“Why do all steampunk stories take place in England?”
My boyfriend asked me this a few days ago, during one of our discussions that we often have now that I am revising my first novel, a gaslamp fantasy story that does indeed use London as a part of its setting.
I had to stop and think, because he turned out right. Our main character moves to London. Lives in London already. Studied in London. Comes from London. The list really does go on… And with an underlying boom of YA historical fantasy on the book shelves, it can really seem like all the 1800s had were romantic English gardens and Cockney accents. At least the average fiction writer. Now, I love stories about the Victorian Era, steampunk or otherwise, but it never dawned on me how heavily London or England (but mostly London) is used in this type of fiction.
So, that brings us back to the original question: why London?
After some brainstorming and careful thought, have a few theories on that, and the reasons why this setting has become its own trope. And why that isn’t always a bad thing. There are two main reasons I have seen England used in this era. They usually go as follows:
More commonly than not, when I’m reading historical fantasy, uses of London as a setting come from a complacent need for a setting. Any setting. Steampunk culture and film have made England synonymous with the 1800s, and so authors treat London as if it was the only place anything ever happened in (which is only partially true, but I’ll get to that in a moment). The result, which may or may not be coupled with a lack of research, is usually a Disney World-style London. The areas chosen to use are the most iconic, the accents are blatant and forced, and the characters are second-rate attempts at Jane Austen’s finest.
(Side note: this is even more frustrating in historical fantasy stories that take place in OTHER PLACES, but still have local characters who act and speak as if they are British. STOP DOING THAT).
This is usually an interest killer for me, because no matter how clever the author is, the complacency shines straight through. It’s like a cheaply made set in a movie- it’s distracting and shows poor craft. A little research can save you from this pitfall. Using other locations in England, or Europe, or anywhere else can be especially rewarding, given the right effort.
But, there is something else before we re-consider London, such as…
“Convenience” sounds more negative than it should, because this is the more positive use of London, and the honest truth about why a well-researched novel will use it.
A quick history lesson: between 1700 and 1900, England was usually on the forefront of technology. Not only did some of our greatest advancements come from England, but the city of London was usually the first place where these advancements were readily available. Things like electricity, sewage systems, and railways were in place and working as early as 1870s, making things reasonably and (usually) realistically easier for characters. The citizens of a single area in Victorian London can sufficiently fill a cast, and the city’s iconic imagery can save an author from an exposition black hole with their location.
“But the location doesn’t need exposition,” you might say. “The location doesn’t matter.”
But this is where you might be wrong. The location you set your novel in is just as important as anything else, and sets a scene more than you might think. The places your characters spend their time in should affect them, just as your location affects you in real life. The location for your book is not a lifeless backdrop that the adventure unfolds upon; use the culture, find what’s unknown about it, what’s well-known about it. Blend these aspects in alongside the story; pepper them in dialogue and in what your characters do. You gotta make your location matter.
So, what of London? I consider London the same; make it matter. And use it for a reason. If your characters don’t behave like they’re from London, they probably aren’t and you can do to explore other locations. Canada is underused in historical fantasy after all, as is most of Asia. And Russia. Why not Russia?
What are your thoughts? Is there too much London in gaslamp fantasy? What books do you know that example other locations in this era?
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.