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Retrofuturism and Dieselpunk – The future that never was

Today I’m very excited to have fellow dieselpunk author Grace E. Robinson as a guest on my blog. She’s a wizard of Retrofuturism!

Grace has just started publishing a series of dieselpunk novellas that will eventually form a compehensive story and she’s exploring the way to mix history with fantasy, science with magic.


Cover of the ebook "Mrs Jones and the Mids Train" by Grace Robinson

One of the common traits of steampunk and dieselpunk is the retro-technology. It’s not a requirement of the genres, certainly, but many dieselpunk (and steampunk) stories feature technology that did not actually exist at that particular time in history. The retro-futurism aspect can be slight or non-existent, or it can be prevalent enough to make the story into historical science-fiction.

No matter how you write your dieselpunk story – with a lot of advanced retro-technology or none at all – it’s fine either way. The steampunk and dieselpunk genres are broad enough to encompass every aspect of sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, metaphysical, and historical adventure.

I’m going to offer a few tips on how to write believable retro technology for your dieselpunk stories. These are tips that I’m following myself in my new dieselpunk pulp adventure series The Adventures of Mrs. Jones. There is both magic and advanced technology in Mrs. Jones’ world, but since her husband is a scientist and inventor, I focus more on the retro-futuristic technology than the magic.

Retrofuturism is all about historical details that matter

Rene Vincent 1923 Les Autos Georges Irat

If you’re setting your dieselpunk story in a real place and time in history, then do a little research so that you know what you’re writing about. Sarah’s website is a great place to start! She’s curated a wealth of information for any aspiring historical or dieselpunk writer.

Dieselpunk by its very nature does not require complete historical accuracy, since the genre delves into the fantastical to one degree or another. But if you want your story to be actual dieselpunk rather than just plain fantasy, you need to get some of the historical details correct.

For example, in my Mrs. Jones series, the title character is a wealthy upper-class woman living in Los Angeles in the 1920s. (I don’t specify an exact year in any of the stories, but it’s definitely before talkie movies and the stock market crash). It’s important to know a few details about the time and the place that I’ve chosen to make the historical world of the story believable and plausible. What kinds of cars were common on the road in the mid-twenties? How much did dinner at a nice restaurant cost? What sort of jewelry would a woman in Mrs. Jones’ position in society wear? Who were the big names in Hollywood in the mid-twenties? (The movies is not a major focus of the series, but since the character lives in LA, I know it will come up now and then).

In my experience in both reading and writing historical fiction (dieselpunk and otherwise), it’s the little details that really make the world come alive for the reader. I personally am not going for strict historical accuracy (because, as I said, dieselpunk), but the world needs to be recognizable and believable as 1920s wealthy urban America.

Make the Technology Believable

Nikola Tesla is one of history’s most important inventors, one whose discoveries in the field of electricity were way ahead of his time and continue to influence technology today.

Now for the fantastical stuff! The best way to make fantastical, retro-futuristic technology is to use real historical science and technology as a jumping-off point. So again, do your research. Since my series is set in the 20s, I need to know what sort of tech was real at the time. In the mid-twenties, cars were becoming commonplace. Films, photographs, sound recordings, and electric lights were no longer novelties. Edison was a household name, and Einstein was coming in to the height of his career.

Depending on your dieselpunk story and world, you may want to focus on a specific aspect of history or technology. In my series, the main character’s husband is a scientist and inventor, so my research centers around scientific advancements in the 1920s that were real (or could have been real), but may not have been commonplace yet in ordinary society.

For example, in the first story, Mrs. Jones and the Midas Train, a doctor has developed a device that I call a Transmutation Resonator. It’s an early version of an ultrasound machine (among other things). Ultrasound machines, especially medical ones, weren’t used until the 1950s. But during World War I, scientists were experimenting with idea of ultrasound machines and sonar. So who’s to say that scientists in the 20s weren’t tinkering around with the idea of medical ultrasound machines?

Mrs. Jones also uses a gadget that she calls a Tesla gun, which is basically a stun gun powered by a miniature Tesla coil. Tesla coils were commonplace (at least in the scientific and medical community) by the 1920s. So having a fictitious yet plausible device helps to give the story both a historical and futuristic feel.

If you’re including any retro-futuristic technology or science in your dieselpunk stories, then don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild! But also ground your fantastical inventions in reality to keep the historical feel alive.

What dieselpunk stories are you writing? What’s your favorite dieselpunk tech or retro-futuristic gadget?

Retrofuturism and Dieselpunk are particular forms of speculative fiction that rest on a vintage-looking manifestation of science. Author Grace E. Robinson explains how to achieve this.
RETROFUTURISM AND DIESELPUNK - Retrofuturism in Dieselpunk oftentimes appears as a particular kind of retrotechnology. Author Grace E. Robinson speak about how you go about creating it

About Grace E. Robinson

Grace E. Robinson is a lover of stories – real and imaginary. She’s a lover of words in any language, and a lover of travel and the music of the world. Born and raised in Virginia, she studied English and creative writing at Hollins University. She is currently living in north Idaho with a cat and a lot of books.

Mrs Jones and the Midas Train is the first adventure in a dieselpunk series of novella. The second novella, Mrs Jones and the Watchmaker’s Ghost, has just being relieased

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  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted November 21, 2017 at 16:32

    This is really interesting – thanks, both. I couldn’t agree more about the need to make a story believable. The technology has to be credible, and so do the characters. And you’re right about doing the research, too. If a story doesn’t feel authentic, it falls apart.

    • Post Author
      Posted November 21, 2017 at 19:00

      As a reder, I love to feel that the author is giving me a realistic portrayal of whatever is in the story. We can normally feel when something has been researched and is authentic.
      As an author, I think research is a wonderful tool of inspiration 🙂

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