This morning I completed the hundredth passage of my current gamebook project. That’s a pretty nice feeling, as I’ve had to carve out a new pattern of writing time to achieve it and it’s been tough getting used to even earlier mornings. I’ve got a deadline to motivate me and lots and lots of research to lend wings to my fingertips.
What is it? Well, not Steam Highwayman IV. That’s still in planning stages: I mean to complete the plan for IV, V and VI together now that I know what I’m doing. So I took on another project in the meantime that is… different and yet similar.
I’m creating another open gamebook world with a different flavour. Like Steam Highwayman, it’s atmospheric, morally ambiguous, and written with a love of geography. But this time it’s not entirely my own project, so there’s a limit on what I can share.
However, that deadline means that there will be a lot more you hear from me about it this year. For now, I simply want to celebrate this milestone – it hasn’t been easy keeping a big secret – I am poor at keeping secrets generally.
Brian Hazzard, the nice fellow behind the Instadeath Survivors Support Group Podcast, is beginning a new YouTube Let’s Play series premiering later today. He’s chosen to feature a playthrough of Steam Highwayman.
Will this be the classic opener, rolling down the hill into an unnamed gin shop and getting ambushed by violent drinkers? Will an army of commenters and watchers manage to steer our luckless host away from misery and punishment? I suppose the implicit invitation in ‘Let us play’ is to participate like that, so here I need to cry something like, Who is the Steam Highwayman? WE are the Steam Highwayman.
A follow-up podcast episode is due out tomorrow too. We recorded it some time ago and I remember waffling dreadfully, so if you want to hear what decisive editing sounds like, you can give that a go too.
I’ve just completed my review of last year’s online sales: I sold 582 books – or 1.59 every day. I’m not rich yet, but I’m very happy to think that every day, on average, someone out there in the world chose to spend their money on my work. Adding in the sales in-person at events, that just tops 600 – a considerable increase on 2020’s total of around 180.
What are people buying? Well, chiefly my three Steam Highwayman books, although a very small number are interested in Write Your Own Adventure: Choice-Based Fiction in Schools. The exciting number here is that I have sold over 260 copies of Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, the first in my series, which each represent a reader new to the midnight road, and to my work.
And does it pay? Well, I’m proud to say that these sales have made me a gross income of around £2400, spread over the year. After expenses and tax (I already have a full-time job), it’s not a great deal of money. A large proportion of my sales in the second half of the year were seeded by an ongoing advertising campaign on Facebook, which isn’t cheap. Yet to be making a profit at all is validating and encouraging: the four years since I began Steam Highwayman are beginning to pay me back.
So what next? I’m keen to increase my sales, both to share the world I’ve created and, clearly, to profit from my work. So I’ll be continuing to invest income into advertising. But I’ll also be taking opportunities to write for contract, which was always part of my intention for the Steam Highwayman project: that it would serve as a display of my ability and allow me to pitch ideas to other publishers.
And maybe I’ll look back at this post in a year’s time with an entirely different perspective.
With every glance back at Number Four grinding up the slope, Brewman was more convinced that her water was foul. He chewed at his lip furiously. Blast Grint for not paying closer attention to the filling! Blast the Guild for leaving the tank at the North Cut three-quarters empty. Blast this shoddy coal - all he'd been able to secure at the last yard - which was boiling so slow. He looked out at the rising country around him and fixed each rowan and pine with an angry glare. Blast them!
But it was his own fault, and that was where the fury was sourced. He had known that Grint needed closer supervision. The man was fair enough for local runs, but on a trip like this he didn't have the sense to think further than the next milestone ahead. Steerbridge was laid up and Macklemore was taking the Beast down to Manchester with a four-car train. That job needed two good men, so young Horrocks had gone with him, leaving old Horrocks to handle the local work in Number Five for the time being. They were both well past their prime - old Horrocks could only really stand when clutching onto the regulator wheel and Five, well, she spat cinders whenever she was driven further than four mile.
