Setting a Scene with all the Senses: a Steampunk Perspective

A Steampunk Setting

A Steampunk Setting

As you may have heard me mention, I am not the world’s best scene setter. I tend to focus more on the characters, the dialogue, and the plot. This is a bad fault, because I’m certain my readers want to be transported to exotic locations … and they need some hint of what the setting is like. So, as an exercise for me (which you can freely copy), let’s pick a setting out of my Steampunk Work-in-Progress and study it in minute detail. Let us look at the (please insert a drumroll here) Inside Alice’s laboratory/greenhouse!

Victorian Greenhouse

Victorian Greenhouse

Just a quick bit of background: in 1851, the Crystal Palace  – the site of the Great Exhibition, revolutionised the use of glass in construction. My novel is set 1871, and Alice has several greenhouses built from glass (and a conservatory). As her field of science is Botany, she uses one of her greenhouses as a laboratory. Visually: During the day, most of the sunlight is filtered through greenish glass panes and leaves of the taller plants, to create a green tinge to everything. On dull rainy days and at night, there are internal electric lights (elaborate crystal chandeliers – Alice has a quirky sense of style). This means that every glass pane sparkles day and night. Because there is an abundance of plants, you catch a sudden gleam in the deep green shadows under and between the vegetation. There are long wooden benches running down the centre of the aisles, and on the benches is a profusion of books, glassware, implements and shiny brass & copper instruments. Some of those plants sitting in pots on the benches look most peculiar. I wouldn’t get too close…


Sounds: Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t quiet in a greenhouse. There is the constant buzz of bees, the sounds of other insects busy at work, birdsong drifts in through the ventilation openings, and Sophie – Alice’s assistant – hums to herself when she works. The two young women often hold heated discussions about the methodology for their latest projects. Now and then, there is a strangled scream as one of the gardeners discovers another aggressive weed (Alice had made a few mistakes; so far, there have been no major injuries or fatalities). There is a water feature in the laboratory, so you can also hear the pleasant splash of water over stones, as well as condensation trickling and dripping from the leaves.

Smells: Even an ordinary greenhouse is rich in odours. There are the smells generated by the plants, flowers and fertilizers. Add to that the smell of ozone and strange chemicals, some of them quite pleasant while others are putrid to the nose. Sophie smells of lavender and peppermint. Alice likes to wear a vanilla-inspired perfume. When some of the gadgets are running, there can be strong smell of burning oil, which tends to linger long after the gadget has been shut down.

Taste: Don’t taste anything, even if those berries look delicious. You have been warned.

Touch: The glass is slick with condensation. The various plants provide a hundred different textures: rough bark, rubbery leaves, silken flower petals, powdery pollen, stinging thorns, feathery ferns, some a pleasure to touch, and others painful. The wooden benches are highly polished and feel organic, smooth and satiny to the fingertips. This contrasts with the gadgets, with their sharp edges and hard metal surfaces.  The glassware has been given a lightly etched surface, for a better grip in this humid environment. Alice would suggest you wear gloves before handling anything on the benches.

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Filed under Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, writing

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