How long is a net of string?

During the last few days of an unexpectedly home-bound halfterm, I’ve been enjoying building the world of Steam Highwayman III. Juvenile gangs, powerful opponents and dangerous criminal allies have all slotted nicely into place. My graph is showing some tiny growth (after a long, long hiatus) and I’ve been able to share a few passage excerpts on Facebook.

But something also possessed me to reload some of the first pieces of Steam Highwayman I ever wrote. Well, specifically, I reinstalled Twine – the interactive fiction software I’ve used this year to collaborate with a game developer on an as-yet unreleased educational title. My current version was somewhat out of date and had stability issues – it kept crashing – and I expect to have to use it again next year.

The reinstalled program discovered some files I thought I had lost: old, unfinished (of course!) versions of what I have since called ‘Twine Highwayman’. I loaded them up and, though incomplete and missing some of the parts I remembered best (like the ability to rob any passing steam carriage and collect jewelry, or the procedural pub menu system), they still showcase some of the original ideas of the project. Some made it through into book format and others didn’t.

I wrote the programming behind Twine Highwayman in Autumn 2016, creating some really crunchy and idiosyncratic code in formats so inefficient and hard to understand that I have since lost the ability to read them. Nonetheless, the core of the game – for it is a game, not a book – still functions. Take a look, if you like.

Twine Highwayman

It was playing Inkle’s 80 Days – something far beyond my ability to emulate – as well as the excellent Fabled Lands Application (since renamed Java Fabled Lands) that inspired me to give this a try. Considering I had zero previous experience of Twine, I don’t think I did badly. But it was the feature creep (a system for automating the weather… and the phase of the moon… and the mood of antagonists…) that killed the project and convinced me to limit my ambition to a good old, paper gamebook. I’d mimic Fabled Lands, that’s what I’d do. I’d keep it simple and achievable. I wouldn’t attempt to surpass my models, just to match them. I definitely wouldn’t write something 50% longer… Oh, well.

A Cover for The Reeking Metropolis

I’m very pleased to share the cover for Steam Highwayman: The Reeking Metropolis. This gorgeous digital painting by Piotr Jamroz takes Ben May’s concept of the Ferguson velosteam and the mysterious, tricorne-wearing hero, and develops it in a darker, more smoky direction, perfectly suiting the atmosphere of the third volume of the adventure.

I discovered Piotr’s online portfolio a short while ago and he expressed a real interest in creating this cover. We spent some time refining the brief and agreeing terms and he set to work with a will. In another post, I’ll write in more detail about the process of editing and refining the cover, but let me say that from Piotr’s very first sketch, I was sure that I had the right artist for the job.

There is a back portion to this cover too, but you’ll have to wait a while before I release the full image…

You’ll probably ask why I have a new artist working on the cover. Sadly, Ben hasn’t had the availability to feel that he could do justice to Steam Highwayman III this year, simply due to his other commitments. Instead of trying to find an artist who might create a perfect style match, I decided that a new look would complement the first two volumes. Piotr’s done that really well.

Three books – one adventure!

I’ll announce dates for the next Kickstarter Campaign soon, when you will be pledge to fund your copy of The Reeking Metropolis, as well as for some other goodies I’ve been preparing. If you’re worried about missing the boat, simply subscribe to my blog here or like the Steam Highwayman page on facebook. So, until then, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

On the Ground, in the Air

This morning I completed a series of passages that allow you to ambush the vehicles of the Atmospheric Union. An early start, kicked off by the glorious sunshine streaming into our flat, meant that I managed to increase my passage count despite it being a busy school day. On Thursdays I travel to Islington for some regular supply work in a Primary School, follow that with an after-school club based on Native American crafts and stories and then often tutor GCSE English in the evening.

So it’s really nice to disrupt the pattern with a few ambushes.

The Union are one of the larger factions in the world of Steam Highwayman. They play quite a large role in Highways and Holloways, in which you can take work aboard one of their craft or rob them in the skies. In The Reeking Metropolis they have a main landing field at Parliament Hill and there’s a good chance of meeting their supply vehicles or passenger transport carriages on the roads around London – particularly if you have a telescope.

