Confessions of an Accidental Steampunk

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Back in July, Misty, Kalayna, AJ and John went to the Second Annual Fantastical Mystery Tour event in Columbia, SC,  where they met Delilah S Dawson, author of Wicked As They Come and our guest today.  She’s an artist, wife, mom, goof, geek, and cupcake enthusiast.  Some of her favorite things are travel, books, movies, ninjas, vampires, pirates, baby pandas, cephalopods, horseback riding, roller skating, painting, Braeburn apples, boots, Candy Cane Lane tea, and cute jackets.  Please give a warm welcome to Delilah S Dawson!

Here’s the dirty secret: I wrote a steampunk book by pure accident.

Honestly, I didn’t set out to do it. I dreamed a scene between a confused, naked woman waking up on a rock and the carnival ringmaster who found her there, and suddenly there were clockwork monkeys and submarines cluttering up the world.

So I did what any stout-hearted adventurer would do: I strapped on a corset and embraced it. And although the steampunk element was a bit of a surprise, it quickly became integral to the story and to my life, as you’ll see if you ever meet me at a con or booksigning. I’ve got six corsets now, and I’m not afraid to use them.

Of course, I knew about steampunk long before I started writing it, because you simply can’t avoid it these days. My favorite example for anyone still in the dark is to point to the huge success of the new Sherlock Holmes movies. Although steampunk scholars and purists might beat me with their bowlers for saying so, that movie franchise perfectly encapsulates good steampunk writing for me. It’s edgy, fast-paced, imaginative, and stylish, drawing carefully from history yet adding elements of fantastic technology and magic. The steampunk is understated yet ever-present. In the end, even people who don’t wear bustles and spats are clapping. Any writer would love to have that kind of popular appeal.

When it comes to steampunk literature, there have been some complaints that authors are jumping on a steam-driven bandwagon and just gluing goggles and clock guts onto stories that would otherwise be considered paranormal, romance, or fantasy. From alternate history to imaginary inventions and neo-Victorian fashion, I want my steampunk to be believable and understandable to everyone, yet fully-integrated into the very fiber of the story. Steampunk isn’t its own genre, and I don’t personally believe it ever will be. But it *is* a delicious flavor that can spice up other genres when applied correctly.

Want to read some great steampunk books that do just that? Try Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, which reimagines the first world war as a conflict between the steampunk Austro-Hungarians and the Darwinist British, whose scientists merge bestial DNA with technology to create airship whales and flechette-crapping fruit bats. Or Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, soon to be a movie, set in a Civil War-era Seattle filled with flailing zombies. Or Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, set in an alternate version of Victorian England in which the werewolves and vampires wear cravats and meet in secret with the Queen to fight raging automated octopi.

If you like your books on the serious side, you might be shaking your head right now. Whale riding and gentleman werewolves? Well, yes. For the most part, steampunk enthusiasts don’t take themselves or the world too seriously. After all, you can’t have steampunk without the “punk”. Wearing a corset in public and spending a week painting a Nerf gun to look like an antique rifle smacks a bit of rebellion and whimsy, don’t you think? About the only things steampunks can agree on is that steampunk is in the eye of the beholder, and life would be a lot easier if someone would actually invent time travel.

So, say I did have an ornate time-traveling phone box and you asked me where steampunk lit was going. My best guess would be… wherever we take it! As a trend, steampunk books might not be selling as quickly as they were a few years ago. But editors are always looking for the same thing: an amazing story. If readers can’t put your book down, it doesn’t matter if it includes steampunk elements, or vampires, or zombies, or anything that’s considered “over”. A unique hook and quality writing are always in fashion.

How do I know? Because I sold my vampire book when vampire books were unsellable. WICKED AS THEY COME is the first book in my Blud series from Pocket/Simon & Schuster, and it’s billed as steampunk paranormal romance. When it sold at auction in a three-book deal, word on the street was that vampires were sooo done. And yet the male lead… is a blood-drinker. As mentioned earlier, my book sprang from a dream. I knew immediately that Criminy Stain was a predator, but I didn’t want him to be a traditional vampire ruled by coffins, garlic, crosses, and undead-ness. So I created a new species: Bludmen. And that changed the world—at least, the world of Sang.

With half of the population and all the wild animals hungry for blood, the humans of Sang build walled cities to keep themselves and their food animals safe and design clothing to seal in the scent of their skin. They’ve all but ghettoized the Bludmen, seeking to control what they considered a dangerous element of society, while simultaneously developing an economic system in which blood is sold for profit. With all of the prey animals turned into bloodthirsty monsters, they’ve replaced horses with horseless carriages, developed dirigibles and submarines, and built clockwork animals as pets and guardians. In short, the steampunk element arose because of the vampire element. Take away either construct, and the entire world falls apart. And then the vampire rabbits win.

What started out as a crazy dream has grown into the career I’ve always hoped for, plus a great reason to wear costumes in public and draw fanged rabbits in books. Steampunk may have been an accident, but it’s now as much a part of me as it is my book series, and I couldn’t be happier.

If you’re thinking about getting into steampunk, whether as an enthusiast, a gadgeteer, or an author, I’d like to welcome you to a world of new ideas, fun adventure, endless possibility, and a seriously nice bunch of people. If you have questions or would like links, you can always find me on Twitter (@DelilahSDawson), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DelilahSDawson), or on my website (www.delilahsdawson.com). I post links to my favorite costumers, squeal over great books, mention local events, and am always excited to meet new people. You can find WICKED AS THEY COME at all the usual bookstores and online, and my first novella in the Blud series will be out this October, a carnival romance called THE MYSTERIOUS MADAM MORPHO.

