Something I’ve always wanted to do is to explicitly celebrate the pubs of Steam Highwayman. Every one featured in the series is based on – and usually, named directly after – a real, visitable pub in our very own timeline. And now that the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis has raised an incredible £10,000 in pledges, I’ll be producing a trio of special maps and a printed guide to the regions, which will feature reviews of every single pub.
The page above is my first attempt at a mockup, and it has its own story to tell. The image is my own pen and ink, but heavily inspired by a certain poster I once saw in an Oxford bookshop…
When I was still in the process of writing Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade, before had any experience of publishing or working with an illustrator, I was looking for someone to draw my world and the pictures for my gamebook. I knew a few illustrators and I had received some help refining exactly what I was looking for and writing a brief, but I had no strong leads. The people I knew weren’t about to jump into a new project, or to draw what I was looking for: monochrome, classic, pen and ink, with an exciting sense of movement and a realistic take on steampunk. Where to find such an illustrator.
One evening as I was praying on the balcony of our flat, I distinctly heard the word ‘Oxford’ in my mind’s ear. It popped into my head accompanied by a sudden sense of peace and a release from the worry I’d been accumulating about how I would ever find myself a collaborator. So the very next day, I drove to Oxford.
I didn’t have a particular plan or destination, but reached Oxford around lunchtime. I walked around for a short time and entered Blackwell’s art shop. There, just inside the door, was a fine poster of the pubs of Oxford, drawn in pen and ink, in a fine, confident style.
It took me a little while to work out what I should do, but I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to the person behind the desk and to ask if the illustrator of the poster was local, and if they knew how I could contact them.
“This poster?” asked the young man behind the counter.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’m the artist,” he said.
And that’s how I met Ben May, who designed the Ferguson velosteam and illustrated the first two volumes of my adventure: the power of prayer and a good pub drawing.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I’m really pleased that so many backers have made time to share their preferences regarding the art of Steam Highwayman: Highways and Holloways. I’ve just finished a phone conversation with Ben, in which we discussed the results of this poll:
You know by now that I love a graph. Well, out of the eight options I gave backers (and you can see featurettes of the passages below…) there was a clear winner: everyone wants to see a velosteam chase, with constables astride their Imperial road engines. Ben and I are both really happy about this: it’ll give him the chance to work with some of the other designs for the velosteam that he created last year. Will an Imperial velosteam include some of those features? I’m as excited to find out as you are.
We’re also going ahead on a feature of Captain Coke as our second full-page illustration. He’s been an intriguing character throughout the writing of the book and I’ve enjoyed inventing him. To see him take on flesh will be even more interesting…
The other options won’t disappear. They’ll be developed as other options for illustrating the book, but may turn out as quarter or half-pages, depending on how successful the images seem once Ben’s had a go with them. As soon as I mentioned punt jousting Ben grabbed a pencil and began to laugh, so I’ve certainly got hopes for that one…
Well, it’s been quite a day for the project. After some excellent publicity and a growing worldwide interest, funding is standing at 113% and 86 backers! We’ve got supporters from Sweden, Denmark, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the USA, Canada, Germany, France, New Zealand, Australia and the UK.
Not only that, but we reached our first social goal – 100 likes on the Facebook Page! Facebook has proven to be a really important place to publicise the campaign, with around 30% of backing coming directly from the site – and I’m sure much more coming indirectly. This means I can release a development log all about how Ben May designed the appearance of the Steam Highwayman.
Thanks to everyone who has passed on the news of the project’s success: please help me to bring the campaign to as many future readers as we can to unlock more content and to fund even more of Ben’s fantastic art.