Monday, November 30, 2009
As with the One Lovely Blog Award that Stephanie gave me awhile back, I find myself with a dearth of people to gift with the Superior Scribbler. That's the problem you run into when you and your followers read pretty much all the same blogs.
Here's the rules:
1.Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
-- See my reason for not doing so.
2.Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
3.Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post, which explains The Award.
4.Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
5.Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog
Thanks again to Anita, and my other award-giving friends, for reading my ramblings and commenting on my considerations. You guys are the real Superior Scribblers.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
One of the banes of the writer's existence is the push to produce something that is fresh, new, and original. Some people actively try to write something truly original, and in fact purposely avoid anything even close to what they're attempting to compose.
I can't think of any artist (of any stripe) working in a vacuum that can produce something accessible to the general populace. Even the great epics of ancient history -- Gilgamesh, The Iliad, the creation of myths of Scandinavia and other nations to name a few -- came from rich oral traditions of these same stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey were even spoken for decades before someone wrote them down.
No worthwhile art, I feel, is "original" in the purest sense of the word, i.e. that nothing like it ever came before. Mozart, Stephen King, Archimedes of Syracuse, Leonardo da Vinci, and other artistic and scientific luminaries of the past how-ever-many thousand years of human history all had influences from somewhere. And yet we call the greatest among us "original thinkers."
Why is that?
Because they had the ability to synthesize what was available into something new. Leonardo da Vinci took concepts that already existed in the Renaissance and used them to design his inventions. Archimedes developed weapons of war that held back the Romans through experimentation and study. Stephen King's Dark Tower series was, by his own admission, based off a viewing of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And Mozart composed some of his most famous music -- The Marriage of Figaro among that -- while at court in Vienna, where he was exposed to other composers.
This process, synthesizing our influences, is how we create original works. Everything we write is influenced by something else. Accept that, and you'll be better equipped to make a story that shines with the one original element you possess.
P.S. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! (Or happy Wednesday/Thursday to all my international friends). Because of the holiday, I'm going to take the next two days off from posting, so this'll be my last offering for this week.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The polybolos, as you may or may not know, was a siege engine in use during antiquity that could fire multiple arrows in rapid succession through use of its chain drive. The mechanism in question is a flat-link chain attached to a windlass, the oldest known use of a system that was considered an invention of Signore da Vinci's.
From (where else?) Wikipedia:
"When loading a new bolt, the windlass is rotated counter-clockwise with the trigger claw raised; this drives the mensa forward towards the bow string, where a metal lug pushes the trigger under the trigger claw, which is closed over the string.
Once the string is locked into the trigger mechanism, the windlass is then rotated clockwise, drawing the mensa back, drawing the bow string with it.
A round wooden pole in the bottom of the magazine is rotated down toward the mensa (cradle that holds the bolt) as it is drawn to the back of the polybolos, dropping a single bolt into the tray, ready to be fired. As the mensa is pulled farther back, it meets another lug like the one that locked the string into position, this one pushes the trigger and automatically fires the polybolos, and the process is repeated. The repetition provides the weapon's name, from the Greek πολύ - poly "multiple, many" and -βόλος - -bolos "thrower" (from βάλλω - ballo "to throw, to hurl"), or simply a repeating weapon."
As the above description shows, the polybolos already operated with mechanical action, which makes it a little easier to adapt steam power onto it.
My theory (and yes, this will be used in the new project) is to attach a steam-powered mechanism to the base of the machine accompanied by piping and gear work that turns the windlass at a speed greater than regular mechanical motion can achieve. Also, a steam-powered polybolos could be made to rotate automatically on a horizontal axis, which would thus eliminate a suggested complaint of it being "too accurate."
There's also the potential for steam power in ballistas and gastraphetes (a belly bow) among other possibilities.
As always, your thoughts are appreciated.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Whenever you alter history, you run into the problem of making historical characters act the way they would normally act. Harry Turtledove, one of the alternate history masters, has several series where he adds "watershed" events that alter the course of history. In the Worldwar and Colonization novels, he posits what would happen if aliens invaded Earth in the middle of World War II. In what's called the Southern Victory or Timeline-191 series (not officially, mind you), he considers what would happen if the Confederacy was victorious in the American Civil War.
