Genre tips

10 Tips for Steampunk Writers

steampunkIf you’d asked me a year ago whether I would read a steampunk novel, I would have had to pull up my trusty Google to figure out what you were asking:

a sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, re-imagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk) –from

No way. Fantasy? 19th Century? Rebellion? Not my areas of interest.

Then I met Emma Jan Holloway’s Baskerville Affair trilogy. True to its genre (well, steampunk is a sub-genre), she includes all those tantalizing elements and more–magic, steam-powered machines, automatons that appear more real than ruse, mechanical mice and birds imbued with invisible spirits, electronic marvels that run daily lives as electricity and oil does ours, powerful egotistical men controlling the lives of London citizens–and Sherlock Holmes. What a marvelous mixture of mayhem! I stormed through all three books wishing Holloway would write more.

Then, I decided to research what I thought was a tiny, insignificant sub-genre only to find that lots of people have written steampunk–some even before it was called that. Have you heard of Jules Verne? H. G. Wells? Then there are less-known and more-current writers like William Gibson, James P. Blaylock and Paul Di Filippo. There’s even a Minecraft server and a Facebook page themed to steampunk.

If you write steampunk, here are the characteristics you’ll want to include:

  1. counterculture
  2. revolutionary thinking
  3. alternative thinking
  4. steam-powered machinery
  5. advanced technology (computers, machinery, and the like)
  6. science fiction
  7. alternative history with the emphasis on all of the above (steam replaces electricity and oil as the power du jour, futuristic machinery flits through the story line)
  8. setting in the Victorian past or a dystopian future (can’t think of one in the present)
  9. a positive (as opposed to negative) view of the future
  10. plot is fast-paced with a strong narrative drive
  11. romance is included, but not the most important part

For novels that define steampunk, visit Johnathan Sebastian Greyshade’s article at the Steampunk Workshop. If the genre intrigues you, visit Lolita’s Steamed! for lots of background information and how-tos.

If you’re just meeting steampunk in this article, these images will help you decide if this is a genre that fits your interests:


More on writing in genres:

8 Tips for Creative Nonfiction Writers

10 Tips for Picture Book Writers

8 Tips for Horror Writers

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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66 thoughts on “10 Tips for Steampunk Writers

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      • I use to live in the inner city Jacqui where anything was possible. But mostly I collect images on pinterest for story ideas, something draws me to the machines and clothes. Movies I can think of…. Wild, Wild West…pretty bad movie though. I am waiting for someone to get it right.


  20. I’ve written quite a few steampunk stories, and even published a collection of them recently, and it’s exactly because of that mixture of features you’ve described that I love it so much. It’s kind of ironic that an aesthetic so firmly rooted in the past can feel fresh and original, but the way the elements get re-combined made it feel fresh and new the first time I read Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine, and for so many other steampunk stories I’ve read since.

    The diversity of forms in the steampunk subculture is fantastic too. I’ve seen steampunk bands, comics, festivals, costume groups, figurines, on and on.

    It’s interesting that you picked out the fact that it’s a positive rather than negative view of the future. It’s not something I’d considered before, and I’m trying to work out how well that matches the steampunk I’ve read. What led you to that conclusion?


    • Great information, Andrew. As I was researching, I did stumble over the entire culture that is steampunk–how fascinating. Devotees go well beyond merely reading the books.

      As for the positive view of the future–I think I read that on someone’s blog (not terribly scientific) and then compared it to the steampunk I’ve read (i.e., Emma Jane Holloway). It seemed true. Does it match what you’ve read?


      • I think there’s a lot of truth to it. Steampunk, especially the fun exciting stuff, tends to ignore the darker side of the Victorian era. I think there are less positive themes it can explore, and that does sometimes happen. In fact I’d be interested to see more of that, given all the darkness inherent in the Victorian era (colonialism, child labour, toxic smog, etc). But reflecting on what you’ve written, I think that optimism about technology is a common feature, and a useful one for somebody looking to get a foothold in this market.


  21. Thanks for all this Jacqui. I keep thinking converting my NaNoWriMo 2013 novel into Steampunk (it’s still a draft). After looking at all these great resources, i think it would work well. Now if i only had the time! Hugs!


  22. I love steampunk! And like you, I wasn’t really familiar with the term until relatively recently. The Wild, Wild West TV show, when I was a kid, was captivating. Then there are movies like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome where steampunk is a significant component. I wrote a piece about steampunk recently here:

    There is something about technology comprised of gears and pistons and pumps that is enticing in a strangely romantic way. 🙂


    • Yes–all those gears without the benefit of electricity. There is something appealing. And the steampunk I’ve read usually includes some sort of intelligent romance–not the swooning sort.


  23. I ran into steampunk entirely by accident. I was doing research on Victorian mourning jewelry (for the stalled, but upcoming, Victorian Rules of Grieving), when I kept finding references to “steampunk.” What was that?! Further research revealed not only a genre, but an entire sub-culture. It’s always fun when one thing leads to another in a circuitous way.


  24. There seems to be a lot of steampuck stuff floating around my feed lately. I must admit, I’m very intrigued by the idea of it. I’ve gotten a few book recommendations from my more steampunk-savvy friends, so I’m going to see if it’s something I might be interested in writing in the future. Thanks for the post!


  25. I’m definitely going to give Holloway a try. I did a little research on it myself a while back, when I chose the subgenre for a Featured Fiction prompt. I’m really tempted to give it a try – I’ll have to clear my schedule first 😉


      • He is an intriguing character. I can imagine him in just about any world, so I can see the temptation there. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to use such an iconic character. It would be quite a challenge 🙂


      • I also wondered about the legalities. Maybe the Holmes character is in the public domain? She keeps him true to character, though not as much of the quirky problem solver as he usually is. Of course, he’s not the main character.


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