How to Write Dieselpunk – A Guide for Writers

Posted on Sep 15, 2023

Avatar Of Christopher Ortiz
Home > Blog > Writing > How to Write Dieselpunk – A Guide for Writers

When one thinks of literary and wider cultural terms that end in the word ‘punk’ there are two that usually come to mind first; steampunk and cyberpunk. 

These two terms have infiltrated the wider subconscious and have been used in a wide variety of mediums including books, films and video games.

But there is indeed a third ‘punk’ that was coined as late as 2001 and therefore has not received as much recognition; dieselpunk.

But what exactly is dieselpunk? How does it differ from its two more popular cousins? And how does one write dieselpunk?

Well, in this article we will aim to address all of these questions and more, as we take a deep dive into all things dieselpunk.

This guide on how to write dieselpunk contains:

  1. What is dieselpunk?
  2. How to write dieselpunk
  3. Tropes of dieselpunk writing
  4. Mistakes to avoid when writing dieselpunk
  5. Famous examples of dieselpunk
  6. How to write dieselpunk – final thoughts

What is dieselpunk?

Dieselpunk is a subgenre of fiction that emerged as an aesthetic and cultural movement, typically set in an alternate history or dystopian future, often during the interwar period or the early 20th century. 

It draws inspiration from the technological and design elements of the diesel era, featuring diesel powered machinery, retro futuristic gadgets and a gritty, industrial aesthetic.

Dieselpunk narratives often explore themes of totalitarianism, war and social upheaval, combining elements of science fiction, fantasy and noir. This genre celebrates the appeal of vintage machinery and the resilience of human spirit in a world characterized by advanced technology and political turmoil.

How to write dieselpunk

Now we know exactly what dieselpunk is, let’s take a look at how to go about writing it.

Familiarize Yourself with the Era

To authentically write dieselpunk, immerse yourself in the cultural and historical context of the diesel era. Explore the Roaring Twenties through the post World War II period. Understand the Jazz Age, Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Study the technology of the time, from automobiles and aircraft to radio and early computers. Learn about the fashion, art and architecture.

This foundational knowledge will enable you to create a believable and immersive dieselpunk world where every detail aligns with the period’s sensibilities.

Vintage Aesthetics Meets Futuristic Technology

Dieselpunk thrives on the imaginative combination of vintage aesthetics with futuristic technology.

Embrace this approach by envisioning a world where steam power, Tesla coils and diesel engines drive advanced machinery. Incorporate elements like airships, ray guns and towering skyscrapers with Art Deco embellishments.

Balance the nostalgic appeal of the past with the speculative excitement of the future.

The juxtaposition of old and new should be a hallmark of your dieselpunk setting, captivating readers with the appeal of a bygone era combined with a futuristic twist.

Craft Complex Characters

Compelling characters breathe life into any dieselpunk narrative. Develop your protagonists, antagonists and supporting cast with depth and nuance.

Consider how their experiences in this alternate dieselpunk world have shaped their values, desires and fears. Create characters who embody the era’s spirit of resilience and adaptability while also grappling with the challenges and opportunities unique to the genre.

Let their personalities shine through the narrative and use their individual journeys to explore the complex themes that often define dieselpunk, such as rebellion against authoritarian regimes and navigating a rapidly changing society.

Build an Alternate History

Central to dieselpunk is the creation of an alternate historical timeline. Deviate from real world history and construct a narrative backdrop that explains the divergence.

Perhaps a different outcome to a major historical event or the discovery of a revolutionary energy source alters the course of history. Incorporate these alterations into the geopolitical landscape, societal norms and technological advancements of your dieselpunk world.

A well constructed alternate history not only adds depth but also provides the foundation for your plot, allowing you to explore the consequences of these historical shifts.

Explore Themes and Atmosphere

Dieselpunk thrives on themes of societal upheaval and resistance against oppressive regimes.

Dive deep into these themes while maintaining the genre’s distinctive atmosphere. Ensure that your story has elements of noir, intrigue and adventure.

As you explore these themes, remember to keep the dieselpunk ambiance alive, ensuring that every aspect of your story, from dialogue to setting descriptions, contributes to the immersive atmosphere of the genre.

Tropes of dieselpunk writing

Like any genre of literature, there are a collection of tropes and commonalities that can be found within its writing. 5 of the most common can be found below.

