By Cassie Gustafson, Katie Dubell, and Stephanie Panozzo

Writing Steampunk

In order to write Steampunk, one first needs to have a basic understanding of what defines the subgenre. At first, Steampunk may seem elusive—difficult to define or even conceptualize. And yet Steampunk by its very definition encompasses many settings, characters, themes, and all manners of gadgets and machinery. True, there are certainly key elements to keep in mind and incorporate as one writes, but rather than close off and limit the authors, Steampunk opens outward and grants its creators countless liberties. For further definitions of Steampunk, please see our Steampunk: Defined page.


  •      Aether
  •      Analogue Systems
  •      Automatons
  •      Clockwork Systems
  •      Difference/Analytical Engines
  •      Flying Machines
  •      Rayguns
  •      Steampower
  •      Time Machines

Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “A Guide to Steampunk Gadgets and Technology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Of course, Steampunk elements are in no way limited to the above list. Steampunk is that, and so much more. Read any Steampunk novel or watch any Steampunk movie to see that these are a mere branching off point. Think brass and copper, aviator caps and goggles, corsets and waistcoats, thigh holsters and top hats, gears and all matters of machinery. The possibilities are endless!

What Steampunk Is Not: Now that we have defined (in loose terms) what Steampunk is, it is important to also note what Steampunk is not.

Steampunk is not Science Fiction. Yes, it is a subgenre of Science Fiction and thereby shares many elements of its predecessor, but Steampunk fantasizes while Science Fiction attempts to foretell. Steampunk looks to reimagine the past while Science Fiction tries to predict and examine the future. In essence, Steampunk takes the technologies of the past and puts a contemporary, fantastical spin on them while Science Fiction takes our modern technology and shoots to invent the not-yet-invented.

Steampunk is not Cyberpunk. While the two genres can share a gritty and raw overlay, Cyberpunk usually involves a hopeless scenario where the characters (and the world) are doomed from the very beginning. All attempts to thwart the attacks against humanity will inevitably fail. Think: the virus or the robots that destroy(s) the world and all mankind. Though Steampunk often shares the high-stakes of Cyberpunk, the idealist, revolutionary protagonists almost always come out on top. This owes to Steampunk’s themes, which we will cover next.


  •      Makerism– The act of tinkering, of taking something apart to see how it works then rebuilding it anew
  •      Innovention– Innovation merged with Invention
  •      Idealism– The mentality that one’s actions should enhance “the greater good”
  •      Rebellion– To overthrow or conquer the oppressive or dictating powers that be

Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “The ‘punk’ in Steampunk/Steampunk Ideology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Why Steampunk?

As we covered in the “What Steampunk Is Not” and “Themes” sections, Steampunk tends to center around innovation, invention, idealism, and reform. The optimistic triumph aspect of Steampunk (vs. Cyberpunk’s often pessimistic outcomes) and its playfulness with technology (vs. Science Fiction’s more serious examinations) allows it to explore alternative versions of history: the “what might have been.” Plus, it is just darn fun!


  •      Air-Pirate
  •      Adventurer/ Explorer
  •      Aviator
  •      Dandy/ Femme Fatal
  •      Mad Scientist/ Inventor
  •      Mechanic/ Tinker
  •      Philosopher/ Scholar
  •      Socialite/ Lady/ Gentleman
  •      Street Sparrow/ Scrappy Survivor
  •      Reformer

Reference: Suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “Writing Steampunk Archetypes.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 17 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Once again, the archetypes act as a catalyst for other characters to emerge. For example, the Sherlock Holmes depicted in the movies combines the archetypes of Scholar, Tinker, and Victorian Gentleman with the eccentricity and indifference to societal expectations of the Mad Scientist. As demonstrated by this example, many of these archetypes can be combined, expanded, or reinvented to realize an innovative yet timely new character.

Setting: Though Steampunk nods to the Victorian era (mid-to-late 1800’s until 1900), this subgenre reaches into all parts of our world and even beyond. Steampunk fiction has been set in Victorian London, in the Wild West, and even other planets. What is important to remember is Steampunk’s dedication to the past in giving each of its stories an “old-timey” feel. Think dusk in 1890’s urban London, the misty streets lit only by lamplight that do nothing to illuminate the shadows in dark corners. Think the Old West in the 1850’s among a one-street town with banks, saloons, horses, and outlaws. Whatever the chosen setting, make it speak to the reader almost as if it is a character in and of itself.

Here’s a useful overview of Steampunk:

“Steampunk for Beginners” (By Suzanne Lazear)

Steampunk is a term that there’s been quite a bit of buzz about.  But, what is exactly Steampunk?

Steampunkers party like it’s 1899 (and what happens when Goth’s discover the color brown, lol.)  Steampunk is set in a world where steam and natural gas, not coal and electricity is still the primary power source.  It’s a world abounding with airships, gas lamps, gears, cogs, and brass goggles and populated with mad scientists, philosophers, adventurists, and air pirates.  HG Wells and Jules Vernon are huge inspirations for Steampunk.  Examples include League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Stardust, Treasure Planet, and the Golden Compass.

Even though there’s a heavy Victorian influence and feel to Steampunk, there could still be extraordinary technology all done with Victorian materials and in Victorian styles.  There can even be Steampunk airships, space ships, computers, and brass robots.  Technology may have simply evolved differently–or maybe a natural (or unnatural disaster) caused society to “regress,” though Steampunk stories traditionally lack the dystopian/anarchist elements that cyberpunk has.

Steampunk stories can be set in the past, in the future, or on another planet.  They can be alternate histories, mysteries with hard-boiled detectives or cozy Victorian ladies, they can be gothic, or horror, or sweet romance.  They can be bodice rippers, erotic, or “tame.”  Steampunk stories can even feature the supernatural or paranormal elements.

