Delemand the Bull

Why should you buy my next Steam Highwayman adventure (when it’s finished)? Because you get to participate in a cattle auction!

Delemand the bull is one of my favourite sequences in The Princes of the West. It’s one of those stories that has swollen to fill twenty passages or more without even testing me. You can hear a rumour in one of several pubs about a farmer forced to sell his prize bull to pay his taxes… and then take it from there. Go see Ralph Chambercombe for yourself and try to help him out? Head to the cattle market and watch the auction? Bid for the bull yourself and squander your hard-won, er, hard-stolen cash on a pedigree breeder that you can have absolutely no use for and then use him to terrorise those who deserve it?

Gateridge Blackjack X545, 3-year-old pedigree Aberdeen Angus sold by JA & PE Dickinson of Market Harborough at Melton Mowbray Market Cattle Auction, 28th February 2024

There was an oversize bull in Cities of Gold and Glory, my favourite of the Fabled Lands books, famous for his massive stamina and the hilarious response of the farmer should you ever defeat the bull in battle. Was there even a Russ Nicholson illustration? (Just checked, and, yes there was, and the original brief by Dave Morris has been recorded too. Can’t find my copy though, so any really keen reader is super-welcome to add one in a comment.)

When I was twenty-two and qualified as a teacher, but yet to accept a paid position, I spent about six months on the dole in north Leicestershire. I went to collect my weekly benefit from Melton Mowbray Job Centre, on a Wednesday. Which was market day. And market day in Melton Mowbray is still a real market. One week, I went into the cattle auction, and watched as the followers of a dairy herd were sold off, some at bargain prices that I still remember. And then the final sale – the bull.

He was an Aberdeen Angus, as many dairy bulls are. His calves by all the various mothers are of secondary value to the milk they demand, but as Friesian/Angus crosses, their carcasses have more meat and are worth more. Although this was fifteen years hence, and I understand that there have been a few changes in dairying since.

Anyway, I had been helping a neighbour pasture and stall her fourteen Angus in the previous months, including one tragically short-lived but very highly-bred (inbred) young bull we called Ebenezer. My neighbour, Anne, needed a name beginning with E to match the pedigree line, and I suggested Ebenezer because I had got into cattle after she asked my dad if he could spare a son for a short while every day for three weeks to help a calf stand and relearn to walk. He had been born weak and then caught a cold and was shuffling around his stall with his rear legs extended and his front bent – essentially scraping through the straw on his knees. Anne had had one of her own knees replaced recently and the other was due for surgery, so she wasn’t really up for lifting a forty-kilo calf to its feet. So that was my job over Easter.

Sadly, Ebenezer, though genetically valuable, was a high-risk investment. His inbreeding had weakened him and when he was autopsied, the cow coroner discovered that he had not enough stomachs, and thus had never managed to gain enough nourishment after weaning. Poor thing.

The bull I saw sold at Melton Mowbray sold for a colossal amount of money. I saw a Jersey cow and her calf sold for £700 together a short while before, but the bull made something like £100,000.

Cracking progress on Steam Highwayman IV

What is a good day’s work on Steam Highwayman IV like?

07:00 – Get up, get dressed

07:30 – Eat breakfast (black pudding, beans, toast, black coffee)

08:00 – Take daughter on the bus to school

08:45 – Drop daughter at school and speak to teacher about her excellent reading skills (daughter’s, not teacher’s)

09:05 – Arrive at library and settle in

09:30 – Write. And eat a packet of crisps, an apple, two Tunnock’s bars, a chicken sandwich, drink a flask of hot chocolate and a large bottle of water as I go. Sort of elevenses…lunch…snack…keep going

14:30 – Stop writing and shake off the daze

Result? A new page on my website and around 3000 words of the book drafted.

A slice of my progress spreadsheet

The original and best

I’ve been working hard on Steam Highwayman IV over the past months – having reached about 50,000 words last week. Some rearrangement in my work schedule means that I can now spend around 5 hours on both Monday and Tuesday in the library at East Ham, where there is a ‘silent study’ (‘work-from-the-library’) zone with a great, productive atmosphere. My daughter and I take the bus up to her school, I drop her off, take a fast fifteen-minute walk and set down to work until it’s time to collect her. Some days I even manage to eat lunch.

But looking ahead to your adventure through Cornwall and Devon doesn’t mean I should ignore the beginning of this whole saga. I was recently reminded of the biblical ‘law of first mention’ – that where an idea is first mentioned in scripture is the best place to start with your understanding of it. Well, the Steam Highwayman was first mentioned in Smog & Ambuscade, as was the Ferguson velosteam, Dr Smollet, many of my mechanisms and much of the world-building. In short, this is where it all began.

So I hope you can forgive me if I don’t yet think that enough people have met the Steam Highwayman, or realised that they themselves can don the tricorne and spend an evening robbing the rich and riding the midnight roads. If they did, surely many more would put aside their mesmerising devices, stop scrolling and start rolling!

