I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember; I took a degree in graphic design and my first job was for a book design company. I’d always hankered after illustrating my own book and when my daughters were young I gravitated towards creating a children’s book. This I did and sent out several illustrated proposals to numerous publishers, always received the same disappointing response: “Thank you for considering our publishing house but…”
Then, in April 2009, whilst on a cycling tour of north London I ‘discovered’ the Regent’s Canal. Much to my embarrassment, I had already lived in London for 30 years and although I vaguely knew of the canal’s existence, I had never ventured on to the towpath before. The day I did I was overawed by the history, the architecture and how the canal was re-emerging from its industrialised past. I needed to know more and after checking to see what books were available on the subject of the canal, all I could find were some very wordy and worthy books on the subject, but no real guidebook to the waterway. Which is when the light-bulb moment occurred: there was a potential book here. Something that offered more by combining informative text, well-defined maps, effective drawings and the size of which could fit in a pocket or bag. A book that could be read on the hoof or at home.
I knew that if I were to get a book about the Regent’s Canal published then I would stand a better chance of acceptance if I wrote, illustrated and designed the guidebook myself. In other words offer the publisher a complete package. I sent my synopsis and a few sample spreads to Frances Lincoln. I knew that they published travel books and my offering might just appeal to them. To my extreme delight it did and they accepted it. The Regent’s Canal: An Urban Towpath Route from Little Venice to the Olympic Park was published in 2012.
I believe we often get too familiar with the area around our homes and places of work. We get to know the shops and pubs, cafes and cinemas within proximity of these locations and possibly the centre of town, too. If we use the Underground we never even see what is in-between the three, let alone the rest of the capital.
In creating the canal book I became acutely aware of how little of London I actually knew, so I began to explore further. In 2013, I proposed two further water-themed London guidebooks to my publishers. Both of which were accepted. Earlier this year, 2020 saw the release of my fourth book, Bloody London: 20 Walks in London, Taking in its Gruesome and Horrific History (by Conway/Bloomsbury).
A book like this requires in-depth research and much reading around the subject as possible, visits to reference libraries, museums plus of course walking the routes, where often I find details and objects that no amount of reading can provide. When I worked on Bloody London I found Newspaper.com extremely useful for checking details and facts. Journalistic reports of a murder and the subsequent trial were full of details that sometimes were overlooked in later books.
With my first rough draft I then calculate the number of words per spread that would allow space for several illustrations. I aim for an average of six stories per spread. Because Bloody London was concerned with human stories, which require more details, I knew that I would have to devote more space to text than images (with my previous river and canal guidebooks, I was often writing about inanimate objects, so could give more space to the illustrations).
Bloody London/Westminster: The initial design: pencil sketches and dummy text
Each double page spread has to be unique. It is a balancing act between the text, the maps and the images. The maps always form different shapes and can dictate how the spread is assembled. They are instrumental to the page and have to be clear and legible. Next, for me, comes the exciting part: with my text and some quick pencil sketches (of the proposed illustrations) I begin to layout the spread; jig-sawing the text, images and map together using InDesign. Often there is still too much copy and not enough space for the images. So regularly and painfully I have to try and condense the amount of copy or (horror) drop a story altogether. Occasionally I prefer to see one illustration dominate the spread with the others scattered around. Only once I am pleased with the layout I will start creating the finished digital illustrations. Finally, armed with a printout of the final spreads, it’s boots on to re-walk the route again and check the details. Is that murder house in the right place; has that street been correctly labelled?
Bloody London/Westminster: The final layout
It takes me about eighteen months to write, illustrate and design a typical 128-page book. Production could be faster if separate individuals handled each of the three disciplines but I really doubt the final results would be as integrated and harmonious. My aim has always been to create a book that not only provides a fulfilling experience but is also aesthetically pleasing too.
To date my books cover about 200 miles of London walks but I still have a hell of a lot more to go. I continue to explore the capital and several more illustrated guidebooks are planned.
David Fathers has written and illustrated four London guidebooks: The Regent’s Canal, The London Thames Path, London’s Hidden Rivers and Bloody London. He is currently working on his fifth London guidebook, which will be published in 2021 by Conway/Bloomsbury. He can be followed on Twitter @TheTilbury, Instagram @DavidFathers and his website is www.joemoon.co.uk