Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How to Punk Your Steampunk

This posting is a follow up to Get Punk'd.

So, one of my followers asked me to talk about HOW to get punk'd when writing a Steampunk piece.  This is a little difficult for me to explain because punking things up seems organic to me (blame it on my revisionist tendencies), but I'm going to try my best to explain how I do it.  In the process I'm going to cover, in general, how to write Steampunk.  In the interest of space and time, this is a little disjointed and it's quite close to midnight and I've been going since the wee hours of the morning, so yeah, apologies ahead of time.

Action One: Decide on a story to tell.

One: TELL A STORY.  Just because there is Steampunk in your book doesn't necessarily mean it has to completely swallow your MC whole.  Stop focusing so much on making everything Steampunk and let it develop organically. I think where a lot of people get caught up with writing Steampunk is the fact that they focus too much on how it will be received.  "Is my technology right?"  "Did I adequately describe the taste of treacle?"  "Would a woman say that back then?"  "Is it "punk" enough?"  It becomes all about how your readers could bash you for getting it wrong.  Before you worry about any of that, you need to worry about the kind of story you want to tell.  Is it about a romance between a maid and an airship captain?  Because if she's the main character, she's not going to understand anything about the technology she's seeing on your Captain's lovely ship.  And, if you're that worried about what your readers are going to say, then perhaps she is the POV you should be writing?  There's an idea:  Write to your handicap!  If you are the type than can imagine something up but have no clue how it might work in real life, then write from the perspective of a character that doesn't get it OR knows it so well that they talk and think about it like you're an idiot for questioning how it works.

Two: TEASPOONS vs. SHOVELS.  Once you know what kind of story you want to write, figure out WHO your readers are.  Are they YA readers?  Cause they aren't going to get half the techno-babble you throw at them and you may be making that political entanglement too complicated for them to follow.  Are you writing romance?  Romance readers care a lot more about the way someone's dress looks than how the mechanical "toys" function. Your readership is going to determine how much of what goes into the story, including how punky you want to get.

Action Two: Once you have a story to tell, punk it up.

One: PERIOD CHARM.  The first part of Steampunk is "steam," which means you need to have a "steam" period element in your piece.  This is pretty much the Steam Era or the industrial revolution. Though it has a mostly Victorian connotation, I've seen Steampunk swing all the way into what others might consider Dieselpunk.  Since I have an anthropology background, I enjoy building entire cultures; which is why my Steampunk tales take place on an alternate world that looks similar to earth during the Victorian Era.  But most Steampunk is alternate history, so I'll focus on that.  Writing alternate history isn't easy.  Remember that whole Writing What You Know post  I wrote?  Well, you should know as much about something as you possibly can before you completely pull it apart and re-write it.  Depending on WHEN and WHERE your blip in history takes place will depend on how much you need to do research.  If, for example, your blip happens during the Victorian Era, then you're going to have to build a believable Victoriana.  Know the area, the clothes, the language, the social hierarchy, the political structure, etc.  Then find out who was in charge and who didn't like it.  That's a perfect platform for your punk establishment. 

Two: ATMOSPHERE.  Whether you're building from the ground up or going back in time and trying to re-write history, if you're going to put the "punk" in your steam, you need to have some kind of socio-political hierarchy.  If there's no one to rebel against, there's no room for your punks.  I think first and foremost, if you write fantasy or science fiction of any kind, you need to get in touch with your inner social scientist.  Having a believable socio-political structure is one of the pillars of making you a good writer in any reader's mind.  Whether your focus is social, political, economic, or religious, there needs to be an established system and there needs to be someone who doesn't like it.  There will always be discontents in a society and in your Steampunk these will be your "punks."  If you've studied anthropology, political science, or sociology it should be easier for you to build a believable socio-political system for your characters.  If you make a set up where someone benefits more than the others then you've got a very easy situation where there is an obvious villain and an obvious person who will fight to get what the one on top has.  Then, all you need to do is make the person who want son top to be active in that desire.  Women wanting to break out of social molds can dress or act certain ways, miners can picket, young lads being drafted into the military can start holding up trains.  Anything goes in punk.

Three: INSPECT THE GADGETS.  Part of what makes Steampunk appealing is all the fun gadgets.  You'll have to decide who makes the gadgets, why, and when they started coming about.  Also, make sure to research what was available to tinkers during the Victorian era.  If you incorporate something that was not available in that time period, you'll have to explain why it's there in this alternate history.  Keep in mind that part of the punk ideology is a strong DIY mentality, so it might be beneficial to have a couple of tinkers or engineers in your punk group, and it might be necessary to let your imagination run wild.  If you can't churn out tons of fantastical things to play with, then you may want just one crazy piece of technology that your MC is working on (like a time machine or a weather balloon or something), and have everything else be normal.

Four:  NOT ALL PUNKS ARE ROCKERS.  Remember that your punks can run the gamut between just being a little off-color to blatantly wanting to bomb parliament.  All people are different, some more extreme than others.  Keep that in mind when deciding just how punky you want your punks.  You could have something as simple as a cooky old codger who tinkers in his basement, to an avaunt garde aristocratic explorer, to a surly airship pirate, to an alchemist who's into pyrotechnics.  The beauty of Steampunk is that your MCs don't have to be the "punks."  What we need to understand as writers is that there are always bystanders in any world.  The hero doesn't always have to be the guy with the ball-peen hammer or the airship. Watson anyone?   And even if they are, these characters are people too!  They have other aspects to their lives than just repairing clockwork soldiers or hijacking the Empire's latest dirigible.  You could write about an airship pirate who doesn't go anywhere near an airship for the duration of the story; or your character can be someone who has never experienced the punks until one fateful day when XYZ happens; or they can be someone who is watching the "punks" from afar.  Whatever you choose, just make sure that your punks know what they want and aren't afraid to fight for it!

Five:  HAVE FUN.

I hope that helps?  Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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