Remarkable machines, feisty heroines and tea – 5 reasons why I love #Steampunk

With the publication of my first Steampunk novel, The Dirigible King’s Daughter yesterday I’ve been thinking about what first drew me to write steampunk. Like many people I suspect I came to it via Gail Carriger and then realised that I’d already read some steampunk books like The Golden Compass.  I’d also been to Whitby GothFest (as a spectator, not a participant – one day I may be brave enough to actually dress up and take part) and become increasingly fascinated by the sheer possibilities and inventiveness of steampunk. IMG_1557

I’ve joked that it was my obsession with tea that drew me into writing steampunk.  Here was a world where the characters seemed to share my belief in the restorative powers of a pot of Earl Grey.  But there is rather more to it than that and, in no particular order, these are the things that I love most about the marvellous world of steampunk.

Feisty Heroines

I don’t know about you but I find a lot of heroines in modern women’s fiction a bit limp.  I could kind of relate to Bridget Jones but the heroines that I have come after her seem to have taken Bridget’s insecurities to a new level.  How do they hold down jobs (even if they do only ‘fanny around with press releases’ to quote Daniel Cleaver) or actually make a decision about anything more serious than which pair of shoes to buy next?  It seems that most of them are incapable of knowing their own minds which I find deeply tedious.  But this is not a problem I’ve ever found with steampunk heroines.  They’re strong, capable women, entirely able to fly a dirigible single handed (Elle in Liesel Schwarz’s The Chronicles of Light and Shadow) or perform sorcery at the Queen’s behest (Emma in Lilith Saintcrow’s Bannon and Clare books).  Harriet Hardy, the heroine of The Dirigible King’s Daughter has been described by author and blogger, Barb Taub, as ‘a kickass, pistol packing Victorian feminist’.  I’m pretty sure that means she also qualifies as feisty.

Remarkable Machines

DSC01962I’d be the first to admit that I’m not hugely technically minded and I needed some help to understand the internal workings of steam engines or how dirigibles take-off but I found that I do love steam powered machines.  This may be my father’s fault for dragging me around steam fairs at a young age and taking me to the National Railway Museum every holiday but there’s something about the majesty of steam that just gets to me.  I’m quite capable of welling up on sight of a steam engine and cried buckets watching the programme about the refurbishment of The Flying Scotsman.  The great thing about steampunk is that I could take that and play with it.  Ask what if it did this as well?  What if that was possible?  I’m not promising that all of the machines that I’ve created would actually have worked but I had fun dreaming them up.

Manners

Not all steampunk books operate in world where manners matter but I tend to like best the ones where they do.  One of the things I like best about Alexi Tarabotti (from The Parasol Protectorate) is that she doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour from anyone, be they vampire, werewolf or human and she’s always ready with a witty putdown if necessary.  Having read much Jane Austen and Victorian literature in my misspent youth (misspent because I spent it reading Jane Austen and Victorian literature rather than down the pub or at parties) that kind of dialogue seems quite familiar to me.  I also work in a world where there’s a lot of protocol and procedures and so I’m used to having conversations and correspondence where you have to be icy polite to the other person. When I was writing the book it was fascinating to have characters who couldn’t say what they really meant because of their social code. As Harriet and Charlie come from rather different worlds there was a clash when their values came into conflict which Harriet was sometimes willing to exploit but mainly fought against.

A better world?

shutterstock_278293358There’s a sense in steampunk that society lost something fundamental in the move from steam technology to the modern world of computers and electronics.  It’s not just nostalgia for a world that’s gone but a sense that things could have worked out so much better if technology had developed down a different route and we’d remained dependent on steam power. Fewer wars maybe, perhaps a more equal society.  Of course some of those changes started with steam. In Full Steam Ahead (essential research for future steampunk novels) they said that the changes brought in by the railways accelerated the pace of life which has, of course, continued to speed up.  But I can’t be the only person who hankers after a slower, more elegant pace of life.

Clothes

WaistcoatIt’s fair to say that I wasted a lot of time looking at pictures of frocks from the 1890s and calling it research.  I love the dresses but I’m very glad I don’t have to wear one of those corsets to get in one!  By the 1890s it was becoming more common for women to work and the fashions reflect that in the adoption of quite masculine styles and the introduction of the shirtwaist.  I still don’t understand how a woman was supposed to hold down a job while wearing an enormous hat with the same kind of circumference as a tea tray but maybe she was allowed to take it off while using one of those newfangled typewriters.  Of course, steampunk has its own fabulous fashions and I’ve allowed little touches of that into my characters clothes.  As a working woman in Whitby, Harriet was not going to be at the forefront of fashion and I like to think she would have worn something like this waistcoat.

The Dirigible King's Daughter by Alys WestThanks for taking the time to read my post.  What to you love about steampunk?  Which steampunk books do you like best? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to find out more about The Dirigible King’s Daughter then please click here.  It’s now available to purchase as an ebook on Amazon here  You can also see my steampunk inspirations for the book (and lots of gorgeous frocks) on my Pinterest board.

Putting steam into steampunk

BriefEncounter_w_original

When I decided I was going to write a steampunk novel I rapidly realised that I had a bit of a problem on my hands. You see, I don’t really understand how steam works.   I get the elegance of it, the wonderful glamour of steam.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched ‘Brief Encounter’ or ‘The Railway Children’.   But they don’t really get down to the nitty gritty of how a steam train works. And suddenly the nitty gritty was what I needed.

Now I know that many very successful steampunk writers don’t worry too much about all of that and merrily make things up with scant regard for the laws of physics.  But sadly, especially as I don’t even have an O’ level in physics, my brain refused to work that way.  Apparently if I was going to make stuff up, it had to have a basis in some kind of fact.  The only problem was that I didn’t understand the facts.IMG_0345

Fortunately I know a man who does.  My Dad loves all things steam and, having been taken to the National Railway Museum more times than I can count as a child, you’d have thought that something would have sunk in but no.  Which is why the last few months have found me doing things I’d never expected, reading books about Zeppelins, watching ‘Locomotion’ on BBC2 for a reason other than to look at Dan Snow and going to a steam fair.  I was dragged to these events when I was a kid and was bored to death.  Little did I think that many years later I’d be there asking questions and really trying to understand.

DSC01941Unfortunately the understanding part didn’t go too well.  You see, we were starting from a very low base. My first question, when we’re stood on a makeshift platform looking down on a traction engine’s engine, was something like ‘So the coal heats the water and that makes the steam?’  Fortunately, my Dad managed not to laugh and, with much pointing and hand movements, tried his best to explain. I got some of it but then my brain simply refused to co-operate.  Somehow when I hear words like ‘torque’, ‘pressure’ and ‘propulsion’ it just drifts off to thinking about something else like cake or books or Aidan Turner.

DSC01913So in the end, when it came down to the writing, I still had to get on and make stuff up. I’m not one hundred percent sure it works yet but I have found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the world of steam.  Which I guess is what’s really important if you’re going to write steampunk. Just don’t tell my Dad or I’ll never hear the end of it!

I’ve got a Pinterest board for my steampunk research for my new novel which you can find here and has more photographs of all things steam related and some absolutely gorgeous frocks (honest, looking at them was research too!)

Photo of train wheels by Maynard Case http://www.maynardcase.co.uk