Note: I  published this over at GeekMom last week but I thought it was relevant to my writing, so I’m cross-posting it here too. And, btw, if you missed GeekMom’s steampunk week last week, it’s not too late. Go look. Still awesome articles on steampunk books, music, crafts, and even the French side of steampunk.

I first heard “steampunk” used in connection with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was published in 1990.

At the time, I thought adding tech to the Victorian Age was a fascinating idea but I was much more interested in reading space-based science fiction and gave it a pass. I didn’t think much about steampunk until last year, when I started hearing that steampunk, particularly romantic steampunk, was the next big thing.

My response was, “Wait, how can it be the next big thing when it’s over 20 years old?”

Intrigued, I attended a workshop on steampunk at the Romance Writers of America national conference last summer.

At the workshop, I learned that steampunk is all about the gadgets. And the presenters did have the coolest steampunk costumes with a number of gadgets, including steampunk wrist-watches and, of course, goggles.

But still I wasn’t really connecting to the genre. The retro look is very cool but it seemed to me that regular science fiction has plenty of futuristic gadgets. I wasn’t sure what the point was of creating more cumbersome and less efficient gadgets and placing them in the Victorian Age.

Gradually, though, I began to see the appeal. Part of that is due to my love of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. The main planet in that series, Barrayar, is a backwards society loosely based on Russian society around the time of the end of the Czars. The contrast between the Barrayaran culture and the ultra-futuristic gadgets that they’d adopted from the rest of the colonized planets was a great way to show that while society may be technically advanced, similar advances in cultures and mindsets take far longer.

And that’s what I find the best part of steampunk. On the one side is a culture that is extremely constrained by rules and on the other side are technological advances that are leaps and bounds ahead of where people are emotionally. It’s a great way to explore the changing role not only of technology but also the class and gender differences of the time period. In some many ways, the Victorian era was at the crossroads of change. Adding technology to it would just accelerate that change, causing as many problems as it solved.

So when my lovely editor, Sarah Hansen of The Wild Rose Press, challenged me a few months ago to write a steampunk story, I was interested but unsure of where to begin.

I started thinking of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. That story had Professor Challenger and his gang of intrepid explorers discovering a hidden world where dinosaurs survived. It’s not quite steampunk but Professor George Edward Challenger is certainly a steampunk-style scientist.

Thinking of Doyle naturally led me to Sherlock Holmes. I’m an utter Holmes geek. I devoured the Canon as a teenager. I have both annotated editions. I’ve practically got the stories memorized.

Thinking of Sherlock Holmes led me to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, which are set in an alternate world where the Plantagenets still rule Britain and magic works. The Watson of these stories is a forensic sorcerer. That led me to another Holmes-style detective, Simon Archard, the main character in the comic book Ruse. Archard also exists in a Victorian-style age on an alternate word and his assistant is another magic user, female this time.

The answer to my question became blazingly obvious.

I would write a steampunk detective story with a Sherlock Holmes style character and turn my Watson-inspired character into a woman and possible romantic interest. I figured I’d just add some steampunk gadgets to the flavor of a detective story and I was all set.

Eh, not quite.

The mystery came easy. But I couldn’t just “throw in some gadgets” because that didn’t make sense. It’s never good to just throw in anything to meet a particular genre in any case and certainly it wouldn’t work in this story.

In order to create the gadgets of my steampunk world, I had to find a reason why these particular Victorians would be using steam power as part of their daily lives.

So in order to write a 24,000 word story, I had to create an entire alternate history for my world. Eventually, I followed Ruse’s lead and added some magic to the mix. The main idea is that the humans in my alternate world have discovered a talent similar to photosynthesis in that they can convert sunlight to energy. The by-product of this talent is a substance called mage-coal, which burns cleaner and far longer than regular coal and thus created a reliance on steam power.

Once I had the technological issues settled, I had to sort through all the implications of having magic users and what it would mean in term of gender and class issues in Victorian society. It could go either way but I felt there was a great deal of conflict to be had if the upper classes decided erroneously that mage power was something gifted only to them. They would feel that they were superior and that the lower classes would naturally not share such a gift. That would leave the class structure in place but also create untrained mages who would have little love for the current system and might use their raw powers to cause a great deal of trouble.

As in the real Industrial age, I had a conflict brewing between those responsible for great technological advances and those left behind to either be untrained labor or used up by the new system.

It was only until I had these world-building issues were settled that I was able to create the main characters, Lord Gregor Sherringford and Joan Kriegerson. They’re Holmes-inspired but definitely a product of this strange new world. (And if you’re enough of a Holmes geek, you might spot the Easter egg in my detective’s name.)

