Sewing Story Seams

One of the innovations that I – and many others – really respect in the Fabled Lands series is the way in which Morris and Thomson connect narratives across volumes. As a reader, I’ve always found it incredibly satisfying to travel to a new land, a new city and a new volume and find that the events there respond to my choices made hours, days or weeks previously, in a different book, on a different continent and in a different context. Obviously this was also one of the techniques I have chosen to mimic in Steam Highwayman and one I am very proud of getting to work. When I explain how a gamebook works to new readers, they may make impressed noises, but when I explain that choices made in one volume have consequences in other volumes – volumes later, or even earlier in the series – then I see that mindblown look.

I don’t just do it to feel smug. I really consider this one of the most exciting and interesting ways of using interactive narrative, because there’s a lot more to the technique than simply recording progress with a codeword and checking for that codeword in another passage – although that is exactly the mechanism the authors of Fabled Lands and I use. The skill comes in writing just enough linking reference that the reader remembers what sparked the narrative development off – but not too much, giving the reader the mental task of drawing connections and causal links between events. Sometimes the book can make these links explicit, but at other times I prefer to leave them mysterious and tantalising. People rationalise the same information in different ways and I love to hear my readers explaining their understanding of what caused what.

But now to the nitty-gritty. Writing these things is challenging – another reason I use them! For the volume currently under construction, The Reeking Metropolis, I have notes and references for more than forty narratives of different sizes that overflow from the other volumes into this one. All roads seem to lead to London, at the moment. Some of these are short references – characters that you met in Smog and Ambuscade that mentioned they were trying to reach London, where they hoped to make their fortune. A single passage can resolve this story, as you discover whether they really did strike it rich. Others are much larger, multi-plot strands of story that I haven’t even really decided how I want to use, like the Revolution narrative that powers your interaction with the Compact for Workers’ Equality. Then there are the stories that I ran out of space to tell and the mysteries I haven’t thought of answers for yet.

But the fascinating thing is that some of these are the very first pieces of Steam Highwayman that I ever wrote – pieces like the redemption of the workhouse orphan, who ran away from his master to try to reach the big city. I even created a plot within Smog and Ambuscade that could only be reached after beginning a quest in Volume III, which has taken me two years to reach.

As a reader, I know that the more time that passes in the real world between a choice and the consequence, the more mystery and intrigue it holds for me. I can’t wait to hear what my readers think when, on receipt of The Reeking Metropolis, they realise that decisions they may have made two years previously are still limiting their options, or opening doors for them.

The photo above, by the way, is a piece of attractively peeling plywood hoarding along the Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) site a short distance from where I live. I get really excited by the way the process of decay creates textures far more complex, and yet balanced, than any human imagination could achieve.

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!

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.

A Warm Invitation

I will performing at the Berkshire Brouhaha in a couple of weeks’ time, at the kind invitation of Duke Box himself. The Brouhaha is a new steampunk event, masterminded by the Duke and his cronies, and is sure to draw a good number of the region’s Steampunks together.

And while Bracknell itself is a little off-the-map, it is still a part of Steam Highwayman country: when I was living in Marlow, I would ride down to Bracknell to participate in teacher training events. For any of you interested in post-war housing estate developments (like me), it’s worth a wander.

If you’re local or intending to be there, it would be great to see you. I hope to be reading for you at around 2.30 (dependent on the many vagaries of steampunk time, as once you mess with the historical continuum it plays havoc with our modern clocks). I’ll also have copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways with me, on sale at a particularly good price, and be happy to sign any.

If you want more information about the event, you can try the Facebook or Eventbrite pages just here.

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’.

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?

SH2 Cover Reveal

It’s a great day here at Steam Highwayman tower: fully funded this afternoon and Ben delivered a finished cover too.  I’m really pleased with his work and very proud to be able to share it with my kickstarter backers.  It’s been a complex cycle of brief, editing and work-through, but I reflected earlier that without Ben, my own image of the Steam Highwayman, as well as the look of the whole project, would be entirely different.  I’m so grateful to be able to inject a fresh look into Steampunk by partnering with him, as well as receiving these excellent book covers that turn heads wherever they’re seen!

This is quite a turning point: as I update the Kickstarter campaign and Facebook pages, I hope that this cover will attract brand new readers, backers and fans.  I mean, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – but we all do, and if it’s one of Ben’s, why worry?