In How Few Remain, Turtledove includes Samuel Clemens as a sharp-witted newspaper editor in San Francisco of the 1880s. Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, did in fact work in San Francisco in the 1800s -- except he was there in 1864, and was living in Hartford, Conn., during the time frame Turtledove's story occurred. The problem with doing this, of course, is that Turtledove has to have his fictional Clemens react to events in the same, or similar way, the real Clemens would have.
The above is why I've tended to shy away from historical fiction/alternate history, besides my previously stated fear that I'd get drawn too far into research. The possibility that someone would read my story and say "so and so would never do that" for a historical character has previously been too great for my liking. Of course, that also changes as the documentation on a particular person increases. For the major figures of history -- Abraham Lincoln, Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte, etc. -- you can find enough extant scholarship that getting them right is only a matter of reading enough.
I have tremendous respect for the folks who build careers from alternate histories or straight historicals. My hat's off to their research prowess, which far outstrips my own. Those people are the real research gurus.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Why am I talking about this invention instead of my traditional steam-y fare?*
The short answer is that Alaskans and Australians are evil idea-generators.
The somewhat lengthier answer can be traced back to this post and this post. For background, in case y'all haven't read the posts from last night and Wednesday, Gary and Stephanie hijacked the comments of my post on Wednesday to discuss fighting the Final War of the Roman Republic (the Roman Civil War) with steam power as a factor.
And of course, as my faithful blog readers know, I'm not one to resist a thought experiment such as this.
Anyway, back to Archimedes. The screw was designed to move water uphill through rotating on a fixed point. Water started moving as soon as the screw did, and if any water fell back down the hill, it was immediately caught and moved up again. Now, we can extrapolate this out further and theorize that, if you built a large version of the screw, set it on a horizontal plane and affixed it to something solid -- say a Roman trireme -- this water movement could, in theory, move the vessel in a straight line with a minimum of manual labor.
Mount two Archimedean screws on the vessel, and you have the start of mechanical propulsion. The only constraint here is that the screws have to run either the length of the vessel or slightly longer in order to generate enough water movement to speed the vessel along. Otherwise, you've got a mechanically powered Roman vessel using technology that was already in use during the final days of the Roman Republic.
The above is also how my tech considerations for my other steampunk stories works. It can all be distilled down to a) Does the theory exist? and b) How feasible is it given the materials that are present?
Oh, and Stephanie and Gary? If you've emailed me since roughly 9 am EST, I'll get back to you both sometime tonight. Access to my gmail account from my office computer gets cut off after that time.
* Like the pun? I'm quite proud of it.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
I'd like to report that, according to some basic research, the possibilities did exist for Archimedes to have used steam power.
As I said yesterday, Hero of Alexandria was the first one to develop the steam engine. That's an important distinction because Archimedes (a man many said thought millenia ahead of his time) is supposed to have developed a steam-powered cannon.
The Mythbusters tested his design, taken from a more-than-a-little vague drawing done by my favorite Rennaissance inventor -- Signore da Vinci -- and though they were unable to prove Archimedes' steam cannon worked, the fact that he's said to have even done it is enough for an industrious writer to play with.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Let me expound on that: something does not have to actually exist for you to use it in your story. It merely has to be theoretically possible.
For example, as I said yesterday, there's no reason for anyone to build a working steam cannon. Why? Because gunpowder-based cannons do a perfectly serviceable job already. However, the fact a steam cannon is theoretically possible is cause for celebration because that means it can be used with a minimum of fuss.
Similarly, knowing that Leonardo da Vinci theorized about many different inventions during his lifetime means that we can postulate what Renaissance Europe would've looked like if someone had the presence of mind to build his inventions instead of them merely languishing on paper for 500 years. Interesting concept, yes?
Steam technology was first theorized by Hero of Alexandria in the first century A.D. His invention, the aeolipile, was the first steam engine. Consider this then ... what if the Industrial Revolution happened in 1st Century Greece instead of 18th/19th Century Great Britain and the United States? Great fodder for a steampunk tale, isn't it?
This all of course leads back to the fact no one's expecting your fictional technology to actually work. Just that it has the potential to work. So long as the tech abides by rules you lay down, then you're fine.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
From the ever-useful Wikipedia:
"Leonardo da Vinci first proposed the idea of a steam-powered cannon that would launch a projectile using only heat and water. Some sources say Archimedes was the original source of the idea.
