The Highwayman Afloat

Why does Steam Highwayman feature a parallel, water-borne adventure?  In Book 1, Smog and Ambuscade, around 150 passages out of the total 1017 are devoted to your options to take to the River Thames and captain your own steam barge, shipping freight and discovering unique adventures.

Because I love narrowboats.  I love everything about them and their history, their lore, the short-lived and much-romaticised ‘traditional’ life of the bargee families.  When I was designing my alternate but plausible steampunk past, I could not see how a Britain dependent upon steam power but lacking large railways (one of my premises) would work without some reference to the canal network at least.  In out timeline, water-borne freight on the Thames has always remained competitive with the railways, and to some extent, the roads.  Boats still lug building materials, hardcore, sewage and waste up and down the old river daily.

One of my regularly re-read books is LTC Rolt’s Narrow Boat.  Essentially, he was the first canal tourist and also responsible for a lot of our modern romanticised view of the canals, but he was also a writer with a real interest in the genuine traditions of the canal people.  I bought this some time back in 2010, I think, on a canal holiday with a good friend and his family.

When I lived in Marlow, between 2008 and 20012, I got to know the reach between Maidenhead and Henley very well.  I had only been afloat on it a handful of times, but I was fascinated by the boathouses and bridges and could see how a highwayman adventuring back and forth across this great boundary would have to interact with its people and way of life.  I had walked the towpath between Marlow and Henley in sun, rain and the dead of night.

Writing a continuation and development of the river into Book 2, Highways and Holloways, I’ve had to make some decisions.  I’m currently trying to smooth out the reader’s journey to include fewer repetitions and more story.  There should still be the opportunity to trade, investing relatively large amounts of capital to make good returns, all in the name of that retirement bank account at Coulters!  After all, trading (and defeating pirates) by sea in Fabled Lands was always the best way to get your hands on a pile of cash.

But I know the reach between Henley and Oxford less well.  So I’ll be depending on the good old OS171, Chris Cove-Smith’s The River Thames Book and lots of googlemaps.  Nothing can replace the insight you gain from the locations themselves however and since a very large part of my pleasure in writing the Steam Highwayman series is to share my love of the parts of these parts of the world, I think I’ve got a good excuse to take an extended walk along the Thames pretty soon.

I still live by the Thames, but much further east and I see the Thames Barrier out of window and enjoy the tides defining the rhythm of the day.  Regular shipments of estuary and Dogger-dredged aggregates are unloaded opposite our tower at Angerstein wharf – the largest gravel and sand unloading wharf of its kind Europe.  The walks along the river here are quite different – and a good subject for another time, or another book.

Two other fluvial reads I’ll recommend here are the hilarious JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which furnished me with the minimum of an amusing encounter in Smog and RL Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage.  Three Men has still got plenty to give, so I’ll be mining it in the next fortnight, whereas the Stevenson is much more down-to-earth.  I might borrow some of his cold and damp.

Writing to Music

I’ve been writing for hours at a time again and it can be difficult, some days, to turn my mind and focus on an imaginary world when there are so many things to keep me in the everyday world.  Having a piece of music playing can help.  By filling up my ears, it over-rides part of my consciousness – the ‘internal editor’ that is constantly correcting and improving before I’ve even drafted.  But getting the right album or long track is tricky.

Good writing music is melodic.  Some classical music does this, but film or game soundtrack is more reliable – the themes that repeat and develop are much easier to grasp.  Soundtracks are also explicitly written to create atmosphere, which is the other big reason for writing to music alongside focus.

When I’m writing cyberpunk – or gastropunk – I rely on Vangelis – either the extended Blade Runner soundtrack or his album The City.  Melody a-plenty, but I don’t get too distracted from what I’m writing because I know the pieces so well.

I’ve been focusing on Steam Highwayman II for the last week and so Blade Runner doesn’t match at all.  Following a few comments by Jonathan Green, who also writes to music, I discovered the soundtrack to Skyrim.  I only know the game through watching a few playthrough videos and (mercifully for my schedule) have never had a computer that could run a large CRPG, but I was really impressed both with the composition by Jeremy Soule and the simple arrangement into a long track by TheSagaris2.  This is perfect writing music – no jarring transitions, plenty of atmosphere, loads of melody, easy to get to know.

The sound might feel pretty open and natural, so it doesn’t fit the world of Steam Highwayman too well, but it certainly suits the writing of it.  I mean to post soon about my search for a ‘Steam Highwayman sound’ and what sort of music sounds steampunk to me.  Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that – or listening to a curated list.

Buzz!

Something has changed about my Steam Highwayman project.  For several years, it was an idea in my head that I occasionally mentioned to my brother or sister, or toyed with on my laptop.  Then I saw other people standing up and making a success out of their writing, using their brains and passion to push something from their imagination into reality.  80 Days, by Inkle, wasn’t a commission.  Nobody asked for it or told Jon Ingold, Joe Humfrey and Meg Jayanth to write it: they chose to and made it work.