So, what’s your favorite steampunk book?

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14 comments to Confessions of an Accidental Steampunk

  • We’ve not met yet, Miss Delilah, but you and AJ and I are to be special guests at the Dahlonega Literary Festival, and I look forward to meeting you, talking shop, and admiring your corsets!
    http://dahlonegaliteraryfestival.wordpress.com/authors/

  • Hi Delilah! My favorite steampunk book is one of the books that originated the term – The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers. I also fell madly in love with Phillip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’, which featured municipal Darwinism, the practice of wheeled cities growing by chasing, catching and consuming smaller cities. How cool is that?!

  • Hi Delilah! We were just talking about you earlier this week in the comments on my post about openings that grab you, so it’s great to see you here. I am no as familiar with steampunk as I should be, but I enjoy tinkering with genre, and the steampunk form is a good one for that. My first steampunk story will be out later this year in Dreams of Steam 3 from Kerlak Publishing, so we’ll see what the steampunk purists think of my rednecks burning moonshine for steam! Congrats on selling vampires when vampires are “out” with everyone. Everyone but the people who buy books, that is!

  • sagablessed

    Read that, ‘Wicked as they come’. Interesting. I personally cannot seem to appreciate Steampunk. It just does not click with me. We had a panel at MarCon about what is ‘over’, and I like your answer. “If readers can’t put your book down, it doesn’t matter if it includes steampunk elements, or vampires, or zombies, or anything that’s considered over. A unique hook and quality writing are always in fashion.”
    This is so TRUE!
    Per your statement about time travel: an inspired author might take a time machine that sends one into a ‘steampunk’ alternate history.
    I have three WIPs involving Authurian tales. I was told by an author and editor that such tales are soooo out. Yet, I think my angles will be fresh and hook a reader. The Lady of Shallot by Tennyson is the basis for one; Lance du Lac as told by his god-mother, the Lady of the Lake; and one is told from the POV of Gwynniveire’s baby sister as an apprentice to Nimue, Merlin’s lover and eventual downfall.

  • Delilah> I admit, I haven’t read much steampunk. And what I have hasn’t kept me remarkably enthralled. Some of what I’ve read strikes me like really hard classic sci-fi. It’s all about the cool science (on in steampunk, the cool steam) but less about characters. But I do love the idea of steampunk. And, most of all, I love the costumes and dress.

    I read your book and LOVED it. It was great. And the blood-sucking bunnies are awesome! Though I think one of my favorite parts was the clothing that you gave your characters. I so wanted to wear the dresses your MC wears (and I love corsets, too, though I’ve only got one). I read Wicked as they Come on my working vacation (what vacation isn’t working when you’re a writer?) and it took me two days ’cause I had to stop and get stuff done. (That scene after the stag… oh my heavens, hot as hot can be! But I won’t stay more–no spoilers!) Otherwise, it would have taken me one day. I’m looking forward to your other stuff!

  • Gypsyharper

    Oooh, vampire rabbits! Must add to reading list…

    I haven’t read a lot of steampunk yet either. I really enjoyed both the Leviathan and Parasol Protectorate series, and I have Bonebreaker on my reading list. I also read a collection of short stories, most of which were a little too technical for my tastes – like pea faerie said, a little on the hard sci-fi side, which I mostly don’t read. My husband and I had a lot of fun coming up with steampunk costumes for Halloween last year, though. I actually made my very own corset! I love the aesthetic of the costumes and art.

  • Oh, I can’t believe I forgot to mention the delightful Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences podcast. Philippa Ballentine and Tee Morris (authors of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels) present short stories by many different authors but written within the world of the Ministry. It’s perfect for a quick steampunk fix.

  • Welcome, Delilah! Love the cover of your book — I’m going to have to check it out. I loved Jay Lake’s MAINSPRING. I don’t know if that counts as Steam Punk, or if it’s just New Weird. But I loved it. Thanks for a great post.

  • Thanks so much for having me, y’all! <3
    Faith, I can't wait to meet you and have an amazing time in Dahlonega!
    pea_faerie, I'm so glad you liked it!
    And I think one of the lovely things about stories is that the tide changes. Vampires go in and out. Arthurian goes in and out, and that means they're all coming back again, one day.

  • Your book sounds really interesting. It’s great to hear that you sold it when vampires were sooo done, too. I like blood-suckers, I just I got sick of them for a while because… well, they all seemed the same. I’ve been itchy for something that makes them different again. I’ll be eagerly looking forward to Wicked As They Come.

  • bonesweetbone

    Pea mentioned your book in a comment the other day. I was intrigued then, but now I HAVE to read it.

    I’ve never considered the possibility of stumbling into a genre, but your process makes sense. Definitely goes to show you should write the story you want to write first and foremost.

  • I think if the inspiration is there, the story can follow. I’m working on a middle grade right now, which is pretty strange after finishing 2 Blud novellas and book 2 in the course of a couple of months. No romance? WHUH? :)

  • Megan B.

    Delilah, you just did what no one has succeeded in doing before: You made Steampunk sound pretty cool to me. I had been turning my nose up at it, I have to admit. You really sold it, though.

  • I don’t suppose this book is on Audible yet, is it? I will be running to check… if its not then I’ll have to wait for payday to pick this up. I will be buying it though. After all, we don’t want the vampire bunnies to win. 😉

    As a side note, does anyone else remember Bunnicula, the vegetarian vampire bunny that sucked the fluid out of vegetables to survive, or is it just me?