An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

History is beautiful puzzlement.

For many people, the concept of fantasy literature in and of itself must be restrained to medieval settings, where swords and sorcery define the landscape. But much of what we perceive as fantasy has little to do with the so-called “real” Middle Ages, and everything to do with the Victorians, their ideals, and their cultural obsessions.

In fact, the images the majority of people conjure up when someone says “fantasy” or “knights” or “King Arthur” come directly out of the influence of the Victorian and early Edwardian periods and their desire to rediscover, reinvent, and reincarnate the Middle Ages. This influence swept across the arts, from furniture making to novel writing. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is perhaps the most familiar, along with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and William Morris (who is, arguably, the father of the modern fantasy novel).

What’s important about the Victorian perception of the Middle Ages is that it directly affected the writing that came after (and in some cases, rebelled against) it. Because, as in all retellings, the Victorians could not leave the stories well enough alone–some, like Tennyson injected his ideals of courtly love and good conduct (Guenevere and Lancelot languish away as a nun and monk respectively) while Morris sought to illustrate the social ills of his day through Utopian visions of other worlds.

Aside from the Victorian preoccupation with the Middle Ages, there also came something else: the Gothic. And by this I not mean the style of building, nor do I mean a dark-haired pasty girl writing poetry about dead flowers in a corner at a coffee shop. No, I mean gothic literature, a combination of horror, science, romance, and history, all blended together to create some of the most enduring characters of our time (Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Invisible Man just to name a few). In many ways the Gothic typifies the Victorian perception of medieval landscapes–seen in earlier examples like Coleridge’s “Cristabel” and Keats’ “Lamia” poems–and contrasts their own concerns about science, magic, and power against them. Brilliant stuff.

And then there’s science and technology. Victorian literature, and later much Edwardian literature, often brims to the edge with excitement and enthusiasm on the subject of growing technologies in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (Verne‘s Voyages Extraordinaire) or skeptical of the power of science (Robert Louis Stephenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). That these stories still resonate with us today, still frighten us and inspire us over a century later, is quite remarkable.

I see steampunk fantasy, and steampunk science-fiction, then as a natural next step in this progression. We are, in a sense, reinventing the reinvention. We look to the Victorian period and understand their simultaneous excitement and tenuous approach to technology; we know what it is to want to discover our roots and delve into the mysteries of myth. New advances in DNA and gene research have given place names to people who sometimes feel as if their cultural identities have been lost in the melting pot.

Writers, makers, and cosplayers alike see the allure in the Lost Age of Steam because it in so many ways reflects our own. And as before, steampunk isn’t purely a movement across one or two disciplines. It’s pervasive. It’s become an aesthetic, a recognizable divergence from the norm (was is the goggles that gave it away?).

And I think what I love about it most is that, like Victorian medievalism and early science-fiction, it balks in the face of definition. It is not strictly historical, nor is it easily explained. It is moving and changing, different things to different people.

The gears, they keep on moving. Who knows what will come when the next century views ours?

I’m a pacifist.

But don’t tell my characters.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is managing violent scenes. Call me a wuss. As someone who’s never even thrown a punch, you can imagine where I’m coming from. But my own personal preferences have to take second seat when I’m writing because, whether or not I like violence or not, it’s a part of life. Especially considering that war is a major component in my current novel–it is partially inspired by the Old West, you see, and there’s just no avoiding it. (Not to mention there’s a murder by the third chapter.)

Sometimes writers feel like they have to write their own agenda into their work. I think this can work to a certain extent (I’ve certainly included quite a helping of my feelings about society, gender, and spirituality in my book) but often it clouds the tale if gone too far. Readers need to trust a writer completely, especially if they’re going to keep with you for 100,000 words or so. So don’t skimp on violence if it’s part of the story, because your readers will feel like you’re withholding details.

That said, there’s a few things I do when I’m writing a particularly violent scene. The first thing to do is research. Sometimes this includes talking to someone who has first-hand experience. A few weeks ago I interrogated my husband about what getting socked in a particularly sensitive area that I have no personal understanding about might feel like if done with a steel-toed boot. I also take time to read other accounts (a quick crash course would be reading someone like Chuck Palahnhiuk, but only if you have a stomach of steel).

But you also want to make sure your violence is accurate. Often in fantasy people are given super human powers, or receive the most unlikely of wounds. If you’re being attacked by a mace, well, read up about what a mace does to the human body. The same with daggers, knives, blasters, rifles, or fists. (Medieval warfare is a good place to start for the fantasy camp.) That goes doubly for magic or anything high-tech. Take a half second to learn about physics! A quick gander certainly won’t hurt.

Violence has been a part of storytelling from the beginning. (Just take a look at the Bible!) It’s just one of the elements of storytelling that excite an audience, keep them on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the severing of Grendel’s arm, Roland’s brain bursting from blowing his horn, or the frequent “brain bashing” of Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, violence is a part of our mythology. We understand violence because it causes pain, and pain is something common to the human experience.

