The Perfect Frame: Steampunk Settings


“Remember in your story that setting is the other character. It is as important to your story as the people in it because it gives them context and can ideally be used to heighten drama and tension, depending on where it is.”  Rob Parnell

The advice in this quote above is pretty much the same advice I was given by one of my lecturer/tutors in creative writing, Dr Ross Watkins. Ross told me to think of the setting as a character with its own ‘dialogue’. As setting is the weakest tool in my writer’s kit, I’ve always taken this advice to heart.

The right setting is important to a Steampunk story, as it adds to the overall verisimilitude of the work-in-progress and can have a secondary function in adding details to characterisation and plot. A Steampunk Scientist needs a laboratory, the Airship Pirate has to have a dirigible (even if they have to steal one), the Engineer need machines and tools and to smell of grease. This match-up of character to setting may seem rather obvious, but the setting has to live and breathe for the reader, and it is up to the writer to give their characters the most exciting and appropriate setting.

Think of your character as a gemstone, and the word ‘setting’ suddenly make more sense. A faceted diamond can be beautiful all by itself, but the perfect setting will make it unique and outstanding from other diamonds. That is how your setting should function … by working in partnership with your characters and plot to form a seamless work of craft.

Art by Brian Kesinger

Art by Brian Kesinger

As a visual prompt, let us use one of Brian Kesinger’s Tea Girls. She is sitting under a tree … not the most Steampunk of settings, one might think. But note the inclusion of 1/ text books, 2/ a magnifying glass, and 3/ several small vasculums dangling from the woman’s belt. She is most likely a botanist of some sort, so an arboreal setting isn’t out of character. She would be out of place in a drawing room, though maybe not a greenhouse or library. It is the layering of details that makes a setting work.

'Raising Steam' by Terry Pratchett

‘Raising Steam’ by Terry Pratchett

To use a text sample from Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam:

There was something insect-like about the metallic contraption, bits of which were spinning incessantly while the whole thing was shrouded in a cloud of smoke and steam of its own making. Harry King saw purpose personified.

Here is the perfect example of setting as a character. The steam locomotive, Iron Girder, functions as both setting and as a character in this book. This is pure Steampunk, a scientific innovation that changes how a whole society functions. (And – if you haven’t read this book yet – hurry up!) Ross would approve of how the locomotive also acts as a metaphor for the changing attitudes in a society. Terry Pratchett really knows how to make a setting earn its keep within a story.

The Genre Markers of a Steampunk Setting:

a/ The society is industrial;

b/  The era is the equivalent of the English Victorian and Edwardian eras (but need not be limited to such);

c/ They can be borrowed from other works of fiction (Steampunk is open to  good mash-up);

d/ And are only limited by your imagination.

And always remember to have fun with your settings. You need to immerse yourself in a setting with all five of your senses. Hear the clang of metal work, see the gleam of polished brass and steel, smell the burning oil, feel the grease on your skin, taste the smoke, and let it make your eyes water. Feel the thud of the pistons in your bones!



Filed under Getting Started, Setting, Steampunk

2 responses to “The Perfect Frame: Steampunk Settings

  1. After taking a stream train ride on Sunday, I can feel the pulse of a stationary steam train.
    The train was waiting to take off for the return journey and I stood next to the engine and listened to the steam piston inside the engine gently pulsate. I felt like the engine was “alive” and just raring to go, to take the carriages, full of tourists, back to the Rosewood Steam Museum.
    I hope I can convey that feeling into the next story I write!

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