And that had left only Grint and the boy to accompany him on this trip. He'd known he would need another hand for the stretch past Yarthwaite, and thank God, the man he'd taken on at the Crown didn't seem to be an idiot, but it was Grint, his own employee tasked with the responsibility of driving the second engine, that frustrated him. A steamsman needed more caution. The big engines were temperamental - Brewman wasn't ashamed of admitting that. They needed coaxing up the long slopes, warming gently in the morning, talking to, reading. Every gauge and valve told you their needs. Number Four had always been thirsty. It couldn't be called a fault, no. That would be a deeply ungrateful, even unfaithful thing to say about a steam-powered road locomotive. It was simply part of who she was. And a good driver took account.
It was a dirty tank, though. He hadn't filled at North Cut for years, but he should have known the water was going to be muddy. It was his own fault more
"Mester Brewman," said the lad. "They's two engines a-coming up from the Cut."
Brewman turned about on the footplate and wiped the sweat out of his eyes. He could see the two dirty plumes of engines burning coal and accelerating up the road, clearly meaning to climb Hammer Hill the same evening as himself. He unclipped the monoscope from its mount above him and handed it to the boy.
"Take a good hard spy on 'em," he said. "Who is it?"
The boy peered away while Brewman concentrated on steering his own engine over the uneven road. The mighty Carocall locomotive didn't mind where she rolled, but the two wagons behind were piled right high, lashed tight over with canvas and cord, but still at risk. He let a little more steam in and immediately felt the pistons surge and the wheels pick up pace.
If it were a local firm, they'd have climbed the hill in the morning. So they were making the same run he was: up Hammer Hill by twilight, a rest at the filling station just over the crest and a run down into Finchwick in the morning. And probably on into the city after that...
"I think they's Guild engines, Mester," said the boy at last. "Red with gold bands."
"Hop back onto Number Four and look from there," growled Brewman. "Then light on up here as fast as you may. Go on - get!"
He'd stoke and drive for the next stretch. The hill didn't really steepen for another mile and Spadille, his own Number One engine, was singing and steaming as sweet as she ever did. It was Number Four that worried him, and he longed to coax her up the slope himself, but that would mean changing places with his man and he'd rather go blind than trust Grint to drive Spadille.
Brewman settled into his rhythm. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, toe the door, look about, choose a line, check the pressure, feel the wheel. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss. Spadille was older than all of 'em, except Number Five, but she was tough. She was tough and she rode smooth and she never complained. She liked a hot fire and a long run and she lit quick again in the morning. A real steamsman's engine. His kind of engine. He allowed himself a grim smile and began to build the pressure a little more in anticipation of the climb.
The boy scrambled up again beside him. "Red and gold bands, Mester Brewman." He didn't have to say anymore. Brewman handed him the shovel and it was the boy's turn. Scoop and toss, scoop and toss, wiry muscles standing out through his thin cotton undershirt. Scoop and toss.
The boy knew not to ask questions, but Brewman liked him. Another three-four year and he could be of real use to Brewman and Son, Haulier. And if he were to drive, he needed to know the lay of the land.
"It's like this, son. We need water after the climb. Hammer Hill station has enough for both our engines, but maybe not for four. And the Guild fill first, see. Because it's their tank."
It hadn't always been their tank. Old Master Brewman had been one of the seven or eight hauliers who had seen it built, replacing the very unreliable roadside pool, but the Guild had bought it out more than ten year back. That rankled too. Because it was really Brewman's own water - at least in part.
"But we're going to be there first, Mester, ain't we? And they can't fill if we's already taken what we need."
"You think we'll be long ahead of 'em, Shawn boy?" The lad looked up into his master's face. He wasn't often called by his given name. He had hoped that the master liked him - he tried to be good - the tough, reliable roadsman he wanted to be. "You think we'll be filled at the rate Number Four is goin'?"
