With the Steampunk Doncaster convention swiftly approaching (June 15th and 16th) I’ve been super busy and so flaking ont he blog posts. I apologise. But I’m back (again) and this time to offer you an insight into a brilliant Steampunk Author swiftly becoming a personal and professional favourite.
A very nice man is Jonathan Green. Not only has he been working hard on several writing projects which hail him as one of the hardest working people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, but he’s also a brilliantly prolific author. His Steampunk series Pax Brittania deserves a lot of recognition as well as your awe and allegiance. And here he is to talk to you about that most pertinent question…
What is Steampunk?
By Jonathan Green
Ask twenty steampunks what ‘Steampunk’ actually is and you’ll probably end up with twenty-one different definitions, if not more.
The thing is Steampunk – as in the genre, or movement, or flavour (if you prefer) – is all things to all people. For some it’s all about the books, for others it’s about the costumes and crafting, and for others it’s the good manners and friendship that are trademark characteristics of the dedicated followers of Steampunk themselves.
In some ways, it’s easier to say where Steampunk has come from. The name was coined by the science fiction author K W Jeter in a letter he wrote that was printed in Locus magazine in 1987. However, the elements that form the familiar tropes of Steampunk include the proto-science fiction writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Victorian era itself, the work of fantasy authors such as Tolkien and the cyberpunk writers of the 1980s.
Genre-defining examples in literature include Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates and James Blaylock’s Homunculus, as well as The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula have helped bequeath the idea that Steampunk plays with the themes of metafiction, as well as throwing actual historical characters into the mix.
For me, Steampunk has to have that knowing nod to the past and the implicit understanding that the genre is populated with anachronisms. As a result, Jules Verne and H G Wells cannot be considered Steampunk authors although their work has influenced the direction and content of the culture, and continues to be a source of endless inspiration. I have played with elements created by both these great authors in my novels Leviathan Rising and Dark Side in particular.
Steampunk stories can be set during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century, or in the far future. (My Ulysses Quicksilver novels are set at the end of an alternate 20th century.) They can include elements of the supernatural (and often do) or even create alternate Tolkien-esque worlds with all manner of fantastical creatures and races insinuated into the social strata of the Victorian era. They can be pure, hard science fiction, although I tend to find that most of the ‘science’ in Steampunk is actually just another form of ‘magic’, used to help move the plot along and create interesting encounters for our heroes.
My own Steampunk creation, the world of Pax Britannia, draws on many influences, including 1960s sci-fi shows, James Bond, the works of the early horror writers, and arcade games of the 1980s, as well as Doctor Who. And that’s only just scratching the surface.
I shall look forward to debating with you what qualifies as Steampunk – as well as what doesn’t – over the weekend of 15-16 June, at Steampunk Doncaster.
What Steampunk most definitely is not, is gluing some cogs onto something and then calling it ‘Steampunk’. That, I think, we can all agree on.
London, May 2013
Great! Thanks for that Jonathan.
If you’re even a little bit intrigued by that, there are plenty of places online to continue the debate. But what’s even cooler is having that talk with Steampunks themselves! Hit the Steampunk Doncaster link on the right of the page for more details of the festival and hopefully come meet Jonathan and the other excellent authors in attendance!
Thanks for reading.
It strikes me that I don’t talk about my writing process very much and, contrary to popular belief, I do have one. While I do most of my plotting in my head, only setting it down in notes when it’s exceptionally vivid to me, the rest of the idea-to-page process is pretty normal. One of the things I think are incredibly important, possibly beyond all others and especially for writers of Speculative Fiction in all its glorious forms, is research.
If you’re going to make your story/novel/flash fiction/novella as realistic as it can be (and by realistic, I mean believable despite the wierdness) then research is where it’s at. As an example let’s use my current WIP, The Adventures of Alan Shaw. This is a very different beast to Greaveburn. Alan Shaw is an Alternate History/Steampunk novel based in the very real Victorian era of England, albeit with some technological flights of fancy. But in order to make my Neo-Victorian elements work, I had to understand what the victorian era was really like. If I had a motto, it’d be:
Learn the rules before you break them.
And so I do research. A lot. Of course, the internet is your friend. There are sites or wikis on every subject known to humankind somewhere in the unending virtual vaults. But call me old fashioned, I still like my books now and again.
As you can see, there’s quite a mix in there. Let’s break down what I think is important about researchas the groundwork for your writing:
1. Know your genre
When writing Greavburn, I had no idea that I was actually working on a Steampunk novel. I was aware of the Gothic literature sub-genre and loved its aesthetic. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite books, and that was the kind of grand darkness I wanted to instill in Greaveburn. But Steampunk wasn’t even on my radar. And so, when I discovered that it existed, and that Greaveburn fit the bill, I panicked. What if someone had already done what I had? How restrictive to Greaveburn’s reception would that be?
I learnt my lesson for working on Alan Shaw. I’ve read James Blaylock’s Homunculus, J.W. Jeter’s Infenal Devices and pretty much memorised The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer and co. And now I can confidently say that I know what to do and what not to do, what’s old hat and what’s relatively new (hey, that rhymes. I should write that down). Knowing your genre makes sure that you hit your demographic while avoiding any “it’s all been done” style comments.
2. Go simple
Finding reference books that are quick to read, while still being representative of the subject you’re researching, can be a real struggle. People love to bash on about their expert subject to the point of mind-numbing boredom. But you dont need a huge tome, reaching 3000 pages across four volumes about Victorian London by Lord Cyril Fanthorpe the 3rd esp. to know your stuff. In order to make your story realistic, all you need are the little touches. Those little details make the difference between just some woman in a dress and a young governess wearing a crinoline pinofore. You never have to mention it again, but that’s the kind of period detail that shows you’ve put the effort in.
But as I was saying, there’s an easy way to find those things out. Go for children’s books. They’re brilliant! They have pictures to help get the right feel in your prose, they hit only the important topics and give you great overview of any subject. The Eyewitness series is brilliant for historical stuff, if you’re interested in that stuff.
3. Get your facts right
If you’re writing about a certain place, be it a city or town or foreign country, get your facts right. Never forget that your readers know their stuff. Don’t think you can flim-flam them with sweeping references to places. With Alan Shaw, I have to evoke an image of Victorian London that rings true to someone who’s never been to London and someone who walks its streets every day. Google Maps can take you anywhere you need to go, and even tell you the quickest way for your character to walk/drive around their environment. You dont have to give an itemised list of corners turned between your Detective’s home and the mortuary, but it helps if you know how long it would take and what’s in between so you can describe it if need be.
While Google Maps is great for the present day, historical settings pose a little more of a problem. And so I got myself some maps:
They came in four pieces, originally, but with a little industrious folding and one of those frameless plastic frames (contradictory, I know) I now have an easily accessible map of Victorian London. What’s better than that, with the plastic covering, if you get some dry-wipe markers, you can plot routes, circle areas or points of interest to your heart’s content without ruining the source material for later use! (This is an Art Attack!)
4. The Counter-argument
Just remember: There’s another side to research. Don’t get too bogged down with it. Learn what you need and move on. It’s a tool to help you write, it’s not words on the page.
Well, folks, that’s it for now. I hope this post has been as useful to you as my researching endeavours have been to me. If you have any researching tips of your own, then feel free to share. I’m always looking for new ways to do what we do.
Thanks for reading!
April 28, 2012 | Categories: author, flash fiction, horror, indie author, short fiction, short story, steampunk, writer, writing, YA | Tags: author, creative writing tips, Gothic literature, horror, J.W. Jeter, James Blaylock., mervyn peake, speculative fiction, Steampunk, Tips for writers, writing | 8 Comments