Writing and Researching Steampunk & Victorian History

I’ve been on numerous panels on this subject, Gentle Reader, not to mention being asked this question at various signings. So I thought I might provide a blog of my favorite resources for researching Victorian London and steampunk.

Primary Sources

Good for not only information but tone of voice and descriptions of gadgets. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing beats primary sources. I hate to be a traitor to the Author Guild’s justifiable objection to the Google Book settlement, but Google books does already have a number of good primary sources from the 1800s available online (since they are well out of print and out of copyright).

  • One of my personal favorites, with recipes and other interesting tidbits about domestic management in 1876, is Things a Lady Would Like to Know.
  • Foote’s Medical Common Sense and Plain Home Talk for historical perspective and opinion on medical science, scientific and social and psychological theory. This is an American classic (if non-fiction can be called such), and you should be able to find it online through rare books or at a local used bookstore that has a good Victorian section.
  • There are other useful primary sources as well, that you might be able to order through Amazon or a rare books dealer. My two favorites are:
    • Baedeker, Karl. 1896. Baedeker’s’s London and its Environs. (or any Baedeker’s dated to the Victorian era) for maps, railroad time tables, popular museums and visitors areas, not to mention names of shops, clubs, restaurants, newspapers, and much more. You’re hunting these puppies on your own.
    • Edwards, Amelia B. 1877. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, Volumes 1-2 For language and the Victorian adventure abroad feel.

Secondary Sources

As for secondary sources, what you need will depend upon what you’re writing. I write comedy of manners, so my needs reflect this slightly pedestrian interest, someone with a more military bent (for example) probably has a different list.

Nevertheless, I find myself constantly reaching for the following:


Aside from wikipeda, which can be an OK place to start (but please double check the references and facts), there are some good, if not particularly well organized, research tools dedicated to the Victorians online as well.

Other Tips

  •  If you have a DVR or Tivo trigger in keywords pertaining to your topic of interest. Same thing for documentaries in Netflix/Hulu/Prime or other streaming services. You never know what the history channel might be dealing with next. It will at least give you a jumping off point.
  • Watch BBC costume dramas, and or, rent the DVDs and check out the extras, they often have interviews with historical experts.
  • Having a really hard time answering a research question? Cold call a local university history department, museum, or fashion institute. Experts love to talk about their expertise, perhaps there is someone in the history department you can ask. They may at least give you a book or article to read.
  • Don’t discount your local library, or local university library. Some university libraries won’t give you a card if you aren’t a student or professor, but they will let you do on-site research.

Gail’s most frequently asked question on the subject:

What type of research did you have to do while writing the Parasol Protectorate series?

I had a fair bit of expertise in certain aspects of the era (fashion, food, manners, literature, theatre, upper class courting rituals, antiquities collecting) when I started but great gaps in other areas that I quickly realized needed to be filled.

I spent a lot of time researching the gadgetry and technology of the day, travel and communications techniques, medical and hard science advances, not to mention other things like major wars and military strategies, configuration of army regiments, geographical lay out of London in the 1870s (shops and streets names), newspapers, and government policies.

I also looked into vampire and werewolf lore at the time. That’s the thing, you never know what information you are going to need until you need it, and inevitably the internet doesn’t have it. Since I’m writing alt history I can always disregard the facts, but I like to get it right first, before I mess with it. Most people won’t care to look up the details (or get it wrong by confusing my setting with Austen or mid–Victorian, I’m specifically 1773) but even if it doesn’t make it into the book, it will irritate me if unwritten background information is flawed.

Some stuff pertaining to STEAMPUNK

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity deals with the subject of Reflexive Moderization recommended by the Steampunk Scholar for those interested in steampunk as a social movement.

Steampunk Books & Magazines

(The best way to understand steampunk is simply to read some of it.)

