Posted On February 11, 2011 by Print This Post

Steampunk! What’s So Fascinating About It?

Barb Henderson's Writing SteampunkIt’s my pleasure to invite Beth Daniels, who writes as Beth Henderson and J.B. Dane, to visit today.  I read about Beth teaching a class on steampunk, a genre of romance and mystery that fascinated me and was thrilled when she agreed to share what she knows with RU readers.  Whether you’re just curious about the genre, want to write in the genre or want to read more about it, this blog’s for you!

Beginning to feel like everywhere you turn you’re hearing the term Steampunk? It certainly appears to be the case.

If you watch CASTLE on Monday nights on TV, you were treated to an episode last Fall where the victim was killed with a 200 year old ball – not a bullet, a ball – that it appeared had been fired from a dueling pistol. The victim was dressed in Victorian style clothing and once the trail lead to a particular club in Manhattan, Rick Castle began spouting information about how Steampunk was a society of like minded individuals who liked socializing in a 19th century sort of way. A get away experience since most were involved in super geek type “real life” jobs.

If you go looking for information on the Internet, you might come up with a designation that I particularly liked, although it didn’t fit me personally: “Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover the color brown.” I always liked brown.

Actually, Steampunk is that as well as what Rick Castle said. It’s a lot of things and you’ll find all those things, many of them for sale, at a Steampunk convention because Steampunkers like getting together and donning their alternative personas just as much as Renaissance Faire (or STAR TREK and STAR WARS) folk do. A web search will supply at least eleven Steampunk gatherings around the US (San Jose, San Diego, Seattle, Tucson, Denver, Wichita, Philadelphia, Waltham, Massachusetts, Santa Clara, Roanoke, Virginia, and Oklahoma City). Some cities have Steampunk communities (Seattle’s Steam Rats, San Francisco’s Bay Area Steampunk Association, Sacramento’s Steampunk Society, and Philadelphia’s Dorian’s Parlor could well be just the tip of the steamburg).

But what we’re most interested in here is that Steampunk is a market for readers and thus for writers.

I must admit that I discovered Steampunk through an article in RT. A year later I presented my first workshop on Steampunk. Since then I’ve needed to create other Steampunk workshops and slip it into the Alternative History workshop because so many participants were interested in it. This is slowing down production on my own Steampunk tales…yes, I have more than one in progress, but that’s because I like more than one style of Steampunk.

Reading Steampunk equates to a part-time job because new titles are surfacing at a rapid rate. Steampunk is a subgenre of a subgenre in Fantasy, because it is alternative history. But saying that’s all it is is like claiming Urban Fantasy is just another name for a book with vampires in it.

Steampunk does the same thing that Urban Fantasy does, only with an emphasis on taking the steam-driven past and incorporating some more modern marvels – things like computers and regular air travel and robots – all steam powered, of course. It can add doses of time travel, magic, paranormals (vampires, werewolves, golems and ghosts are always popular), mystery, and then wrap it all up in an action-adventure.

Steampunk can take place in London or the British countryside under Victoria. It can run amuck in the American West (a subgenre of the subgenre of the subgenre, if you will, known as Weird West). It can cross dimensions, enter into alternate universes, visit other Earths, as long as the mechanisms in these various and sundry places is either powered by steam or leans toward Victorian mores, it’s Steampunk. Heck, if it does that, Steampunk can even be set in the future.

One thing that you need to do if the inclination to investigate Steampunk hits you is read, read, read, in the genre. There are so many different styles of Steampunk to choose from, narrowing in on one to make your own can be daunting – at first.

Steampunk can lean more toward the horror realm, as China Mieville’s novels do. It can be rather erotic, whether you’re going for Steampunk erotica (most turning up as e-books, some looking decidedly self-published) or an adventure with touches of erotica worked in, such as THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS.

Looking for romance where the steam isn’t necessarily describing the temperature of what’s happening in the bedroom? Katie MacAlister flung her 21 century scientist hero into a parallel Steam universe and the arms of a female airship captain in her romantic adventure STEAMED. For a delightful excess of humor with a plethora of paranormal characters engaged in running the British Empire for the Queen, you really shouldn’t miss Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, of which I believe the 4th book is about to be released.

If you work better having a visual concept of something, look to the movies and TV. Flix with Steampunk elements are SHERLOCK HOLMES, THE PRESTIGE, VAN HELSING, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, THE WILD, WILD WEST, TIME AFTER TIME, THE TIME MACHINE, and even to some extent THE BROTHERS GRIMM. The small screen has supplied THE WILD, WILD WEST (no echo, but the original series in the 1960s, I believe), BRISCO COUNTRY JR. and the difficult to find and also quite extinct series THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE. Many DOCTOR WHO episodes lean toward Steampunk.