Put this all together with my modular event designs and you can stop their carriages using several of your talents, rifle their supplies or rob their passengers, fight their officers and even, if you come prepared, blow up their immobilised engines. Why you might want to do that, I haven’t quite defined yet, but it’s probably something to do with inter-Guild rivalries.

The image heading this post is a rendering by deviantart user awiz that I found some time ago. Airships of the sort that are fun for my narrative are not particularly realistic, but this design has created something relatively original and it certainly appeals to me. The high-class promenade deck and banded funnels resemble something out of 80 Days, although all of their steampunk vehicles are pictured in silhouette.

Another appealing set of airship designs come from the Kickstarted comic series, Skies of Fire.These have a dieselpunk-steampunk look and the writers have spent a huge amount of time on their world-building, which I respect. Although I love a tight, balanced narrative, I suspect I’m really a world-builder at heart, but maybe Steam Highwayman has already told you that!

SH3 Progress

You know I love a graph. Here’s my interactive record of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis as a draft. I have to track which sections are reserved or complete – or partially complete – on my spreadsheet as I go along, so graphing it is a natural development. Maybe it’s procrastination too.

The graph will be live on this post, also on the new SH3 page on this site, which at the moment looks pretty bare.

I’m hoping to finish a draft by the end of the summer. And that will probably be 1500-200 passages in length.

If you’re interested to see what other sorts of things I write, I posted a sci-fi short story earlier, set on the moon. I wrote it a few months ago and I’m pretty pleased with it.

A Child of the Jago

Now that my gin is bottled, I’ve been putting in some time sketching passages 301-400 of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. Like with the two previous volumes, I began by laying down a web of interlinked location passages. This portion represents the east central portion of the map: Bethnal Green, Shadwell, Whitechapel and Shoreditch.

There is so much to write here in an alternate, steamed-up East End. Body-snatching, sweat shops, front-room industry, the London Docks… and the slums.

Shoreditch has a big hole in it in 1894…

My usual map of recourse has an interesting gap just here: take a look. And hereby hangs a tale.

In 1896, a now-forgotten novelist called Arthur Morrison published an angry and brutally honest story called A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional slum based very closely on streets immediately adjacent to Old Nichol Street in Shoreditch. It follows the fortunes of Dicky Perrott, who scrapes through childhood and into a criminal survivalism that seemed unbelievable to polite readers of the day. This was at the end of the Victorian period, when the bad old days were meant to have been left behind. But they hadn’t been.

The text is available online and it makes tough reading. I don’t find it over sentimental or graphic – just frank. Morrison was trying to rub his reader’s noses in the reality of desperate poverty just streets away from their own lives, much in the way that we see independent documentary makers nowadays. But one result is that it really prevents me from being too sentimental or simplistic about the depiction of the poor in my own gamebook. There’s no way I can do justice to those realities in the little passages I use, but at least I hope to avoid cartoon poverty.

The Old Nichol – marked by black and dark blue housing

If you go looking online, you may find that there is a Covent Garden tailor that uses the name of Morrison’s book, which I find really quite distasteful, as I don’t think a romanticisation of the criminal dandies implicit in the clothing on sale is at all helpful. Or you may find one of the little maps that show the location of the Old Nichol. It was located on one edition of Booth’s Poverty Map, but by the publication of the more widely available edition, the Old Nichol had been cleared and replaced with social housing… that the original inhabitants could not afford, displacing them to other slums and destroying what community they had. Plus ca change, eh?

After the slum clearance

One more little detail: do you notice the thick red lines on the left? Shoreditch High Street. Up the top, St Leonard’s Church, whose bells say ‘When I grow rich…’ in the East End rhyme Oranges and Lemons. That’s a interesting place in itself, as the burial place of Shakespeare’s business partner and fellow actor, Richard Burbage. But you might recognise it as St Saviour’s from Rev, in which Tom Hollander did his best to minister to a desperately poor inner-city parish.

Rev.

Shoreditch is entirely different nowadays, though, isn’t it? Hipsters and hamburgers and cold-press coffee and cycle shops. Well, to be honest, I think there’s still a lot of hidden needs and poverty in Shoreditch. It’s enough to make me wonder what the unseen, spiritual dimension is behind all of these stories. There’s something desperate there.

