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!

 

Essextraordinaire IV

I had a great day in great company at the Maldon Museum of Power yesterday at the fourth Steampunk Essextraordinaire!  Hosted by Paul Adams and the League of Essextraordinary Gentlemen, I had the privilege of sharing my work alongside other steampunk authors, performing an interactive reading and spreading the legend of the Steam Highwayman even further afield.

This was a special day for me because exactly a year ago I attended the Essextraordinaire III in faith, with Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade still crowdfunding on Kickstarter.  Without any book to hand I was invited onto the writer’s panel alongside Toby Frost and Jon Green and had the chance to tell everyone about the project.  To return with the book itself – and the promise of a second to come – has given a massive boost to my confidence and self-belief.

Another time I’ll give a write-up of Toby’s work, the Space Captain Smith series, but having bought, read and given the first book away last year, I invested some of my hard-earned takings into a full, signed set of Mr Frost’s comic adventures.  If I’m quiet in the next few days, it’s probably because my head is in a steampunk space helmet fighting the Lemming Men…

The event reminded me how much I enjoy reading from Steam Highwayman and how well it influences my sales at any event.  Honestly I’d say that despite the small audience, I gave one of my most engaging performances – but then the bar was very high, with Helen Bruce of Solstice Storytelling telling her steampunk’d traditional tales and Darren Gooding performing his excellent verse and one-man, three-charactered theatrical extracts.

I even bought a new waistcoat for my costume.  The first one had a lovely orangey colour to contrast with my blue coat, but it was always far too small and my hurried alterations have come apart in the last year…

So I’m fairly confident that I’ll be back in Maldon next September – and already looking forward to it.  How many books will I have on the stall by then?

Illustration Poll 1 Complete

I’m really pleased that so many backers have made time to share their preferences regarding the art of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways.  I’ve just finished a phone conversation with Ben, in which we discussed the results of this poll:

You know by now that I love a graph.  Well, out of the eight options I gave backers (and you can see featurettes of the passages below…) there was a clear winner: everyone wants to see a velosteam chase, with constables astride their Imperial road engines.  Ben and I are both really happy about this: it’ll give him the chance to work with some of the other designs for the velosteam that he created last year.  Will an Imperial velosteam include some of those features?  I’m as excited to find out as you are.

We’re also going ahead on a feature of Captain Coke as our second full-page illustration.  He’s been an intriguing character throughout the writing of the book and I’ve enjoyed inventing him.  To see him take on flesh will be even more interesting…

The other options won’t disappear.  They’ll be developed as other options for illustrating the book, but may turn out as quarter or half-pages, depending on how successful the images seem once Ben’s had a go with them.  As soon as I mentioned punt jousting Ben grabbed a pencil and began to laugh, so I’ve certainly got hopes for that one…