They looked back. The gap between their own rear wagon and the following locomotive had lengthened even since the boy had scurried between them. Brewman shook his head. He could see it all ahead of him. Half-filled, the Guild drivers would arrive upon him and claim their privilege. Four really needed a full flushing. He'd be stuck, waiting for the tank to refill at its trickle, until at least midday, or have to split his train of four wagons and take two on and deliver half the consignment. But he'd contracted to bring it in by the night of the eighteenth and the bounty wasn't a prize: it was his firm's lifeblood. They couldn't compete with the Guild's margins, so he had to get every delivery in on time. No penalties, no mishaps, no smirches on the Brewman name. That was the only way he had managed to keep the firm alive.
I took a trip along the river to Millwall yesterday, actually planning to ride the Thames Clipper with Teo and Sam to the little-used Masthouse Terrace pier and then walk up to Mudchute Farm to feed old carrot batons to the sheep. We did manage all that – and more – and the children enjoyed the boat ride, as they always do. We even nabbed the port quarter seats and Teo got to watch the ‘man doing the boat-rope’, which is her highlight of any river trip.
But while checking the route on Wednesday evening, I spotted that we’d pass a very special guest moored at Greenwich, just opposite where we planned to disembark: none other than Boaty McBoatface herself – the British Antarctic Survey’s Sir David Attenborough.
What a beautiful big red beast she is! She looks like a playmobil toy for giants: cranes, hatches, turny bits, derricks, radar shrouds, seven decks tall (looking like eleven stories or so alongside the flats on Greenwich wharf) and a fabulous crow’s nest / whale-spotting post out the front. I can just see an ice-spotter muffled in some chunky Snow Goose parka featured in the next BBC Frozen World II under helicopter shot.
I found myself getting very excited and did my best to share the enthusiasm with Teo (two and a quarter) and Sam (nine months). Perhaps one day we’ll all be aboard her, I told them. Maybe you’ll be working as an animal specialist and I’ll visit you. Maybe we’ll see the ice together…
Just to make the appeal stronger, she (the ship) has the home port Port Stanley – Falkland Islands emblazoned on the stern. The Falklands have to be one of my most-desired spots in the world to see – I have very few – and I once did fairly well in interviewing for a teaching job there. But life turned another way and Teo and Dam are the result of that.
Still, I felt like if there had been an invitation, Teo, Sam and I could have swung aboard up some boarding netting, taking hot flask, nappies and snacks, abandoning the mundane double buggy aboard the clipper and happily stayed aboard this fabulous vessel until she next docked in the Falklands, next stop, the ice of the Antarctic! I recognised the glamour of adventure and, nowadays, that rare thing, of a genuinely exotic sea voyage. Some lucky person will be boarding Boaty McBoatface tonight, or this week, and doing exactly that.
And the accommodation looks fantastic. I’m sure there would be space for a family with two small children in comfort.
The spot is also precious to me because Masthouse Terrace pier projects onto the Thames from the Great Eastern slipway – the launch site for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Leviathan, which features (briefly) in Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The remaining timbers of the launch ramp are not that impressive by themselves, but if you think that the Great Eastern had a gross tonnage great than the fine Boaty, and was approximately twice as long, then you have to realise how she would have dominated Millwall reach just as dramatically as the polar playmobil set does while she is still moored there.
The Ferry pub, a moment’s walk from the pier where we disembarked, did not make the cut: I limited myself to one pub per locality in The Reeking Metropolis. But it is old, positioned at the bank where the ferry to Greenwich beached for seven hundred years or more – and that ferry is a crucial crossing in Steam Highwayman III.