Heart of Veridon ~ Tim Akers
The Windup Girl ~ Paolo Bacigalupi
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s ~ Kage Baker
The Somnambulist ~ Jonathan Barnes
New Amsterdam ~ Elizabeth Bear
Crystal Rain ~ Tobias S. Buckell
Scar Night ~ Alan Campbell
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters ~ Gordon Dahlquist
Candle Man, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance ~ Glenn Dakin
The Steampunk Trilogy ~ Paul Di Filippo
The City of Ember ~ Jeanne DuPrau
Neverwhere ~ Neil Gaiman
The Difference Engine ~ William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
Thunderer ~ Felix Gilman
Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel ~ Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett (great historical education for kids!)
Winter’s Tale ~ Mark Helprin
Clockwork Angels ~ Lea Hernandez
The Court of the Air ~ Stephen Hunt
Infernal Devices ~ K.W. Jeter
Newton’s Cannon ~ J. Gregory Keyes
Escapement ~ Jay Lake
Zeppelins West ~ Joe R. Lansdale
The Affinity Bridge ~ George Mann
The Light Ages ~ Ian R. MacLeod
Perdido Street Station ~ China Mieville
A Nomad of the Time Streams ~ Michael Moorcock
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen ~ Alan Moore
Anno Dracula ~ Kim Newman
Airborn ~ Kenneth Oppel
Whitechapel Gods ~ S.M. Peters
The Anubis Gates ~ Tim Powers
Boneshaker ~ Cherie Priest
The Prestige ~ Christopher Priest
The Golden Compass ~ Phillip Pullman
Mortal Engines ~ Philip Reeve
The Alchemy of Stone ~ Ekaterina Sedia
The Invention of Hugo Cabret ~ Brian Selznick
The Hunchback Assignments ~ Arthur Slade
Eyes of Silver ~ Michael A. Stackpole
The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer ~ Neil Stephenson
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ~ Jules Verne
The Time Machine ~ H.G. Wells
The Wizard Hunters ~ Martha Wells
Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld
Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology ~ Nick Gevers (ed.)
Steampunk ~ Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (eds.)
Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded ~ Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (eds.) (in which I have a non-fiction piece)
The Steampunk Bible ~ Jeff VanderMeer
The Grand Ellipse ~ Paula Volsky (ed.)
Steampunk Magazine: myspace.com/steampunkmagazine
Girl Genius Comic Strip: www.girlgeniusonline.com
Exhibition Hall fan zine.

A Sample of Steampunky Films

Around the World in 80 Days
Castle in the Sky
The City of Lost Children
The Golden Compass
The Great Train Robbery
Edward Scissorhands
Howl’s Moving Castle
The Illusionist
Last Exile – Positional Play
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Perfect Creature
The Prestige
Sherlock Holmes (new)
Van Helsing
Wild Wild West
Young Sherlock Holmes

Websites & Blogs & Salons

The Steampunk Scholar
Jaborwahlky Productions
The Dag Lab
The Steampunk Treehouse
The Steampunk Workshop
The Insect Lab
Brass Goggles
Steampunk on Flickr
The Aether Emporium
Steam Fashion on Livejournal
Steam Tech on Livejournal

2018 Update Podcast Interview

Here’s a fun interview I did about the writing and marketing side of being a steampunk author.

Want more behind the scenes sneak peeks? Join the Chirrup

Want more?

26 Tips for Researching Victorian Set Steampunk

All About Steampunk Fashion from Author & Style Maven Gail Carriger

Gail’s Daily Dose

Your Tisane of Smart:

The Old Foodie on Milk Soup

Your Writerly Tinctures:

Choosing an agent

Quote of the Day:

“Writing for adults, you have to keep reminding them of what is going on. The poor things have given up using their brains when they read. Children you only need to tell things to once.”

~ Diana Wynne Jones

* A good deal of the above post was ganked from a guest blog I did for J. Daniel Sawyer from October 2009 called Super Sneaky Victorian Research Tips.
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Posted by Gail Carriger

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  1. utauda14 said:

    The links to "Victorian servants (domestic staff)," "Ladies Journal," and " All about dress elevators" are dead, so they need to be replaced. This blog post is very helpful, by the way! Thank you for always taking the time to look up and post info for your fans. 🙂

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