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.

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.

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.

Changing the World

I’ve been busy writing a new book: Write Your Own Adventure – Using Choice-Based Fiction in Schools.  It’s intended to be a teaching resource for educators who want to use the power of choice-based adventure stories to create a strong writing culture in their classes, to engage uninterested writers and to broaden children’s experience of writing.

And to change the world.

Maybe not all at once, but incrementally, in the same way that Dave Lowery changed the world when he taught me and my classmates how to write Choose-Your-Own-Adventures at Lynncroft Primary School in 1995.  Without his work, there would be no Steam Highwayman, no Words and Ideas nor any Mr Noutch in any of the schools I’ve taught in.

Teaching is a strange profession and at times it can be disappointing to see how pedestrian and predictable teachers are in their methods and philosophy.  I think this is essentially due to many of them reproducing their own schooling, which accounts for the inherent conservatism of the educational system as a whole.  But, wild-eyed and visionary though I am to many of my colleagues, I’m only trying to build a tower on a foundation that was laid in my own childhood.

Have you read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed?  I think that’s largely to blame for my readiness to accept the responsibility, as a teacher, of changing the world by educating a new generation with a new set of values and interests – not just skills or knowledge.  It’s something I’ve played with exploring in fiction elsewhere in my Teacher on Mars novel – unfinished, obviously, or you’d see a banner atop this website urging you to go buy it online and in your local sci-fi section.

But I wish I heard more stories of teachers unafraid to do something different and to actively shape their students’ futures, rather than satisfy themselves doing a job and fulfilling someone else’s requirements, so I guess that producing this book is another part of that.

Finished date?  I’m aiming to have it done by Christmas.  Buy it for the Literacy Coordinator in your life.

Three days to go!

Three days to go on Steam Highwayman II Kickstarter!  The campaign is almost complete and has been a great development from last year’s campaign.  As I wrote previously, the project has now moved on to be mainly supported by readers and would-be-readers of the gamebook.  I still count a few faithful friends and family members amongst the 188 backers to date, but in fact I’m now making new friends through the readers of Steam Highwayman.  Gamebook collectors and enthusiasts like Ben Roberts, who seems to have developed a strange idea that the Steam Highwayman is really a gourmet in search of the perfect pork pie, and Stuart Lloyd, a critic, writer and fellow tutor who always provokes me to think about the boundaries between learning and play.  Then there’s Dave Morris, who twelve months ago was a distant and admired hero, but has now become a faithful supporter of the Steam Highwayman project, and Jon Ingold, whose 80 Days did so much to inspire me to get on and produce a text adventure.  At the Suffolk Steampunk Spectacular, hosted by the Long Shop Museum at Leiston, I was greeted by Dean Allen Jones, already familiar with my work and keen to buy another copy, having given his first away to a hungry nephew.

And that’s not all.  Do you like an occasional graph?  I like an occasional graph, but not too late in the evening as they keep me awake.  This colourful little google-powered histogram shows how the backers of The Return of Steam Highwayman are distributed around the world!  I’m looking forward to the completion so that, once I gather addresses, I can make myself a shaded world map (again, google-powered), but even now I am enthralled by the beauty of distribution.  If you’re canny, you’ll be able to identify your place in one of these bright bars: Ben Roberts, backer #1, you’ll be at the foot of the long blue one…

I did try creating a scattergraph which correlated repeat backer’s SH2 campaign backer number with their SH1 campaign backer number, just to see what sort of result I’d get.  Mark Lain managed to bag spot number 5 both times, which I know tickled us both, but otherwise there was no sort of pattern at all.  But that’s why you whack data into a graph, isn’t it?  To interpret bare facts into something for those visual processors we have.  I’ve always been a thinking-by-drawing sort of person – making maps, plans and designs was my idea of fun from childhood and if I could get away with doing it full time, you bet I would.

Enough rambling.  A big thanks to everyone who has joined the project in the last few weeks – you’re very welcome and I really look forward to getting to know you better as the books keep coming…