The device would consist of a large metal tube, preferably copper as it is the best conductor of heat, which would be placed in a furnace. One end of the tube would be capped and the other loaded with a projectile. Once the tube reached a high enough temperature, a small amount of water would be injected in behind the projectile. In theory, Leonardo da Vinci believed, the water would rapidly expand into vapour, blasting the projectile out the front of the barrel."
The Holman Mk II Projector, used in the early part of World War II, used steam to fire a small projectile up to 600 feet. The Royal British Navy contracted Holmans (a maker of machine tools) to build the Projector after seeing it tested. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the weapon was that it left a small cloud of black smoke after it fired. This had the unexpected, but welcome, consequence that the Luftwaffe believed many British vessels were more heavily armed than they actually were.
Now, the writer of steampunk has a lot of freedom if they decide to use steam cannons. You can attach a boiler and pistons to the rear, mount it on a tank, ship or zeppelin, or even have cannons like that be so rare the only place they are is around government buildings.
In terms of design description, all you really have to say is "steam cannon" and you're pretty much set. "Steam-powered cannon" if you want to get really technical of course.
Another post will deal with why you might want to use certain steampunk items, such as steam cannons, when there are perfectly serviceable real-life alternatives.
Monday, November 16, 2009
The site's original purpose was to gather examples of the common storylines, characters, settings, etc that exist in television shows. It expanded from there to include movies, literature, anime, and real life in certain cases. These "tropes," as they are commonly called, are things you can reasonably expect readers of a certain genre to know about already.
For example (from the entry for Analogy Backfire):
"Roger makes an analogy comparing someone to a well known source, often intending to sound positive. Rita then points out a further fact about the analogy, often inverting the meaning, and often painfully near the knuckle. A common example is someone comparing two lovers to Romeo And Juliet, which suggests they've not read the ending (or the beginning, or the middle) of the play."
Each entry has an opening quote that is sometimes called the "Trope Namer," also known as the foremost example in that particular category.
Why would these things be useful to writers? Well, by seeing these vast amounts of examples for various characters, dialogue, etc., you can determine how detailed you need to get with description, stock characters, setting, and a whole bunch of things.
Pretty much the only downside is that following the links can kill an entire day that you would've otherwise spent writing. I'm sorry for that, but I still maintain that the site's usefulness cannot be understated in providing source material and other goodies.
Friday, November 13, 2009
As Davin states, someone might pick up your work even if they're not in your target audience. And though he is a scientist, we know that Davin prefers to write (and read) literary fiction. He also has a thing for Leo Tolstoy, but we won't get into that here ;).
However, this doesn't preclude him from say, picking up a science fiction novel, or a mystery, or an epic fantasy/thriller/insert genre here based on any number of factors. He could know the person (thank you for the compliment, by the way), get a recommendation, or even be entranced by the cover art.
Unlike public relations and marketing, where your audience is ironclad, audience in novels is a much more fluid thing. It's also infinitely more organic. I mentioned yesterday that I tend to write stuff for a more science-y crowd -- that's my audience because those are the types of characters I most often hear in my head.
Renee, Susan, and Anita, on the other hand, write for teenagers because (I'm assuming here, ladies, so correct me if I'm wrong) that's the age level they hear the voice of their main character in. Bane writes MG. Same reason.
So you see, your target audience changes based not on research and targeting and all that fun PR stuff, but on who the main character is. This is also why someone like Davin (or any of my dear readers) can pick up a random book in a different genre and still enjoy it. You might not understand the common tropes in the story, but if it's a good novel then it doesn't matter. An interesting plot or an interesting character will always win the day.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Something one person marks up may not be marked up by another reader. While this may come down to personal taste (which is another matter entirely), it might also come down to whether the second person is an avid reader of what you're writing. We can safely assume that someone who reads a lot of horror novels might pick up on something seemingly incongruous in a romance novel that a dedicated reader of romances wouldn't even bat an eye at.
