Feed those birds, Steam Highwayman

Smell the oil, the coal-gas and the hot metal once more: the Steam Highwayman is heading for the Reeking Metropolis itself – London.

I’ve been working on the navigational network that underlies Steam Highwayman III. I drafted a map and began on numbering it some time before Christmas, but now I’ve started the dog-work of creating the passages and links that tie all that movement together. Creating an explorable city is very different to adapting the country lanes and villages of Buckinghamshire for a map. Some areas need to feel like dense networks of streets, but I don’t want the reader’s journey through them to feel slow or boring, so there have to be some short-cuts, timesavers and asymmetrical routes to keep the movement interesting.

I’m using the excellent National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced archive of OS maps that I’ve blogged about previously, but I’m imagining some differences due to the departure point c.1785. For a start, ‘Regent’s’ Park is right out. Queen Maria’s Park seems a better fit for this timeline.

But what these maps really offer is the detailed alternate world of a London that has almost disappeared. Mews, old watercourses, slums and old bridges… The site of the London stocks (that’ll come in handy) and old Devonshire House…

Some of it is unchanged, of course. So as I was detailing a movement along Upper Thames Street from London Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge, not only did I realise that I should include a quest engaging with the Royal College of Arms, but that I also needed to give St Paul’s its place.

There’s only one melody that says ‘St Paul’s Cathedral’ to me. Not ‘Zadok the Priest’, not even ‘Jerusalem’, but the Sherman brothers’ ‘Feed the Birds‘.

Now what sort of self-respecting Steampunk would miss the chance to check on that old birdwoman and buy a bag full of crumbs?

Well, at this rate it’s going to be a long, detailed and intensely-researched book.

Great.

How Many Books?

Since the publication of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, on 31st December 2017, I have sold 644 books. In some ways, that’s not a large number. From other angles, it’s still really quite a small number. Approximately two-thirds of these are copies of Smog and Ambuscade, another third Highways and Holloways and I’ve sold a total of just sixteen copies of Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.

But there’s something unique about selling books in the age of print-on-demand. Take SH1 (Smog and Ambuscade)‘s sales during 2018. I sent backers 197 copies as rewards for my first Kickstarter campaign in 2017: I know the names of every one of these readers. Then I sold another 68 copies through face-to-face sales at events or meetings: these customers, too, are known to me. 68 more were sold online, and these I know less about – only the country in which they were sold by the distributor, Ingram – the UK, US or Australia. They could have been ordered by bookshops at retailer’s discount and still be standing on the shelves (unlikely), ordered through Amazon (although Amazon’s reports for SH1 only account for around 40% of this number) or ordered through other online bookshops or dealers. Then another 70 copies were pledged for during the SH2 campaign in Autumn 2018 – again, to named, interested readers.

Volume is small, and so is my profit. Booksales have made me around £350 in total to date, as the larger amounts pledged for Kickstarter campaigns are absorbed by the costs of working with an illustrator and publishing the book. My intention is to create what publishers call a long-tail product – a book that does not go out of fashion and continues to sell steadily for years. In fact, I do hope that online and face-to-face sales of Steam Highwayman will increase. At 1000 copies a month, I would need no other income……..

But instead of volume, what I have is connection. I have good estimates of how many of my backers pledged primarily to support me and how many have actually begun to read the books. I have received good, personal responses from interested gamebook readers and writers, steampunks and readers that directly improve my ongoing project. The numbers are still very small, but behind most of those numbers is a name and behind many of those names is a face. Very few authors or publishers can boast that they know their readership as I do.

I would love to see my books going further afield and I’d love to earn more from them, but a good proportion of the current situation is a result of my own choices about how to play this game of authorship. I could have hunted for a publisher for SH1 – and I’d certainly still be looking. I could have looked for an agent – and I don’t know where I would have begun. I could have started with ‘normal’ book – a novel – and I still wouldn’t have completed writing and perfecting it. What Steam Highwayman has done for me is to allow me to become an author in miniature. Now all I have to wait for is for reality to catch up!

If you’re writing, don’t give up. Persistence works. Find an outlet that allows you to succeed, not to mimic other writers of the past or the present. You won’t be Pratchett, or Rowling, or Dickens, but each one of those had to persist and to play the long game…

A Birdin the Hand…

Is worth two in the bush. And here, at last, but not behind schedule, is the first printed copy of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways (featured alongside its sister volume and our family Christmas tree.)