It’s in the setting, the language, the gadgets, and the characters–who could speak like Victorian ladies or fast-talking American teenagers.  With Steampunk, there’s really a great opportunity to be creative and make amazing worlds ranging from gritty to opulent.  Its basis is Victorian in nature, but it’s also fiction so you can do incredible and imaginative things.  Are you ready to write?

Reference: suzannelazear [Suzanne Lazear]. “Steampunk for Beginners.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. AgeofSteam/Wordpress, 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

More Useful References:

Further References:

Blaylock, James P. “James P. Blaylock: Impractical Machines.” Locus 691 (64.4, April 2010): 6, 57-58.

Bowser, Rachel A., and Brian Croxall. “Introduction: Industrial Evolution.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 1-45. Print.

Brownlee, John. “Meet Mr. Steampunk: Jake von Slatt.” Wired Magazine. 29 June 2007. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <>.

Bullen, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Parsons. “Dystopian Visions of Global Capitalism: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and M.T. Anderson’s Feed.”Children’s Literature in Education. 38.2 (2007): 127-139.

Fast, John. “Machinery of Blood: Melville’s ‘The Bell Tower’ as Ambiguous Steampunk Horror.” New York Review of Science Fiction 20.1 [229] (2007): 18.

Forlini, Stefania. “Technology and Morality: The Stuff of Steampunk.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 72-98. Print.

Gamble, Sarah. ““You cannot impersonate what you are”: Questions of Authenticity in the Neo-Victorian Novel.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory20.1/2 (2009): 126-140.

Gordon, Joan. “Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville’s Perdido street Station.” Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456-476.

Hansen, Adam. “Exhibiting Vagrancy, 1851: Victorian London and the ‘Vagabond Savage’.” A Mighty Mass of Brick and Stone: Victorian and Edwardian Represenations of London. Lawrence Phillips, ed. New York: Rodopi, (2007): 61-84.

Hantke, Steffen. “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.” Extrapolation (Kent State University Press) 40.3 (1999): 244-254.

Heilmann, Ann. “Doing It With Mirrors: Neo-Victorian Metatextual Magic in Affinity, The Prestige and The Illusionist.” Neo-Victorian Studies 2:2 (Winter 2009/10): 18-42.

Hendrix, Howard. “Verne among the Punks, ‘It’s Not Just a Victorian Clockwork.'” Verniana. 2 (2009). 

Jagoda, Patrick. “Clacking Control Societies: Steampunk, History, and the Difference Engine of Escape.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 46-71. Print.

Jones, Jason B. “Betrayed by Time: Steampunk & the Neo-Victorian in Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 99-126. Print.

Kelleghan, Fiona. “Interview with Tim Powers.” Science Fiction Studies 25.1 (1998): 7-28.

Kendrick, Christopher. “Monster Realism and Uneven Development in China Miéville’s The Scar.” Extrapolation (University of Texas at Brownsville) 50.2 (2009): 258-275.

Latham, Rob. “Our Jaded Tomorrows.” Science Fiction Studies 36.2 (2009): 339-349.

Lazear, Suzanne. “A Guide to Steampunk Gadgets and Technology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

—.“Steampunk for Beginners.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 28 Dec. 2009. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

—. “The ‘punk’ in Steampunk/Steampunk Ideology.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 10 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

—. “Writing Steampunk Archetypes.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. WordPress, 17 Jan. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Llewellyn, Mark. “Neo-Victorianism: On the Ethics and Aesthetics of Appropriation.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 20.1/2 (2009): 27-44.

Lolitas. “Writing Steampunk.” Steamed!: Writing Steampunk Fiction. AgeofSteam/Wordpress, 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Munford, Rebecca, and Paul Young. “Introduction: Engaging the Victorians.”LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 20.1/2 (2009): 1-11.

Nevins, Jess. “The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk.” New York Review of Science Fiction 21.5 [245] (2009): 1.

Onion, Rebecca. “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1 (2008): 138-163.

Partington, Gill. “Friedrich Kittler’s “Aufschreibsystem..” Science Fiction Studies 33.1 (2006): 53-67.

Perschon, Mike. “Finding Nemo: Verne’s Antihero as Original Steampunk.” Verniana. 2 (2010).

—. “Steam Wars.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 127-166. Print.

—. (2012) The Steampunk Aesthetic: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Education & Research Archive. U of Alberta, Canada.

Pike, David L. “Afterimages of the Victorian City.” Journal of Victorian Culture15.2 (2010): 254-267.

Rose, Margaret. “Extraordinary Pasts: Steampunk as a Mode of Historical Representation.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3 (2009): 319-333. Print.

Sakamoto, Michaela. “The Transcendent Steam Engine: Industry, Nostalgia, and the Romance of Steampunk.” The Image of Technology. 124-131. Pueblo, CO: Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, Colorado State University-Pueblo, 2009.

Sambuchino, Chuck. “Examining the Wonderful World of Steampunk: Maritime Terrorists, Time Travelers, and Mad Science.” Writer’s Digest. 29 August 2014. Web. 5 April 2015.

Vineyard, Jennifer. “Master Storyteller Neil Gaiman Talks Steampunk and Neverwhere Influence.” Interviews. MTV Movies Blog. 2 Oct 2008. Web. 21 Apr 2015.

Voigts-Virchow, Eckart. “In-yer-Victorian-face: A Subcultural Hermeneutics of Neo-Victorianism.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 20.1/2 (2009): 108-125.

Quigley, Marian. “a Future Victorian Adventure: the Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello.” Screen Education 54 (2009): 125-129.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Democratising the Past to Improve the Future: An Interview with Steampunk Godfather Paul Di Filippo.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3:1 (2010): 189-195. Print.

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