I find that this happens mostly with tropes -- commonly accepted pieces of information that you can reasonably expect the reader to know about before they read your story. A dedicated reader of epic fantasy will probably not mark up the same things that a dedicated reader of lighter fantasy would, because the epic fantasy reader already knows the tropes.
What's this mean for the writer? Well, as I learned in the course of my MS in Technical Communication, you can only write to one audience. So you have to decide, are you going to write for casual readers or hardcore ones? Older readers or younger? Academics or non-scholars?
Heck, genres tends to already have audiences (with expectations) built in. Literary fiction assumes readers are college graduates. Fantasy assumes interest in magic, and medieval (sort of) times. Science fiction, mystery, romance, suspense, thrillers, YA, MG ... you get the picture.
My point (long-winded though it was) is that if you try to focus on more than one audience, then your book suffers as a result. For my money, I'm aiming for the science-focused reader with a college/high school education. Whether I pull it off or not is an entirely different story.
What about you? Who is your target audience?
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
On top of this, the Doble Model E could run for 1,500 miles before its 24-gallon water tank needed to be refilled (including in freezing weather), emitted no exhaust because of the included condenser, and didn't need a drive shaft, transmission, or clutch as the engine was incorporated directly into the rear axle.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this is that an 80-year-old unmodified Model E can pass today's stringent emissions standards. The fuel is burned at a high temperature and low pressure, which means that everything's used in the super-efficient flash boiler.
For a video where Jay Leno talks about his 1925 Model E, head over to Jay Leno's Garage. He goes into a lot of technical detail about the operation of the car and Abner Doble himself as well.
DamnInteresting.com talks about the Model E's 1924 road test in New York City:
"At the turn of the key, the boiler lit with a throaty burst reminiscent of a gas furnace, and the gauges began to twitch. The boiler reached its operating pressure inside of forty seconds, and the driver experimentally turned the throttle knob on the steering wheel. With a low hum, the car’s steam engine briskly pushed the vehicle forward with 1,000 foot-pounds of torque, smoothly accelerating the car and its four passengers to forty miles per hour in just just 12.5 seconds. As they drove the test vehicle further, they found that its evenly-distributed weight lent it surprisingly good handling in spite of its great mass. The onlookers were understandably quite impressed. The only notable shortcoming was its mediocre braking performance, but this flaw was eclipsed by its massive, silent power and graceful handling. It seemed that the the Doble brothers were finally following through on their promise of a great steam car."
With all the aforementioned benefits to steam cars, you might be wondering why we're not driving them today. Well, there were two problems: 1) Steam cars were $18,000 a pop in 1924 ($224,805.47 in 2008 dollars), and 2) Abner Doble was a perfectionist who was perpetually tinkering with his vehicles. No two Model Es are precisely alike, and this means that the cars never actually went into production.
The cars do look really cool though, and are easy to drive/describe. For the writer of historical steampunk, you might need only mention the name Doble to create the proper veracity in setting (provided it's the 1920s in your story). For the writer of fantasy steampunk, this solves the problem of where to put the boiler and the exhaust quite nicely (because, you know, there isn't any) .
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
It's no secret how much of it I do. But sometimes there are things you can't find out by research alone. For example: Moriah, the MC in CALLARION AT NIGHT, has fairly substantial anger issues based off her mom disappearing and being "betrayed" by her ex-fiance. If I were doing research on my own, I could probably find several perfectly serviceable psychological disorders to give her as a result of said issues.
There's no guarantee, however, that I'd be able to effectively incorporate those disorders into the story. I have no training at all in psychology, and would probably get quite a bit wrong if I tried to replicate those disorders on my own.
Which is where my friendships with Michelle* and Alice come into play. Both of these ladies have extensive experience with psychological issues -- Michelle majored in psychology in college and Alice works in the field -- and both have graciously agreed to read what I have of the MS so far. My stated intention upon handing the 17 chapters to them was to find where the psychology doesn't make sense and to mark the text up so it does.
It's friendships like those, where you have access to a knowledge base more complete than anything easily found on the Internet, that make the research process go by so much smoother. Why would I bother researching PTSD when I can ask Michelle questions and she immediately comes back with a more detailed (and useful) answer than what I can possibly find?
My friends have experience with computers, law, cars, music, medicine, history (ancient and modern), politics, money, and a host of other topic areas. It's easier to call Mark, my best friend, for a quick computer question than to spend two hours searching. He gives me answers inside of five minutes. Who can beat that?