It feels wonderful to have this hefty chunk of book in my hand after seeing it in my mind’s eye and on the screen for the best part of nine months. Thankyou to everyone who pledged towards the project, allowing me to commission this fantastic artwork from Ben and pay for the much-needed proofing and so on. I’ll be checking this book as carefully as I can before excitement gets the better of me and I ship the backers copies. Then the book will be live on Amazon too – and in fact, I already have pre-orders to fulfil!

Dragonmeet was a real adventure for me. I had a great time crossing paths with several increasingly familiar faces from the Gamebook community – Mark Lain, Colin Oaten, Jon Green and Stuart Lloyd among them. I also made a new friend in fellow author, David Cartwright of Camelot 2050, with whom I shared a table. If you, like him, want something to fill the space where Arthurian legend should meet saturday-morning science-fiction, then check out his two novels – a third is promised for March.

It was tiring day, I’ll not deny. I hit a new high on step-counter… But I was particularly encouraged by the interest in my WYOA book and took several pre-orders for that, which have now been ordered. There were even a couple of orders for SH2, which will be shipped after the backers’ copies.

So where next? Nottingham – the richest plum of them all (as King John would say). Next weekend (8th-9th) I’ll be featuring at the Steampunkalia at Wollaton Hall with live readings after 3pm on Saturday and around noon on Sunday. And this time I’ll have a hard copy of SH2 to show…

Where is the Steam Highwayman now?

Well right now he’s at home. But this time next week…

Hammersmith! Dragonmeet! Convention! Sales and signings! I’m hoping to be there somewhere, along with veteran gamebook authors Jonathan Green and Ian Livingstone. Not been told which stall I’ll hold yet, but here you can download a whole programme to guide you round. Some more info here too:

Anyone else be there?

Maps

I’ve written before about how Steam Highwayman I and II are both based on Ordnance Survey Maps in the Explorer series – specifically OSE 171 and OSE 172 But in fact these are more than just inspiration. The nature of Steam Highwayman as an open-world gamebook, like Fabled Lands before it, depends on having a network of locations and routes between them on which to string the various encounters. Once I had decided which towns, villages and locations I wanted to feature, I then drew these out onto a simplified map and began allocating pages. These first two books are really built around these maps.

While I was writing Highways and Holloways I went looking for older maps to complement my plotting. Did you know that the Library of Scotland has a searchable database of old maps available online? Well, it does and it’s amazing. It’s amazing.  Here it is: https://maps.nls.uk

For example, here’s a shot of Marlow in 1897 – a bit late for Steam Highwayman, but fascinatingly Victorian and basic.  Compare it with the modern satellite image beneath.  The difference isn’t massive – in fact, if you visit Marlow, you can feel a bit like you’ve travelled in time.  There’s more development to the west, but very few buildings have been replaced.

Old Marlow – 1897

New Marlow – 2018

But now look at London.  Steam Highwayman III will be set in central London, and nowhere has changed in the past hundred years more than the city of London.  The alleys and garrets and markets and old churches and tunnels and tenements…  Oh wow.  Much more exciting than the ridiculous post-modern glass and sliced-granite banks that occupy an entire block.

Old City of London – 1893

New City of London – 2018

Now Steam Highwayman isn’t set in a real past – but it’s purposefully set in a realistic past.  My conceit is that I can take a England that was real in around 1785 – when Prince George married Maria Fitzherbert, if you want to know – and imagine a similar but parallel historical development from that point.  This is called the ‘departure point’ in the study of allohistory, or alternate history, which is really a sub-genre of science fiction or speculative fiction.

So having maps that strip back England to a pre-electric age, before urban sprawl and before the petrol engine, doesn’t have to restrict me but can inspire me.  When I made the first Steam Highwayman map I began by taking the map of Marlow and the surroundings and removing all the A roads and motorways, imagining that the highways and holloways and tollroads became more important, rather than being superseded by carriageways that crush and swerve and…  Well, perhaps you get the idea that I am quite an old-fasioned sort when it comes to roads.  In this respect, Steam Highwayman is my fantasy about an older, slower, kinder England with no bypasses.

