Steampunk Romance Roundtable: Plot and Worldbuilding
Authors face a certain set of challenges when combining steampunk and romance, not the least of which is meeting reader expectation. I invited a number of authors to share their strategies for creating stories that blend mesmerizing steampunk elements and a satisfying romance.
Here is the question I posed to them:
The plot and worldbuilding possibilities are endless in a steampunk romance. That said, romance readers have strong expectations regarding romance genre conventions. As an author, how do you approach the integration of your steampunk plot, worldbuilding, and the romance in order to meet reader expectation? What kind of strategies do you use?
Here’s what the authors had to say (in alphabetical order):
Beth Ciotta launched a steampunk romance series called The Glorious Victorious Darcys (Signet Eclipse). This series, which began with Her Sky Cowboy and continues with His Clockwork Canary, is filled with action-adventure, larger-than-life characters, and steamy romance. For more information visit Penguin.com.
I write in several different sub-genres—historical romance, contemporary romance, paranormal romance, and steampunk romance. The common element is “romance”. The common audience—readers who enjoy romantic fiction. Therefore I always strive to keep the central focus on the hero and heroine and their love story. Their developing romance is the heart of the story. Everything else—plot, worldbuilding—enhances the core. I don’t really have any strategies other than keeping that simple notion foremost in my mind. The central focus is the romance.
In the following excerpt from His Clockwork Canary (Book 2 of The Glorious Victorious Darcys), you’ll see a lot of worldbuilding at play. Elements of alternate history, the late 1800s and 1960s colliding and melding due to time travel. Social and political concerns. Steampunk technology. But through it all, the focus is on Simon and Willie and their blossoming relationship as well as their shaky future as a couple.
Willie stared at the simple band Simon had placed on her left ring finger, tears pricking her eyes. How ridiculous. Reverend Karma had not only kept the ceremony not only temporal but amazingly brief. She’d forgone her timepieces, but she would swear less than two- minutes had elapsed between “Welcome” and “Blessings on your union.” If anything, she should feel slighted, not overwhelmed, yet her heart had blossomed so, squeezing against her lungs, she could scarcely breathe.
She glanced up at Simon. “Did I say, ‘I do’?” She could not recall. How woefully insane.
“You did.” His intense gaze sparked in a new and perplexing way. Smiling, he leaned in and brushed a tender kiss across her lips. “Hello, Mrs. Darcy.”
Mrs. Simon Darcy.
Her senses whirled. What had she done? This would never work out. Although maybe it would. Maybe they could indeed be curiosities together. First and foremost, she needed to find the clockwork propulsion engine and ensure its safety and then she needed to somehow thwart or appease Strangelove. She needed to protect her family. And that family now included Simon.
Willie gathered her wits as Simon led her to a table where Reverend Karma now stood with a pen and certificate. Whilst waiting for them to sign their names, the hippie preacher man described various amusements to be found upon this skytown, suitable romantic entertainment, unless of course, they preferred something more decadent. She barely heard a word. She was too busy trying to properly grasp the pen. Frustration bubbled and she almost wished she’d worn the Thera-Steam-Atic Brace.
But then Simon closed in, wrapping his hand around her forearm and lending support as she managed a signature. His palm burned through the thin lace of her sleeve, ignited her blood, and tripled her determination to overcome this physical setback. After tonight she would work most avidly to strengthen her muscles. She would become wholly self-reliant and this troubling sense of inferiority would forever vanish.
Willie watched as, after signing his own name, Simon thanked Reverend Karma, then pocketed the marriage certificate. A keepsake, a token of their personal commitment, but surely not a legal and binding document. All the same, Willie felt different, transformed. Her mother had been wrong. Simon had not rejected her because of her race. He had embraced her diversity and all the mystery attached. He had made her battle his own.
How extraordinarily courageous. How remarkably rebellious.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Vic and Freak.
A fire stirred within. A flicker of purpose. If every person was afforded one chance to make a significant change for the betterment of this world, perhaps this banned marriage was her unique opportunity. She had never taken a public stand for her race. She had always operated behind false identities and names. Perhaps it was time to fight in the open. Something inside of her snapped and burned and for the first time in her life, Wilhelmina-formerly-Goodenough, understood the true meaning of rebel.