Therefore, to end this admittedly disjointed post, I propose that fostering these interesting (and diverse) friendships can enhance our abilities to write effective stories. Ones that our friends will enjoy seeing, knowing that they've helped us get there.
At least that's the plan.
* The names have been changed to protect ... well, none of the people mentioned are innocent, per se (they are friends with me after all) ... so probably because I'm not sure how comfortable they'd be with being named online in a public blog post.
Monday, November 9, 2009
I've been saying lately that I'm taking a "break" from writing CALLARION AT NIGHT because the amount of things that have to happen in the back portion (aka the climax/resolution) is forcing me to plan it out ahead of time. Which is true -- I just figured out today how everything's going to wrap up, and it's going to be a doozy if I do it right.
So I started outlining. For the first time.
See where this is going yet?
Let me offer up a mathematical example:
Me + being detail oriented + outlining + the ability to at a glance examine the entire storyline = oh, so far about 13 pages.
Not of the climax/resolution, mind you. I'm not that insane ... sheesh.
The 13-page outline deals with the first nine chapters of the book, which have now ballooned to fifteen chapters as I realized that I was trying to cram too much information into too small of a space. I have 17 chapters currently written (48,579 words) that I'm making myself outline for some God-only-knows-why reason (probably the last portion of the equation before the equals sign).
By now I shouldn't have to tell you what my detail-focused mind is going after. I'm looking at motivations, reactions, the sequence of events, etc and so forth ... all in the name of making the story stronger. Now, this isn't a bad thing. But it's almost as addictive as the writing itself!
Yeah, this is why I haven't done detailed outlines before. Because I knew this was going to happen. Then I read posts advocating outlining as a method of writing, and I figured what the heck? It can't be that bad, right?
How the mighty have fallen.
P.S. Thanks to Stephanie Thornton for the One Lovely Blog Award. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone I'd nominate already has this award, so I'm going to forgo that portion of the process. Take that blogosphere!
Friday, November 6, 2009
"Method acting is a technique in which actors try to engender in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters in an effort to create lifelike performances. It can be contrasted with more classical forms of acting, in which actors simulate thoughts and emotions through external means, such as vocal intonation or facial expression. Though not all Method actors use the same approach, the "method" in Method acting usually refers to the practice by which actors draw upon their own emotions and memories in their portrayals, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and affective memory."
One of my theatre professors once told me that, during a show she directed, an actor's character was supposed to be nearly inconsolable about a death. The way my professor achieved this reaction was by telling the actor to imagine it was her child who died. That may sound kind of extreme, but the performance was spot on as a result.
Yesterday I wrote about writing your character's emotions based on what makes you feel the same way. Method Acting works in a similar fashion. The actors are made to consider the scene: Is your character happy? Angry? Sad? How would your character react to those emotions? Would they stomp away? Rage? Constrict in on themselves? Why would they react this way? What in their past influences their knee-jerk response to this stimulus?
To find this out we interview our characters, consider their reactions in various situations, and do a whole host of other exercises that help us as writers discover the character's methods of coping with all sorts of stress. This information is extremely useful to have, and can help add a level of truthiness (that's for you, Rick) to your character that might not otherwise be there.
But consider what might happen if we apply the theories of Method Acting to the same character. The result is, instead of simply knowing your character really well, you become your character as you're writing them. This has the potential to make for even more emotionally punchy stories, which can only improve your prose.
Just don't become like Daniel Day-Lewis (Wikipedia again):
"Method actors are often characterized as immersing themselves so totally in their characters that they continue to portray them even offstage or off-camera for the duration of a project. However, this is a popular misconception. While some actors, notably Daniel Day-Lewis, have employed this approach, it is generally not taught as part of the Method."
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Now, that doesn't mean literally writing naked. If you do that's fine ... I don't judge. What it does mean is that you're allowing your emotions to show through in your writing. This is, in fact, a state any good writer should strive for in their story.
Why is that? Well, Our Pal In Maine (Stephen King) once said that he writes things that frighten him. That's why his books have gotten progressively darker. As he explores his own fears, fewer and fewer things scare him. So he writes thing darker to frighten himself yet again.