And the old maps of the National Library of Scotland do the whole job for me- with a pleasing sepia tone.  Go on – see if your house was built in 1897.  The London maps come down to an amazing scale, at which the owners of businesses and even houses are named.  Incredible.

The Beers of Steam Highwayman

So I really quite like beer.  I never drank beer at all until I went to university and there, rather than being exposed to a binge-drinking culture, I found myself among people with a broad taste and an appreciation for all types of alcoholic drinks in moderation.  Before our matriculation dinner (joining the college) we were served a champagne – my first taste – and afterwards, dessert wine, which made something of an impression on me.

But beer was drunk in the college bar.  And I’ll admit that I drank relatively little beer in college.  But there were times and places when it was clearly the best thing to drink – or so my reading told me.  After a long summer’s walk up the Cam to Grantchester, a pint of beer was appropriate, and so I found that I began to enjoy a pint or two in the context of visits to country pubs, outdoor exercise and good company.  Our student expeditions to the Norfolk Coast – simply to get out of the Cambridge Bubble – would each be completed with a drink in the pub too.  Adnams brewery became my benchmark: if Adnams brewed it, I was almost guaranteed to enjoy it, and I used to particularly enjoy any excuse to the Castle, near Magdalene Bridge, when back in Cambridge, because they served Adnams beers too.

On moving to Marlow I was spoilt for excellent beer and excellent pubs.  Of course that’s where much of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade was dreamt up.  I also gave brewing my own beers a go, using canned kits from Wilkos in High Wycombe, and had some satisfying results.  The Marlow Waitrose had an excellent selection of bottled beers and I found another Suffolk brewery I could rely on: St Peter’s in Bungay.

Now I could write at real length about my beer experiences and preferences – of course, there are magazines of people doing just that all over the world.  But essentially I’m reflecting on the fact that just like my exploration of Steam Highwayman country is based on my real experience of the hills and woods around Marlow, so my inclusion of the pubs and the beers is based in fact.  A few of the drinking experiences are modelled on specific beers I’ve drunk, some of which remain clearly in my memory and the flavour of which I can recall to my mind’s nose at will.  Others are inventions or based on beers I’d like to exist, but don’t yet.

There’s plenty more space for beer in books 3-6 and I’ll unfortunately have to do some research in the coming months to do justice to them.  Sitting on my dresser at the moment, still undrunk, is an intriguing bottle of St Peter’s Plum Porter.  I have found fruit-flavoured beers over-sweet for my palate in the past, but I’ve got high hopes for this one.  Maybe it’s the Suffolk water they have underneath St Peter’s hall that keeps me coming back to try these amusingly old-fashioned bottles of treasure.  Well, look out for a Plum Porter featured in The Reeking Metropolis and you’ll know whether I liked it or not.

Highways and Holloways nearly finished

Let’s have a few stats about Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways.

  • 1517 passages
  • 270 pages
  • 40+ unique illustrations
  • 80 codewords
  • 49 fights
  • 174 skill checks
  • Lots of beer
  • 6 croquet hoops

I’ve been putting time into formatting the pages over the last few days.  This is a tricky and laborious process, because the column layout that allows me to fit an average of 6 passages on each page is easily upset.  When passages leave ‘widows’ or ‘orphans’ – the small lines of text separated from the main body of their text – it produces an ugly page and, more frustratingly, a confusing one.  This means that each column on each page has to be vertically aligned manually, and I haven’t been able to do this until Ben’s recent submission of the inter-textual vignette illustrations.

However, since they have all been finished I’ve been plugging them in and tweaking the column lengths.  This can also include tiny pieces of editing and re-writing to add or remove a line here and there.

I’ve also had a recommendation from a backer to make the passage numbers stand out a little more.  After experimenting with a few methods and taking some advice, I’ve settled for the nice decorative flourishes – two standard Wingdings characters – that you can see on this sample page.  I think this helps and looks smart too.  There was also a suggestion of adding a number to the top of the page indicating which passages are there to help with locating them when moving between the book, but I haven’t been able to find a way of doing this that doesn’t significantly add to the page count.  A small header might seem like a little thing to add, but the body text is already close to the margins dictated by the printers, and keeping legibility is my priority.

