FOREWORD: I’m currently moving a lot of my articles from Squidoo over to my blog as Squidoo has declared almost all of my articles as spam. This is one of them. I’ve decided to totally migrate to my blog because I’m sick of fighting my corner on their site.
Create an Authentic Feeling Enviroment
One of the magical perks to being a writer is the ability to mould our own world; a place so tangible that other people can taste it, smell it, walk and run within it. I’ve always believed this is why books like the Harry Potter series are popular. It’s not just the characters, it’s not just the story – Rowling created a world in such finite detail that people weep with dreams of living there. I know I do.
This is why it’s important to research what we’re writing, and research isn’t as dull as the high-school homework we groaned and avoided. If you’re writing about it, surely you find the surrounding lore, mechanics, culture etc. interesting? If not, why are you writing about it?
This article will not tell you HOW to write a steampunk novel or short story. Plot, characterisation and quality are most important but there are already sources on those. In this lens I’ll share with you the information I have discovered whilst building a steampunk world. The elements of steampunk – the choices in front of you. There are helpful videos, links to linguistics and social behaviour, apps, books, locomotive facts, a list of popular figure heads of the genre and more.
NOTE: If ANY links are broken, PLEASE tell me so I can fix it. Thank you. ❤
Victorian Slang and Terminology
styalised language helps to build an atmosphere
If we focus on England during the 1800s, the accents most popularly used in steampunk fiction are known as the Queen’s English, Cockney and Shire-speak. Each of these are distinctively different from each other and are, essentially, dialects. When writing dialogue as someone speaks (deliberate incorrect spellings, broken up words, extra apostrophes etc.) it’s important to get the balance right. Don’t include every verbal tick or Cockney word you know. Make sure dialogue remains readable.
Received Pronunciation (RP)
Otherwise known as ‘BBC English’, or ‘speaks posh’. This form of speaking is mostly contained to southern England (this includes London) but it can be heard throughout England and Wales. RP in particular was, and in some cases still is, considered a superior style of speech as this was the standard elocution taught to those who could afford school. It’s therefore not surprising that RP has been associated with those of power, money and influence.
RP is frequently misconstrued by foreigners to be the standard accent in England. This is incorrect and will offend most natives if it is expected of them. The accents in England are a part of the huge class divide and it’s important to keep that in mind when writing characters. Consider the economic affluence of your character, then where it’s likely they can afford to live, and then what accent they have.
Does your character live in a large house (more than two bedrooms, separate dining space, living room, kitchen)? Yes.
Does your character attend classes of some kind? Yes.
Does your character have to work? No.
Is marriage or social gatherings their biggest troubles? Yes.
Do they live in the countryside? Yes.
If your answers were the same as mine, then your character will probably speak a variation of RP.
Cockney and Rhyming Slang
there’s a difference between the two
This is the second most stereotypical accent and is unique to London. It began as slang for smugglers and thieves, known as Cockney Rhyming Slang, and developed into the dialect we now know today – it’s practically another language. Rhyming Slang was a simplistic way of passing messages without being understood by the blue-boys (the police).
“It’s a flummet job. We’ll need a wook, some Davie’s Dust an’ a fagger. Luckily I knows a nimmer who’ll crack it for a spangle.”
Some of these phrases are still used today but only the popular ones have remained in use, e.g. “Let’s ‘ead down the Rubber for a kitchen sink. C’mon, it’s only down the frog and toad.” This means, “Let’s go to the pub for a drink. Come on, it’s only down the road.” Another popular one my father used to say whilst chasing me up the stairs was, “Up the apple and pairs to Bedfordshire!”
This evolved the more familiar it became to people. The sentences shortened to create more of a dialect and less of a rhyming code. For example, “down the frog and toad” has become, “down the toad”. I would advise using Cockney and not too much Cockney Rhyming Slang for a steampunk world.
The word ‘Cockney’ was originally an endearing term spun by William Langland but, during the 1700s (roughly), it became a slur and the accent was – and still is – looked down upon by many. In 1909 the London County Council stated that, “[ … ] the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire”. (Matteo Santipolo, p. 421) This is something to keep in mind when you introduce characters of different classes, as during the 1800s the accent belonged primarily to the working class of the East End.
them round-mouthed country folk
This one is tricky to localise as England has many shires and shire-dialects. The better known counties are probably Dorset, Devon and Yorkshire, but I can’t confirm that. The shires are stereotypically known for slow living, bad grammar, farmer communities and rivalry between the ‘posh folk’ and ‘the locals’. Most people who live in the countryside have to be fairly affluent, but that depends on numerous factors. It was possible to scrape by in the countryside if you didn’t come from a wealthy family, but you worked non-stop on a farm, as a servant to a rich family or found assistant jobs in the town.