I submit that we should attempt to do the same thing for all our emotions. If we're aiming for our characters to be angry, think about the situation in terms of what would make your own blood boil. If we're aiming for sad, grieving, happy, entertained -- take your pick -- we should try to elicit those emotions in ourselves as we're writing. Otherwise what's the point?
If we can't affect our own feelings, then we will be unable, I feel, to affect the feelings of others. Your thoughts?
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I'm lucky I even found time (read:energy) to write this gem of brevity. But I wanted to make sure I didn't miss a day without letting my faithful readers know in advance.
Oh, and Stephanie? I'd quite enjoy being part of your second round of betas for HATSHEPSUT. I've got a bunch of time to turn around now, seeing as I'm taking a partly willing/partly forced hiatus from CALLARION AT NIGHT (I have to outline the next section before I can write it since so much has to happen in such a short time frame).
So feel free to hit me up for critiquing. The same offer goes out to all my blog buddies, of course.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The difference between UTA and UST is that sexual tension, when included properly, can add flavor to an otherwise flat story. The key phrase here is, of course, "included properly." There are some works (i.e. certain romance novels) which are all about the will they/won't they vacillation, and become overwhelmed with the question from dwelling too much on it.
The kinds of works I prefer (and attempt to write) are the ones where the sexual tension is strong but not the overwhelming driving force behind the story. Does that mean all romance novels are sappy, overwrought vehicles for bored housewives? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Granted, I've read precisely one romance novel in my lifetime (I Thee Wed by Amanda Quick if you're interested), so my knowledge is woefully inadequate.
For my money, UST is best when you can sense it between two characters every time they're "on stage." Think Willie and Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom or Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. Particularly with Ron and Hermione in the later stories, you can sense the depth of feeling between those two characters that leaves you simultaneously joyous and relieved when Hermione up and kisses Ron in the middle of Book 7.
How about your own works? Is there a pair of characters that argue like cats and dogs but have a bond no one can break? Or is romance something you don't really concern yourself with in your writing?
Monday, November 2, 2009
Airships such as zeppelins, hot-air balloons, dirigibles, and blimps, which are collectively known as lighter-than-air aircraft, operate based on the principle of buoyancy. The principles of buoyancy were first described by Archimedes (the genius Greek as I call him), and are also the reason why ships float and submersibles sink.
Now, the three above types of airships are also called rigid (zeppelin), semi-rigid, and nonrigid (blimp). The first manned flight of any airship, though the buoyancy concept is several thousand years old, came about in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers (Joseph and Etienne) flew their hot-air balloon over their hometown of Annonay, France.
According to About.com, the first passengers were a sheep, a goat, and a duck. The history of using animals as test pilots goes back quite a bit, apparently. In October 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes became the first human passengers in the Montgolfiere balloon; the balloon was in free flight during that October journey, meaning that it wasn't tethered to the ground.
Subsequent advances added flaps to control the balloon's flight (Jean Blanchard, 1785), and crafted a silk balloon that was filled with hydrogen gas (Jacques Charles, 1783) instead of the superheated air that filled the Montgolfiere balloon.
Steam power as a method of propulsion and navigation came into play in 1852, when Henri Giffard's dirigible was the first to add the system onto an airship. Giffard's invention flew from Paris to Trappes, a distance of 17 miles, but didn't have enough power to fly against the wind in order to make the return journey.
In 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German count, designed and flew the first successful rigid airships. His designs were so successful that rigid airships are commonly called Zeppelins in his honor. It's these rigid airships that figure strongly into steampunk, sometimes with elaborate designs as seen in the Girl Genius online comic (Castle Wulfenbach) and in other literature in the same genre (Keith Thompson's War Zeppelin).
The above photo is of one of the Zeppelins that were ubiquitous before the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that pretty much ended the commercial use of lighter-than-air aircraft.
Because of this, in fact, one of the easiest ways to show that you're writing steampunk is to include zeppelins zipping across the skylanes or other aerial vessels that aren't airplanes, helicopters, or gliders.
For design considerations, take a look back at the Steam's Limitations Series.
I hope that answered your question, Stephanie. If it didn't, let me know and I'll do another post with some nitty-gritty aerial details.