So this is what the internal pages are currently looking like.  I hope, like me, you feel it is an improvement.  It does give me a few longer-term ideas about design and illustration, but I’ll save those for The Reeking Metropolis.

Couldn’t Get to Manticon…

This made my day.  Over on the facebook Fabled Lands page, Dave Morris posted a link to two videos taken at MantiCon, the German role-playing and fantasy convention, earlier this summer.  The first features Jamie Thomson and Paul Mason and Dave discussing role-playing games and it’s jolly interesting.  The second, embedded below, is a longer video in which they discuss the various gamebooks they have written and even some more recent ones they have read.

Including, at 1:11:49 onwards, Mr Morris’s interesting response to Steam Highwayman.

[Steam Highwayman]is very rich and I look at something like that and think, it’s great because it’s obviously based on Fabled Lands… but now I can learn from him.

The rest of the discussion is very interesting to a gamebook enthusiast and includes some great anecdotes of the golden age (the first golden age?) of gamebooks.  If you end up having a listen, let me know what you think.

‘Noutch’ isn’t a common surname by any measurement, so I won’t bother him for rhyming it with ‘pooch’ instead of ‘pouch’.

A Thing in Tring – Gamesfest Report

Tring is one of those little market towns you see on a map – one of hundreds across England – that might never attract a visit in its own right.  A funny name, an old church, a bit of twentieth-century expansion, a victorian satellite railway hamlet with a hotel two miles down the road, a nearby canal.

England.

Steam Highwayman country.

My country.

But Tring also hosts the annual Gamesfest, attracting hobbyists and role-players from London and the Home Counties.  And this year, the Steam Highwayman made an appearance too.

It was a very pleasant day, introducing hardened DnDers to a solo, steampunk roleplaying experience, spending time with some faithful backers, including Colin Oaten, SH2 Backer 12, who lost himself in the proofing version of SH2 for over an hour, preying on the locobuses near Woodcote and failing to smooth-talk his way into Wallingford.  I also met – in the flesh – several members of the gamebook community, including Sam Iacob, author of the Sword of the Bastard Elf and Scott Lloyd of Gamebooks himself.

But perhaps the highlight of the day was when two boys, Sam and his friend Shaun, aged 10 and 13 respectively, wandered in with their step-dad in the misguided hope of finding some X-Box gaming.  Initial disappointment gave way to the enchantment of first-time gamebook experiences.  In they dived, rolling to fight their duels, snatching coins from pleading nobility, upgrading their velosteam.  I guided them in to begin with and them left them playing.  After forty minutes, Sam looked up.  “Can we buy this?” he asked.

It wasn’t the sale that excited me as much as knowing I’d passed something on.  Passing the book over in a bag, I asked them how they’d be spending the rest of the day.  “Reading this,” they both answered.

Where will it lead?  Will they get bored, tired of the mental energy it requires to imagine and read, leaving the book closed in a pile before the week is out?  Or will they press on, pursuing and adventure and gaining an education in choice-based fiction in the process?  Will I hear from you again, Sam and Shaun?

And that wasn’t all.  I also had an unexpected visitor – a distant cousin – another Nou(t)ch who had hunted me down and dropped in to introduce himself, handing me a scroll of part of our family tree just like a quest-giving shady figure in Pirates! Gold.

I’m finalising my other events coming up – it looks like it should be December when I’ll next have the chance to lay out my wares – and busy with Write Your Own Adventure, but I’ll be back in Tring, for sure.

Where next? Gamesfest!

A short while ago I was asked by fellow gamebook enthusiast Lloyd of Gamebooks whether I would be attending Gamesfest or Dragonmeet this year…  And after a little rustling around, it looks like I’ll be at both!  I’m keen to share Steam Highwayman with game enthusiasts as well as steampunk, so friendly and welcoming events like these seem just the place.  I have been organising and hope to perform an interactive reading at Gamesfest, so if you’ll be attending, please let me know so that I can include you!  I’ll also be posting a write-up here in a couple of weeks.

My currently booked event schedule for Steam Highwayman appearances and sales looks like this:

  • 20th October – Gamesfest, Tring
  • 1st December – Dragonmeet, Hammersmith
  • 8-9th December – Steampunkalia, Nottingham

If there’s an event you know of – particularly during November – that you think would be improved by the sudden and terrifying appearance of the Steam Highwayman, please suggest away!