On the subject of language, dialect in the shires is probably tougher than Cockney to understand, mostly because the dialects have been difficult to transcribe into dictionaries or fully analyse. A simplier way of writing someone from the countryside is to rearranging plurals and pro-nouns, for example, “Well, that’s not how I done it! Them there’s tellin’ you a porkie pie.” and this manner of speaking is thought of as endearing or comical.
The best way to write Shire-speak, if you don’t hail from the area, is to capture the use of plurals and pro-nouns like in the example above. Don’t worry too much about dialect as you might do with Cockney. Shire-speak is a lot softer and people tend to drop most words that city-folk/outsiders won’t recognise.
I’ve lived in Dorset for twelve years now, half my family is Dorset born and bred, but I’ll be damned if I know the dialect through-and-through. I can, however, immitate the accent and have picked-up on how people structure sentences. This is enough to pass off as Dorsetian, especially when I add a few local words for good measure, such as ‘gert’ (big) and ‘hushock’ (working in a hurried or careless manner). Think of Hagrid from Harry Potter, or of hobbits from The Lord of the Rings (the latter are basically based on Dorset people anyway).
online & apps
Even if you rigorously study Victorian linguistics you’re bound to need a dictionary at some point. These are sites and tools I frequently use when writing specific types of dialogue. The best way to learn, though, is by reading stories. For RP I would suggest books by Jane Austin. For Cockney, Charles Dickens. But don’t get heavy handed with the accents and fancy/obscure words.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
This dictionary allows you to translate from English into CRS and back again. Just choose which way you want to translate on the left handside collum and pick the first letter of the word you’re looking for.
This isn’t easy to read and it’s not a good online dictionary, but it is the best I’ve ever found. Dorset dialect has mellowed over hundreds of years but people have always struggled to translate it for general consumption. Like I said, don’t focus on using lots of words from the Shire, learn to capture the tone and grammar.
Victorian Slang App for iPhone & iPad
This is pretty handy to have. It contains a dictionary of obscure words and is useful if you’ve picked up a steampunk story riddled with unfathomable slang. I sometimes scroll though, select a word at random and learn its meaning. Better yet, it’s free! I currently have the app for iPhone.
Victorian Slang in Practice
Here we have an over-the-top example of the Cockney dialect. It really shows how alienating it can be to overuse slang. It’s also an example of sentence structure and teaches us a few Cockney words.
say it with flowers
Oh, how the Victorian’s loved their secret signs and messages. The language of flowers has almost entirely fallen out of use – save red roses imply passion and love – but in formal, Victorian society, the language of flowers was serious business. You could say a lot without actually having to broach the subject or visit the person face to face. Handy!
But not everyone had the same definition of what flowers could mean. Flower symbolism has been around for centuries and each author publishing a dictionary had his own interpretation, e.g. lavender might mean devotion OR mistrust. Imagine the mayhem at such a misunderstanding if the two parties had different dictionaries!
For a list of the symbolic meaning of flowers,
The floral messaging system
for your entertainment
“read a person like a book”
It’s also known that clothes were of great importance. The phrase “clothes make a man” was no empty cliché. Dress was a symbolic language that spoke of a person’s good qualities, their wealth and, in some cases, sexual preferences. For example, men who preferred other men might tuck a yellow handkerchief into their breast-pocket.
The language of clothes is harder to find a dictionary for but tid-bits can be rooted out online if you know what you’re looking for (or your could make it up).
Other details such as corsets, trouser tightness, bustle length and size, hats and shoes all had significant effects on their owners. The pathetic image of Victorian women often fainting or being out of breath is actually true, but not because they were frail and helpless. The corsets women wore often caused fainting and hyperventilation. Sometimes men’s trousers were so tight it was too uncomfortable to sit down; hence the image of a straight-backed man standing up at a living room party rather than sitting next to his companion.