That said, if you’re still uncomfortable with your scene, I have a few more suggestions.

For instance, if you’re describing a group scene (a siege or the like) and the large-scale violence is either too complicated or too bothersome, use a single point of view. Narrow the lens, as it were, and describe what is happening through a character, not just the actions around him/her.

Also, remember that level of detail is always up to you. I’ve read some writers who go as far as the molecular level when describing their violent scenes. The difference between a wound, a gaping wound, and a seeping, putrefying wound… well, you get the point.

In the end, the decision is yours. Different writers have different levels of comfort (I’ve seen, for instance, some writers who don’t balk at writing a bloodbath, but skip over the sex completely). Find your balance, but don’t do it without examining the whys of your own approach.

Airship!Of all things, it was my post about Tolkien that got me thinking more deeply about my “crossing over” as it were, from writing strictly high fantasy to steampunk. A snippet of a quote from The Two Towers briefly flitted over my brain last night while playing D&D with our new group (I do, in fact, roll polished brass d20s). We’re playing 4th edition, and it was the first time I got to combat with my new warlock. At any rate, I was thinking about Tolkien and his general distaste of all things mechanical.

Treebeard says to Gandalf at one point, re: Saruman:

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment.”

Holy cow. “Metal and wheels?” That’s totally steampunk.  However, Tolkien certainly didn’t mean this is a positive way. He viewed technology as a means of destroying nature–especially his beloved trees–with an ability to raze the calm, quiet, Shire he loved so much. Certainly I understand his trepidation growing up at the turn of the century as he did, facing the terrors of the two World Wars.

But strangely, it isn‘t the machines that really are the most corrupt in LoTR, but it’s magic itself. Though Sauron creates the One Ring, he is–in essence–descended still from the “magic” of Arda, part of the Creation. Of course this brings about all sorts of questions regarding free will, religion, and philosophy but, at the moment, I’m not in graduate student mode.

One of the common themes in steampunk literature is constant tension between good technology and bad technology. It’s a tension that we certainly feel today, as a nuclear reactor can both supply energy to millions of people and destroy them. We want technology to help people, to make their lives easier, but often it comes with unforseen consequences.

I guess my point here is that, in some ways, I’m more leagued these days than Saruman, at least without the massive destruction of Nature part.

Why steampunk? Once I realized that’s what this book was becoming, a steampunk fantasy, I began doing more reading and trolling the web for inspiration. The thing is, unlike the fantasy genre–which has certainly seen is share of hackneyed, cliched, and rather painful publications–steampunk literature is continuing to grow at a steady pace (just look at the Google Trends if you don’t believe me). And while some people are already heralding its death, I tend to disagree.

The thing about steampunk, if it even qualifies as a genre at all (this is up for debate, friends), is that it simultaneously reflects the tensions and concerns of our own world and transports us to another, whether re-envisioned, revisionist, or completely fabricated. This other world imagining is almost always a “distant but not too distant” past, unlike the bulk of science fiction that takes place in the future, or fantasy in an of ten very distant, mysterious past.

What that means for a writer is a little more freedom, I think, to work beyond the often allegorical mode of fantasy literature into a more mimetic mode. Because it’s not so far, far away, steampunk literature achieves a closeness to the reader; we can understand the ramifications and dangers of technology much better than we might, say, a great ring of power. Not that was can’t imagine that ring of power; but unlike magic, most people have actually seen technology at work in their daily lives.

The closeness of steampunk is that fuels the imagination of writers and makers alike with that closeness. A few trips to the dump or an antique shop, and you can mod your hard-drive with brass and mahogany. Peering through Victorian era newspapers is like a window into Verne.

I think as we continue to move toward nanotechnology and living in a hyper cyber world, steampunk will remain relevant as a hybrid, re-imagined past. It’s certainly captured its share of fans, and I think in time the general media will latch on, as well, as they did with Tolkien. But these sorts of movements start small…

My favorite things about writing steampunk fantasy literature:

  • You don’t have to worry about travel. Skip the horses and the backpacks: we’re boarding a train. Or better yet, a steam powered monocycle!
  • The clothing! I’ve mentioned this many times before on the blog, but one of my favorite research projects involves scouring the web for Victorian couture for my gals. You just can’t get better than that. Add a little steampunk modifier, and you’re in business.
  • The language. I’m a sometime linguist, and always struggle with the languages my characters speak in my high fantasy novels. It sometimes ends up sounding too formal, and it puts a reader at a distance. But I can never decide how the accents and voices of another world would sound. Not so much a concern with steampunk; sure there’s lingo, but it’s nowhere near as difficult.
  • The technology! A mind of metal and wheels indeed. There’s no limit on what the imagination can put together. And, it’s shiny.