Steampunk World Building

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So, there I was… knee deep in dead vampires and choking on coal smoke when it hit me… what was the name of this country again?

Come to think of it, why was it named that, what was its history, and why are they still playing around with steam engines in the 1950’s???

I’ve something of a confession to make: I’m a world builder.  I love to put together a vibrant, expansive world, populated by people, organizations, nations, and machines that are interconnected and that make sense.  I’ll spend days, weeks, sometimes even months thinking about the economic systems, technology, and culture.  What does that get me?  In theory, it means I know what motivates characters and what has shaped them.

This gets a little more complicated when you’re writing alternate history… especially steampunk alternate history.  There’s a certain expectation in steampunk for larger than life characters along with odd, sometimes absurd, contrasts between our own world and the created one.  That requires a mix of attention to detail, quirky humor, and enjoyment for building that sort of structure.

So where do you start?  Well, it depends on you, really.  I tend to like to start with whatever big thing is different in that other world than here.  Was some genius born who developed air ships and steam engines?   Did some major event change the course of history?  Why is this so important… and what impact did that have on the world, from the bottom rungs of society to the mightiest nations?

For me, it’s important to explore those changes even before I really start writing.  There’s nothing more annoying to me than to be mid sentence and realize I don’t know why something isn’t possible or where something comes from.  If something is different in this other world, there should be a reason it is different… and sometimes ‘just cause it’s cool’ isn’t good enough.

So, in example, I’ll give a run down of how I started my world building.  In my universe, there was an inventor in England who discovered aetherium, a substance that, when heated with steam, produces power for use in weapons and aircraft.  This discovery came just before the outbreak of the American Civil War.. and the British Empire intervened in favor of their trade partners within the Confederacy.  After they conquered the North, the British appointed a Grand Duke to govern their wayward colonies and turned their attention to other lands.  The Confederacy has since split up into several independent nations, all of whom have abolished slavery, mostly from pressure from their allies, the British.  The Americas have become something of a back water, while Europe has remained the center of technology.  This has changed just recently, as some bright new minds have come up with new, refined aetherium powered weapons which threaten the balance of power yet again.

This gives me a rough basis of the world, in broad strokes.  It’s not perfect, but it gets me started.  From there, I’ll go into the details of what individual nations are up to, the societal pressures which have crafted the conflicts between characters, and the setting itself, from the technologies that they use commonly every day to the way they talk and interact.

For anyone else with steampunk on the mind, hopefully this helps out in making your story work.

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