Æther Feature: Writing Young Adult Steampunk

TheGirlWiththeClockworkCatThese features as a way for the Ministry to highlight artists, musicians, writers, and makers of all variety. With so many talented individuals to choose from, we know it is a challenge to feature every clever creative worthy of note, but perhaps we might endeavour to introduce to you a new name in our community of steam and cog, or perhaps remind you of one artisan’s successful efforts to bring the past that never was to the here and now.
 This week’s Æther Feature for September 18th, is now submitted for your pleasure. Welcome to the Ministry, Nikki McCormack.

Change often starts with small things.

A poor cook in a pub kitchen puts on tattered harlots clothes and calls herself a pirate to offend the sensibilities of a new elite class. Others follow. Inspired by their message, a band of musicians take up their instruments and begin to play radical new music, spreading a message of revolution and equality.

Disturbed by the oppression he sees, a wealthy inventor turns away a lucrative weapons contract with the elite class’s new law enforcement. He wants to create, not kill. His jaded business partner decides to take control of the situation, using whatever means necessary.

The inventor turns to other things. A cat gets a new start with the first turning of gears in a revolutionary clockwork leg.

For a half-Japanese pickpocket struggling to survive in the cruel streets of London, change begins with the discovery of a cat. That very same cat, in fact, but it isn’t the valuable clockwork leg that draws them together and drives her to risk so much to keep him safe. It’s something much more valuable. The cat needs someone, a companion to watch over him a care for him, and she needs nothing more than his unconditional affection.

The one thing London’s new elite order doesn’t expect is for a lowly street urchin to have the power to make a difference.

Writing steampunk is always a challenge. The expectations of world building can vary greatly from reader to reader, primarily because those writing it are limited only by their imagination. Steampunk fiction runs the gamut from paranormal romance in books like Cassandra Claire’s Infernal Devices series, to wild adventure in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, and on to the slightly more grounded world of alternate history steampunk in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

Writing steampunk for a young adult audience adds a new element of complexity. With a young adult audience, there is a higher chance that this will be their first foray into the world of steampunk, but even if they’ve been there before, the balance of steampunk and other expected elements (such as teen issues and perhaps a twist of romance) can be difficult to manage.

The Girl and the Clockwork cat sprints through a period of less than a week, with the main character, Makeo, dashing about sometimes a step behind the private detective working the murder case and sometimes a step ahead. She’s determined to help, as much to protect the cat, Macak, who belonged to the murder victims, as to help a friend whose father is accused of the murders.

The fast timeline presented many challenges. I chose to keep steampunk elements understated, making them, in most cases, no more extraordinary than other inventions of the era, such as electricity, both so I could build on them more going forward and so I could be sure the world didn’t distract from Maeko’s story.

There also wasn’t much time for a strong romance to develop and I wanted give young adult readers a heroine who was effective without the help of a male hero, but who could also grow to realize that sometimes, everyone needs help. To accomplish this, I took a chance and kept the romance element understated, though I know it is an expected part of much young adult fiction. Aside from the obvious upheaval of the murder investigation, Maeko has to sort through the emotional challenges of a reintroduction to her estranged mother and the realization, fueled more than a little by the changing interest of her long-time friend and mentor, that growing up means she can’t continue living on the streets disguised as a boy. She’s got too much going on and too much broken trust in her past to be falling head-over-heels in love just yet.

Nikki McCormackA brewing revolution and developing steampunk technology are backdrops for Maeko’s struggle to cope with all of the changes in her life while trying to figure out who really killed Macak’s family. The biggest change often starts with little things.

Thanks so much to the amazing Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences for having me on their blog. Be sure to look around and discover a few wonders before you go.

Nikki McCormack is a rising author, wine and tea lover. Slave to her cats, she enjoys horseback riding, kayaking, caving, archery, gaming, dancing, good anime, etc. She is studying Japanese and practicing Iaido because she believes we should never stop learning. You can find her at nikkimccormack.com

3 Replies to “Æther Feature: Writing Young Adult Steampunk”

  1. I just finished reading this book by Nikki McCormack and it’s every bit as good as the interview above would lead you to think. Well done!! 🙂 More to come I hope? And in true web fashion I been led to this wonderful blog! Fantastic!

  2. I’m not a steampunk nor young adult fan however, I think the premise is intriguing so I purchased Nikki’s book and I’m enjoying delving into Maeko and Macak’s world. I like reading stories that feature strong female protagonists without a romantic interest to draw me in. The power of these types of stories comes from a female character figuring out how to get out of and through difficult situations and growing as a person without a male character constantly by her side to help her. Nikki’s is that and more. Besides, who wouldn’t want to read about a story with a “bionic” cat as a sidekick? 🙂

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