On Writing Steampunk Fantasy with Fairies and Frocks In

So, I’m writing steampunk. Years after it was a Thing, and probably way past its popularity bubble. It’s exactly the sort of thing that writers get warned about – you don’t respond to the Current New Thing, you write what you want and BECOME the Next New Thing.

Eh. That sounds so tiring. And besides, steampunk may well be the Next New Thing too. Look at how they’ve been predicting the fall of vampires for the last fifteen years… oddly as it turns out, they’re immortal. Who knew?

The steampunk thing has been creeping up on me for a while now. It’s just so pretty. The art and the costume and sure, there are books, whatever, OMG THE BOOK COVERS. I’ve bought steampunk jewellery, I’ve cooed over steampunk cakes, and I totally want to take the steampunk K9 home with me. It’s such an aesthetically pleasurable phenomenon. Anything that brings back top hats is all right by me.

The other thing that has been nibbling away at me lately, since I finished my big trilogy, sighed with relief, and started looking around for my own personal Next Thing, is my love of costume drama. Looking back on the Creature Court trilogy, one of the things I found myself talking about most in my recent blog tour was my use of historical detail in building my fantasy world, and the influences of historical fiction and social history that bled into it. The same can be said for Love and Romanpunk, which borrowed from not only my deeply ingrained Roman studies but also my interest in obscure characters from the Byron-Shelley family melodrama.

The book I wrote straight after The Creature Court was urban fantasy, as contemporary as they come, all smart phones and Google. Once I was done with Nancy Napoleon, I started craving history again.

And… and… and… there’s Downton Abbey. Which I love beyond all measure for its cracky plots and ramped up slapstick drama, and the adorable outfits and the meaningful looks. Ever since I fell for its charms, my head has been screaming ‘DOWNTON ABBEY WITH MAGIC, WRITE IT, WRITE IT.’

That’s not what I’m writing right now. But that’s where I started thinking again about history and fantasy and frocks and Edwardiana, all things that I adore. Upstairs Downstairs ingrained upon me at an early age and I recently listened to a gorgeous audiobook of the original novelisation of the first season, read by the marvellous Jean Marsh. Then, quite by accident, I ended up with a DVD of season 2 of the original series, and started watching it…

Oh, those little 1970’s Edwardian people. How I adore them! Their stiff, angry scandals and their outrage at cutting the cucumber wrong, and oh the class warfare, how pointed and cutting. I just watched an episode in which the flighty aristocratic daughter Elizabeth, who has already managed a failed marriage and not-quite-the-right-side-of-the-blanket baby, throws herself into the joys of suffragettism and gets away with it scot free because of her family name – meanwhile her poor long-suffering maid Rose who was only trying to stop her going too far is sent to Holloway with the rest of the women.

It’s horrific and mildly hilarious in its melodrama, but the show doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of the treatment of the women, and the brutal way in which they were force-fed to break their hunger strikes. More importantly, though Elizabeth throws herself on the mercy of a vaguely sympathetic and politically connected man to save her friends, and is horrified to discover what Rose is going through because of her, she is still never affected by it as deeply as Rose, who of course is quite humiliated and emotionally scarred by the experience, but obliged not to show it too deeply in public.

I remember Upstairs Downstairs as being quite fluffy, romantic and drama-llama, but for a show made in the early 1970’s on what is clearly a limited budget even for the time, it’s fascinating to me how much they do engage with issues to do with class and gender inequalities in the early 20th century, and the balance they keep between ensuring you sympathise with the protagonists, and not letting them off too lightly. It makes Downton Abbey look like a teddy bear’s picnic!

Where was I? Oh, STEAMPUNK. Well, my current story is part of my desire to write more in the way of historical-ish stories with magic in them, and to mess with Victoriana and Edwardiana and the governess gothic, and mash it up with other eras of history, and a whole bunch of Orlando Furioso started worming its way in, and the fairies made total sense, but then the clockwork robots and the Extraordinary Device Brothers turned up and frankly, I have no idea what I’m doing right now.


The future is coming up cog wheels and brass polish, and I don’t care if it’s fashionable or not by the time I’m done with the story. I’m too busy hugging it.

6 replies on “On Writing Steampunk Fantasy with Fairies and Frocks In”

  1. tansyrr says:

    From your mouth to publishers’ hip pockets!

  2. […] Tansy Rayner Roberts On Writing Steampunk Fantasy with Fairies and Frocks In. […]

  3. Thoraiya says:


    (Action Man and I just finished watching Downton Abbey, and when I said you were going to do a steampunk version, he did an impersonation of a wind-up butler. And then we both went, “YEAH!!!!” :D)

  4. […] the greatly talented voices of Jean Marsh and Peter Purves. (as those of you who tuned in for my Upstairs Downstairs post know, I’m on a Jean Marsh kick at the […]

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