This kind of detail (like floriography) is what gives a world depth. Mentioning this sort of system shows consideration and can lull a reader into believing your story to be true. In the words of The Globe and Mail, “A storyteller, in order to enchant, must lie, and then must convince us that he is not lying.”
Of course, steampunk clothing generally requires mechanical embellishment, which is what makes it stand out as artistic or unique, but it’s important to know the basics of what these coggs and goggles are hanging from.
Symbolism in Victorian Clothes
browse some of these resources
There doesn’t seem to be a neat list of clothing symbology but there is plenty of material discussing Victorian fasion. Some of the articles below might hold the information you were seeking…
“Proper” Clothing for the “Civilised” Man
AngelPig.net goes into thorough detail about how being fashionable made you a refiened and civilised person. It even has a list of what men and women would wear depending on their class.
Varenya goes into descritive detail of how jewelry had sentimental value and was important in marrage and courtship. In particular, she explains how jewelry was believed to hold healing properties and gives us examples of popular styles of the time.
Lockets and Broaches
This introductory blog post by DoverJewelry.com mentions the symbolism and readability of someone’s choice in decoration. If this catches your interest, even if you don’t write this much detail into your work, it’s interesting to know about (at least I think so!) and is nice to have at your fingertips. Read more of their work to find extra info…
Lenses from other Squidoo’ers
(who haven’t been subjected to spam treatment)
For EVEN MORE on clothing information (at least for women) check out this lens by tvyps. It has beautiful diagrams from the 19th century, all with material details, and it has a few fact-bites as you browse down the page.
Victorian Era Women’s Fashion
Victorian fashions are comprised of the various fashion and trends in British culture that emerged and were produced throughout the reign of Queen Victoria,…
the manners and rules of social gatherings
Things wouldn’t quite be Victorian if we neglected their rigid views on etiquette. It’s important not to confuse etiquette with snobbery, which I have unfortunately seen many steampunk writers/roleplayers do. Certainly, different social classes had different rules (although many rules for women were the same across the board), meaning that, what might offend a rich person wouldn’t offend a poor person, but their manners did not make them snobbish – only their beliefs, which are two separate things.
To behave like a gentleman, or a proper lady, did not mean you treated poor people badly. If you were rich, it did not mean you could boast about it and neglect your friends. Modesty and charity were highly honourable qualities.
If you were snobbish in the Victorian era, only other snobs would like you. Your ‘friends’ would be lovely to your face, because etiquette demanded it, but as soon as you turned a blind eye, they would gossip about how disgustingly boastful, selfish, boring, pompus etc. you are.
If you follow [this link] you will find a list of etiquette rules that are mostly for women, like this one:
Victorian girls were trained early on in life to prepare herself for a life dedicated to home and family if she married, and charity if she didn’t. And young ladies, though advised on the importance of catching a man, were warned not to be too liberal in display of their charms. Meekness and modesty were considered beautiful virtues
Or [click here] for etiquette advice for men, like this one:
To a casual acquaintance you may bow without speaking; but to those with whom you are well acquainted greater cordiality is due. A bow should always be returned; even to an enemy it is courtesy to return his recognition.
Helpful Etiquette Links
The Elegant Woman
This page covers the basics of a variety of situations that a woman should be prepared for, such as: increasing marriagbility, grooming, poise and posture, and manners.
The Etiquette of Dress
This one is interesting for, at the bottom of the page, it covers a few important things when it comes to dressing for certain occasions.
The Weird World of Victorian Etiquette and Bad Manners
This is just a fun article about rules of dress for men and women, and etiquette for CHILDREN. This one is pretty interesing and also leads to many more helpful sources.
This is included in the modual above, but I thought I’d put it here again for ease. This is mostly a list of rules for women, but it does include a few social points for men.
Manners for the Victorian Gentleman
This is also included in the modual above. This link leads to a few rules and an introductory text, but, at the bottom of the page is a list of links that lead to specific rules for specific occasions.
an era of revolutionary inventors
Industry. This is partly what defines your story as steampunk, and it would be foolish to totally neglect the industrial revolution. While I don’t think it’s important to make industry the main focus of your story, it is a big thing of the era.
The Victorians invented many wonderful, useful things that we still use today. They also invented many stupid, hilarious things that died a dusty death. Some even had such outrageous hypothesis’ when it came to science and engineering, that these people seem a bit screwy in hindsight.
