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.

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?

The Return of Steam Highwayman FUNDED!

225 backers joined the campaign
£6395 pledged
322 books ordered
5 pieces of custom art commissioned
159% of the funding target reached

So that’s good news!  I’m particularly pleased that in the final day of the project, so many of my previous backers returned to pledge for the sequel to Smog and Ambuscade.  This means that 100 of the 186 backers of my previous campaign have returned – a figure to be proud of – but also that I have reached 125 new backers since then.  Wow!

The total copies of Steam Highwayman gamebooks printed until now number fewer than 300, so by fulfilling these pledges, I’ll be more than doubling the presence of Steam Highwayman on shelves and coffee tables across the world.

We’ve also seen backers from around the world playing a significant part.  Australians made a particularly big contribution this time, with 11 backers pledging – 8 of whom are new to the project.  At this rate I’ll expect to see a dusty Ferguson velosteam cosplayer in the outback any time now.

The campaign may be complete, but the publication process still has a way to go.  My jobs for the next months (Aug-Dec) look like this:

– Complete editing (asap)
– Complete first round proofreading (asap)
– Commission interior illustrations (Friday)
– Contact WANTED CRIMINALs for likenesses
– Plan for backer input into illustration
– Produce edited draft 2
– Distribute draft 2 in sections to volunteer/backer proofreaders
– Complete further edits
– Produce illustrated draft 3
– Order and evaluate proof copy
– Produce final printing edition
– Order copies for worldwide despatch from IngramSpark printing hubs

I’ll also be continuing to be promoting my books in person at Steampunk events through the autumn.  Watch out here to find out what, where and when – and you can even choose to subscribe to my blog if you’d like to be sure you don’t miss out.  Should be something over there on the right on the sidebar.

So I’d like to express my gratitude to all of my backers and supporters.  Your interest, your pledges and your comments all the way through the project make it possible for me to keep going – I’m a words of affirmation sort of person, as my wife will tell you.  So let me encourage you!  If you’re considering publishing a book or crowdfunding a passion project, don’t wait for it to be perfect or finished or even totally ready.  It’s simpler than it looks and once people get an idea of why you’re excited about it, they seem to get behind you.

After all, who is the Steam Highwayman?  YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

Last chance!

One day left in the Return of Steam Highwayman campaign and we’re approaching 150% funding.  Would a sensible stretch goal be helping at this point?  I’ve stayed away from them so far in the project, but I’m starting to think that SH3 might see a whole lot more…

Anyway, there’s been some great interaction over on the campaign in the last few hours, with new backers joining overnight, particularly from the US, Europe and Australia.  I’ve updated a few FAQs – because they’ve been asked once or twice, rather than frequently – and added more keen backers to a provisional proof-reading list.

Thanks to everyone who’s stayed with the campaign – particularly the 90 or so repeat backers who came with me from SH1 and the first-day crowd.  That’s been really encouraging.  I’ve got a busy day ahead of me, but expect an update tomorrow night on KS and here as well.

Who is the Steam Highwayman?  We, er, are the Steam Highway.  Mans.  And womens.  We are them…

Two days to go!

In two days time my second Kickstarter Campaign will be complete – and fully funded!  In fact, the campaign is currently at 137% and more backers are still trickling in.  Where will it all end?

And what have I been doing?  Well, my daily task has been manually checking the several thousand passage links in Highways and Holloways.  That looks like this…

The temptation to over-edit has to be fought.  I’ve re-arranged one knot of roads, simplifying it to make navigation quicker and more straightforward.  This was one of the few criticisms about Smog and Ambuscade and, honestly, one I can completely understand.  One of the tricky things is that, having created the maps, ridden the roads and spent months writing the adventures, I can no longer trust myself as a standard of reading the navigation.  I know exactly where places are and have, like a homing pigeon, a certain sense of direction, no matter what passage I am reading…  So I’ll be relying on my playtesters in the next weeks to help me with this.

Tick, tick, tick, tick, scratch, flip, tick, turn, tick, flip, double-check.  Why on earth did I allow the book to reach 1500 passages?

Immediately after the end of the campaign I’ll be heading to a meeting with Ben to make a full plan for the illustrations, and after that will come my backers’ chance to have a say in what gets drawn.  So, expect several more posts in the next few days!

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…