“I thought we could dine first, something exotic,” Simon said as he ushered her toward the petal-strewn exit. “Then perhaps you would fancy dancing to outlawed music, or a bit of radical theater, or a starry ride aboard the Ferris wheel.”
“I would fancy a sampling of all of those things.” She would enjoy the tolerance and freedom of Skytown as never before and then she would top off her wedding night with “spectacular.”
Pausing on the threshold, Simon pulled Willie’s tinted spectacles from his inner pocket.
She waved them off, cupped the back of his neck, and pulled him down for a highly inappropriate kiss, given they were not alone. She heard the celebratory tinkling of finger bells and Reverend Karma saying, “Far-out.” Willie welcomed the passionate heat, a surge of confidence, and the rebellious spark stoking her blood. Heart pounding, she eased away and met Simon’s curious gaze. “No more hiding.”
He framed her face and scorched her soul with a proud and seductive smile. “Tonight is ours, Mrs. Darcy. Tomorrow, we take on the world.”
There’s potential, of course, to become obsessed and distracted with all the fun gadgets and gizmos and fantastical elements of a steampunk inspired novel. But similar distractions are present when writing in other sub-genres. Take it from me! The key, as with anything, is finding balance. And chanting my mantra: The central focus is the romance.
Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso are the writing team behind The Ether Chronicles (Avon Impulse), an action-adventure steampunk romance series filled with majestic airships, cyborgs, espionage, and sizzling love scenes. The journey starts with Zoe Archer’s Skies of Fire and Nico Rosso’s Night of Fire.
Nico: Thanks so much for having us, Heather. Writing romance in the steampunk subgenre is an interesting challenge for our Ether Chronicles series. We not only have to satisfy the steampunk reader’s need for unique technology and action scenarios, but there are also the strong emotional elements the romance reader requires. My approach is to use the steampunk to create scenarios where the hero and heroine can prove themselves, and their commitment to each other.
For instance, in my steampunk Western Nights of Steel, the main characters are bounty hunters who start out at odds – searching for the same bounty. Not to give away any spoilers, but I wanted to use the steampunk technology to show how darn good the hero and heroine are at their jobs. Then, as the plot develops and they team up (ok, a little spoiler), I used the steampunk to rachet up the stakes of the action, giving them opportunities to show how capable and sexy they were to the other character. By the climax, the steampunk action is so big it’s the perfect venue to have them prove the strength of their relationship while battling for each other’s lives.
Zoë: I totally agree with Nico–steampunk gives us the venue for plenty of action and romance. First and foremost, I write romance novels. That’s always the guiding principle in my books. There needs to be a hero, a heroine, and an HEA. The plot and worldbuilding support that relationship as it develops. Since my books always feature action and adventure, adding the steampunk technology ensures that that element continues, because how can you have airships and men enhanced by technology without adventure being part of the story?
Also, for me, I really enjoy that in a steampunk alternate history, my heroines can be active and powerful within a historical context, but without challenging society, the way it might play out in a non-steampunk historical romance. In Skies of Fire, my heroine is a spy, while in Skies of Steel, the heroine is an anthropologist. My August release, Skies of Gold, features a heroine who’s an engineer—and she’s half English, half East Indian. Steampunk gives me the chance to expand horizons beyond the limits of historical romance.
Pauline Baird Jones comes at steampunk romance from a unique angle: her Project Universe series includes SF-steampunk romance mashups. Tangled in Time, Steamrolled, and Steam Time feature elements such as time travel, alternate dimensions, and automatons galore. For more information about her work visit her Web site.
I approach my steampunk novels the way I do any novel. For me, every story starts with a girl and a guy who need each other, even if they don’t know it yet. Putting them in a quirky, steampunk setting can be challenging, though. If I don’t keep all my story elements in balance, then the steampunk setting can overpower the story (as can any element that gets away from me).
In the real world, setting shapes character. In a novel, that is one function of setting. You only have to look at Luke and Hal Solo to see how setting can mold character and shape a character’s outlook and expectations.
