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.

The Seekerman Velosteam

Something wonderful happened when I handed over design of the Steam Highwayman’s constant mechanical companion to Ben: I lost control. I’ve detailed the process by which Ben and I worked out what the velosteam could, then might, and finally should look like, elsewhere, but for a lone-wolf like myself, this was a massive step forward in my creative process. Typically I’m something of a perfectionist and that prevents me bringing projects to completion. Sharing ownership helped me to break this cycle.

Early velosteam concepts, by Ben May.

The appearance of the machine was always going to be important. It would have been a complete cop-out to publish Smog and Ambuscade without a velosteam on the cover, and although I’m happy to leave a lot to my reader’s imaginations, including the appearance and much of the backstory of the hero of my gamebooks, the intentionally realist steampunk style I chose to borrow from Keith Roberts’ Pavane needed a velosteam design. It didn’t have to be completely plausible, but it did need to be unambiguous, legible and characterful.

Ben’s completed Ferguson Velosteam

Ben put a lot of hard work into that design and his solution of mantling the front portion of the vehicle was an inspired solution: it leaves a lot of the actual workings (including an improbable steering system, power transmission, water tank, boiler and firebox) to the imagination, but clearly communicates that this is a heavy, ironclad, steam-powered bicycle. And when he completed the alternate cover images for Smog and Ambuscade, I realised that the machine itself would become an iconic – perhaps the iconic – image associated with my stories.

Meanwhile, as Ben and I were hammering out the metaphorical boilerplate on the anvils of our imagination, two graphic novelists called Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou were developing Skies of Fire. Like Steam Highwayman, Skies of Fire is a crowdfunded, steampunk (or arguably dieselpunk) publishing project. Whereas Steam Highwayman is of course a gamebook series, Skies of Fire is a compelling and attractive series of graphic novels, with a steadily growing international readership. I’ve been watching their Kickstarters from the sidelines with considerable interest, and if you’re interested in indie publishing, steampunk or graphic novels, I really recommend you do too.

The Seekerman Zephyr

In July 2018, Ray Chou posted a fascinating short article about his project. It included photographs and an account of the modelling of the Zephyr – the starring airship in Skies of Fire. I read this article over and over again, and then decided to do something really out of character: I reached out to the modelmaker who had built their airship and asked him whether he’d be interested in doing something similar for me.

The Steampunk Enigma that is Captain Seekerman

Lo and behold, Captain Seekerman got back to me in a steampunk flash. He immediately recognised the quality of Ben’s designs and so we began discussions of what sort of model I might like, what purpose it might serve, how functional it could be – and the very practical matters of time and money. I had complete confidence in his ability to produce something that would do justice to my story world and the existing illustrations, particularly because of Ray’s blog.

I’ll be posting again about the details of Nate Seekerman’s process in turning the two-dimensional designs into an eighteen inch, three dimensional, smoking, LED-lit model, but for now all I want to do is to honour his professionalism, artistry and craftsmanship. We messaged frequently over a period of several months and just a few days ago I received the completed model. I haven’t been able to stop grinning since. It’s currently standing on my bookshelf here in our living room, quietly biding its time.

First of all, this is a display model, so I really look forward to bringing it with me to future Steampunk Events, conventions and readings, to give existing fans another look at the design and to catch the eyes of potential Highwaymen-to-be. It won’t be living packed away in a box. But the Seekerman velosteam also has a function as an inspiration to me as a writer. It is the physical proof of the quality of one of my own ideas, first transmitted to an artist to draw, and now to a modelmaker to sculpt. To see it riding out of my book and into reality – however small – is a wonderful feeling.

My current plans to exhibit the model do have a few limitations, however! My wife and I are expecting our first child this summer and I’ve turned down several invitations to read and appear at June or July steampunk events. This means that my next appearance for sales (and possibly reading) will be at the gamebook convention, Fighting Fantasy Fest 3, on the 31st August in West London. This may well be the first public unveiling of Nate Seekerman’s work. It’ll be great to see any gamebook readers or enthusiasts there – watch out for a lot more about FFF3 on here soon.

