Writing inspirations – a coffee bar for gentlemen, apparently

Today’s writing inspiration is a photo I took of a coffee bar in central Wellington, New Zealand, with a very – er – unusual brand name.

It's called - er - what?

It’s called – er – what?

I had to look at it twice. And then photograph it. Also intriguing are the silhouettes of old-style police. Inspiration for a story? You betcha.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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How to stoke your Kindle with “Coal”

I’m delighted to announce that my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman 2014) – which was released in print a few months ago – has also been published internationally through Kindle.

Coal is an irreplaceable resource, formed over millions of years, yet humanity has been burning it as if there is no tomorrow. Today it’s responsible for 43 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. We stand at a cross-roads; and the story of coal – of which the New Zealand side is a microcosm and case-study – plays a large part in the journey.

Reviews of the print edition so far have been excellent:

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark” – Robin Hughes, NZ Booksellers, 13 October 2014.

a fascinating read, and it is such a good way of understanding NZ history” – “The Library”, 15 October 2014.

…mines a rich seam of interesting content on many things relative to coal…” – Ted Fox, Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2014.

And so, without further ado – welcome to the Kindle edition:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Plunging into Facebook…finally…

Earlier this year I finally got Facebook going. I’d had a placeholder for a while. With a common popular name like mine, you can’t afford not to.

Wright_FacebookBut I hesitated to do Facebook. Part of it was time. I’d rather do one or two things well online than spread thin and do nothing adequately.

There was also the fact that social media is an arbitrary framework; it moulds how we are seen, and we’re prisoners to the ‘model’ envisaged by each provider. Twitter, for instance, forces quick-fire messaging, like classified advertisements (which is what a lot of tweets seem to be).

I like WordPress because you can express yourself and interact, through comments, with readers who sometimes become friends in the process. Modern ‘penfriends’ – and that, for me, is one of the great things about blogging.

Facebook? It seems to revolve around transparency and permanency of personal information, coupled with an apparently cavalier attitude to privacy. A curious paradigm, in many ways, and one that’s caused perhaps the most criticism of the service.

Still, with 1.2 billion people apparently on Facebook, there had to be something in it. So I took the plunge, put time into setting it up and am still on a learning curve. I found family members on it, along with people I knew in New Zealand and around the world. And all my blogging friends, people I’d got to know over the years online.

A little later I set up an author page, a useful place to put the latest writing news, what I’m doing, and such. And so I cordially invite all of you to leap across to Facebook now and click ‘like’ on that page…Go on, you know you want to:


See you over on Facebook…and here on this blog…and Twitter…and Pinterest, and Google+, and Tumblr … and don’t forget my main web-page, http://www.matthewwright.net

What was that about spreading too thin again…?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs – specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex – also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens – like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.

I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.

I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo – these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.

Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).

Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Did T-Rex really have feathers and taste of chicken?

Think dinosaurs and the first thing most of us imagine is a large two-legged carnivore with 15-cm teeth, power-shovel jaws and dinky forelimbs. A beast of prey that spent most of the Upper Cretaceous going ‘raaargh’ and having absolutely anything it wanted for breakfast.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes the Great White look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f3.5. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

It was thanks to those jaws and 6-metre body that Tyrannosaurus Rex – named such in 1905, over a decade after the first fossils were discovered – was captured by popular imagination well before it became the surprise anti-hero in Jurassic Park.

Never mind the fact that – if we DID meet one, Lost World-style, a bullet or two would turn the hungriest T-Rex into T-Rug. Still, the point that humans are Earth’s all-time apex predator didn’t stop T-Rex speaking to nineteenth and early twentieth century concepts of animal machismo. It was still one of the most dangerous animals to walk this planet. And that made it scary to imagine a meeting. Especially for someone not equipped with a Remington Model 700 BDL. Or running shoes.

