Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction, but Steampunk also overlaps the Historical genre. This means that you can’t just ‘make it up’ if you are setting your story in a specific place and era. You have to do some research into the era. Proper research takes time an effort, but the rewards are often spectacular.
I started researching the Victorian era about three years ago. I was collecting so much information and imagery, that I started sharing it online on my personal Facebook site. When this became too unwieldy, I started Steampunk Sunday. Steampunk Sunday has been going for nearly two years, and it gives me the satisfaction of sharing information and keeping in touch with the Steampunk community. But this is just a side benefit of my research.
Researching the Victorian era can be very complex. For starters, because it was such a long era, a lot of history, cultural changes, and scientific innovation occurred. For example, the Regency-influenced fashions at the start of the era are quite different to when the Victorian era eased into the Edwardian era.
You can’t make any assumptions about how people acted. You might have read every Gothic novel from the Victorian era, but it still won’t give you all the background details that you will need to write into that era. You will need to do some reading in non-fiction textbooks about the era, and diaries and journals of people who actually lived through those times. It may sound like a lot of work, but it isn’t, not really. You often come across fascinating little details that keep your interest levels high.
So, when do you stop researching and start on your story? You can start straight away. A first draft doesn’t need to be correct in every detail, and knowing your story gives you a better idea of what you need to research. And don’t forget to research real life characters from your chosen time frame, because one of the genre markers for Steampunk literature is the inclusion of ‘cameo’ appearances of Victorian personages. The more research you do, the more depth you can add to your settings and characterizations as you go along.
Just because you are writing an alternate history, doesn’t mean that you can fudge your science, either. If you start writing in detail about a scientific innovation, you had better know of what you write. Educated readers will be quick to spot bad science, and if your plot revolved around such an innovation, it needs to have verisimilitude. Even if you utilise something like H. G. Well’s cavorite, make sure you have given your innovation some careful thought.
Another major genre marker of Steampunk are the gadgets. Just remember, the Victorians prefers their gadgets to be both functional and decorative. Mass produced items still had to have a hand-crafted look. Take, for example, the phone above from circa 1895. Look at the fancy shmancy details! Only good research will get those kind of details right.
Research need not be a chore. I guarantee you will come across details that will fascinate you. However, don’t be tempted to dump every single detail you discover into your work-in-progress. You don’t want to swamp your reader, just impress them.