NOTE: All quotes used in this article are from Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam.
When writing any narrative, including one set in the Steampunk genre, the goal is to submerge your reader into the story. The reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch your world. Only you can provide them with enough details that their imagination can do the rest. You, as the world builder, might have a very good idea of your setting … is it so good that you have forgotten to share details with your audience? You need to provoke their senses, to evoke their responses.
Visual Colour: Human beings are visual creatures and like to ‘see’ a setting. Make sure you give them something interesting to look at, even if it with their mind’s eye. The Steampunk genre isn’t confined to any one sort of setting, and can range from a cluttered neo-Victorian sitting room to the weird science equipment of a laboratory to the open skies around an airship. You can fill in the details by having your characters interact with the setting, such as knocking over a shelf of dainty knickknacks or noticing the storm building on the horizon. Here is an excellent example of the excitement of train travel, as provided by Terry Pratchett:
A dollar was a dollar, possible a day’s food for a family, and yet, as far as Moist could ascertain, flying over the rails on the wonderful train was worth tightening your belt for. It was better than the circus, better than everything, to be speeding along with the wind in your face and black smuts that made the eyes water, but were, well, the badge of train riders, who nevertheless didn’t seem to notice it, given the amount of unpleasantness that could slap, splat, spit or fly into your face when you stepped into the street, or even when you walked into your own house, if you lived anywhere near the Shades.
Now, see how this wasn’t just a straightforward description of the scene – though there is nothing wrong with that sort of scene setting. Can’t you just picture that ‘wonderful train’? And you’ve been given a pretty good idea of the sort of city that the train is in … all in two sentences. Of course, we can’t all be as brilliant as Pratchett, but we can all make the attempt to help our audience look around our setting and see those bits that will be vitally important to the characters and plot.
Olfactory Colour: I think the sense of smell is often the most important of the senses when it comes to evoking a response from a reader. We tend to have strong emotional associations with smells, the tang of the ocean, the rich perfume of lavender, the welcoming smell of baking, and the luxurious fragrance of freshly laundered sheets… compared to the stench of old vomit, the sickening smell of decay, and the the eye-watering fug of a smoking room. They can help a setting come alive.
Moist woke up, which could be interpreted as a good thing. First time round, Iron Girder was over him and he was dead, but his next careful waking was in a white room that smelled of camphor wood and other disinfectants, sharp and reassuring smells: tangible proof that he had a nose at least, because he couldn’t really feel anything else.
Can’t you just imagine that hospital room smell? As an exercise, close your eyes and smell the room your in right now! Write a hundred words to describe what you are smelling. Now do exactly the same thing for a scene in your Steampunk narrative. Can you see how adding some of that descriptive text might improve your setting?
Auditory Colour: There is no such thing as real silence. Even when you are alone in a soundproof room, you can hear your own breathing and maybe even your heartbeat. You will certainly be able hear the scratch of your nails against your skin. In an industrial setting, like a working factory, you would find it hard to hear yourself think. Your readers need to know what sounds are part of your setting, from the creak of corsets under strain to the musical rattle of gears and cogs in your robot butler. Or, if you were hearing a train for a first time, it might sound like this:
…heard what sounded like a dragon having difficulty sleeping, a kind of chuffing noise, very repetitive, and then suddenly there was a scream, as if the biggest kettle in the world had got very, very angry.
The human mind has the tendency to block out sounds if it keeps hearing them in the background, like a clock ticking or the hum of an air-conditioning unit. You should take that into account. The unexpected noise is then more dramatic, like the creak of a floorboard when you know you are the only person in the house.
Gustatory Colour: My favourite sense! We think that we have a plethora of words to describe the way things look, but we have so many flavour words in the English language! Spicy, fruity, chocolaty, sweet, oily … I could go on and on.
He swigged the cold tea, which had a harmless accent of hazelnuts with a soupçon of wool, expecting at any moment to be poisoned or throw up. In fact it was … pleasant and it also felt quite nourishing. If there were snails in it, like the wine, the, well, viva escargot! Although the secret ingredient, he was quite sure, was likely to be avec.
Food and drink are a necessary daily ritual. You need to include some scenes where eating and drinking take place. The Victorians pretty much invented puddings, and a great many kitchen utensils. Not all science takes place in a laboratory…
Tactile Colour: Now is not the time to confuse sensory with sensual, or confuse physical feeling with emotional feelings. What you want to do here is to fill your world with texture – hard floor boards, stinging slaps, velvet curtains, fluffy cats, sharp daggers. Riding in a train:
“Yes, my lord, and riding the sleek rails in a well sprung carriage would be the height of comfort. So smooth!”
A Steampunk setting would have lots of metal. Spend some time actually getting to understand the different textures of metal from slippery with grease to the chill of delicate gold chains.