And I love the river. Since I moved to Marlow in 2008, I’ve grown to know the Thames and to value it for one thing most of all: the appearance of the river can change, boat designs come and go and the city all around is built and demolished over and over again. The course of the river itself has swayed backwards and forwards across the London gravel since the last ice age, I read, swamping mammoths and Roman wharves and chemical factories. But the smell of the river – the brackish estuaryness of the tidal Thames and the sweet siltiness brought all the way down from the West – flotsam and chalk and silt and tiny countless fish eggs from Steam Highwayman country and beyond – from hills that I’ve known and walked, rained that I’ve ridden through – the smell could convince anyone exactly where they are in the world. Stand at the riverside, or better yet, on the foreshore, and close your eyes and breathe deep and you might know the same sensation – exactly the same – as a man walking the banks in Brunel’s age, or ten thousand years before.
September has been a fairly busy time. I spent two very pleasant Saturdays selling Steam Highwayman at the annual Essextraordinaire near Maldon and at an event new to me, Cobbles and Cogs at Reading Milestones Living History Museum. Catching up with friends in the steampunk community at each was a real joy – as it was to have a stall with a fine display of three volumes of the Steam Highwayman adventures, my Seekerman velosteam model and the recently-produced A2 maps.
All the while, my friends at Cubus were working away on the release of the Steam Highwayman mobile app, which launched at the end of the month and is now available for iOS and Android. I’ve been having a go myself when I can and really enjoying what they have brought to the project.
I’m teaching full-time again this year, though, so have very little time for writing currently. Instead I’m preparing lessons for 10-year-old children, marking their work and keeping up with school requirements. At home, my two little children are growing fast too and need their own attention.
Instead of directly working at new books, then, I’m working on marketing my existing work and increasing sales. Perhaps you’ll come across an advert for one of my books on the social platform of your choice!
Cubus have now given me a launch date – that’s right! The new promo trailer and the page on their site can give you a lot more info.
The app has been made under license, so I haven’t had much direct input (other than writing the book…). This is ideal because, 1) Cubus make great apps, 2) I trust them with my work and 3) I’ve been crazily busy.
There is still an opportunity to playtest before then: if you’re keen, use this link to get your name added and grab an early download.
I hope this is all particularly exciting for any Spanish Steam Highwaymen out there – or Catalan! The app will be available in three languages!
Yes, it has been quiet here at martinbarnabusnoutch.com Here’s why.
Over on Facebook, there’s a relatively new group called Interactive Fiction & Gamebooks Discussion Group (Book Club). Catchy, eh? Well, since the beginning of August, I’ve been posting there every 2 days or so, sharing how Steam Highwayman was written and what I like about it, as well as responding to other readers’ comments. In fact,t the series has been the Club’s featured Book of the Month, so it would be rude for me not to be there!
Then there’s normal life! My two little children, Samuel (6months) and Teodora (26months) are getting some full-on family time, seeing as it is my summer holiday from my full-time teaching job. But just because it’s holiday time, doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing! Oh no. Aside from all the day trips and the park visits…
We moved flat (within the same area – in fact, the same building) and have been redecorating and setting up within a slightly bigger space, which includes a [tiny] desk for my laptop, so there will hopefully be [long-term] an easier writing schedule that doesn’t depend on tidying away for dinner (although I am sat on a dining chair).
And then there’s what I have been working on… Steam Highwayman IV, V and VI are in a gentle planning stage, I want to try to have all three planned out and will probably write them side-by-side, so they need time. Until I’m ready to tackle that, I have some contract work on the horizon that I will be very excited to post about, once I can. And an add-on to the Steam Highwayman project that I’ve posted about before – the Steam Highwayman App – has also been taking up time. I should have more details about that soon.
Then there’s been a steady trickle of readers ordering copies of the Gormley-Watt Velosteamer’s Touring Guide, which takes a regular bit of admin (buying online postage, printing, labelling packets and sending) and quite a lot of Happenings at our local church congregation, where I have some responsibilities.
So watch this space – and if you’ve missed hearing about some of these and would like to find out more, follow the links in the post.
I loved making the maps for my recent Kickstarter. They took a lot of time, but they were worth it. Now all fans of the series can get their hands on them!