Part of the magic came about because Tyrannosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. And that remove in time has given them mythic status. We know them only through bones. Our imagination fills the gaps. And that’s why we keep re-inventing them, even as science and new discoveries, together, unravel an increasingly clear picture of what they were like.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Note the feathery coat. I took this hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. Yes, that’s a third of a second. I held my breath…

Let me explain. To nineteenth and early twentieth century science, dinosaurs were scaly, lumbering, tail-dragging reptiles of which the most ferocious – and certainly the hungriest – was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That name, ‘King of the tyrant lizards’, said it all.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus - complete with Iguanodon's thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Classic Victorian-age thinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus – complete with Iguanodon’s thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The image came out of nineteenth century ideas of ‘progression’ and the ‘tree of life’ (a pre-Darwinian notion) which helped shape popular concepts of evolution as directional ‘advance’ from reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals, each ‘superior’ to the last and thus dooming its dull-witted predecessor to extinction. It was a mind set that took decades to shake – hence the dispute in the 1980s over whether dinosaurs generated internal heat endothermically, like mammals and birds, as asserted by Robert Bakker.

The actual answer, of course, was staring us in the face all along – and Bakker was right, though it wasn’t until the early twenty-first century that enough fossil evidence had been collected to convince the whole scientific community.

Dilong Paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

Dilong paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

We’d known for a while that birds were related to dinosaurs – specifically, theropods, which is the same dinosaur group T-Rex hails from. But the truth didn’t emerge until the early 1990s when increasing numbers of fossils were found in China with clear feather impressions. All, initially, were theropods – the bird ancestors and cousins. But then, earlier this year, a dinosaur species not associated with the bird descent line was found to be also feathered.

Dilong Paradoxus - a reconstructed model. With feathers...

Dilong paradoxus – a reconstructed model. With feathers…

The old idea of dinosaurs as reptiles had already been under fire. And suddenly the truth became obvious. They weren’t reptiles at all. Dinosaurs, like birds, were feathered. Not for flight, mostly, but for insulation – and, doubtless, display. Not only that, but we already knew dinosaurs all had the same skull structure as birds, the same specific skeletal features including pneumatised bones – and half the dinosaurs were, in fact, bird-hipped. They laid eggs in nests. And if it looks like a bird and tastes like a bird… Well, the reality is that birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs. We’ve even discovered the genes inside the chicken genome that atavistically give chickens dino-jaws with teeth, instead of a beak.

The fact that birds are surviving dinosaurs resolves a lot of questions. Want to know how dinosaurs lived? Look out the window at sparrows. Want to know if they were endothermic? Stick a thermometer in a chicken’s – er, well, anyway, you get the idea.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

Think Velociraptors were like the ones portrayed in Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a human….and looked like this… And NO, it is NOT going to get its temperature taken, thank you.

As for our King of the Tyrant Lizards? Well, it turns out that T-Rex was among the last of a long family of Tyrannosaurs, not all of which were quite as big and ferocious as the Big Guy. They all had feathers – not for flight, but for insulation. They all laid eggs. They were all bipedal. And their tails didn’t drag – tendons kept them agile. If you met one, you might think it was a funny looking bird. One that wanted you for lunch.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Here’s the diorama – Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, Gallus gallus domesticus. You don’t think I’m the ONLY one to make chicken jokes when discussing dinosaurs, do you?

Of course the world of the dinosaurs is long gone – not because they were doomed to be out-evolved, but because their environment changed, literally with a bang. And that comet-driven extinction, 65 million years ago, didn’t just kill dinosaurs. It killed just about everything. Of the dinosaurs, only flying examples – the birds – survived.

All this was brought home for me, graphically and with a lot of special effects, when I went to check out an interactive exhibition in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s National Museum. It’s where the first Iguanadon bone ever found is held – it was brought to New Zealand in the 1840s by Walter Mantell, son of the discoverer – and it’s where I took these photos. And if you want to see me personally dodging Tyrannosaurs and see others prancing along the Wellington waterfront – well, I took some photos…

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: engaging your characters with the plot

I am a great fan of melodrama, in the right place. Picture the scene: a music-hall stage in which the hero is oblivious to the bad guy sneaking up behind.

