As I mentioned in my last post, I created a world where Nicholas I of Russia took over the northern hemisphere, calling his new empire the ‘New Alliance.’ After creating the time, place, and governmental structure of the world, I needed to think about the impacts of these things on the society.
I wanted my characters to have a kind of innocent heroism that comes from not seeing war. I had never really pondered this before writing this series, but Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Neo, Katniss Everdeen, and many, many other heroes are all born in the time period after a war, where the adults are still suffering the after effects of the first war, but they go forward despite the warnings.
So I decided that when Nicholas I actually conquered the people it would be called the First War, and it would have happened around 1830, about 20 years prior to the start of my story. Cyrus and Evangeline would have been too young to participate in the First War but they would have felt its effects, and they interact with people like Dr. Riggs and Captain Madrid who had been in the rebellion during the first war.
To create the societal tensions in your story, you want to ask questions about what happened to the people before, during, and after recent major events. For me, these were questions about what happened to the people before, during and after the most recent war occurred.
These questions can be as large or small as you want them to be. For example, you could ask broad, sweeping questions such as:
1. How does a hostile takeover affect the people of a country?
2. Does it differentially affect the rich and the poor?
3. How does it affect minorities such as women or people of color?
4. What is the new money system based on?
5. Who ‘buys in’ to the new government and why? Who doesn’t and why not?
Or you could ask more specific questions tailored to your world, as I did:
1. How did Nicholas I taking over the world affect the people?
2. How did the rich people react when he swept into North America? What about the poor?
3. What happened to women’s rights since he was from conservative Eastern Europe and the United States was one of the most liberal countries for women’s liberation?
4. Who did the New Alliance make rich in their new world and why?
5. What happened to people who were members of the former rebellion? Did he kill them? Torture them? Did some escape?
These answers will then be woven into your story, providing the motivations and underlying hopes and fears of both protagonists and antagonists.
My answers to these questions are woven through the six novellas, and as they progress the characters become a lot more detailed because they have this history. There are people who were rich before the war who went along with the New Alliance despite their hatred for it, rich people who are now poor because they had joined the rebellion, and plenty of poorer people who go along with the New Alliance because the form government didn’t really affect them as long as they get paid for their wares. There are the new rich mine lords, endorsed by the New Alliance because they use slavery to make millions, and the pirates who steal from them to give to the poor. Women who had been free are now slaves to the whims of men again.
These answers also gave me running themes – class struggles, the struggle for individual freedom, women’s independence, and the struggle for individual identity and meaning. What will my characters sacrifice for their ideals? Will they lie for them? Fight for them? Die for them?
Around the time I was answering these questions, I did do some research on the United States at the time the story was supposed to take place. In actual United States history, the 1850s saw women’s rights and human rights as huge issues. The 1850s saw the first coed university, women were being granted the right to own property in their own name in several states, and the right to have separate economy from their husbands. The Civil War was fought from 1861-1865, killing over 600,000 people. The end of the Civil War saw the collapse of the south, the end of slavery, and the expansion of civil rights.
The real history at the time was rich and vibrant, and variations of the themes provided enough inspiration to make a vivid, detailed steampunk world.