Steampunk inspiration and resources

How to Punk Your Steam Part 4: Make it Alternative

I went to my very first convention, Marscon, just over a year ago in Minnesota. It was more a general interest fest with lots of different kinds of geekery, but there were a few seminars aimed at Steampunks. The best one I attended was called “Alternate History and the History of Time” and the speakers addressed ways to make an alternate history feel authentic.

One of the audience members posed the question, “What is the best way to let my readers know about the time period, and my alterations to it?” And the entire panel agreed that good writers show their audiences what they want them to know, they don’t tell them outright. When it comes to altered history, the process is two-fold. First, you need to make sure that the readers know, at least roughly, what year it is. But second, and really more importantly, you need them to understand that the world of your story, game, or film is somehow different without a bulky piece of exposition laying it all out for them.

Show, Don’t Tell

The best writers and filmmakers never just tell their readers anything, they seduce us into reading more (games are a different story, see below). With seduction comes a certain air of anticipation, tantalizing tidbits dropped here and there to intrigue and draw us deeper into the truth they are striving to create. Sure, you could have a prologue that lays out where the timeline got altered in detail, but this takes a lot of the artistry out of the process and may serve to actually drive some readers away. My mother, for instance, reads two different types of books: mysteries and historical fiction. Her tastes are grounded in things that really did happen, or at least seem like they really could have happened. If she picked up a book and was immediately told the steps that lead to a vastly different state of the world, she’d put it right back down. Despite my tutelage, she has very little interest in the genres of science fiction and fantasy (though she did enjoy Firefly after we got a few episodes in), and would be totally turned off by this sledgehammer-like approach. She would need to first be introduced to characters that she could care about to draw her in and a compelling story to keep her reading even if stuff started to get “weird.”

“Well, maybe I’m not writing a book for your mom!” you may be thinking. Fair enough. There are plenty of die-hard sci-fi and fantasy fans out there who could be interested in your subject no matter how it is presented, and maybe that is enough for you. I know I read and watch a lot of things strictly because they fit into the Steampunk ouevre, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to someone who isn’t already into the aesthetic. And let’s face it, Steampunk is gaining in popularity so in general the audience for such works is growing, but the way to really succeed as creator is to bring new people into the fold by crafting something objectively good that would appeal to people even if they are the uninitiated.


Games, on the other hand, do benefit from laying all their cards on the table at the get-go, but that is because the act of playing is where the seduction occurs. To succeed in the world of a game a player needs to understand the mechanics of gameplay in addition to the storyline, but this often comes from practice through playing the game itself. As the player gets better at manipulating the world of the creator and navigating it successfully, they will be drawn ever deeper into that world. Role-players and tabletop gamers are seduced by the act of participation, which can keep them coming back and wanting more. They are actively involved in the act of creation as they build characters and alliances, which is different from being the passive receptor during a good book.

Do Your Homework

No one should attempt to write an alternate history story without having a good working knowledge of the actual history they are messing with. Many readers would probably miss anachronisms, but there are a lot of people who know their history and would be bothered by attitudes or expressions that have no place in that time. If you are going to include anachronisms as part of your “punking” scheme, make sure that they fit in logically with the other alterations you are making to the timeline. You must be purposeful with this tactic, or the trolls will come out and attack you for a lack of authenticity. I found a great reference book called Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes that I use to inform my own writing, and there lots of other books out there to help to add details that make your story ring true.

Knowing your stuff will also make it easier to implement the “show, don’t tell” method of drawing in your audience. There are plenty of noteworthy events that an author can reference instead of explicitly naming the year. For instance, there were several international exhibitions during the steam era, and a passing mention of a new technology that was unveiled at one or the creator can give a reader a touchstone. Or, if you know that you want to situate your story late in Victoria’s reign, you could have a character consider attending the opening of the Albert Memorial. Soldiers returning home after the second Anglo-Afghan war could be spotted in a cafe, or someone could start their morning by reading a story in the newspaper about the first lighter than air flight and reflect on how technology was changing the world.

There are also famous figures who can be integrated into your plotline. Charles Darwin, for instance, is well-known far beyond Steampunk circles, and adding in a reference to him making a personal appearance or perhaps a passing acquaintence with a character places your story before his death in 1882. Authors, poets, explorers, inventors, scientists or even the sinister Jack the Ripper can do a lot to situate your story in time. Maybe one of your characters is a fan of The Strand magazine and is feeling devastated by the untimely death of Sherlock Holmes. Or, perhaps they get pulled into the action of your story while on their way to purchase the latest volume of poetry by Algernon Charles Swinburne. A person could have very strong feelings about a politician running for election, or engage in a debate about the benefits of alternating current. This kind of thing can do a lot to add the flavor of the time and place without hitting an audience over the head with it.

Think It Through

soulless-1-manga-gail-carriger-rem-yen-press-orbit-booksHistory is complex, so if you choose to alter some element of it there may be a widespread ripple effect. For instance, in the world of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, supernatural beings have been fully integrated into society. The good queen Vic has both a werewolf and a vampire advisor to help her navigate this unique political situation, and they have a distinct place in the social structure the United Kingdom which differs from the way they are viewed in other parts of the world. In Whitechapel Gods, there are competing quasi-religious factions that enforce the will of very real gods who have taken over the social and political systems of London. The future is forever altered in The Difference Engine because computers become viable much earlier than in real life. These are all suitably large changes to create real differences in the fabric the era in which they occur, and are great examples of alternate histories with rich backstories.

On the other hand, you can write a much smaller story. Alternate histories don’t have to completely break the time period they are depicting and reshape the world. One of my absolute favorite television shows is Murdoch Mysteries (Sourcebook coming soon!), and the writers do an elegant job of presenting the main character as just slightly ahead of his time in a very realistic way. The detective piggy-backs on the existing science of the 1890s and creates methods of collecting evidence and catching the culprits without causing any type of large-scale change to society.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I am also a huge fan of stories that give a new take on actual events. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, for instance, started with a historical figure with a well-known history but found ways to put his actions in to a very different and darker narrative. This approach means that there doesn’t need to be much of a ripple effect, because you aren’t actually changing the major events of history, they are just being recontextualized.

Sometimes, the alteration to history is a curveball, and actually puts things that have not yet come to pass even our own lifetimes somewhere in the past. I’ve explored the notion of adding futuristic elements in another post, and next time I’ll examine what can happen when there are aliens among us, so check back for more ways to punk your steam!

Do you have a favorite alternative history book, game or film? Have you found a particularly informative reference book or website you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below! 

Looking for more ways to “Punk your Steam”? Check out the whole series!

2 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe.


    May 3, 2015 at 6:23 am

  2. Pingback: How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.1: Make it Travel Through Time (Fast Forward) | For Whom the Gear Turns

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