The bad guy (inevitably) is mugging through the fourth wall to the audience, and everybody knows the drill:

Audience (to hero): He’s behind you.
Bad guy ducks behind a prop just as hero spins.
Hero: Oh no he isn’t.
Hero spins back, bad guy leaps up again.
Audience: Oh yes he is.
Bad guy ducks, hero spins.
Hero: Oh no he isn’t (etc etc).

See what I mean? Melodrama. And very funny it is too, particularly if the actors get their timing wrong.

The problem for more serious novel writers – or even, really, for comic ones – is that this sort of scene has little to do with the emotional pull of the character arc. It’s artifice; drama constructed not because something has to happen to challenge the character’s development, but as an abstract event. Now, abstract events happen all the time in the real world. But novel writing has to do something more – you have to keep the reader interested.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 - on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

My Adler Gabrielle 25 – on which I typed maybe a million words in the 1980s.

Setting a scene in which the Good Guys are being snuck up on by the Bad Guy isn’t dramatic – it’s melodramatic. It doesn’t add emotional tension relative to the characters. And you’d be surprised how often it happens, even in commercial novels – yes, I’m talking about you, Dan Brown, and that ridiculous scene in The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) in which you tried to make a professorial exposition sequence tense by having the bad guy sneaking up on the protagonists as they pontificated. (‘Look out behind you’, ‘Oh no he isn’t’, etc).

The problem for most novellists, of course, is that ideas frequently arrive as snaps of narrative event, not character development. We’re conditioned to think that way in part by the way drama is presented, often, on TV or movies – as snaps of action narrative. That, unfortunately, tends to lend itself to melodrama in a novel because it’s often divorced from the character arc.

The answer, inevitable, is to integrate the character arc with the event. If you have a great idea for a scene, ask yourself what it means to the character? How does it relate to their character arc and development? What will this event do for that character arc?

If it doesn’t do anything – if it’s just an event for an event’s sake ditch it.  It won’t add drama to the book, just padding. And don’t worry that you’ve tossed an idea out. Writers do it all the time. The fact is that the path to a good novel is always littered with the wreckage of discarded good ideas.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Fun, sun and the usual Spinal Tap hilarity on the other side of the ditch

It’s time for a weekend get-away, and She Who Must Be Obeyed and I decide the other side of the Tasman is, once again, the place to be. Sydney is one of our favourite get-away destinations, cheaper to reach than parts of New Zealand and alive with a vibrancy that underscores its place as one of the world’s great cities.

Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point, with Circular Quay beyond.

On Sydney harbour: I recklessly took this from the Manly Ferry as it cut its way to Circular Quay.

We’ve been there often enough before, and these weekends usually don’t turn into Spinal Tap adventures until we get there. This time the shenanigans begin when She Who Must Be Obeyed picks up the tickets from the travel agent.‘I see you didn’t take the fourth night free.’ ‘What free night?’ Turns out the other staff member, who we’d booked with, hadn’t mentioned it, and we are stuck with three.

Oh well, it’s still an extended weekend in a good hotel up from the historic district. Until the shuttle-bus rolls up at a different establishment at the eastern end of the CBD, a place with the same name but thoroughly down-market air, awash with tour groups and fading nineties tat. This is what the agent has ACTUALLY booked. But hey, I think as I skid on the body hair of the last occupant, possibly left by the cleaners as a kind of memento on the bathroom floor, we’ve stayed in worse places. The only major down side, to my wife’s annoyance, is that the TV remote keeps sticking on channels showing Dr Who.

Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House with Circular Quay to the right.

