Steampunk Goes To High School

This past week, one of the local high school teachers invited me to speak to her creative writing class about steampunk. I thought I would share my outline of the presentation in case it was helpful, either for the particular case of presenting information about steampunk or any other genre writing.

I started out by finding out what the students knew about steampunk. This particular class didn’t know much, just had some idea that it had to do with the past, but one student piped up that he was a fan of cyberpunk. So, this led me into a discussion of steampunk’s roots in the 1980s and how K.W. Jeter coined the term in a letter to Locus magazine. This seemed to hook the class. I also pointed out that steampunk isn’t just a genre of writing, but it’s expanded into art, music, and even lifestyles. I passed around a copy of Robert Brown’s Lyrics of Abney Park which includes many wonderful illustrations and photos as a source of inspiration.

SummersOwlDance

One of the difficulties defining steampunk is that you can find whole web pages devoted to the subject. I settled on a definition that basically goes like this: Steampunk is a story set in a world that looks like the 1800s but features technology or magic that doesn’t seem to belong based on what we know about history. I pointed out that this allows for stories that are actually set in the 1800s and also those that might be set in the future after some kind of apocalypse wiped out society. I also noted that although it often falls under different names, people also write these kinds of alternate histories about other time periods as well.

I showed off my books and mentioned that my interest was in looking at history of the region and imagining what would have happened if technology had been given a push in some areas and developed a little faster than the history we know.

Perhaps my greatest challenge in this discussion was that most of these kids didn’t seem very excited by history or historical topics. Despite that, they seemed to perk up when I challenged some of their notions. For example, I asked, “what was the favored weapon of samurai warriors in the 1800s?” Several answered, “swords.” I then pointed out that swords aren’t very effective against armor. Although samurai did train extensively with swords, many realized guns were more effective in combat. We also talked about what Las Cruces was like in 1881 and what kids their age would have been doing and what kinds of things they would want if they went back to that time.

From there, I moved on to a discussion of my process as a writer and how I’m inspired by things around me. I folded in the earlier historical discussion by pointing out that I get curious about those places I drive by in my commute, such as the Council Rocks in Arizona where Apaches used to camp or the turnoff for Tombstone, Arizona. I talked about how I like to visualize things, then write them down. We also talked about some of the mechanics of submitting writing to magazines and anthologies.

I wrapped up the session by giving them a writing prompt. I had the students imagine they were teenagers in 1881 Las Cruces. Billy the Kid is in town. What happened when the airship arrived?

There was just enough time at the end of the class for a couple of students to share their stories. One told about troopers descending and preparing to invade, though we didn’t hear yet what they were after. Another student imagined that the airship belonged to Pat Garrett, who was seeking Billy the Kid. Now that last story is one I’d like to see finished for sure!

Windows into the Past

I enjoy looking at old family photos. It’s an opportunity to recall good memories and sometimes even get a glimpse of those relatives I wasn’t fortunate enough to know personally. Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother died during the Great Depression. My mom barely knew her own mother. Given that my grandmother died in the 1930s, it’s not surprising, most of the photos of her are portraits. Back in those days, few people went around shooting pictures with their cell phones! Still, I’m fortunate enough to have two candid photos of my grandmother as a girl and young woman.

Tabitha Seaton

My grandmother moved to the small town of Des Moines, New Mexico with her family before statehood. In the photo above, my grandmother is on the mule to the right. I’m guessing the photo was taken right around the time of New Mexico’s statehood. I wonder whether my grandmother was just out riding for fun, or if she was doing chores. To me, the photo looks like something right out of a Sergio Leone Western with the stark landscape, simple buildings, and even laundry drying. This next photo was taken only a few years later.

Chemistry Class

This is a photo of a chemistry class at Des Moines High School in 1917. My grandmother is the young woman second from the left. I enjoy the juxtaposition of these two photos. Remember, that chemistry lab is in the very same dusty small town where my grandmother was out riding on a mule.

Even though my grandmother grew up at the beginning of the 20th century, New Mexico was still very much part of the wild west, but even in the wild west, high schools had chemistry labs. SummersOwlDance It’s just another one of the reasons I’m attracted to steampunk stories. It may seem fanciful to imagine mad science or incredible technology in Victorian times or the wild west, but in fact, it wasn’t so far from the story my family lived. My novel Owl Dance starts out in rural New Mexico, in a town not so different from the one my grandmother grew up in. The book is available at Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.

Visiting a Creative Writing Class

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit my daughter’s high school creative writing class. The teacher had the students read my short story “The Zombie Shortage” from the anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie. I followed that by coming into the class and talking about my process for writing short stories and how I put that into practice with “The Zombie Shortage”. As I pointed out to the class, there are exceptions to all of these ideas, but these are things that have worked for me.

Edgar Allan Poe

Write the story in a single sitting. Back in high school, I was introduced to Edgar Allan Poe’s statement that a short story is a story that can be read in a single sitting. A few years later, I came to realize that if I expect a reader to read a story in a single sitting, I should endeavor to write a story in a single sitting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I write a finished, polished story all at once, but at least I do my best to get a draft down in one sitting. Indeed, my most successful stories—meaning the ones that have sold for the most money or I’ve received the most positive feedback on—have all been written this way.

Focus on one coherent theme and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. Again, the source of this idea is Edgar Allan Poe. The part about focusing on one theme is probably the part most people might question, but again, I’ve found my most satisfying stories do that. The problem of the story is laid out in the first paragraph and a satisfying conclusion is reached by the end. Now, a satisfying conclusion doesn’t necessarily mean a “happy ending.” It just means wrap things up so your reader feels like they’ve read a complete story and not a chapter in a longer work.

Ray Bradbury

Visualize your story. There are various techniques for this. When I met Ray Bradbury, shown here in a photo by Alan Light, he talked about visualizing as he wrote—following the characters and seeing what they did and where they went. Some people today talk about this as writing “by the seat of your pants.” For me that’s not the most effective way to work. I find I like to visualize a story before I begin. I like to get to know it well and think of the characters as real people in a real situation before I sit down to write. I like to see the setting and I write based on things I know.

Practice. When I first heard Ray Bradbury talk thirty years ago, he likened writing to shooting baskets. You have to do it a lot to get good at it. You shoot and miss a lot. Eventually swish you get the ball in the basket. The more you do it, the more that happens. For me, the most successful stories have indeed felt much the same as a ball going through a basket. I haven’t really had doubt they were successful stories. Nevertheless, the lesson here is to practice and keep practicing until you get there.

Finally, while I have “The Zombie Shortage” on my mind, I just learned that the collection Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie is now out in paperback! Here’s the link for it at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zombiefied-Anthology-All-Things-Zombie/dp/0615910270/