Inspiring Illustration

It’s only four days until the Steam Highwayman III Kickstarter Campaign launches and I’ve a question for you: what does Steampunk London look like?

It’s not a simple question: there are as many different definitions of steampunk is as there are steampunks – plus a few more. Then, the way this idea translates to the hypothetical, allohistorical building of a city as iconic as London could be interpreted in as many ways. For Steam Highwayman, set in something like our 1860s but following countless minor (and a few major) divergences, that means I fancy a heavily realist steampunk – Marco Omnigamer called it a ‘light fantasy’ and wished for a few more aliens and mad scientists. This is largely because of my original inspiration born from Keith Roberts’ Pavane, but also due to some of the tools I’ve used since then to help build my world, chief among them the historical OS maps available through the National Library of Scotland.

With this in mind, I’ve been keen to push some of the more fantastic elements of my world, so working and talking with Russ has been a great shove. I have to make real effort to prevent my adventures becoming too mundane and realistic – a recent criticism I’m mulling over – so I don’t want the illustrations for Steam Highwayman III to have the same problem.

So what do you think the Steam Highwayman’s London looks like? One faithful backer recently sent me a collection of images and suggestions, expressing exactly this. We discussed the problem of the cliche of steampunk London, which uses buildings like ‘Big Ben’ (the Victoria Tower) and Tower Bridge as international shorthand for London, irrespective of the sense of them appearing in an alternate timeline. Neither have been – or will be – built in the Steam Highwayman’s world, but St Paul’s cathedral has been, so that can stay on the skyline. Maybe a world with less dominant railways might not build the Midland Hotel… but perhaps a similar building was built for other purposes? Are there other architectural landmarks that you think should feature in the illustrations? Let me know and some of them may well end up, thanks to Russ, in the book.

Oh, and steampunk buildings definitely doesn’t mean taking existing buildings and sticking cogs on the roof.

Steam Highwayman III Reward Pledges

In just over a week, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis will go live on Kickstarter. It’s taken a long time to plan this campaign, partly because I’ve chosen to add some merchandise into the equation, as well as offering two ways in which Backers can see themselves in the finished book.

The basic pledge is exactly like in my previous campaigns; for £15, backers can receive a copy of the gamebook with a written acknowledgement printed in the back. This is a little cheaper than the RRP and, of course, you’ll know that you helped create this. If you’re looking for extras, I’ve been working on custom dice, as well as beginning to redraw the maps from Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways. These will be printed, large (at around A2 size) and folded, together with a small booklet of further regional info, much like an OS map. For £30 you will be able to receive the book, three maps (one for each volume) and two custom D6.

If you don’t yet own your own copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways, or if you’d like to make a pledge as a gift for someone, you can also have all three books at a considerable saving, with or without the maps and dice.

However, for an additional cost of £10 for one book or £20 for three, you can have a custom Wanted Poster printed into the front of your book. This is made possible by the power of print-on-demand, and your books will be completely unique – these will be true one-offs. The extra pledge will pay for the additional printing cost and contribute towards the rest of the project. You will be able to submit a digital image of yourself (perhaps a photo in costume, or even in everyday clothes) that I will edit into the poster, and this will be the first thing you see when you open your copy of The Reeking Metropolis.

Finally, there is a limited and exclusive opportunity to be drawn into the book itself, featuring as a character in one of the illustrations. This is going to be limited to only 5 backers, since it impacts directly on Russ’s timeline and on the whole budget. But it’s something I’ve wanted to offer for years! As part of your pledge, you’ll receive each book, customised with a Wanted Poster, the three maps, dice and an art print of your illustration for your wall. After all, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

If you’re not currently following the Kickstarter, head over there now. You’ll be reminded on launch and get a chance to pledge for your reward straight away.

Two Weeks to Launch

It’s only two weeks until the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis goes live! In 14 day’s I’ll be sitting here at my laptop, excitedly watching as old friends reappear and new backers (I hope!) discover the joy of adventure as a free-spirited Steampunk hero.