But what if those outrageous hypothesis’ were correct? What if a sweaty sock tied around the neck did cure throat ache? What if the stars are made of diamonds? Just because some experiments were failures in the Victorian era, doesn’t mean they can remain broken in our stories.
Useful inventions to be aware of were the Telephone, Radio, Motor Car, Toilet, Camera, Stamp, Train, Vacuum Cleaner, Sewing Machine and Cinema (also known as Magic Lantern Shows).
Skipping the particulars, this brings us to the touchy subject of how to use steam. It kind of goes without saying that steampunk gadgets are powered by steam, but I wouldn’t say this is something to adhere to. Using steam, as the Victorians found out, is impractical and expensive, so if you’re not an engineer you might find it tricky to create feasible locomotives.
Solutions to this: stick to steam-powered trains and things you know to work, or, don’t worry about it and use it however you like. There are a lot of steampunk snobs who will tell you it’s not OK to make contraptions that don’t work in real life – ignore them. If you can, try to make your creation sound as ‘workable’ as possible (having an engineer for a friend/spouse will come in handy!) but don’t get bogged down by reality. Steampunk in itself is unrealistic, so why worry?
Figure Heads of the Era
time to buff up on history
Another important factor that defines your story as ‘steampunk’ is the historical people you mention. Some writers, especially in short stories, just name-drop famous figures of the era, others make them the main characters (such as the Burton and Swinburne trilogy). It doesn’t matter how you incorporate the real awesome Victorians, but your readers will expect some mention of them.
If you’re writing steampunk, you need to enjoy historical research on some level, because you will be doing a lot of it. The most popular figureheads of this genre are Charles Babbage, who basically invented the first computer; Queen Victoria, hopefully you know who she is; Ada Byron/Lovelace, who is often considered the world’s first computer programmer; and Lord Darwin, the man who established the theory of evolution.
It doesn’t matter how you warp these people (so long as you state it’s not intended maliciously). They’re all dead and it’s your story. Perhaps you think Queen Victoria would be more interesting if she was an assassin, and you know what? She would be more interesting. But perhaps you don’t want to make the story about her, or have Arthur Conan Doyle as your trusted side-kick (although I sure wouldn’t mind seeing that), so just be aware of your chosen timescale and how politically aware your characters are. Everyone has idols.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Christina Rossetti, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Lewis Carroll and H. G. Wells.
Those are just a few names in only a few categories. There are great people who contributed to geography, history, translation, cartography, etc. And there are also famous murders, like Jack the Ripper and Mary Ann Cotton, or mafia leaders like Fredericka Mandelbaum (who was a woman, which is already interesting). Your options are limitless.
School and Education
piano for girls, school for boys, and the workhouse for the rest
Many children in the early Victorian period didn’t go to school at all, and more than half of them grew up illiterate; although some – especially the poorer middle-classes – went to Sunday school. Children from richer families were luckier, for not only did they receive an education, but they didn’t have to spend their childhood working in dangerous factories.
If you couldn’t go to school you earned money for your parents, and many died of sickness or horrendous injuries in the process. Unfortunately, employers didn’t care too much about this as child labour is cheap and was easy to find.
Rich children might’ve had a governess to teach them at home until the boys were old enough to attend school, like Eton or Rugby, while the girls would continue to be educated at home. For most girls, it was important for them to learn how to modestly impress guests by singing, piano playing, or displaying their sketches around the home.
It wasn’t until the end of the Victorian age that all children under the age of 12 had to attend school so that everyone could at least read, write and count properly.
The Victorian schooling system is a whole other world of research, but one that I find fascinating. Teachers, types of schools, corporal punishment, types of lessons, chalk and slate, drill, playtime, the very classroom set up – the education and schooling side of things is just waiting to be found by a steampunk writer who can take these terrible and revolutionary ideas, and turn them into something even more fantastic.
Ironic Portrayal of Working Class Children
I did have a more satirical video to go here originally, but YouTube have since removed it. Urgh.
Helpful Links About Victorian Schools
There is so much to learn about Victorian schools and I promise you it’s fascinating. The majority of us are lucky enough to go to school nowadays, so all of us have experienced this in some form. To see how things began and then evolved into today’s classroom (at least in England) is something I can’t quite get my head around. I remember giggling incessantly when we had to re-enact the Victorian classroom at school. I couldn’t get over the proprieties, my dress and piny, how serious my teacher had become – and then I got a scary telling off and she pretended to cane my hand.
