Corsets and Other Creative Constraints

As part of the marketing plan I proposed for my contribution to Once Upon a Clockwork Tale, I’m planning on going to a few relevant conventions and conferences over the next couple of years. I figure, this year, I’ll attend as a “scout” and next year, once the book is out, I’ll attend as an author.

At any rate, I have to admit that part of what drew me to steampunk as a fiction genre is my fascination with real world steampunk costumery and subculture.  My deep love of dress-up and make-believe is why Halloween is my favorite non-religious holiday. (Which is sort of an oxymoron, since “holiday” means literally “holy day”… but I digress.) So the prospect of having a halfway reasonable excuse to buy and/or make and a steampunk outfit and wear it at a convention has me rubbing my hands in gleeful anticipation.

corsetWhich brings me to corsets. I can (and have) made pretty impressive period skirts, vests and blouses. Once you’ve done a Renaissance outfit, Victorian is not that hard. But a corset, which seems like it’s an essential piece of any steampunk costume, is probably beyond my ability as a seamstress to fabricate, unless I’m going to enlist my retired dad for his sheet metal fabrication skillz, and I have a feeling that may be a conversation I just don’t want to have.

So I’ve been scouting them out online. As a result, the Facebook ads I get lately are… somewhat interesting. And I expect the spomments on this post will rain down like a monsoon just for mentioning them. Apparently, corsets are “essential equipment” in more than one subculture, and most of the others are not PG-13.

Which makes me think of one of my favorite definitions of steampunk: “Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.”

I laughed the first time I read that. My everyday wardrobe has an awful lot of brown in it already.

When I showed Chris a picture of the corset I’d most like to have, his reaction was mixed. I think his tremendous enthusiasm for seeing me in it was greatly tempered by the idea of me leaving the house and other men seeing me in it.

Which to me, seems odd because isn’t a corset really just a fancy girdle you wear on the outside of your clothes? Girdles != sexy. Trust me on this. And the ones I’m looking at go over the bust, and would be worn with a blouse. Maybe it’s not so much a matter of what’s being revealed as it is how what you’ve got is being presented.

At any rate, the idea of a corset makes me think back to the story I just wrote. Not just because a lot of the female characters wear corsets, (it is a steampunk fairy tale, after all) but because a corset is a constraint.  It’s job is mainly to keep your body within a prescribed shape. When it comes to writing, one valuable thing I’ve learned from both the marketing copywriting I’ve done, and writing Bitter Cold, is that I do my best work when there are plenty of firm creative constraints.

Since I already had a publishing agreement before I started writing Bitter Cold, I had a specific word count range it needed to fit in.  It needed to be appropriate for a young adult audience.  It had to follow the general plot of a specific traditional fairy tale, and ideally contain enough elements from that fairy tale to be recognizable. It had to contain enough steampunk elements to feel like a solid steampunk story.

In advertising, your constraints often come in the form of “mandatories.” Mandatories are elements that must be included, either for legal compliance or brand compliance or to comply with the requirements of the creative brief.

Like a corset, creative constraints give shape to your writing.  They set the boundaries, and boundaries can be invaluable in writing.  At our last Quills & Quibbles meeting, we discussed research and also writing descriptions. For both of these elements, one big question everyone wrestled with was “How do you know when to stop?”  How do you know what’s enough research? How do you know what’s enough description?

With Bitter Cold, (and with most of my copywriting, for that matter) I had a deadline that prescribed how much time I could devote to research (not a lot.) I had a word count that prescribed how much description I could fit in, considering I also needed to work in plot, characterization, world building, etc.  So my creative constraints created solid boundaries for the work. When you have boundaries or limits, then all you really have to work on are proportions.  Which is much easier.

Personally, my imagination works better on problem solving than it does invention purely for the sake of invention. Creative constraints create problems to solve.  What about you, reader friends? What wakes up your creative energy best? A blank, wide open canvas, or a set of questions or problems that need answers?


  1. ·

    I look forward to sharing a book cover with you, and reading your fairy tale contribution. 🙂

    Robin Dunn

    1. Kat French

      Hey! Nice to jear from you. I’m looking forward to it, too. Ella Grey and I have been chatting a bit on Twitter.


  2. ·

    I have to have some parameters to get me interested in doing something creatively. Since my artistic expression most often takes place in the kitchen, my creative process often revolves around a particular ingredient, technique, or flavor pairing. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to present something that has a certain look.

    The idea of knowing when great becomes the enemy of of good is a common one, too. I could add a touch more butter, or try hemp oil instead, or see if a flax seed emulsion works just as well. Or I could accept the dish as it is and simply enjoy it.

  3. Kat French

    Charles, your reply makes me think of Iron Chef. 🙂 “The mystery ingredient is…[drumroll] OCTOPUS!”

    I agree that having a specific “assignment” is helpful, especially when it comes to getting started. And my desire to go ahead and EAT would tend to make me probably opt for the “go ahead and enjoy it” option a lot.


  4. ·

    I do better if I have some constraints, at least to begin with. I might spin off somewhere else, but I have to have something to stand on or I can’t start spinning. 🙂


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