If you want to see more of Nate Seekerman’s work or you’re inspired to see him bring your story to life, have a look at the Seeker Design Group. And if you’re interested in finding out more about this model, where it goes or how it was made, just watch out for my next updates here on the website.

Business Brewing…

There’s a brewery in Steam Highwayman III that would like to expand. That’s nice, isn’t it? So your friendly ale-drinking hero is going to get involved, of course.

But how involved, exactly? If the Director is keen to offer independent pubs contracts and pay you a generous commission for each signature, would you do his bidding? What side will that put you on, exactly?

Camden Brewery in 1913

This is the question at the heart of my recent chunk of writing. I’ve passed 130 complete passages and have reserved a further 300 reserved: these are early days in the writing process, but so far I’ve sketched and reserved the vast majority of street and hub locations, written a large proportion of the ambushing and random traffic passages, and spent quite a lot of time creating some interesting pub interactions, particularly in Hampstead and Highgate.

There are a couple of complete quests in and a few loose trailing ends, but the cast majority of the story is to come. I’m thinking about a complete range of quests and interactions – tiny, spontaneous stories on the streets, quests that involve travelling across the map, larger ones that involve several decisions and then a couple of big stories you will keep bumping into. Behind the scenes, you see, are the great unwashed crying for Reform or Revolution, just as they really did in the 1830s. Then there’s the rivalry between the Guilds and the powerplay in court and Parliament. Nowhere is closed to our silver-tongued, sharp-bladed adventurer!

What would you like to see in the adventures of the Steam Highwayman? Let me know!

Other recent projects: infusing some rhubarb gin, exploring Shoreditch on various maps.

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.

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!

Steam Highwayman II nearing 75% funded

Wowee! What a week it’s been. Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways has been live on Kickstarter for a week and 117 backers have already joined the project. Approximately 65% of those are backers from last year’s kickstarter and I’ll be so pleased to be acknowledging them again in the back of the book – but I’ve also see real growth, with gamebook fans, steampunks and kickstarter-lurkers all joining in.

Once again, Steam Highwayman proves to have strong international appeal. The aph here shows that nicely to date.

I’m right in the middle of editing, working with Ben on the cover and generally messaging the new backers as much as I can, but I’ve also been spending some time preparing for the autumn, when I hope to be running some ‘Write-Your-Own-Adventure’ workshops in primary schools. I’ve had success creating these books in each school I’ve worked in and even managed to create a book in 30 minutes with a class for an interview earlier this year – the observer commented that it was one of the best literacy lessons she had ever seen. I’ll be sharing more about that later this summer, as well as creating a new section of this website to host / attract professional traffic – ie teachers wondering who I am and what I do!

Anyway – payday has come for many and with that, a warning. The Steam Highwayman is no fool and lurks in wait: if you’ve been delaying your pledge, better do it quickly before the costs of living snatch your hard-earned cash away from you!

Steam Highwayman II on Kickstarter Tomorrow!

From tomorrow, Tuesday 17th July, you can fund your copy of the second book in the Steam Highwayman series: Highways and Holloways!

Set around Henley, Wallingford and the Chiltern villages, SH2 sees you take to the air on extended missions, engage in factional rivalry, encounter dozens of combats, meet a dangerous sky pirate, build new friendships and discover new secrets, find ghost-ridden vales, bitter noblemen, vengeful revolutionaries and inspired inventors!

The book is 1500 passages long – 50% more than Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade – and interlinked passages allow you to continue your adventure and travel between volumes at will.

Who is the Steam Highwayman?  YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

Trickling Stream

Steam Highwayman I has now been live on Amazon for around 3 months and I’m very pleased to find that it is continually being discovered by new readers from around the world.  My intention with distributing through Amazon was that potential readers would experience the minimum of clicks between hearing a recommendation and being able to order the book: it’s something like a minimum of 3 clicks if you’re already signed in and a regular customer.

