This Intriguing Cornish Cove Inspires Underwater Steampunk Adventure…

How was that for a clickbait title? Did I do it right? Ridiculous headlines are everywhere now – A Peaceful Town Just 1hr 30mins from London Where Every House is Grade II Listed. Are these generated for us? Do the ones you get suggested look anything like that? Similar grammatical structure and differing content?

I saw a meme the other day that contrasted Google, the search engine of the noughties, which presented the contents of the internet, with the modern Google experience, that offers you some sponsored content, some where-to-purchase options, a ‘personalised’ suggestion and then finally what can actually be found out here on the internet. And it has contributed to a feeling I have that the internet is like this generation’s Tower of Babel… An almighty achievement of humanity striving to be like gods, communicating effortlessly together to do business and build to great heights.

But you know how that story ended. And I wonder if we’re on the cusp of something catastrophic, when all that we have begun to take for granted – functional supply lines, and a network of energy and information and commerce – gets tangled up by the complexity of the very system we have collectively created. The internet is chaotic and all the systems of distribution and communication that depend on it are efforts to impose order where there is no real underlying order. Like waves on a vast ocean – patterns that exist when you look for them, but overlaid on a mass of movement in a thousand directions.

But that wasn’t what the title of this post led you to think about, was it? That was merely my slightly gloomy musings on late-stage capitalism expressed. Because I also have to admit that the internet makes my career as a writer possible. Clearly, I can write and publish on a website and you can read this – and remote print-on-demand and storefront services get my books manifested from digital to physical and in your hands. But also in the actual writing stage. It looks a bit like this.

Here’s Roward’s Quay, just north of Chapel Point, south of St Austell on the south Cornish Coast. Months and months ago, when I was building a coastal map that would allow the diversification of the Steam Highwayman’s portfolio to include smuggling, I came across this tiny inlet with an intriguing name on the 1892-1914 OS 25inch series published by the National Library of Scotland. If you’re a regular reader, you know how much I love these. So I thought, yes, why not? Most of my interaction are small towns and fishing ports, but I’m going to need some interesting coves and cliffs for putting illegal cargo ashore. Roward’s Quay is in!

Fast forward to today, when I’ve been writing in East Ham Library and set myself the theoretical target of completing Barnstaple – the town in north Devon I’ve been populating with quests, sub-locations and so on. But something drew me to fill in a gap as I scrolled through my draft – this happens a lot – and I decided I’d visit Roward’s Quay.

The power of the internet is that not only can I access vintage maps, but modern ones – including satellite imagery like this drawn from Google. There are houses on Roward’s Point now – but you can see that little rectangular cove there still, isolated and perfect for a small boat putting contraband ashore. I wonder if anyone has posted any photographs?

Here’s Chapel Point from the South-West path, just north of Roward’s Quay. Hmm. Enchance 203 to 608.

Aha. Deckard, eat your heart out. Mr Darren Walden posted this image of seals hauled out on the shingle in February this year – 2024. Quite a fresh picture by Google Photos’ standard. And not only can I see the cove and better imagine exactly what it might be like to come ashore at the dark of the moon, but also I’ve got a brand new piece of information: seals like to haul out here! I think these might be Grey seals – but I am far from an expert. They look like nice content. Perhaps their barking could give you away to the Constables? Perhaps you could hunt them for their skins… Or is that simply a leftover piece of Saga I feel compelled to include.

Hang on. I’ve actually got two sea maps to write for Princes of the West. One on the surface and one… underwater. I’m unsure if this is going to make it into the final edit and I might actually hold it back as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter. But steampunk = submarines and has ever since Monsieur Verne… I recently gave Nemo’s Fury a read and was certainly prompted to try my own version of a submarine – or ‘nethundical’ adventure.

So what will you do at Roward’s Quay underwater… Imagining that the sea is clear enough to see through. I’d better include two new items (oh no! Not more items!): a diving suit and a harpoon. Excellent.

Perhaps this is classic feature creep, but I’ve also learned over the process of writing Steam Highwayman that I have to indulge my imagination at times: these can be some of the most fun-to-write and most original sections in my gamebooks. Readers like the random stuff – I had feedback a while ago about someone enjoying becoming a sky-high sous-chef in Highways & Holloways. And I need to write it, not simply the mechanical stuff that is more about balanced gameplay, to ensure I still enjoy myself doing this.

So I’m thinking that the undersea section of Princes of the West might total around 200 passages and they have some neat mechanics just for them. That makes about 25 pages or 20,000 words, which . A gamebook of 1522 passages or 276 pages (like The Reeking Metropolis) costs £6.46 to print at present. 1722 passages or just under 300 pages increases the print cost by 5.9% to £6.84 – but not shipping or handling fees. Seems like a classic case of increasing the core product’s value to all backers – something that good crowdfunding campaigns need to focus on, rather than adding on extras that only work to sap energy from the main outcome.

What do you think? Risky? Perhaps I’ll write a few underwater passages, plan a network and leave most blank. Then backers can also suggest content, if they really want to get deeply involved. I can think of at least one who would – Mr Sennet? Or is this a distraction?

Current progress is around 700 passages completed, by the way.

The Lure of the Sea

Oh dear. It’s got me bad. I must go down to the sea again – to the lonely sea and the sky. Here I am, simply wondering about creating a rich adventure for my Steam Highwayman readers, so that they don’t feel short-changed while exploring a Cornwall that never was… and the overflowing gameplay of taking your adventure to sea is causing serious feature creep.

And I’m just going to go for it! If I had an editor, perhaps they’d tell me to reel myself in and complete the main adventure of Princes of the West before going mad with new content and new gameplay. But that’s the joy of being my own publisher: no killjoy editors between me and my readership.

Perhaps this will be a dead end. I don’t know – like the large airship layer I wanted to include in Highways & Holloways, but couldn’t fit within a sensibly-sized volume. Perhaps this will have to be a stretch goal in an eventual Kickstarter. One thing’s for sure – the fun I had creating a crew and boats and weather and cargo in my stalled Saga project is still sloshing around in my imagination, looking for an outlet… together with pieces of Sid Meier’s Pirates! Gold, Das Boot, Aces of the Deep and any number of nautical dreams…

Torpedoes? Very steampunk. A wide variety of fish to catch? Why not? Open-world means open-world. Nice peaceful fishing… not smuggling at all. Submersibles? Maybe secretly… Or not-so-secretly, as they’re just too fantastic and central to the genre. What else? Squids? Sharks? Whales?! Underwater wrecks??!?!

You see the problem.

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

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.

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.

Why so quiet…?

Yes, it has been quiet here at 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.