So in September 2016 I changed my attitude about my writing: I was unlikely ever to meet a patron who would sponsor me in comfort and style to create something with the perfect brief, giving me creative control but enough direction to get going.  I had to make it work.

I chose to work on Steam Highwayman because, unlike my efforts in writing novels, I had good example for a printed, multi-volume gamebook in Morris and Thomson’s Fabled Lands.  I also believed that I could produce something with a limited, defined scale of success.  I recognised that, despite my inherent need to develop and surpass any model, I needed to choose a ceiling to bump up against.

So I began writing, first using Twine to create something that could be made available to modern readers on their phones, but soon changed to focus on producing something I have a much stronger understanding of: a printed book.

And then at Christmas 2016 I had to defend my decision to my dad.

It was great: he grilled me in front of my family and my wife and I had enough answers.  Not every answer, but enough.  He was a self-employed multi-discipline artist/manager/technician at an architect for a quarter century and knows a thing or two about breaking ground, managing yourself and finishing projects.  And about making it happen.

I think that was the beginning of the buzz.  When I began to see that Steam Highwayman, if successful, would become much bigger than I could imagine – that people would discuss it without me being directly involved in the discussion – that it would be strong enough for me to not have to defend it or explain it.

So now it has all changed.  This weekend I promoted the project with a live reading at a Steampunk event in Surrey.  Before the end of the afternoon, there were several dozen people talking to each other about this character, the Steam Highwayman.  THE Steam Highwayman – as if he or she had an independent existence.  At one exciting moment, I was introduced as the Steam Highwayman, but when I demurred and asked ‘Who is the Steam Highwayman?’ I was met with the ringing reply, as my friend pointed to those around, ‘You are the Steam Highwayman!’

Last night I dreamed I was travelling along a dusty road and, stopping to refuel at a petrol station, overheard two strangers discussing what they had been reading.  You guessed it: in my dreams, unconnected randomers are discussing Steam Highwayman.

Then in the last few days I’ve been privileged to have the support of several volunteer proof-readers, a few of whom are close friends or family, but more are people I would have never known before pushing this idea into reality.  And then there’s Ben, who has been so inspiring to work with as an illustrator.  Somewhere out there tonight, in the US, the UK and New Zealand, there are people reading extracts of the adventures of the Steam Highwayman – an invented character in an invented world that had no previous existence until I began to share it.  Elsewhere there is a man who is devoting his time to visualising a story that is entirely made-up – but he wants to get it right and do it justice.

I’m a little bit mind-blown.

Spartacus Soundtrack

I love film music.  Let’s just get that right: I love big orchestras telling grand stories with memorable, hummable melodies.  Not just ‘mood music’, but story music.

Sometimes a great soundtrack can get me writing when I’m stuck for ideas: it can stir up emotions that find their way into my stories or make me long for a better world.  So, in a complete change to my recent focus on Steam Highwayman, let me tell you about a piece of music I love.

Alex North’s soundtrack to Spartacus is a powerful thing.  It merges one of the most beautiful love-themes with clever orchestration and Roman brutality and imagines a world different to our own.  The love theme has been adapted and even become a part of the jazz repertoire, but it’s in the context of the movie that it means the most.  You first hear it when the bitter gladiator Spartacus sees a beautiful slave-girl, Virinia, and first begins to dream that life could be different to anything he’s ever known.  They enjoy an all-too-brief relationship with a beautiful blossoming of tenderness and freedom before Spartacus is defeated and crucified, along with his rebels.  In the final scene, the love theme struggles to make itself heard again beneath the Roman cymbals and horns, as Virinia introduces her lover to his baby son – who has been born free.

It makes me cry.  This might be just a film from sixty years ago, with dated performances and dated production values, but that melody can’t get old.  It communicates something awful and wonderful – that people have died and are dying to see their children free to live freely.

After all that music, it’s the swell at 2:29 that brings tears to my eyes, just before the Roman theme stomps in.

Real sacrifice like this is both tragic and beautiful: it’s there when an economic migrant makes the journey to Europe in an attempt to provide for his family back in Somalia, or Sudan, or Syria.  It’s there when those with the ability to leave a war-torn city stay for the sake of those who can’t leave.  In the movie, the character of Spartacus dreams longingly of a God for the downtrodden: a ‘God for slaves’, and prays that his son one day will be born free.  By the end of the film, that’s what the music means: that his prayer has not been in vain and that despite his sacrifice, he has not been ignored.

One day I want music like this to accompany my stories.

What I did at the weekend!

Essentially, I was very busy!  I visited the Crossness Engines Steampunk Convivial and the Steampunk Essextraordinaire III at the Museum of Power near Maldon.

You can see some nice photos from each even here and here.

It was great to meet Steampunks from across the region, very exciting to publicise my project and an honour to be invited – last minute – to join established (and, note, published) authors Jonathan Green and Toby Frost on the writer’s panel.  Praise God!

