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.


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!