Kickstarter is always changing, and one new feature is the ability to watch upcoming projects! With this in mind, I’m very happy to share the link for the campaign. If you choose, you can be notified the moment the project goes live (currently scheduled for 7pm GMT, 23rd January), and you’ll have the best chance of bagging one of the strictly limited reward levels… I’ve had to limit the number of draw-ins (when a backer can be drawn into the illustration) after talking with Russ.

Russ and I have been enjoying our recent preparing for the interior illustration. If you’re interested to see some of the references we’ve been discussing, you could do far worse than to take a look at his Gallery Website – particularly this post which features lots of gamebook art from the 90s and the images I’m reposting below.

These have a real moody Victorian flavour – just what I’m looking for, for The Reeking Metropolis. This won’t be an exact example of what will be inside Steam Highwayman III, but they were some of the images Russ shared with me when expressing interest in the job. Do explore his site some more and enjoy his fabulous world-building which so complements the series he has illustrated.

Next week I’ll be providing some sneak previews of the rewards and backer levels I’ll be offering – so don’t go far! Remember – YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

Russ. Nicholson.

Who draws the Steam Highwayman? Well, for The Reeking Metropolis, I’m incredibly pleased to announce that Russ Nicholson will be illustrating our hero astride the Ferguson riding through the fog and murk of Steampunk London.

If you’ve been a member of the gamebook community for any length of time, you’ll know Russ. Not only did he draw Fabled Lands, my own inspiration for Steam Highwayman, but he drew the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In recent years he’s collaborated with gamebook author Jonathan Green, to complete the excellent Beowulf Beastslayer – which I whole-heartedly recommend, both here and in my Amazon review – and drawn the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King’s domain.

Russ reached out to me after seeing my online posts about seeking a new illustrator and expressed real excitement and interest in the Steam Highwayman project. The prospect of including his artwork within the my third book, as well as in the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, excites me enormously – as I hope it does you too.

This all adds considerably to the excitement of being able to offer original art and draw-in features as rewards for the SH3 Kickstarter. If you haven’t added your ideas to the reward survey, please let me know what you’d like to receive. So far there have been a few stand-out choices: lots of people are excited by the idea of large, printed maps and customised dice. More of this soon, but for now I’ll be continuing to refine and plan the Kickstarter campaign, as well as to write the second half of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The campaign is currently scheduled for 23rd January – 22nd February and you’ll be able to pledge your support and choose a reward very soon.

But back to the illustration. What I’ve always loved about Russ’s work is his atmosphere: whether illustrating monsters in dripping caverns or smugglers beneath a glowing moon, he has a way of creating a scene that you can return to again and again, to breathe in the salt spray or the reek or the smoke. Here’s one of my favourites from Cities of Gold and Glory (Fabled Lands II).

What I love about this is the depth of space, the scale of the natural world – something I think Russ really excels in – and the little figures so carefully poised – all in quick, ready penstrokes. You can ready secrecy, movement, danger – and perhaps someone looking on. There are caves up in those cliffs – cave which Dave and Jamie never wrote into the book and which you can’t explore, but which have always intrigued me. The sequence with these smugglers is brief but memorable, and all the more so for Russ’s contribution.

Here’s another – this time from Beowulf Beastslayer. It displays Russ’ famous filigree style, his skill with detail and also his skill with likeness. There are at least two members of the online gamebook community drawn into this, as part of their reward for Jon Green’s Kickstarter, and Russ has told me that he’s keen to do some draw-ins for my project too. So if you’d like to see your face featured as the Lady of the Burnt Rose or Lord Hadrian Beaufort, Chief Constable, you’d better be quick with your pledge!

What’s possible with a few strokes of the pen…

If you’re interested in seeing more of Russ’ art, why not take a look at the Facebook group celebrating his illustrations? And if you’re interested in seeing what he’ll do for Steam Highwayman, well, simply watch this space! I’ll be posting a few more updates about plans for rewards and the kick-off for the Kickstarter Campaign for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis is 23rd January, 7pm.