In an attempt to boost sales, I’ve decided to make a short-term, limited offer. I have multiple A2 maps and some custom dice remaining from Kickstarter rewards, so increased printing costs have forced me to increase the price of the gamebook, I think I’ve made a great package in the Steam Highwayman Starter Pack. And who knows, perhaps this is a great opportunity for you, my long-established supporter, to buy a book, map and dice for that friend you’ve wanted to share the adventure with for all this time?

Steam Highwayman IV progress

Does that sound as if it is written from personal experience? Ha! Sleepless nights and runny noses are a bigger part of my life as a father than ever before.

Three years ago, when snow lay on the ground and my daughter went outside with the cry ‘Dig, dig!’, my last Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III was still in progress. It feels like far too long since I rode that particular pony… But then two years or so developing a Viking-themed adventure will do that for you.

Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West has just reached 40,000 words in draft. That’s about 4/15 complete – call it a bit more than 25% written. That’s taken me 30 writing days, spread over a complete project length of 122 days, although I began planning looong ago. Even back when there was snow on the ground and my daughter spoke in mere monosyllables.

What are the standouts for SH4? Well – the interplay of several key characters, their rivalries and power-play is one. I committed to that with the plural ‘Princes’ back when I drafted the titles of my six book series in 2016… But Cornwall is proving excellent fun to write. I’m also seriously considering adding submarines.

The map for SH4 is wonderful. I’ll draw up a giant one, like I published for SH1, 2 and 3, and probably some smaller, regional ones too.

Hero of the Poor

~ 675 ~

“Bring me a pot of beer,” you reply, and seat yourself beside a couple of grumpy fishermen, who have clearly drunk themselves into uncaring insensibility.

When it comes, the beer is thin, sour and clearly watered-down.  “What is this?” you ask angrily.

“It’s our Silver Cat Pale,” replies the innkeeper.

“More like silver cat’s p-”

“It’s the best we can do, cully,” he interrupts.  “I ain’t ‘ad fresh malt in weeks.  An’ if the maltster ‘ad come through, which ‘e ain’t, on account of Scobley, I wouldn’t’ve ‘ad no coin fer it anyhow.”

Just them, the door slams open and a group of ruffians file in.  One marches up to the innkeeper and grasps him firmly,  knocking your beer onto the floor in the process.

“Nice ter see you,” says the ruffian – a heavily-set man sporting several gold ear-rings.  “Ready fer the next ‘instalment’?”

Watch and see what happens… 1087

“Leave this man alone.” 1106

“Hey!  You spilt my beer!” 1116

I watched The Mark of Zorro – the 1998 one – for the first time (!) last night. I always loved the Tyrone Power version, but the Banderas/Hopkins one strikes me as just as good. Music by James Horner, too. Swashbuckling, flamboyant and fun – just how Steam Highwayman is meant to feel – some of the time, at least.

Let’s see how much more fun I can have when I remember that I want your adventure through the wild west of Cornwall to feel like a Zorro movie.

Chasing my lost ruthlessness (and nimbleness, gallantry and engineering): Steam Highwayman playthrough

In October I began a new playthrough across the three completed Steam Highwayman volumes, but got caught by my old enemy, the Coal Board before really getting very far, and was forced into a year of servitude with serious attribute penalties.

Well, to keep myself in the mode, I’ve been continuing to dip into that playthrough in the last few days while feeling a bit under the weather. Steam HIghwayman was always meant to be as fun to fail as to win, so I picked myself up, shook off the coal dust and made a plan: I would find the in-game ways to regain my attributes and boost them even further!

Freed onto the dirty streets of Camden, I rode down to the Pineapple at Lambeth, where I remember explosives fetch a good price. The Coal Board were more interested in punishing me than confiscating my stuff, you see, and after a year in storage my explosives were still valuable goods in someone’s eyes. They might end up reaching Flat Billy, the crimelord, but I shan’t worry about that for now. Someone told me about the street gang who mudlark on the north bank, so I rode through Southwark, grabbing a cold pork pie on the way, popping over to Spitalfields to buy a new pistol and sabre, and then dropping in on the boys corner of the muddy foreshore. After a little repetitive mudlarking (amazing how many Constables’ whistles the silt can cover) I met the Waterside Boys themselves and, with my abysmally low GALLANTRY, mud-smeared clothes and, crucially, fresh Southwark pork pie, I won their hearts and their allegiance.

Another trip to the outskirts saw me stop the Coal Board once more, grab some loot and a handy codeword, report to the Telegraph Guild at Bloomsbury and claim a fairly paltry reward, considering their hatred for the other faction. I was bleeding in a couple of places after fighting off some stokers in the ambush, so I headed to Hampstead and took at room at the Holly Bush – very much out of the way.

While trying to heal my wounds there, my low INGENUITY really became a problem, so I gave thought to my long-term prospects. If I am to succeed as a highwayman, I will be getting wounded, and if wounded, I will need a reliable way to heal myself. There are a very few ways to heal wounds without resulting in scars, which inevitably lead to retirement and the dreaded epilogue, but self-help is more effective with training… So I set off on a new mission. First, I would buy medical supplies in the reeking metropolis, before heading west into the first two books… I got a cheap bottle of whisky down in the docklands too.