There are also quite a number of Steampunk graphic novels…series, even! In fact, this is the market that fueled the new enthusiasm for the genre…no, subgenre of a subg…well, you know.

Someone interested in writing Steampunk should be interested in history, particularly that of the Industrial Age, the 19th century. Themes deal with expansion, with invention, and frequently with taking over the world (isn’t that what the British were doing with their Empire?) for political, economic or just plain selfish reasons. It’s the manifest destiny of Steampunk characters. Their ancestors appeared in the tomes of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger tales of the Lost World, in Oscar Wilde’s DORIAN GRAY and Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR JECKLE AND MR HYDE. Let’s not forget Bram Stoker’s DRACULA or Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN…yes, even a tale penned during the Regency (or a story set in the Regency) qualifies. It’s the Industrial Age.

But the writer considering writing Steampunk should also enjoy warping things – like history.

Beth Daniels
aka Beth Henderson, J.B. Dane
www.RomanceAndMystery.com

***

RU Crew, do you have any burning reader questions for Beth? For our writers out there, have you branched out into steampunk? If so, what challenges did you face?

Join us Monday when Romance University founder Adrienne Giordano shares what she has learned in the first months since signing her contract.

***

Bio:  Beth Daniels currently writes as Beth Henderson and J.B. Dane, though she answered to Lisa Dane and Beth Cruise in the past as well. She has worked with editors at Berkley, Zebra, Leisure, Harlequin/Silhouette, and Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin Paperbacks, done e-books for a now defunct company (not her fault, she says), and began her writing life with hardcover books slated for library use with a publisher that got out of the romance business (again, not her fault). More recently she’s had a number of articles about writing picked up by e-zines, saw a short story published in a mystery and suspense magazine that turned up its toes the next year (really, really not her fault), and has a story in the MOTHER GOOSE IS DEAD anthology slated for publication by Dragon Moon Press in 2011.

For over a dozen years Beth taught college level composition, both in the classroom and online, and a credit course on Novel Writing.

Twenty-six of Beth’s manuscripts have appeared in print or e-book format, and in 12 different languages in over 20 countries. At the moment she is working on various manuscripts, some fiction, some non-fiction but related to writing. Her current fairly consuming project is a little thing she calls WRITING STEAMPUNK!

She is a member of Romance Writers of America, and an active member and volunteer with the Kiss of Death Online romantic suspense chapter, and a fixture at SavvyAuthors.com.

Website: www.RomanceAndMystery.com

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39 Responses to “Steampunk! What’s So Fascinating About It?”

  1. Beth, thank you so much for introducing RU to steampunk. Although I haven’t read the genre yet, I have a couple stashed on my to be read pile. Love steampunk movies though.

    In building a steampunk world, are there any dos and don’ts?

    Thanks!

    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | February 11, 2011, 5:31 am
    • Hi Tracey!

      You know, at this point that doesn’t appear to be the case. There are so many different variations possible with Steampunk. Steampunk is very much in sight in the YA market and there are erotica versions, too.

      Probably the biggest difference is between the things that were written in the later half of the 20th century when the term was first coined, and the 21st century versions. Men dominated the earlier, which probably didn’t make it out of the fantasy readership market. Today there are far, far more women who are the superstars in the genre and it seems to be everywhere.

      So right now, I would think you can combine nearly any other genre with it, nearly any element you wish, and still find a publisher who’s eyes light up when they hear “Steampunk.”

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 10:53 am
  2. Thanks for joining us today Beth! I love the concepts and the texture in Steampunk, but I’ve never written it. So loving reading about this!

    Heather

    Posted by Heather | February 11, 2011, 8:01 am
    • Hi Heather!

      If you like stories with a Victorian touch, whether they are historicals or not, then Steampunk is it. Action-adventure, very creative blendings of real inventions and take-offs of what might have been possible with just a touch more technology, and then science thrown in.

      Not everything has a romantic element, but there are plenty that do. One just has to find a style of Steampunk that they like. So many to choose from. :-)

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 10:57 am
  3. Morning Beth!

    I’ve just ordered the Gail Carriger and Katie MacAlister books…thanks for giving us some titles to work with!

    Maybe you can clarify for myself and our readers – when you say alternate history, what exactly do you mean?

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 11, 2011, 8:05 am
    • Hi Carrie!

      Alternative history – well, let’s say that instead of John Wilkes Booth getting a clean shot at Abraham Lincoln that night at Ford’s Theatre, one of Lincoln’s attendants spotted him, tackled him, and Lincoln didn’t get shot. Alternative history is an author figuring out what would have happened in history with just that one event altered.