Steam Highwayman III Kickstarter Campaign Announcement

At last! Steam pressure is up, tyres are checked and the velosteam is prepared for the Steam Highwayman’s third adventure, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the illustration and publication will run from 7pm (GMT), Thursday 23rd January 2020, until Saturday 22nd February.

Over the next month, I’ll be revealing more about the campaign, including:

There’s plenty of time to have your say about what you’d like to see in the upcoming book, as I’m still writing it, as well as sharing your ideas about the Kickstarter itself.

So put the 23rd of January in your calendar – I can’t wait to share more of the project with you!

Want to find out more about what’s in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis? Head over to the dedicated page.

The Gamebook Ecosystem is Growing…

I’ve been spending time finding an illustrator to work on the internal art for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, writing briefs and reference documents and leafing (digitally) through portfolios. It’s a tough job, as I’m having to build new working relationships and plan for a wide range of outcomes to a new Kickstarter. The affordability, quality and deliverability of the illustration is the primary concern of my campaigns, since I do my best to have the book written before hand.

One thing is clear – there are some great illustrators out there, ready and keen to work in gamebooks. Which is great, because the more gamebooks that are being published, of all kinds, then the more exposure the medium will have, and the greater chance of new readers discovering my own project.

And less selfishly, it’s plain to me that a high proportion of readers of choice-based fiction have dabbled in writing it too. Even if it wasn’t at school, like through my Write Your Own Adventure programme (which I used in class last week and will take to a neighbouring yeargroup on Thursday), there’s a good chance of your average reader of gamebooks being a hobbyist writer too.

Over the last few years I’ve met many of the people engaged in independent gamebook writing and publishing, largely based around the Fighting Fantasy fan community. Among them, Steam Highwayman Backer #5, Mark Lain, has today launched his own Kickstarter Campaign to raise £3000 to produce his gamebook, Mistress of Sorrows. Last year I enjoyed the first volume in what he’s called the Destiny’s Role series, and if you’re interested in reading more or in supporting the independent publication of gamebooks, why not head over to the campaign page to take a look? He’s working with some talented artists and seems set to fund in a very short time.

Nethundical Adventures

Duty Vessel by Vadim Voitekhovich

I’ve been writing the Steam Highwayman’s encounters and adventures with His Imperial Majesty’s Nethundical Corps over this weekend: nice to broach an original subject. Steampunk submarines are their own subgenre, chiefly focused around different interpretations of the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. However, Vadim Voitekhovich’s interpretation of a steampunk sub is much more to my taste than the baroque, pointy sort of thing I often see. Like his airships, Voitekhovich’s subs are weighty, bulbous, and curiously animal. It’s something like this that I imagine moored in rows off Deptford Creek, just along from Greenwich, where moonlit launches carry troops and supplies out under the cover of darkness.

If you haven’t come across Voitekhovich’s work before, do look him up. His particular perspective has crept into Steam Highwayman in all sorts of places: particularly his street scenes, his steam road vehicles and his juxtaposition of old and new. There’s also something reminiscent of Sean Tan’s fantasy cities and technologies, such as drawn in The Arrival, in his work. He’s a sought-after painter as well as a military re-enactor, so no wonder his images have such realism.

But back to my own work: The Reeking Metropolis has been paused for a few weeks while I started a new job (as you can see from this graph) but a combination of deep thinking and reading some other gamebooks has spurred me on to create some new, steamy, and really original content for the book. I’ll be disappointed if I’m essentially just redrawing a Victorian London, so things like the invention of a submarine navy are helping me stay excited about such a long project!

At Fighting Fantasy Fest III (which I attended a few weeks ago, and which still deserves a write-up) I picked up several gamebooks, including Oliver Hulme’s Valley of Bones. I’ll produce a full review sooner or later, but it’s the first of the books from FFF3 I’ve been working through and it’s given me a lot to think about. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s written in homage to Fabled Lands (or to rip it off, as Jamie Thomson joked when he saw us side-by-side) but there are many differences. Reading someone else’s parallel take on an open-world gamebook has really helped me to see what is special about Steam Highwayman, and what I love about it, so thanks to Oliver for that extra burst of semi-competitive enthusiasm!

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.