So once on the road to Smog and Ambuscade, I resolutely ignored any temptation to ambush anyone else and rode straight to the Red Lantern in Maidenhead, where I stocked up on one of the rarest, and most game-changing, of medical items. Pink pills (NIM + 2) [_] [_] [_] A boost to your NIMBLENESS just as you are drawing your sword can be very, very helpful in surviving a duel – particularly when you are still carrying the scars of a year’s servitude.

Then it was up to Lane End, where the good Dr Smollett can be found. He was one of the earliest characters I wrote, one I really enjoy re-reading, and one I would love to explore a bit more. I met him, let him rant at me (I really haven’t hurt or robbed anyone he would have patched up… I think!) and then returned to Marlow where, surprise surprise, he turned up in the parlour of the Ship on a dirty night wanting a ride…

So off we went to Bullocks Farm, where I assisted in the delivery of a fine baby boy. Which, incidentally and not at all the entire reason for the escapade, gained me a level of Medical Training (greatly increasing the efficacy of self-treatment – at least in SH3 onwards…).

I returned to Lane End with that bottle of whisky and we sealed our friendship over a drink, the good Doctor and I. Now on to book 2 to gain that other boost…

Merripit Barn and Dartmoor: Writing from an old map

I build my Steam Highwayman open-world gamebooks from the map upwards. Since discovering the National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced historical maps, I’ve used the OS six-inch 1888-1913 as inspiration and reference, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been poring over Dartmoor.

It’s a place of legend and myth, prehistory and geology, industrial archaeology and military remains. There’s simply too much of interest to include everything in Steam Highwayman IV: The Princes of the West.

So I’ve begun by creating the navigational network underneath the events. This means planning and writing around eight key locations that are linked together to represent the vast expanse of Dartmoor itself. However, things become more complicated following that.

I don’t mean for the reader to simply be able to steam up onto the hill and tear about: Dartmoor is too treacherous for that. Neither do I want a constant series of MOTORING checks – particularly as the skills of riding a heavy velosteam over the moor, navigating across the various watersheds and steaming over the uneven ground are unlike the classic road-focussed skills I normally represent with that attribute. So instead I’m using secret links and tickboxes: on the first arrival at some of these locations, details are given about them. Returning to that passage, the book will presume that the reader knows what is going on and where they are… if you remember! After exploring for long enough, you may even be able to gain a knowledge of Dartmoor good enough to unlock secret routes across it, opening up much greater options for fast travel and getaway.

But I’m still leaving space for events and quests to happen here. Perhaps a certain glow-muzzled dog might track you in the mist, or one of the several stone circles prove to hold more than moonlit grass within it. But these can come later. For now, the navigation has to work and then onto this backing the extra events can be embroidered. I’m toying with the idea of using visible options unlocked by a variety of common-to-rare possessions.

One knot of passages is formed by the base you can build at Merripit Barn. Hideouts are going to be ever more important in SH4, and having one tucked away in the west may be just what you need. Some of the options here are generic, sending the reader off into what Brian Hazzard called a ‘subroutine’ loop when he interviewed me about this some time ago (warning: contains unpopular opinions about the repetitive nature of Fantasy gamebooks!). And these are crucial to preventing bloat within the gamebook while allowing the game part to really flourish – essentially the idea that you should be able to do the same thing at different locations. At Merripit Barn you can rest, treat your wounds, mend your velosteam, train your pet raven and all the other things a self-respecting road pirate does on their day off.

And Merripit Barn is just the right place at the right time: I needed a location that was on the edge of a location on the edge of Dartmoor, isolated but only a turn or two from one of my busier routes. Some time poring over the NLS’s maps and I found what I needed.

I’m hoping that before publishing SH4 I’ll have a good chance to revisit Cornwall and West Devon – and if I do, I’ll go and see what is actually going on at Merripit Barn.

If you haven’t seen the video revealing the draft SH4 planning map, here it is again… this time, with music courtesy of  @ramonsole5729  and Cubus Games.

A Sample of SAGA

Yesterday I enjoyed attending Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 in Ealing, West London, organised by the inestimable Jon Green and company. Fantastic! Books were sold, signed and shared.

I also distributed around 50 copies of a sample sheet for my upcoming project, in partnership with Spidermind Games, and already there have been requests to see it from others who weren’t able to attend. So, without further ado, click here to download a sample sheet of SAGA and get a taste of what awaits.

I have a new page for the project here on, which will host static information, while I’ll continue to write blogs about the writing process here, as I used to during Steam Highwayman III. And don’t worry, I’ll also update from time to time about the progress of the next three Steam Highwayman books: they’re far from abandoned. Our family trip to Devon earlier in the summer particularly got me thinking about some more content for Princes of the West.

Let’s Play… Steam Highwayman

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.

A Year’s Sales

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.