Setting is also the backdrop for the action, and it can be the opposition or the enabler of the romance. Harsh settings or weather can test characters, can force them apart or require them to learn to rely on each other, while a soft breeze and a beach encourages relaxation and bonding. O.O
What I particularly like about steampunk is that it can add or enhance the quirk. I like my stories to have a sense of humor and steampunk brings it–if you don’t mind playing with the expected. I never seem to mind. LOL
When I was writing Tangled in Time, I had a lot of fun playing with my setting. Colonel Carey wakes with a buzzard on his chest, isolated and aware something has gone wrong. But at first he’s not too wigged out. Yeah, he’s in the desert, but it looks normal. Until it’s not:
Sun rode low in the east. A bit of a chill in the air. Based on the ground cover, he’d guess it was early spring. He was supposed to have arrived in late fall and in another state—not that he was complaining, because who would he complain to? The buzzard that wanted to eat him?
He started up, using the scrub as handholds to keep from taking an involuntary down turn, while his ribs groused at him. He’d spent too much time in space, he decided. He shouldn’t be puffing this hard. Couldn’t even blame it on the altitude. This mountain wasn’t any higher than Area 51. About one hundred yards shy of the peak, he topped a slight rise and the ground leveled out enough to let him catch his breath. He didn’t sink to his knees. He had his pride—and that buzzard was still stalking him. With his eyes on the ridge line, he almost didn’t notice the bogey.
When he did—he blinked—it couldn’t be for real. He rubbed his eyes—it had to be a mirage—but it didn’t go away. It didn’t waver around the edges either. He looked both directions, half expecting a camera crew to pop out from behind a rock, but that was even crazier than the big ass bogey. He eased in for a closer look. Kind of oblong in shape and metallic in appearance, it sat close to the mountain wall on the only bit of semi-flat real estate around. It looked like a mutation of a car and an upside down train, with a little rocket thrown in just for fun. An inverted fan of dark metal covered the area where a view port or window shield should be. Or eyes. It kind of looked like it should have eyes.
And then we give weird and quirky a nice twist by introducing him to the heroine:
Only thing breaking ground around it was his footprints.
And someone else’s.
It shouldn’t be a shock. He had noted the opening in the side. But it still gave him a jolt to see them. Instinct had him reaching for his side arm, but the sound of a gun cocking off to his right changed his mind. He raised both arms, taking it non-threatening slow, and turned toward the sound. His jaw dropped.
It was Mary Poppins’ twin sister, holding an umbrella and a gun.
One thing that helped (I hope) with Tangled in Time, was that Colonel Carey gives us a character who is learning about his setting, so we can learn with him. He’s out of his element, so we make the journey to figuring it all out with him. For this short novella, I mostly isolated them, so they’d need each other to survive and then I just let them fall in love. They were made for each other, after all.
My only other caution? observation would be that pacing is important in introducing readers to a steampunk world. Because it is so familiar to me by the time I’ve gone through the story again and again, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is all new to the reader and it is easy overwhelm them with fun (?) detail. I’m struggling with this challenge with a steampunk manuscript in progress.
Perhaps one reason SFR authors have embraced steampunk so happily is because world building is SOP for them? We already love the weird and the wonderful? And of course, we love “helping” characters fall in love by trying them to their toenails.
Coleen Kwan is the author of Asher’s Invention and Asher’s Dilemma. The stories combine fantastical devices with intrigue, time travel, and romance. For more information about her books visit Carina Press.
Like all good romances, steampunk romance must include the essential ingredients. For me, top of the list is character. The heroine must be someone I can identify with, and the hero must be a man I can fall in love with. They can be aristocratic nobles, mastermind thieves, or anything in between. They can be famous inventors, scientists, or simply eccentrics.
In my books, Asher’s Invention and Asher’s Dilemma, the hero, Asher Quigley, is the grandson of an earl but has flouted family convention to become an inventor. He is famous for fighting potato blight in Ireland and preventing wide-spread famine. His pride and determination are both his strength and his weakness, as he finds it difficult to admit his errors, and this is a huge stumbling block when he falls in love with Minerva Lambkin, the daughter of his first mentor who later betrays him. Minerva isn’t in the same class as Asher. She’s the daughter of an unscrupulous engineer who steals Asher’s invention and sells it as his own. Despite this, Minerva is loyal to her father. She’s an inventor in her own right, making replacement limbs for injured people, and when she and her father fall on hard times, this is her only source of income.
