I must admit to a slight embarrassment: When I wrote my novel 'Overland', I had no idea what 'Steampunk' is. I knew it had something to do with the Victorian Era, and was basically adventure stories, but that was about the sum of it. Well, 'Overland' takes place in 1876, right in the middle of Victoria's Long And Glorious, and it certainly was an adventure, so being all innocent and such, I slapped 'A Steampunk Novel' on the cover.
Muy Chagrin! I was quickly given to understand that 'Overland' is a 'Period SF' - not a 'Steampunk'. Sigh. You live and learn, if you live.
So what is 'Steampunk'? It is a variation of the 'Period Science Fiction' theme usually set in the 19th Century, generally an adventure format, in which ultramodern technology has been imposed where it has no business being and changed to some fanciful form powered by the technology of the day. A computer might be powered by a hand crank, a time machine by steam. The genre is notable for having a 'thing' about goggles and gears, and for traveling in exotic, unlikely, vehicles. In this regard 'Steampunk' is a form of fantasy: technology which didn't exist in the day (and in the case of the time machine likely couldn't exist at all) is common and performs miracles.
More than the technology, the source of that technology is usually a lone 'eccentric genius' working in his basement laboratory with little regard for the millions of labor man-years NASA puts into any new project. (What in any other genre would be called a 'mad scientist'.) I don't recall hearing of major defense contractors turning out riveted iron dirigibles in those stories.
As with the technology, the characters tend to be lightweights: all gung-ho for adventure in Darkest Africa, or Mars, or under the Antarctic ice cap, or wherever. The stereotypes are more stereotypical than in other genres, with the 'eccentric genius', his beautiful adventurer daughter, the manly Great White Hunter, and so forth setting out to find the source of the River Styx or capture the Worm Orobouros. I know: not the most intellectual art form.
Nonetheless it is a vastly popular format with its own conventions, publications (comic books at least) etc. Since it came on the scene a decade or more ago, it has developed a devoted following of readers perhaps more comfortable with comic books than the printed page. I am not really an affectionado of the genre, still, it is a major genre and a major market, so it deserves a critical look-see.
Writing 'Steampunk' is in some ways easier than most genres since you get to make stuff up with little regard for the laws of physics, but it does have its own rules. The story must be consistent and follow its own logic, no matter how 'out there' it is. Suppose the Germans are overrunning all of Africa, so your heroes mount an urgent expedition (in their riveted iron dirigible) to fly their exciting new 'steam cannon' in to save the day. Honest. Of course there have to be problems. If nothing else, they must land from time to time to stock up on cordwood for fuel. The point is that once you establish a major story point (the dirigible), you need to remain true to its limitations (fuel).
Moreover the rules about character development, motivation, and personal growth are the same as in any story. Unless your character is stark, raving mad (or an 'eccentric genius'), he will deal with the world just as we would. Ignore that truth and you are penning a hollow farce. Furthermore your characters need to be Victorian stereotypes, such as 'Lascars press-ganged off the latest East Indian steamer' (look it up) which means you need to be hep to history in detail.
You also need to be outright paranoid about loose ends, especially as you are making up your technology on the fly. How does your new riveted iron dirigible get off the ground? Is it filled with some secret 'lighter-than-lighter-than-air' gas? Who invented it? Your 'eccentric genius'? What are its characteristics? What problems / limitations does it have? It can't be 100% worry-free reliable: you already have enough to answer for. But you do need to provide backstory. You can easily wind up creating so many "You know, Bob..." side bits that your story line gets buried in pettifogging detail.
So you can see how a literal-minded Spec Fi author who cordially dislikes the worst of Star Trek could be confused by this eccentric genre. But I did get one thing right: most 'Steampunk' takes place in the later half of the 19th Century - in the Long And Glorious Reign of Queen Victoria. So it seems I'm not a complete putz.
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