Busy at the Highwayman’s Hideout

It’s been busy at #Highwayman’sHideout!  On Saturday I attended Fighting Fantasy Fest 2 in Ealing, where two hundred or so gamebook fans gathered to celebrate 35 years of the Fighting Fantasy series.  I took the opportunity to plug my kickstarter for all it was worth, passing out sample pages, flyers and wearing a sign around my neck.  I made several new friends, met other gamebook writers, put my project onto the radar of some of the genre’s influencers and even found some new backers.

Today I’ve been putting finishing touches to the Kickstarter video and campaign site.  A good friend and successful gamebook writer gave me some much-appreciated feedback on Saturday, so tweakings have turned into re-writings and the best part of a day’s work.

That means that tomorrow is given over for social marketing: I’ll be messaging everyone I can on every platform I can access to remind them of the Steam Highwayman Kickstarter Campaign Launch: 8:00pm London time.  Then roll on 8pm…  It feels very much like the ratcheting climb up an unfamiliar rollercoaster.  I’ve heard a lot about the ups and downs of running a kickstarter, but now I’m about to find out the only way that will really teach me!

Lord God, into your hands I commit the entire project.

Can I get an ‘Amen’?

Steam Highwayman coming soon!

It’s been a busy summer!  Somehow, between all the weddings, trips, church events and socialising, I’ve ploughed on.  Steam Highwayman will be launched on Kickstarter on the 5th September and for a long a nervous month I’ll be watching and praying, while the book is available for backing from all over the world.  I’ve already been publicising the project on social media, introducing the gamebook to fans of steampunk and fans of gamebooks alike.  If I appear on your social feed, you might start to get sick of seeing me!

I’ve had to develop all sorts of new skills to get this far: graphic design and video-making, advertising and marketing and overcoming my naturally polite, patient tendencies!  I really can’t wait to be back in the writing zone again, when I can concentrate on producing the next volume.

Still, I’ve enjoyed all this work massively, and I hope it’ll bear fruit soon.  It’s amazing to imagine that in a matter of months I may well be holding a copy of my own work, talking to readers world-wide and with the success behind me.

Next Up…

The ground shakes… A season begins… Not obviously, since autumn always slips out from beneath summer’s train. Seasons are never well defined.

But in the few months since I’ve last written on here, a lot has changed. And now I’m about to take a new journey.

My friends know a quick way to get me excited is to ask me about IF – interactive fiction – or CYOA – Choose Your Own Adventure – the genre defining series. And over the summer I got very excited and spent about 15 full writing days learning to use an IF software tool called Twine, writing a non – linear Steampunk time – sensitive role playing interactive novel, simply called Steam Highwayman.

I’ll write a lot more about it soon, but the key to my excitement with using Twine is that it provides me with a very natural writing environment, meaning that my productivity and fluency were as great during those 15 days as at any time in my life. And the finished result published in html format, meaning that it can be read easily in a Web browser.

I’ve learned a small amount of html and css from the work I had earlier this and at the end of last year editing a website for Mary’s and then building my own. But if I can up my game, the prospect of downloadable CYOA apps that combine my love of writing with modern technology awaits me.

I mean then to be spending time learning more CSS skills to create a good looking page, learning how to use android studio to create an app that will use one of my finished-ish IFs, and then  to release it here.

Will I succeed? God knows. How long will it take? I don’t mind. Because whether or not I’m posting a downloadable free IF within the year, entirely written and produced by me, I know I’m learning a lot. And that feels great.

In Psalm 119 it says “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.” There’s nothing to blame in my desire to explore and create and I know that anything done for the glory of God can be an act of deep worship, so I’m looking forward to meeting Him and walking with Him along His road this season.

Wine and Water

A glass of wine might slake the thirst

But water, sure to rest the soul

Runs freer, less in our control,

The next draught swifter than the first.

 

Yet still we have this drink to share

Through time, across a world made small,

I drink with poets, saints and all

Distracted, dreaming, trying to care.

 

Blood.  It does not mix with oil.

Another source of cleanliness

To sluice the cuts that nonetheless

Are stinging, tinctured with the soil

 

Of all the everyday, and night,

The bringer of our rest or pains,

Should heal us as we sleep, but veins

Of running sorrow bleed us white.

 

So washing off all worry’s marks –

Cold splash of spring-fed water, or

A brassy jug of wine to pour

So rainbows shine in ringing arcs.

Kon Tiki

Between the lines the story tells

I hear an author’s voice distinct.

Convinced that he and I are linked

I hope to set such stirring spells.

 

Adventure, or a sudden loss,

Alike speak truth when men can stand

And see themselves as earth of land

And venture futures on time’s toss.

 

The rafts of dreamers, mad or sane,

Carried by inhuman streams,

Rivers in the sea, strong beams

Of balsa wood and bamboo cane,

 

Light as light and fragile, lithe,

Barely count to city minds

But when the rocks and anchor grinds

Rafts pass swift on, serene and blithe.

 

For those who share the water-rolls,

Split and crash through frantic swells

A floating scrap of wood impels

No certain theory, proves no wholes,

 

But if you have become relaxed

And let the currents rise and dip

Allowed them lift you, turn and tip

Theories convince untaxed.