A good romance needs plenty of conflict and steampunk offers so many possibilities. I like setting my steampunk romances in Victorian England, where the rigid class structure and societal pressures can present many barriers between the hero and heroine. Minerva doesn’t believe Asher could really want to marry her because they are so far apart in class. This, coupled with Minerva’s father’s swindling, drives them apart. Years later, when they meet again, Asher is famous and rich, whereas Minerva is on the brink of penury.
Conflict can also come from competitors. In Asher’s Dilemma, Asher invents a time machine and accidentally travels back in time. There, he meets his old self as well as Minerva. Both Ashers love Minerva, but in different ways. This sets up an intriguing love triangle because the two Ashers are not the same man. There is also conflict between the two Ashers regarding the future of the time machine, an invention with incalculable power.
A good romance always has obstacles between hero and heroine, and in steampunk this is an opportunity for dastardly villains and extraordinary weapons. I particularly like steampunk ray guns as they’re so stylish and functional and can easily be concealed under skirts or jackets.
Setting is important in romance. I love the dark, gritty atmosphere of Victorian England with its fog and smoke and gaslit streets. I also like the contrast between grand, sumptuous mansions and the stinking, cramped slums of the big cities. These larger than life settings add depth and colour to the romance.
In my experience steampunk offers up all the ingredients and more for a cracking good romance, and the possibilities are only limited by the writer’s imagination.
Cindy Spencer Pape is the author of the Gaslight Chronicles, a series mixing paranormal and steampunk elements. The series kicks off with Steam & Sorcery and the latest release is Cards & Caravans. For more information about her books visit Carina Press.
To me, the integration of romance and steampunk is natural and organic. The two simply flow together from my imagination. When I first began to develop the steampunk world of The Gaslight Chronicles, it never struck me as anything but the perfect setting for a romantic story of love, adventure, fantasy and weird science. I think that’s a lot of the appeal of any blended genre—the setting is important, but the emotions and heroism and villainy are universal concepts that transcend genre and are simply part of the human experience. For that reason, steampunk romance can take us to a completely fantastical world with neat gadgets, scary monsters, gorgeous clothes and horrible problems, and yet we can feel ourselves a part of it through bonding with the main characters and seeing it through their eyes.
Building the world is one of the foundations of writing in any genre, and to mix steampunk with fantasy and romance does take a little work. You have to make sure there’s a balance of power between the heroes and the monsters (human or otherwise) that they fight. I knew at the outset that vampyres in my world weren’t pretty—they’re the rotten, stinky, hideous Nosferatu kind, and they’re pretty nasty. So my heroes had to have some good tricks up their sleeves. I wanted a group dedicated to keeping England safe from paranormal baddies, and my husband pointed out that an ideal organization would be the Knights of the Round Table. That’s how the Order developed. They’re the descendants of the original knights. They’re also born with some hereditary gifts—enhanced senses, magick, and they’re a little stronger and faster than most. But their magick has limits, so there’s always some doubt about whether or not they’ll win the day.
In the first book, Steam & Sorcery, the world of steampunk tech is still pretty new. Not everything is automated yet. As the books go on, new inventions are introduced, but consequently, the smog problem in London reaches dire proportions, and the Order also takes an interest in saving poor Londoners from death by black lung. For every positive invention, there has to be a negative reaction. The same goes for magick—it can’t be overpowering on either side. Utopian steampunk would stretch the bounds of believability a little too much for me.
Another thing I do is try to make the blend clear, right from the beginning. Here’s the opening of Steam & Sorcery. I bring up the basic rules of the world right away, but I think it comes across as very stylistically romance.
“We live in an age where people can travel on ships that fly through the air.” The sharp rap of an umbrella point on the wooden floor of the carriage punctuated the sentence. “Where a machine can calculate the distance between the stars in less time than it takes you to tie your cravat. I fail to comprehend why, in such an otherwise enlightened era, your ridiculously hidebound Order of the Round Table should refuse to admit female Knights.”
Most importantly, you have to make sure that you don’t disappoint either set of readers. In my case, the romance plots and the action/adventure plots are pretty equally balanced. That means I need a happy ending and a lot of excitement. I also need plenty of cool gadgets, a decent amount of fantasy elements, and the strong family bonds that mark the Hadrian, Lake and MacKay families of the Order. If I left any of those out, I think my readers would make sure I heard about it pretty quickly. So the basic technique for me, is throw everything I’ve got into a blender, hit puree, and see what comes out. (A steam-powered blender, of course!)