Having finished the story and sent it off to my editor last week, I was left with two main thoughts about steampunk.

One: it is really, really hard to write well and required far more research than I ever thought.

Two: it’s a whole lot of fun.

I lost my notes on this for a little while. That’s what comes from letting my youngest daughter play Spore on the desktop computer.

When I left off on reporting about the Sex Appeal panel with Suze Brockmann and Lee Child from the national meeting of Romance Writers of America, I promised to talk about what Child said went into the creation of his character.

Child was very blunt why he wrote a book.

He got fired from his job and needed the money.

He didn’t talk exactly about what his job was during the workshop but according to his website, he had an eighteen-year career with Granada Television in Manchester, England that included Brideshead Revisited, Cracker, and Prime Suspect.

That long career does explain somewhat why Child had such quick success with Killing Floor, the first of the Reacher novels. He’d had a lot of practice writing.

Child said he kept one eye on the market as he created the character. Jack Reacher’s mother is French because Child wanted to appeal to the French audience. And he deliberately picked a character who could travel, so he could change setting and introduce new characters on a constant basis, which would keep the series fresh.

In general, when creating characters, Child said they have to be self-confident. He quoted David Mamet: “Am I going to like you? Maybe, maybe not.”

Child said, “I know that by not caring about whether the character was liked or not, the confidence in the work would be better.”

He said potential series writers should put everything they can, one hundred percent, into their initial manuscript.  Don’t hold anything back for later books, leave it all on the table otherwise the story will be watered down.

He said he’s a total panster, meaning a writer who sits down at the keyboard and writes without any clear plan. He usually has a trick or idea in mind but the “magic in the story is me being excited by the story,” so creating an outline would cause him to be bored with his story. He prefers not to know exactly how it will end when he initially begins writing.

Aside: I’ve written a mystery without knowing the bad guy. It’s a pain in the ass to revise. To do this every time with such I am impressed. (Possibly not as impressed as with the charm & cool accent, but impressed. 🙂

For all those with writer questions about point of view, Child said to just pick what suits the story.

He has four books in first person and ten books in third person. He swapped up the POVs to avoid all the books seeming to be the same. The idea was not to stereotype the characters or the series. He did say that it’s easiest to get suspense in a third person POV story.

Child talked a little bit about wishing that people didn’t know what books they were “supposed” to read because then they will pre-judge what might be a story they’ll love. He had a great story tale about Tony LaRussa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. LaRussa is a more recent reader. He started reading a ton of books during the baseball season because it’s not always proper for a manager to fraternize with his players. But since he’s a newer reader, he simply picks up anything that looks interesting. He likes Nora Roberts. He doesn’t know he’s a guy and therefore shouldn’t read Nora Roberts. He just wanted a good story.

Child did recommend, depending on gender, different Reacher books to anyone who wants to try his series. He emphasized it’s a generalization but he noticed women, particularly romance readers, tend to like The Hard Way and Echo Burning, while he usually recommends Gone Tomorrow for men.

Of course, those of you out there who read series in order? You need to start with the first one. 🙂

This workshop by New York Times Bestselling Authors Lee Child and Suze Brockmann at RWA National turned out not what I expected but it was fascinating nonetheless.

The subtitle was “Crossing Gender Boundaries” but I have the feeling the room would have been even more packed if the subtitle had been:

“Come listen to the incredibly charming & funny Lee Child who also happens to have an awesome British accent.”

Yes, I am shallow. And I have a thing for voices. 🙂

Onto the substance of the talk.

I had originally expected the workshop to be about how to write to appeal to both genders. It turned out to be more an exploration of what appeals to both genders.

In that, it was somewhat eye-opening.

Brockmann said her work likely isn’t viewed as romance any longer by traditional romance readers. For those not familiar with her books, she writes military action/adventure with a strong helping of romance. Some romances take place over several books, others take two steps forward, one step back.

Brockmann is also a big advocate for male/male romances and GLBT causes. Her books aren’t to my taste but, obviously, they appeal to many, many readers, including men.

Child has a large female crossover audience for his hugely popular Jack Reacher thriller/mystery series.

I went to the workshop because my writing seems to appeal to both genders as evidenced by my reviews on Amazon and a blogger review. I ‘d always assumed that crossing the gender boundaries to snag male readers was sorta of a holy grail for a romance writer.

But Child upended that.

He said the potential male audience is very small.

“It’s bad to limit yourself to male readers. Bankruptcy lies that way.”

ETA this point by comics writer Gail Simone about the female audience.

“Men are a difficult sell. They tend to be hung up about reading fiction, almost considering it demeaning. The ones that do read tend to pick up a lot of non-fiction and those that do read fiction, many of them read literary fiction. That leaves a small slice that reads genre fiction.”