The idea of the maps began as enlargened versions of the maps found at the front of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways. These were originally based on Ordnance Survey maps of the area I used to live in – bought from the WHSmith on Marlow High Street – but had been drawn with the interests of my gamebooks in mind and were, to massively understate it, simplified. If I had merely scaled these up, they would have looked clumsy and dull, and some readers had already suggested improvements to the maps.
On top of this, I needed to make a fresh map for The Reeking Metropolis. The process for that was to use a digital copy of a 1:1056 Ordnance Survey map series of London published in the 1890s and to digitally trace it on an ipad Pro. I learned a fair amount in the process and so I decided to do a similar thing with the historic maps of the regions in which my first two books were set.
Tracing can be a very meditative job, and between January and March I spent many an evening drawing away. I had actually begun the job long before, but had restarted a number of times and the maps begun in January became my final ones. Colouring could be done in the ipad, but lettering was added in Microsoft Publisher (2007 edition!)
I promised a Guide Booklet as a stretch goal for my project. This was really fun to do: the cover image is a development of the Ferguson schematic I made back in 2017 for Smog and Ambuscade, together with some styling mimicked from early 20th-century bike and motoring maps. The contents took a little while to get right: I had to check through the three books fairly carefully and make sure the beer tally was correct, as well as referencing plot points for many of the pubs.
My plan of assembling and printing the guides was set long before I had final versions. Essentially, this was an exercise in mimicry once again: I set out to make something resembling The Streets of Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld Mapp. So the final order for my printer in Southend was 250 A5 booklet folders with pockets, 250 stapled guidebooks and 250 of three A2 colour posters (the three maps).
The guidebooks came in two boxes; the folders in seven and the three posters each came in a whopping A2 flatpack. They took up a corner in our living room for several months (I still have three boxes now as I write this) as Cheryl and I folded and folded and folded. Then we had to stick the guidebooks into the folders with double-sided sticky tape and tuck a set of maps into the pocket. It turned out that the printers had sent us far more than 250 of each of the maps, but exactly 250 of the guidebooks and folders, so there were going to be enough for the backers who had pledged for them, about 70 full sets left over and then around 120 sets of just the three maps.
The final product is really neat. I’m not a graphic designer by any means, but I have spent my entire life in books and printed materials, so I’m fairly savvy at putting something like this together. In some ways, it reminds me of the nonsense post my brothers and sisters and I used to send each other during long summer holidays in a family postbox, demanding prompt payment of invoices or offering spurious and over-priced correspondence courses, such as the Sternly-Blythe School of Pachydermalinguistics. Double-barrelled names do possess such a weight of Englishness, don’t they?
You can order the guidebook and maps, should they still be in stock (or possibly reprinted) here.
My next update for the Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis has gone live on Kickstarter, and it looks like it will be almost the last. Over the last eighteen months, I’ve been regularly updating my backers on the progress of the project. Now, I’ll only need to update individuals, as a large proportion of backers already have their rewards in their hands and the vast majority are shipped and on their way. What a lot has changed in those eighteen months!
There’s also been a great deal of change for gamebooks in that time. Brian Hazzard’s excellent Instadeath Survivor’s Support Group podcast has appeared, providing the gamebook community with interviews and playthroughs, Alba and Legendary Kingdoms have been the two most successful gamebook Kickstarters ever (I can give them that, even if some of their other statistics are up for debate!) and countless individual titles have been released by independent authors. There are entirely new gamebook authoring careers blossoming, like Kurosh Shadmand’s – who you can find featured as Lord Hadrian Beaufort in a duel atop the Monument in The Reeking Metropolis, courtesy of Russ Nicholson.
But as for me, I’m keen to get Steam Highwayman III fully fulfilled. I’ll then spend a little more time working on this website – so watch out for some changes – and do some preparation of marketing materials. Then I’ll be releasing The Reeking Metropolis for general sale. I’m currently helping my wife prepare a book of her own for publication – I’ll certainly write more about that here – and I have a couple of stories I would like to write without the pressure of delivering them to an audience.