The easy part of writing Steampunk is making the story Steampunk by pasting some gears on it. The hard part of writing Steampunk is keeping the story Steampunk and not veering off into other genres by accident.
My Honest Thoughts on Steampunk
This episode presented me with a challenge. While many genres are associated with specific storytelling tropes, Steampunk is defined far more by its aesthetic and style. The cliches of steampunk are usually its reuse of props and costume design (gears, corsets, and those ever present goggles). Steampunk stories themselves have far less consistency when it comes to the type of stories they tell and tropes they use to tell said story. More often, steampunk elements are borrowed to be part of a different genre entirely. In a lot of ways, steampunk has become something of a side dish rather than a main course.
Treating steampunk as an afterthought can be problematic especially if used as only a part of a setting. As I mentioned way back in the Fantasy Races video, any society that has a technological leg up will probably not hesitate to use their technology to gain an advantage over their neighbors and rivals. Even more so if they need resources to fuel their industry. Industry needs resources and I doubt Steampunk dwarves will hesitate to bully the neighboring hippie elves to get it.
Perhaps one direction to take a steampunk story is to explore the very concept of revolution. There is a ton of historic parallels a writer could draw from when writing a steampunk story. 1800 through the early 1900s was fascinating and dynamic period of human history marked by rapid technological innovation. Steam really did make the world a smaller place. Railroads brought continents together even as social tensions tore nations apart. Commoners and merchants ascended in wealth while the old, land owning nobility languished in ever increasing debt. True revolutions were taking place as frontiers started vanishing.
A lot of Steampunk is rooted in the optimism the Victorian Age had for science and technology before World War One shattered that optimism by showing the downside of technology. Industrialization had its problems, but there was an underlying confidence that these problems could be solved by science. Then World War One happened and showed how the same cold efficiency of running a factory could be utilized in slaughtering our fellow human beings.
Capturing both the optimism and foreboding in a Steampunk setting will be tricky, but doing so could add a lot of depth. It would certainly help to try to think of a Steampunk setting in terms of themes and motifs rather than engines and gears. Thinking up cool tools and weapons for the characters to use is nice (I would certainly be a hypocrite for telling you to avoid it), but having the characters interact with a dynamic and changing world will carry a reader much further than any raygun or power no matter how cool. Finding a place in the world can be a good core motive for a character and a Steampunk setting offers the advantage of an upended world full of opportunity and uncertainty. A lot of stories are about disrupting status quo. It might be interesting to see more stories about characters finding their place in a time of change. A dynamic world caught between the old and new can put the protagonists in a lot of tough spots and force them into new conflicts a more stagnate setting can’t provide. The opportunities when telling a steampunk story are there. It’s just a matter of finding a good angle to approach them from. And then put some goggles on them of course.