He said the crossover readership is much more generous coming from men to women than the other way around.

He also said, as a mystery/thriller writer, he encounters the same sort of pre-judgments about the work–not being serious enough–as romance writers.

Both Child and Brockmann talked about what they called the Ugly Brown Couch. What they meant was an issue or moment really unpleasant or dark or too realistic that can scare away some traditional romance readers. Brockmann said these traditional readers want the familiar and not do not want to see their fantasy world upended.

And women tend to have triggers that men don’t always have, Child said.

“There’s something elemental about an unjust situation that offends women,” Child said, providing an example.

The most interesting comment, though, came from the audience.

A question was asked about Jack Reacher’s appeal to women. Child said he thought it was because women viewed him as the perfect guy to have a one night stand with–he’s great in bed and he’ll leave in the morning, so he’s the ultimate fantasy.

I thought an audience member hit it closer to the truth.

She pointed out that Reacher is a man with no ties and leaves home with only a toothbrush. No responsibilities, just him and the road. She said this is an escapist fantasy for many women who have to support and care for their families and juggle so many responsibilities.

Basically, she said it’s possible women want to fantasize about *being* Reacher far more than about *sleeping with* Reacher.

This seemed to take Child by surprise.

But I think it’s pretty close to the truth. Running away is, I think, one of those fantasies that “good” women aren’t allowed to have. That’s because they’ll be bad mothers and bad daughters and all those other things whereas, for some reason, it’s a little more acceptable for men.

It’s similar to how, years ago, women weren’t supposed to want sex and much as men because that would make them somehow bad or evil.

Now, I’m not advocating women pick up and leave their families. 🙂

I’m just saying that even the fantasy of *wanting* to leave is perceived still as making women bad people.

Even more, the lone wolf male is still more acceptable in our society than the lone wolf female. Some in our society still considers women who want to be alone to be somehow wrong and unfulfilling, whereas George Clooney is celebrated for staying unattached.

So it’s left to male characters like Reacher to embody this escapist fantasy.

I have more stuff about how Child came to create Jack Reacher but I think I’ll put that in another post, since it’s kinda tangential to the gender issues.

When you sign books at the annual Romance Writers of America Literacy Signing, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t be the center of attention unless you’re a New York Times bestselling author.

It’s 500 authors or so in one huge convention room for two hours.

It’s loud and the lines to buy books are long and intense. So my goal for the night was to basically chat up the friends that came by to say “hi” and sell a book or two of Dinah of Seneca.

The night exceeded my expectations.


1. An incredibly nice woman named Gabriela who sought out *me* amongst the whole slew of author to say hello, get information on how to buy Freya’s Gift for her Kindle and buy Dinah of Seneca. Thanks, Gabriela, you are awesomesauce.

2. The best t-shirt of the night: “Lead me not into temptation…especially into bookstores.”

3. My friend Jill, who I want to be when I grew up, took a photo of me before the signing and it came out nice! A photo of me that I like. 🙂 Once she gets it uploaded, I’ll add it to this post. It’s got my official sign and everything. Heh.

4. I realized that sitting is a lot less stressful than walking around buying books. There’s no pressure. Plus, nice RWA volunteers bring you free water.

5. Writing personal notes when signing books is fun. Squee!

6. I was going to head down to the signing with a cleverly disguised rum & coke. My roommates talked me out of it, even though I pointed out it would take the edge off my nerves. 🙂

Then I got down to the signing and found bestselling author Eileen Dreyer sipping a glass of white wine. Clearly, I had the right instinct on this. 🙂

7. An entire family came to see the author sitting next to me. This reader had driven forty-five with her husband and two little kids to meet her favorite writer and get her books signed, which was just so cool. She had the cutest little boy who I provided with Hershey kisses when he seemed to get bored. He has such a polite “thank you.”

In short, I sold a few books, chatted with a lot of friends, met a bunch of very cool readers, and a good time was had by all.  And RWA raised over $62,000 for literacy charities.

This morning, I went to a breakfast sponsored by the publisher of Freya’s Gift, Samhain, and met a couple of SF romance/writers readers. I told one of Samhain’s representatives that they should do graphic novels. She said “Troublemaker!” (In a nice way.)

This afternoon is a keynote luncheon with speaker Nora Roberts, and then workshops, including one by Lee Child and Suze Brockmann, and then it’s a dinner with friends at the cool Italian place in the resort.

Friday, I have to pitch. Always fun. 🙂

Note: We’re in Orlando, on Disney property. I hit the Land of Mouse Tuesday, including the Tower of Terror, but I’ll probably write about that on my personal blog & for Geek Dad.