What makes an "authentic" voice when it comes to writing Steampunk?

Hello all, I'm doing research for a workshop I'm giving in the spring at NECRWA on Having an Ear for Voice, Creating Voice with Words and Structure. This is my first venture into Steampunk. Up until now I was writing what I term "regionally based" romantic mysteries. Since my setting is most often in Maine, I'm well aware that voice is more than just how the writer puts their details onto the page. In fact, something like dialogue can be an important additional element to the storyline. The characters need to reflect aspects of their own placement, background and education. In my opinion, a successful writer is one that can marry the unique voices of the characters with their own writing styles until they become seamless and invisible to the reader.

 

Okay, that said... I  was hoping to get a discussion going on this list about what do you feel it takes to create an "authentic" voice? And... how important do you feel it is to define your own creative voice to suit the genre you're writing?

 

Also, since we're focusing on Steampunk here I'd like to get some discussions going about the Victorian vernacular being incorporated into the stories without overwhelming the storyline. There are some great writers out there that are well-schooled in Victorian literature and who walk a fine line when it comes to how much of that transcends into their fiction. If we are writing alternate reality storylines, how necessary is it maintain that story "feel" and still make it readable for those who aren't necessarily "historical" readers? 

 

I appreciate any feedback you can offer. It's great to have this opportunity to hear what everyone has to offer.

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'Authenticity' is a term that's frequently bandied about - what do you mean by it?

 

If by authentic you mean 'true to real Victorian language', I think writing historical fiction always involves compromise. To give a few extreme examples, we wouldn't write a novel set in the Medieval era using Old English, or Middle English, because apart from a few specialists, no one would be able to read it. (Well, some readers could struggle through Middle English). Victorian language is Modern English, of course, but with myriad differences in style and usage, along with all of the dialects that were more pronounced, and class divisions. Likewise, there's probably not much point in sounding exactly like a Victorian writer if it takes an expert to tell. For most stories, probably what's called for is enough real Victoriana to suggest to the reader that they are in a 19th century world, while avoiding jarring anachronisms of language, behaviour, or setting (unless those are essential to the story, in which case they should have some plausible reason for existing). And the historical matter (language, technology, manners, etc.) can be thought of in two parts - what's familiar to most readers, and what isn't.  Readers will mostly know something about the Victorian era (or will think they know something about it), and the writer needs to include some of that so that the world isn't completely alien to the reader (again, unless the story is the exception that requires a totally alien world), while avoiding a reliance on common beliefs about the era that are merely fake history created by popular culture. Then, on top of that, writers can use their judgement to inject some unfamiliar things to introduce the reader to stuff they didn't know about the Victorian era. It's a fairly complicated process that isn't susceptible to a formula - more art than science.

 

 

Voice is such an individual thing, and to answer that there is only one universal way of writing Steampunk really doesn't work, just as there isn't one universal way of writing a thriller, a romance etc. 

 

I understand your meaning though.  Since Steampunk tends to be set in a very specific time, oughtn't that tend towards some similarities in voice?  Makes sense.  So I'll still try to answer the question as best I can.

 

I'm still new to the Steampunk game, hardly an expert.  I have one short story coming out next year, and a novel in 2012, both in the genre.  And I have to say their voices differ greatly.  The short story has almost a Jane Austen quality to it (yes, not even Victorian then).  It suited the sensibility of the main character and was relaid as a tale being retold by someone looking back on her life, as opposed to the novel which has that very in the moment "and then this happened" quality.  The novel is also YA, which means I have to have a snappier pace, and a voice that teenagers can relate to.

 

That was a far harder voice to come to terms with.  I started off writing it almost as if it were a Victorian (or in my case, technically, Edwardian) novel.  But my editor pointed out, rightfully so, that the effect was a distancing one, and in YA you really want immediacy.  And so came a lot of playing around until I finally came up with a solution that I think really suits Steampunk.  Steampunk is by its nature anachronistic.  Even though the idea of modern technology and oldy-timey-ness is explained and can come across as reasonable, when you think about it, it's really a genre that brings together the old and the new.  So why can't the writing style be similar?  My choice was to make descriptive passages almost entirely modern, even with modern phrases, coloured by the odd Edwardian flourish, and then to make dialogue slightly more heightened.  The idea was that when my main characters are thinking - so in observational passages - I want the reader to relate completely and see that the characters think in the same way as any other teen, but when they speak, we get a sense of a different period in time.

 

And even then there are subsections.  The story's about three girls, so when they talk together they sound a lot like contemporary teens, but when they speak with the far more obviously Edwardian characters with whom they interact, then the language becomes far more period.

 

In any event, my voice choice was a very specific one to my needs.  It suited the genre and story and characters.  And I'm not done the novel yet, so, who knows, it is likely the voice will be tweaked further still. 

 

But I think (and this is something Paul mentioned) that the idea in general with writing Steampunk (but by no means is it absolute) is to colour the text with Victorian-isms, but not be entirely faithful to that period.  A little bit of colour goes a long way.

 

I hope this was helpful and not too rambling :) .

I want to thank everyone who took the time to comment on Voice. I appreciate all your comments and apologize for not giving timely responses. The holiday chaos errupted along with deadlines and daughter's college application deadlines.

Teagan



Paul Marlowe said:

 

If by authentic you mean 'true to real Victorian language', I think writing historical fiction always involves compromise. To give a few extreme examples, we wouldn't write a novel set in the Medieval era using Old English, or Middle English, because apart from a few specialists, no one would be able to read it. (Well, some readers could struggle through Middle English).

 

Paul, I appreciate the feedback and I agree that there language choice is a part of creating an authentic author/story voice, but I believe it's only a part of it. There are those authors who attempt to stay as true to the "language" as possible and it can either be off-setting to the reader or an immersion into the time period. I tend to find it startling, especially if it isn't done well. But the mixture between the modern day storytelling and the proper verbage, when done well, can be a subtle undercurrent of information that will make the story come alive without submitting the reader to a dump of historical information.

Just my .02

how important do you feel it is to define your own creative voice to suit the genre you're writing?

Well, to be honest, I don't think that's something you can force or mimic.   As an example, I went to college to fiction writing, and was trained in writing literary fiction.   I had 2 pieces published while I was in school.  After I graduated, I thought I was ready to take it full time.  And over the next 3 years didn't sell a thing.  Didn't get published anywhere.   The best I got in feedback was one personal response that boiled down to, "you've got talent, kid, but we don't want your stuff."

 

Through a series of events I ended up writing one steampunk short at the end of 2009.  And  sold it right away.  I wrote and  had  3 short stories published in 2010, and wrote the plot line and major characters for a steampunk video game.   I'm writing a novel now. 

The only thing I've changed?  I write steampunk stories instead of literary fiction stories.  I create the characters and themes the same, I write the same style and voice.   I write in a different genre and make sure to include specific elements. 

 

So I think that having a voice that suits the genre you're working in is very important. 

 

And how to develop the voice?  Practice every day.  Write different scenes.  Different styles. Try writing like different people to get a feel on how they used language.   Read books critically.  Take apart their language and structure to see what they're doing and why they're doing it. 

 

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