Writing for A Steampunk Universe

As the creative writer for Heavy Steam, I am the creator of an entire world. Does that sound amazingly awesome to you? It did to me, but then I had to put in the work. You know what Uncle Ben said about having great power? He wasn’t wrong. Read on to hear about it.

Brainstorm

I attended PAX East 2013, and was lucky enough to play a few of the unpublished games developers brought for us to look at. However, I did not get to play the mech game a designer named Scott had brought to show us. After PAX I heard Jeff and Zach talk about how much fun it was, what a great idea it would be to publish… all it needed was a theme. “I’m thinking steampunk,” Jeff said. “Julie?”

Immediately I had to play the game so that I would know what I was writing for. We had a game session, and I really loved the elegance of the mechanics, even in that early session. I’m a fan of Flash Point and Pandemic, so I really appreciate when a resource management game has a theme that reflects the mechanics.

As for making our mechs work in a steampunk universe, you have to first understand the underlying fact of steampunk. In the world of steampunk, there’s a pivotal moment when the reality as we know it shifts from our timeline to the alternate one that takes us to a universe that could have happened.

To brainstorm what that shift was I turned to Zach. He is my first resource for throwing out ideas and thinking about the ramifications of them in a quick-think-aloud-no-idea-is-sacred kind of way. It makes for some intense conversations. We have created and destroyed several cosmos in the blink of an eye at this point. I wanted an energy/matter source that would redefine the industrial revolution. Zach posed the idea that for it to have impact in a timely fashion; our pivotal moment should take place around the time of the American Revolution. Then he threw out this postulation, “I would love it if North America blew up from a comet and just destroyed it.”

There it was: my reason for having a new element introduced, and the cause for a monumental shift in history. With no United States to become a heavy hitter during the industrial revolution, what might have happened? Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Research

Then began the dark days…. When writing for Zpocalypse my research involved re-watching Night of the Living Dead, and re-reading The Walking Dead. Even the CDC videos about preparing for a “zombie attack” are geared towards making kids aware of how disease spreads. Watching them is helpful and fun at the same time. Nothing prepared me for the hours upon hours of researching the European Industrial Revolution.

I love history, I really do. Also, I am a firm believer in filling your brain with as much information as you can so that your tank is always full for writing. However, I can say that the weeks of time I spent, reading the biographies of minor players in history, who could have become major players in our alternate history were not the best weeks of my life.

Why? For one thing, there is no visible output for the rest of the company to see.  I knew they realized I was working, but it’s hard to quantify. I feel for wizards. All that studying over a tiny candle in the wee hours of the night for that one firebolt… is it really worth it?

For another, you get a lot of eye rolling when someone casually names something a “Gatling Gun” and you freak out because that American inventor was never born.

Nevertheless, research is a necessary evil. It’s vital to the process if you are going to make an alternate history. History is no joke, it’s a complex tapestry of the lives of humanity, and “winging it” makes for terrible writing. I know because I have written some, and read others. However, finally I had a rough draft of a timeline. The first part of which can be seen on our BGG forums here. Go look, and comment at will.

Whose eyes are on this?

Once I (finally) was able to start writing, I needed feedback. Writing in a bubble is lovely. You can create lots of fun words all thrown together without interruption. It does not help you grow as a writer. It’s a painful lesson I have to relearn all the time. However, I do like to have feedback one critique at a time. For each project I pick specific people. This time, my go-to person was ‎Neil Remiesiewicz, the primary writer for Hull Breach! If you don’t know Hull Breach, it’s a sci-fy card game where you play different factions vying for power using your military bases and ships manned with marines out in space. The man knows a little something about alternate storylines with a military focus. He’s also an awesome writer.

Every time he had a comment that started with “Military Rant:” I breathed a sigh of relief. As a military history buff, I knew he would see things I would not. It also meant when showing my writing to the team after, I felt FAR more confident yelling at them for the Gatling Gun.

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