I build like I write – as an explorer in a new world. I never completely plan a book before beginning. It’s more like one of those video games where you can only see a tiny patch of the map. You advance in what seems a promising direction, sometimes chancing onto a smooth pathway but sometimes bashing through a jungle, going sideways, or backwards again, seeking for the way that feels right. And as in a game you can meet so much trouble that you die. Respawn; try again. Avoid that direction until later, or entirely. Maybe you began in the wrong place entirely. Re-write!
Finally, with your base-camps built in the best places and with the resources your army needs, you march. You encounter cool new ideas along the way, unexpected allies (or enemies) and so on. Your writerly wizard-sense tells you how it must end, but not exactly where, or when, or with whom at your shoulders. But you get there!
Another writer, starting with the exact same resources in the exact same location, will play it out differently. As Robert Sheckley said (and I was in the room when he said it) “You never write the book you plan. You always write the book you write.” So in a way, the book writes itself.
I have had entirely unplanned characters walk into my books halfway through and ENTIRELY CHANGE EVERYTHING! And they always totally save it. They carry with them the answers I needed (blundering onward as I do, sans map), and a clear and exciting pathway to the resolution. It really is astonishing. WHERE do they come from!? From my creative instincts, of course, my unconscious … intuitive … gift, for want of a better word.
I build Steampunk gadgets, accessories, ray-guns and sculptural pieces in exactly the same way. It won’t work for everyone, but here is how it goes:
1) ALWAYS KEEP EVERYTHING. Except possibly those boxes that milk comes in. They get stinky. But everything else *can* be turned into something beautiful, if not useful, as most steampunk contrivances are not. But they look awesome – and it’s all about looking awesome, darlings! My wife, however, is in despair. She gazes at my three thousand pieces of collected crap (mostly timber, plumbing parts, costume jewelry and Hello Kitty handbags) and ‘strongly hints’ that ‘just possibly’ this is getting too much and could I please clean out the shed?! But I defend my crap as always: “It’ll come in useful one day!”
And it always does. Without fail, it comes in handy within 48 hours of me throwing it out. Seriously, that ALWAYS happens. (and I always feel like weeping.)
2) SCOUR THOSE ROADSIDE COUNCIL COLLECTIONS. SCOUR THE OP-SHOPS. I have found extraordinary things. Actual antiques, vintage furniture, and modern reproductions that are damn-near as good. But better than that: lots of Random Crap! I’ve written about it here: https://steamedup.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/no-ordinary-junk/
3) DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF RANDOM CRAP! Look into things. Ignore the whole and look at the parts. Modern light fittings still contain groovy little bits of brass and hollow threaded rod (Gold!). Car parts can scream out “Steampunk!” to those of us that hear. Kids’ toys. Appliances. Light-sabers. Lots of things (but not mattresses. Leave them on the road!) Develop a sixth sense for the possible. If there is even a hint of ‘possible‘ in the item, keep it. Because (let’s all chant together) ‘It’ll come in useful one day!’
4) WAIT & MEDITATE. Wait for the random junk to speak to you. Sometimes it’ll take months. Leave you best pieces in prominent places. Display them. Keep visiting them. Mull. Visualise. Grab stuff up and just hold them together, or with a gap (it will fill in later) Rotate, find the natural alignments and linkages. Seek a story that explains what part ‘A’ does to part ‘B’. And LISTEN. Do these bits say ‘I am headgear‘, or ‘wear me on your belt‘ or ‘I am a gadget but NOT a weapon‘?
And for the sake of all the Gods don’t glue some cogs on it and call it Steampunk! Cogs that do nothing are cogs that do nothing, and Victorian engineers never did that! Their cogs always spoke with mechanical logic. On all my gadgets and costumes there is exactly one cog. With deliberate artistic irony I glued it onto a Hello Kitty purse and called it steampunk.
5) NOW BUILD. So you have sensed a possible trail. It has promise! Still without a map you start making the map that’ll take you to the end of the build. Trust the Force! Throw it all down on the floor. Photograph it. (But don’t lock yourself into using it all!) Now find ways to join the pieces. Everything is different. Play to your strengths. If you like glue – use glue. Screws. Bolts. Rivets. Weld if you weld. And remember – rivets and leather will hide a lot of crimes.
It’s time to start looking at images. Authentic Victorian thingies, clothes, horse and military harnesses. Kitchen-ware. Whatever! And stay quiet. Allow those random bits to keep speaking to you. Press on. Try stuff. Dare to be different. But if the trail leads to a cliff called “holy crap this is too difficult!”, then back away. It’s okay. Put that bit down and cast around for something else. There will always be something else.
And let that unexpected character walk into the middle of the story. There is nothing more exhilarating that the “Ah-hah!” moment when you turn around and see the awesome thing you picked up five years ago and you know, at last – its time has come. Grab it! Add it! Love those pieces together because they told you to do it!
Happy building! & If you want more technical pro-tips, tell me.