We head into central Sydney where a walking tour departs at 2.00 pm from the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, ‘every day, rain hail or shine’. Except, we discover in true Spinal Tap terms, today. ‘Sorry, not enough people,’ explains the guide. ‘I’m really sorry, it’s not worth my while. Maybe tomorrow.’ Not my definition of professionalism, but hey… We side-step into St James Church on King Street, where we scan the memorials on the walls for New Zealand historic figures from the 1840s. I find some I’d missed last time. And then we dive into the shopping district where – predictably – we discover the retail stores carry exactly the same brands and range we get in New Zealand, at much the same prices.

The Opera House Bar.

The Opera House Bar.

Dinner is at our favourite sushi train, a place on Liverpool Street whose hard-working staff prepare it in front of their largely Japanese clientele. We go there every time we’re in Sydney. It’s great sushi, and the sense of theatre is underscored by the concierge calling every time someone enters, repeated in unison by the chefs. Careful questioning reveals it isn’t some kind of good-luck ritual, as I fondly imagine, but – mundanely – ‘customers arriving’.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney. I took this with my phone – I wasn’t going to lug 1.5 kg worth of SLR and lens to dinner.

Another night we eat in a pub of a kind long since extinct in New Zealand – red 1970s carpet, half-tiled walls and an air of tired grandeur and extensive drinking. We find a table under a giant projector screen. ‘Nice to be away from all the New Zealand news,’ I say, just as the screen lights up with the Hawke’s Bay vs Northland game in my home town of Napier. In an effort to feel I am somewhere different I order an entire schooner of XXXX lager (yes, that really is the brand name), having forgotten that in NSW a ‘schooner’ tops out at 285 ml. The one I actually mean is the ‘Middie’, which is approximately 32.8 litres and can be knocked back by any good Aussie or Kiwi in the ten seconds between the start of the six o’clock time pips and the top of the hour.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street - Victorian-age mall.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street – Victorian-age mall. Click to enlarge.

Back at the hotel we discover that (a) a couple have moved into the room next door, (b) the soundproofing is in the same basket as the floor cleaning, and (c) our neighbours like each other very, very much. After the Beast With Two Backs makes its third Australian-accented intrusion into the room next door I’m ready to yell ‘get a bloody room’ through the wall despite the fact that, rather obviously, they already have.

We take the commuter ferry along Port Jackson to the historic farm-museum at Parramatta, where I look at Rev. Samuel Marsden’s desk and discover that I know more about its context than our guide. The thing about Sydney is that this is where New Zealand’s pakeha history began. Specifically, at this very desk, where Marsden the ‘Flogging Parson’, so-called because he used to get his jollies watching convict women being whipped, plotted to set up the first permanent pakeha settlement – a Church Missionary Society station – in the Bay of Islands. And managed it, finally, in 1814. Yes, it’s true – history is interesting, if a bit on the ewwww side.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

On our last full day we head down to Circular Quay to catch the Manly ferry. Manly, out by the heads, is a great swimming beach, and the water is inviting apart from one small problem. ‘Sheet,’ I explain in my best Australian, ‘we left the cossies across the deetch.’ The calming presence of She Who Must Be Obeyed stops me saying anything more in Australian. Probably wisely.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour. Click to enlarge.

Our adventures don’t end as we leave our hotel for the airport. We get to the departure lounge, but I can’t help thinking something’s missing. And it is. The aircraft. Then when it does arrive and we settle in, someone near the back decides they have Ebola or have left the eggs boiling back home, and the time is therefore Totally Deranged o’clock. More delays while officials rush about and take the passenger off, then disembowel the hold in a Lord Of The Rings scale quest for their luggage.

Eventually the engines spool up and we depart, 90 minutes late, with what looks like an attempt to taxi back to New Zealand but turns out to be a crawl to the furthest possible runway, all to a soundtrack of Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Last Train Out Of Sydney’. Apt, I think, as we finally surge into the air and the lights of that city disappear behind us.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014