SH2 Fully Funded

Yep – that’s right.  Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways is now fully funded on Kickstarter.  It’s particularly to do with the generosity of four backers who have chosen to pledge to be drawn into the book as Wanted Criminals – watch out for these dangerous people and their wanted posters!  But of course, those four wouldn’t have been able to fund the thing entirely – I’m grateful to the 138 others – and families – who have chosen to pledge and contribute to the project.

In the meantime, I’ve been editing and working on smoothing out the playthrough.  This morning, though, I woke up with an idea and began sorting out some of the planning and links for SH3…  Perhaps that was a good way to be thinking!

There’ll be news soon about the cover and other illustrations, but for now, good news and thankyou!

Where is the Steam Highwayman?

Well, the Steam Highwayman’s back at home beside the Thames in the industrial East End of London, actually, but this Saturday I visited the Long Shop Museum at Leiston for the Suffolk Steampunk Spectacular – and had a great time with two interactive readings, a nerve-wracking tea duel, sales of Smog and Ambuscade and some down time exploring this fascinating museum!

Leiston has never been on my map, but I know that I’ll certainly be returning – for the museum and more besides.  The Long Shop is a fascinating early factory – a preserved and partly-restored portion of the once-massive Garret works, which dominated the small county town.  In the 1780s, agricultural machinery was built here – in the 1800s, traction engines and ironwork.  In WWI, this was the ‘factory nearest Germany’, as well as the root of a hospital founded by the Garret family, a significant number of recruits for the war effort and much more beside.  The museum is a showcase of the rural foundation of the industrial revolution and also reveals how innovative traditions rooted in local communities have influenced the very underpinnings of our modern world.  Families from Leiston, whose expertise in engineering built the beautiful steam traction engines on show, contributed to the construction of Sizewell nuclear power station, just a few miles away on the coast.

Our trip to Leiston was through the torrential rain of the summer storm that broke the hottest month for years.  It felt very exciting – and inspiring – to be exploring more of historic England on the road at the mercy of the weather – and prompted me to think and reconsider exactly how weather-dependent travel in the age of steam would have been.  Perhaps this will play into some future iterations of Steam Highwayman?  An interesting discussion with a Steampunk at the stall about cattle drovers – their coats, roads and traditions – might play into this.

We set up inside the teashop and laid out our stall, including, for the first time, large digital prints of Ben’s illustrations for Smog and Ambuscade.  I think these look really smart and, sold in cardboard tubes, they slipped into my shopping bags really nicely.

The day was hosted by Dean Allen Jones of Nothing Up Our Sleeves magic – and he did a fantastic job of involving newcomers, hyping my reading and keeping the day running to (Steampunk) time.

Two traction engines were in steam – including a unique Suffolk Punch, built here on site – and a unique little tank engine, called the Sirapite, that had once been part of the MacAlpine collection.  Morris-dancing from an as-yet-unidentified group took place and there were a few other stall-holders too – including one offering interesting steampunk soft toys!

I participated in a really hand-shakingly nervous tea duel with a mysterious lady in lilac, but some dastardly play prevented the Steam Highwayman from demonstrating the inevitability of the revolution of the proletariat.  Still, this was my favourite duel yet and my wife Cheryl’s first experience of watching it.

If you haven’t ever made your way to the Leiston Long Shop but you’re interested in the rural roots of the industrial revolution, this place is a must.  The long shop itself – a galleried workshop – has a fascinating architectural structure with a hybrid wooden and iron frame.  Exhibits of machinery on the ground and tools and displays on the galleries are well-labelled and engaging – and there’s even some hands-on stuff too.

While there I also continued to promote the Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways Kickstarter and found myself at least one new backer from the participants.  As I write, we’re at 83% and only looking for another 25 or so backers to fund the project fully.  It’ll be great to be sending out copies with a touch of Leiston in them – either in the illustration or in the edited adventures.  In the afternoon I read from Volume II for the first time and was gratified to find the audience just as engaged – and just as keen to rob and steal in the name of adventure.

Where is the Steam Highwayman headed next?  Well, subscribe to my blog here or follow me on Facebook as I organise the next events over the summer season.  I can confidently say that I’ll be attending the Essextraordinaire at Maldon Museum of Power in September but aIso hope to be out reading and publicising before then.  If you’ve an event and you think a Steampunk Highwayman with interactive readings and book signings could add to it, let me know and I’ll descend like the night – sudden and unstoppable!

If you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the photos here, I’m sharing an album of photos from the day on Facebook too.