Retro Futuristic Technology

Dieselpunk often features advanced technology that is retro in style, blending the aesthetics of the early 20th century with imaginative futuristic inventions.

From diesel powered jet packs to ray guns, these gadgets evoke a sense of nostalgia while embracing the spirit of innovation.

Alternate History

Dieselpunk narratives frequently explore alternative historical timelines, diverging from real world events to create a unique backdrop.

This trope allows writers to re imagine key moments in history and create an alternate Earth shaped by different outcomes, offering fresh perspectives on familiar eras.

Gritty, Urban Landscapes

Many dieselpunk stories are set in sprawling, industrialized cities filled with towering skyscrapers, smoky factories and neon lit streets.

These urban environments exude a gritty, noir inspired atmosphere, where protagonists navigate both the physical and societal challenges of their surroundings.

Resistance Against Authoritarianism

A common theme in dieselpunk is the struggle against oppressive regimes and authoritarian governments.

Protagonists often find themselves entangled in political turmoil, leading or joining resistance movements to combat tyranny and preserve individual freedoms.

Exploration of the Human Spirit

Dieselpunk frequently delves into the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Characters confront the harsh realities of their world, embodying determination, resourcefulness and a commitment to change. This trope highlights the indomitable will of individuals striving for a better future.

Mistakes to avoid when writing dieselpunk

As well as what to do, it is always important to be aware of what not to do when learning about writing within a specific genre. Below are 5 mistakes one should avoid when writing dieselpunk.

Neglecting Historical Accuracy

Failing to research and accurately represent the historical context of the diesel era can lead to anachronisms and a lack of authenticity.

Writers should strive to maintain accuracy to the period’s technology, culture and societal norms.

Over Reliance on Aesthetics

Placing too much emphasis on the visual aspects of dieselpunk, such as retro futuristic gadgets and fashion, while neglecting character development and plot depth can result in a shallow story lacking emotional resonance.

Lacking a Unique Twist

Failing to provide a fresh perspective or unique twist on the genre can result in a derivative and unoriginal narrative.

Writers should aim to introduce innovative elements or explore dieselpunk from a unique angle to stand out.

Ignoring Character Complexity

Creating one dimensional characters who merely serve as vehicles for the plot can undermine the richness of a dieselpunk story.

Characters should have depth, motivations and growth arcs that align with the genre’s themes and setting.

Forgetting Subtext and Themes

Neglecting to incorporate deeper thematic elements or subtext can result in a superficial narrative.

Dieselpunk often explores political, societal, or philosophical themes; failing to engage with these layers can lead to missed opportunities for meaningful storytelling.

Famous examples of dieselpunk

Finally, to round out our guide to dieselpunk, here are a list of 5 of the greatest works of dieselpunk fiction.

Dieselpunk” by Stephen L. Antczak and James P. Blaylock (2001)

This anthology of short stories explores the heart of the dieselpunk genre, combining elements of alternative history, technology, and societal upheaval in a variety of intriguing narratives.

“Bioshock: Rapture” by John Shirley (2011)

While based on a video game series that incorporates some steampunk elements, this novel does feature a dystopian, dieselpunk inspired setting beneath the sea.

“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

This novel has both biopunk and dieselpunk elements, set in a future where biotechnology and mechanical innovation coexist in a dystopian Bangkok.

“The Half-Made World” by Felix Gilman (2010)

This novel blends elements of dieselpunk with a Western-inspired setting, featuring a war between a steam driven, industrialized force and a supernatural, chaotic power. It explores themes of technology, colonialism, and personal transformation.

“The Big Book of Science Fiction” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2016)

While not a single book, this anthology includes a variety of short stories, some of which delve into the dieselpunk genre. It’s a great way to explore different authors’ interpretations of the genre within a single collection.

How to write dieselpunk – final thoughts

As we can see from all of the above information, dieselpunk is closely related to steampunk and indeed shares many characteristics.

Indeed, it even goes so far as to overlap a lot of the time, with many books combining some of both genres into one.

But the subtle differences and nuances that do provide some differentiation are worth being aware of and writers wishing to work within the dieselpunk genre, should now be well equipped to do so.

Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.

Get your free audiobook and ebook copy of:

Published: The proven path from blank page to 10,000 copies sold 

Liked this post? Share it with friends!

Interested in working with us?

Book a free strategy call with our expert team!