So, how does a woman who doesn’t drive, who was strongly advised not to take Physics GCSE, and who knows too much pop trivia for her own good end up writing steampunk? Shouldn’t I at least have a rudimentary background in engineering and mechanics? I’m as puzzled as anyone else, but regardless of mine and steampunk’s seeming incompatibility on paper, I am passionate about the genre and find that it tends to infuse much of my work as a writer. To me, there are few things as fascinating, awe-inspiring and ever so slightly terrifying as the steam engine in action. In addition, while I am hugely inspired by the aesthetic qualities of steampunk…thick bottle glass, brass fittings, nuts, bolts, valves, gauges, dials, leather, stained glass, etc…it is their combination with the grime of steam power which sells the genre to me most. And this is where I find the greatest paradox between my persona as an individual and my persona as a writer. I am not the most practical soul around, but give me a story to write and I want to sink my hands deep down into the oil-slicked guts of the thing. I want to tunnel underground, explore the filth-encrusted backstreets, visit opium dens and drag races and fifties diners and carnivals and lawless pioneering towns…
I used to worry that I lacked the necessary qualifications to write about the mechanisms behind steampunk. But increasingly I’m understanding that so long as a writer is willing to do considerable research, it is sometimes an advantage not to understand a subject too well. Because that is where reality breaks down and imagination takes flight. I am also reassured that the adage, ‘write what you know’ can be a red herring. How’s about if instead of it being a literal case of write what you know – example, a fisherman writes about fishing and, well, fish – it should be a case of write what you find flows easiest and is received the best by readers. In the past I got hung up on subject matter, restricting myself to suitably ‘feminine’ story lines, fairy tales and pretty fantasy. These are genre traditions I still love and will definitely write about again. But what I’ve discovered recently is that my writing style lends itself to action, mechanicals, fight scenes and their ilk. It turns out that what I know is a certain writing style, and most tellingly, the reason I know its working is because I turn off my inner critic when I write it. I trust myself in the steam/gaspunk environment in a way that is liberating.
Another consolation in all this is that there are examples of incredibly sheltered, naive women who have written some of the most stunning works in history. Emily Bronte for one. Author of the vicious, bleak, fiercely sexual Wuthering Heights. Daughter of a curate, habitant of isolated moorland, who died age thirty and single, and published this solitary seminal work. In our contemporary climate, we have songwriter, Diane Warren, a spinster who has been known to work on Christmas Day and who is responsible for writing some of the most beautiful, commercially successful love songs of our time, Aerosmith’s Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, Alice Cooper’s Bed Of Nails (co-wrote), The Sugar Babes’ Too Lost In You, Toni Braxton’s Un-break My Heart, and many more.
My point is not to compare myself in anyway to these women, both of whom might be classed as geniuses in their fields, but to illustrate that what we know may be something that only emerges through practice, tenacity, even accident.
I have faced criticism at times for not being SF enough. I hold up my hands entirely and admit that my stories will probably never slot comfortably into traditionally defined SF or dark fantasy. I’d say that’s probably true for a lot of genre writers. But what I am is pedantic about realism and the detail, and this is why I think I have found such a kinship with steampunk. I guess, despite appearances, I’m a soot and oil stained grease monkey at heart. Just so long as I don’t have to relinquish the pop trivia.