every chilly draft on the dusty street that smells of garbage and molding wood, just to find ourselves in an opulent manor with plush sitting room chairs in front of the great, stone fireplace where the whistling kettle signaled evening tea in the next chapter. The environments surrounding the characters in Victorian literature were often just as important as the characters themselves. This still holds true in steampunk, and the genre gives you the opportunity to bring that type of writing back while still appealing to large audiences in our time.

  1. Consider Your Themes

While there’s no real rule on what the theme of a steampunk story should be, the imagery, details and world building often lend itself to adventure stories or gothic horror. There’s a very good reason for this: these were the popular genres during the Victorian era and naturally lend themselves to steampunk. These themes in and of themselves are fun to write and adding the steampunk factor makes for a whole different experience. Modes of transportation, weapons, odd objects around an abandoned house, all of it can be polished and emphasized in the steampunk genre.

  1. Don’t Drown in Details

As mentioned in the first topic, steampunk revolves around complex mechanical objects that consist of steam-powered energy sources and counterweighted clockwork. This leads to a much more visual-friendly genre than one that thrives in writing alone. One mistake people make is trying to describe how every single thing moves or every part of a machine. This can bog your readers down with too many details and make the story hard to follow.

As with using sound to describe how a machine moves, consider using the effect of the machine. Do you feel large drafts of air as the airship begins to take off? What about the smell of the grease on the cogs of the gears when they grind together? We often think that our job as writers is to paint a clear picture for the reader. While it’s good to give a visual, we have a unique position of creating the entire experience for the reader. We help them explore the settings by telling them not just what it looks like, but how it sounds, what it feels like, how it smells . . . reading should be completely immersive, and it’s okay to give a visual description that doesn’t mention the position of every screw or bolt. There are pictures that the readers will create in their mind. If you want them to have a clear picture, especially of such a technical, fantastical world as steampunk tends to be, give them every tool they need to experience the scene with every sense, not just vision.

  1. Research is Vital

Often, you’re going to be writing about a certain period or place. Always, you’ll be writing about machines that you may not be familiar with.  The best advice anybody can give you is to research all of this. My advice particularly is to research not only how clockwork, gears and steam power work, but also how simple machines work; pulleys, levers, wedges, and planes all play a crucial part in steampunk day-to-day. Building steam machines only worked with certain materials laid and assembled by certain tools under certain conditions. Soft materials, such as canvas for sails or blimp-like airships had to be stretched and prepared a certain way to make it safe to use with heat from the steam. Railcars to transport materials from mines and quarries weren’t controlled by electric or wireless systems. All of these things required great physical labor and expertise.

It’s also good to remember that a lot of the steampunk genre either implicitly or explicitly addresses social topics, such as labor, class struggles, gender roles and so on. Research into these things is a good idea, especially if your story takes place in the past and would be affected by the historical privileges or prejudices that your character would encounter during that time. Your wealthy, educated academic is going to have a very different experience than your poor, weathered, street-savvy mechanic, even if they need each other for the plot challenge.

Is steampunk something you’d be willing to try? What other possibilities are there in this genre that haven’t been explored? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and inspirations.

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