The Basics of Everything
The layout of this page isn’t beautiful but, if you can push past that, it has some great information. It covers the different types of schools, the classroom, teachers, pupils, lessons, slates and copybooks, ‘reader’, abacus, the cane, Dunce’s cap, what is ‘drill’? and playtime. It’s an easy read and a nice way of jumping headfirst into the topic.
Going to School in Victorian Times
This site is a lot more professional and factual. It essentially tells you the same information as in the link above (perhaps a bit less, to be honest), but it does have the added bonus of dates and statistics.
What was the Classroom Like – BBC
Nothing is more fun than Primary History with the BBC. There is no shame in that. It’s informative and thorough. It has facts on everything you could possibly want to know, and relevant but unexpected fact-bites down the side of the page. The BBC is actually a great resource in general on Victorian life for children.
More Things to Consider
There are a plethora of things to learn about the Victorians but, you know, I can’t research everything for you! I’ve put together a short list of things that you should also consider looking into, such as, what kind of activities did they do for fun? How did they alter the theatre? Why was the circus such a sensation? If you can think of more things you want to see in this lens, then leave me a comment below. Do you want a whole module, or do you want links added to this list?
Anyway, off you go now!
Crafts for the Genteel Lady
Learn about the value of scrapbooking in Victorian families, and how needlework and embroidery were encouraged as major ocupations.
Pastimes for Indoors and Outdoors
Discover what all ‘the rage’ is about Victorian croquet, lawn tennis, hunting and sport, music, singing and dancing.
Children’s Parlour Games
All those games we played at kids parties go back further than we think! Blindman’s Wand and Tiddly Winks were just two of MANY games for children.
Victorian Magazines and Advertising
Who inventing advertising and Junk Mail? Blame the Victorians. These devious bastards are the cause for today’s advanced advertising system, but how did it all start? “GET FAT NOW” sounds a little strange nowadays…
This is an old website but it goes into great detail about Theatre and Society, and Victorian Theatres. Don’t be off put by the 90s homepage. This site has some good information, especially if you don’t know much about 19th century theatre.
A History of the Circus
This article maps the history of the circus in Victorian Britain. It’s detailed, easy to read, and covers a variety of circus performance spaces.
Still Feeling Lost?
I won’t lie. I do think steampunk is shrouded in unnecessary mystery. This creates an inevitably helpless, flustered and confused feeling that ends up making us shout, ‘but what actually makes a story ‘steampunk’?’, so I created a whole dossier about it and edited it for Squidoo. Maybe it will help you feel like you can at least grab hold of this genre and say, ‘I think I know what I want to do’, or perhaps it’ll give you a starting foundation. Either way, if you’re looking for more on the subject, give these articles a try:
What Makes A Novel ‘Steampunk’? What Even IS Steampunk?
The attraction to nostalgic and archaic settings and to the futuristic elements of science fiction have always been popular in media. From fantasy novels featuring…
Analysing the Steampunkness of Steamboy
This lens will be looking at how Steamboy (2004), written by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo, can be said to be a signifier of the genre ‘steampunk’. Steampunk…
Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet
If you’re writing about the Victorians, this is a book you should pick up. It discusses the idea that we have invented the Victorians, we have moulded them into a fictional, romantic entity; people with prehistoric morals and achievements. I found this book made me revaluate their behaviour and it taught me a great deal about inventors, advertising, American and British rivalry, exhibitions and more. It’s easy to read and really makes you consider, what was Victorian life like? Maybe ladies weren’t so obsessively afraid of jumping up and down just in case she flashed her ankles…
Writing Steampunk! by Beth Henderson
If you found this lens helpful, then you’ll definitely want this book. It goes into fantastic detail about the elements of steampunk – the choices you have in front of you. When I first started taking this genre seriously I thought, “where do I begin?” and Daniels made the process of building a steampunk world much smoother than had I stumbled along on my own. He talks about ‘Dazzling the Readers’, ‘Human and Mechanical Characters’, magical elements, weapons, slang and so much more. This book could be a steampunk writer’s second writing bible. I treasure it, especially when I’m having self-doubts.