      In Steampunk, the alternative history often is that something technologically possible in the 20th or 21st century actually is being used in the 19th. In LEVIATHAN, a YA book, the British are known as Darwinists. They don’t have machines, they have biologicals — animals that have been “constructed” to do specific tasks because Charles Darwin did more than come up with the Theory of Evolution, he discovered DNA and the scientists began tinkering with it. That’s just one of the alternative history elements in the book, but does it give a better idea of what Alternative History is?

      Hope so!

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 11:05 am
  4. Hi Beth,

    I’ve always liked the techno feel of the Sherlock Holmes books. He’s not just smart, he’s savvy. The Wild Wild West tv shows were great too. Especially with Michael Dunne as the villian.

    Mary Jo Burke

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | February 11, 2011, 9:07 am
    • Hi, Mary Jo!

      The Wild Wild West was always one of my favorites, too. Of course we were both so young when it was on, right? :-)

      Actually, while a lot of folks panned the movie version with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, it has far more Steampunk in it than the TV series did. West and Gordon were so different from the original, I didn’t mind the change, I just enjoyed the silliness. But then the TV series was supposed to be a take off on the James Bond movies. There was no such thing as Steampunk then. :-)

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 11:10 am
  5. Hi Beth. Thank you for a great post. I remember the first time I heard about Steampunk and all I could think was ‘what the heck is this now?’ LOL. I haven’t read any steampunk, but I do enjoy learning about this new sub-genre. I think it would be fascinating to write one.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | February 11, 2011, 9:33 am
    • Hi Adrienne!

      It’s much easier to find Steampunk on the bookseller’s shelves now than it was when I first heard the term and began looking for it. Unfortunately, someone in one of my Steampunk workshops said she went into her local bookstore and said she was looking for Steampunk and they looked at her blankly. Once she dropped a few author’s names, they managed to find what she was looking for –naturally, it was in Fantasy.

      So if you do go looking for it, you are now forewarned. The publishers and readers are out there but the bookstore staff might be lagging behind in knowing what it is.

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 11:13 am
  6. This is a great post! My introduction to steampunk was about two years ago when a friend asked me to critique her story. I was totally intrigued with the concept.

    When I mentioned it to another friend, she said, “Oh, just like that old TV show WILD, WILD WEST.” Wow, was that show ahead of its time or what?

    Until I read your post, I never realized how many movies I’ve enjoyed were actually steampunk. (I’ve seen almost all of the movies you mentioned.)

    At first I thought steampunk was just a new take on Urban Fantasy. I’ve been a little leery of Urban Fantasy lately – I’ve read a lot of fabulous books in that genre, but I do like a romance and a happy ever after.

    Meljean Brook’s novella in the anthology BURNING UP reminded me how much I like steampunk, and her novel THE IRON DUKE had me begging for more.

    I don’t think I could write in this genre, but I’m definitely looking for more steampunk books to add to my TBR pile!

    Posted by BeckeMartinDavis | February 11, 2011, 10:03 am
    • I will admit that it is easier to write straight historical romance, which I’ve done. But dreaming up how to warp or morph or tweak or walk sideways from what did or could happen is fun as well as hard work at times. :-)

      The WILD WILD WEST being evoked as Steampunk just shows that we’ve always been gadget mad. Q made sure Bond had all those cool devises back in the 1960s and Artemis Gordon just had to make his own since President Grant didn’t have a complete spy factory up and running. :-)

      Beth

      Posted by Beth | February 11, 2011, 11:19 am
  7. Beth
    I am fascinated by the idea of Steampunk and I have several ideas I’d love to pursue. How far back in the 19th century can you go? I know it might extend to the 1880’s, but how about the settling of California say the late 1840s and the Gold Rush?

    Posted by Becky M | February 11, 2011, 12:02 pm
    • Actually, Becky, you could have a Steampunk tale set in the Regency or into the Edwardian era.

      In fact, THE ANUBIS GATES is set in pre-Victorian time, I believe, and George Mann’s Newberry and Hobbs series is in what would normally be post-Victorian (aka Edwardian) except that doctors have fitted Vicky up with a powered chair that keeps her breathing and “running”, so to speak, so she’s still around as they go dashing off to deal with mysterious goings on from their office at the British Museum.

      Beth

      Posted by Beth Daniels | February 11, 2011, 4:26 pm
  8. Beth –

    What an amazing lecture – thank you! Although I was a bit of a fantasy and sci-fi reader as a kid, I haven’t really explored Steampunk (but I will now!).

    A couple of questions for you:

    I think my 11-year-old son might like this sub-genre of a sub-genre of a sub-g… Do you have any book suggestions for a pre-teen who reads on a much higher level? I really have to watch his reading material for inappropriate content – LOL. Right now, he’s into Orson Scott Card books so I can breath easy since violence doesn’t seem to faze my kid.

    And do you see any other mash-up type genres like this that might emerge?

    Thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | February 11, 2011, 12:23 pm
    • Hi Kelsey!

      I think he’d really like LEVIATHAN, and the second in the series is set to be released in March, I believe, BEMOUTH. It’s the 19-teens and we start out with a girl who is disguised as a boy so that she can be a crew member aboard one of the Darwinian airships (whales, actually) but we also have our hero who is Austrian royalty, then his parents are killed and war is brewing. He’s also running for his life, in a machine that has spiderlike legs. He’s been raised to despise the Darwinists of England and our heroine has the British disgust of the “Clunkers” who prefer machines. Written by Scott Westerfeld, I believe.

      He might like THOMAS RILEY, where the characters are brilliant and in their early 20s as opposed to teenagers. Lots of shooting it up in THOMAS RILEY.
      Can’t remember who wrote it. Don’t think there has been a second book.

      What you might do is head to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and feed in Steampunk YA under books and see if some other things come up. Oh, you’ll get a number of Graphic Novels, so if you want non-graphic, you’ll have to sort through the listings.

      In regards to different mashups in regard to Steampunk — there are so many different types of storylines and characters and situations out there, one could simply consider Steampunk to be mashup city. It’s history, alternative history, action-adventure, mystery, paranormal, time-travel, fantastic machines, fiendish villains, romance, and even some space travel since with all the inventions (and men now knowing how to fly) space travel seemed a sure thing to the late Victorians and Edwardians. Pretty much, anything could get mashed together nicely.

      Beth

      Posted by Beth Daniels | February 11, 2011, 4:42 pm
  9. So excited to see you teaching this, Beth. And excited for the book in March!

    Posted by Damon Suede | February 11, 2011, 1:48 pm
  10. Hi Beth!

    What a great lecture. Thank you for mentioning The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. I stumbled on that book as a fluke and fell in love with the genre. I’m still waiting for a sequel so will be sure to check out the others you listed.

    I never knew there were Steampunk meetings/societies. Thank you for the research tip. Can’t wait to try my own mash-up version of steam and romance.

    Posted by Letty James | February 11, 2011, 3:15 pm
    • Now you’ll want to go to one, right? That means a shopping trip, “Letty”. (I know her real name, you see, RUers.) As you do write erotica, I fully expect to hear about corset shopping at a Steampunk habadashery. :-)

      Beth

      Posted by Beth Daniels | February 11, 2011, 4:48 pm
  11. Great post! I’m just venturing into reading steampunk – “The Iron Duke” – and I’m excited to get into another genre as a reader – not sure I’ll write it.

    I LOVED “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and ‘Sherlock Holmes” – so I think I may have found another obsession!

    Posted by Robin Covington | February 11, 2011, 7:25 pm
  12. Just thought I’d add that the TV series Firefly (feature movie also, called Serenity) has strong steampunk elements. It’s like space opera crossed with the Wild West.

    Posted by Tori Minard | February 11, 2011, 9:32 pm
  13. You’re quite right, Tori! FIREFLY was very Weird West-ish. Knew I was forgetting to mention something when I wrote the “lecture” but couldn’t put my finger on it.

    Thanks for reminding us all!

    Beth

    Posted by Beth Daniels | February 11, 2011, 11:37 pm
  14. Great post, Beth. Thanks for explaining steampunk.

    Faye

    Posted by Faye Hughes | February 12, 2011, 8:53 am
  15. Great post Beth! Your enthusiasm for Steampunk comes across the screen and is inspiring :) I think it’s wonderful you’re offering workshops to help introduce other writers into this amazing and creative genre.

    Posted by Nancy Jackson | February 12, 2011, 1:20 pm
  16. Hi Beth,
    I love finding out new stuff about steampunk. There is more and more available about the subgenre and it seems that the possibilities are endless. I have been working on plotting a steampunk novel and it will probably be my next book I tackle. I especially like the Victorian esthetic that is present in so many steampunk works and the formality of the era. I think that is going to be my struggle, the language and dialogue, but I am learning.
    I only learned about steampunk a little over a year ago, but I am surprised how many of the mentioned movies I have already seen and really enjoyed.

    Looking forward to getting to know the steampunk world better.
    Stacie

    Posted by Stacie VanEvery | February 14, 2011, 10:18 am
    • Hi Stacey!

      I felt the same way about it — here I was watching Steampunk movies (and buying my own copy when each came out) and hadn’t even heard of Steampunk until…well, nearly two years ago now.

      And there is so much diversity, so many ways a writer can go as they build their new worlds or remake the old ones.

      Beth

      Posted by Beth Daniels | February 14, 2011, 6:56 pm

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  2. [...] EDIT MARCH 24, 2011: Just found another helpful/interesting article about steampunk: Steampunk! What’s So Fascinating About It? [...]

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