But on top of that, Amazon is also a great place for me to make my own brand.  I’m very happy to see the excellent company in which my book finds itself – ie Messrs Thomson, Morris, Gresty and Green.  I’ve seen my book on shelves alongside these writers – now I’m seeing it on sale alongside them.

Because of Amazon’s special recipe, I won’t be paid for any of the sales for some time yet, but once the first few pounds a month begin trickling in, I am convinced that this will be a stream of interest and income that will last a very long time.

In other news, I’ve been editing and formatting SH2 this week: yesterday I corrected all the dice-rolls and today I logged and fixed all the codewords.  A few more stages like this and I’ll be able to send it to proofing.  Ben has some more work to do on a provisional cover and then I’ll be able to start the buildup to Kickstarter 2: SH2.

SH2: Highways and Holloways Draft Complete

Calling a piece of writing ‘finished’ is not something I like doing… but I’d better get better at doing it.

This evening, after a marathon 7000+ word day, I finished the second volume of Steam Highwayman.  Highways and Holloways allows you to continue the open-world Steampunk journey that began in Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade.  But it also stands alone, bigger, better, badder.

I’ve written nearly 140,000 words of content.  There are well over a hundred quests and adventures, repeatable events, double- and multiple-entry plotlines, re-occuring characters, strongly-defined and engaging factions, a vast map of road, river and sky.  Five separate airship adventures layer on top of the adventure of robbery and escape, which has been redesigned to make the Constables a more challenging and reactive threat.

There are 1481 passages of interactive text.  This number will almost certainly round to 1500 during my editing process.  You’ll visit some of them many times, but there are some you’d better hope you never read.  There is calamity, tragedy and terror in these pages – as well as intrigue, wealth, surprise, adventure, sky-piracy, sous-cheffery, archaeology, arson, politics, woodsmanship, poaching, exorcism, angling, burglary and croquet.

This is the kind of book I always wanted gamebooks to be.

Ben is hard at work on a new cover for this followup to Steam Highwayman I.  So far, we’ve got all sorts of plans to make this a worthy successor – to match and surpass the first volume.

My plan is to launch a kickstarter later this summer to fund a full illustration and the best editing process that I can.  With the magic of print-on-demand and the wind in my sales, this could be the second Steampunk Adventure Gamebook in the series available this year.

 

Steam Highwayman II Nearing Completion

That’s right.  If you’ve been following my Twitter updates or returning to look at the natty graph below, you’ve now that Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways passed 1000 passages in draft a short while ago and has been accelerating onward.

I’m not planning on going on forever – in fact I mean to complete a few large quests that will help tie the whole book together and then call this draft finished.

What does that mean?  Well, I’ll be putting the book through an editing, proofing and checking process after that and then proceed to lay out the book interior – one of the jobs I enjoyed the most during SH1.  I’ve also been discussing and commissioning a cover design with Ben and have seen his first sketches.

A lot of what I used to get Steam Highwayman 1 published is still standing: I even have an ISBN number reserved for SH2.  Today I’ve been going over the numbers to plan a second Steam Highwayman Kickstarter to run during this summer.  Exactly when… will depend.

The Kickstarter will run much like the previous one, allowing keen backers to help contribute to the costs of the project, receive a written acknowledgement in the book and a copy ahead of general release.  However, I am discussing extra reward levels with Ben and am hoping to be able to reveal a particularly exciting way you could play a part in the book quite soon.  If there are things you’d like to see as part of the campaign, please let me know.

I’m hoping that a good proportion of my backers from KS1 will be keen to fund the sequel so they can expand their adventure, but I’m also hoping to broaden Steam Highwayman’s appeal to new readers, who will be able to receive copies of both books as rewards.

I received a nice message recently from a member of the online gamebook community who has been on a bit of a spree and bought SH1 online: his picture of Smog and Ambuscade and his comments really made my day.  If you’ve enjoyed volume 1 – and particularly if you bought it online – please recommend it with Amazon’s review system.  You don’t have to write a lot and you don’t have to have bought it through their shop, but online reviews are a really crucial part of increasing the project’s visibility.