Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

A visit to Makara Beach in the middle of a southern winter

Makara beach is only about a 15-minute drive from Wellington city, on the south-western coast. It’s rugged, wind-swept, stony, and carries a stark beauty that probably typifies this part of New Zealand.

It’s got an astonishing history. Peter Jackson filmed his first movie, Bad Taste, in the area over 25 years ago. During the Second World War, gun emplacements were built on the hills above. And last Sunday, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I spent a few hours there, the shortest day of the year. Needless to say, I took my camera.

Makara Beach, winter 2014. You wouldn't think it was winter, really.

Makara Beach, winter 2014. You wouldn’t think it was winter, really.

 

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Old boat winch and rails, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Tussock, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Tussock, Makara Beach, winter 2014.

Makara beach township from across the bay, winter 2014.

Makara beach township from across the bay, winter 2014.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

A quarter century of fun with digital image manipulation

Normally I don’t edit the photos I take, other than minor straightening, colour correction, scaling and adding copyright watermarks. But I realised the other day that I’ve been using image manipulation software in various flavours for about 25 years.

So this time I thought I’d have a bit of fun. I took this photo on a blustery grey-ish day in the South Wairarapa.

Original photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to. Who needs Instagram when you have Photoshop?

Photo taken at 1/160, f.8 and 18mm focal length. Then dealt to on the computer. No Instagram.

It’s purely filtering – the apparent fringing on the top right is an artefact of the process I used.

Can anybody guess what I did? Clue: not all the picture is actually filtered; and the effect is mostly a digital rendering of a well known film-photographic technique. You could, I think, do much of this in a darkroom with trays of chemicals and a stop-watch, old-style. But the computer’s faster, cleaner and not so smelly.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tops, science geekery and history. Watch this space.

Enjoying the art deco fantasy of Napier, New Zealand

I’ve spent a few days prowling the downtown streets of my home town, Napier, New Zealand, capturing its art deco heritage.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

The Sun Bay, memorial to the 258 who died in the devastating quake of 1931.

I’ve been writing on it for years – Random House produced my first book on the history of this city, back in 1997. The downtown collection of modernist buildings emerged from a devastating earthquake of 1931, which prompted wholesale reconstruction. Most of it, broadly, was complete by 1938-40, although the Anglican cathedral did not reopen until the early 1950s.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Modernist buildings on the corner of Hastings and Tennyson Streets, Napier, New Zealand.

Initially, architects had grand plans for block-spanning buildings, Spanish Mission style along the lines of Santa Barbara. But Depression-era financial penury put paid to them, and instead owners rebuilt, individually, as they could afford it. The result was one of the best collections of small modernist-style buildings anywhere in the world. The book I wrote on the quake and its outcome, back in 2001, is long out of print. But I can still walk the streets of my home town and take photographs. Enjoy.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it's empty and up for lease.

Detail of the Thorp building. When I was a kid, this was a shoe store. Then it became a coffee shop. Now it’s empty and up for lease.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake - it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

The Market Reserve building, centre here on Tennyson Street, was the first to go up after the devastating 1931 quake – it had been authorised before the disaster and would have been built anyway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More deco fun. Regular posts resume next week – watch out for writing tips, science geekery with custard, and more.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Rain, rain nowhere, and not a drop to drink anyway…

New Zealand’s problem just now is it’s not very green. It’s brown. And yellow.

After four summers washed out by relentless rain, 2013 has opened with a one-in-seventy-year drought. Wellington region is especially hit – the municipal water supply is at crisis level. Any external use, even a watering can, is strictly forbidden – and they’re pinging people who transgress. We had a present locally last week in the form of two-and-a-bit days rain. But not enough – it sufficed only to wash rubbish into the system – throwing Wellington, where I live, on to its 10-day emergency supply.

The other Saturday I went to have a look at the Hutt River – Te Awakairangi, also called the Heretaunga river. Or, to anybody who’s seen The Fellowship of the Ring, Anduin.

The Hutt river. An American frontier-style fort was built on the bank on the left of this picture in the late 1840s. There's no trace now, of course.

The Hutt river. An American frontier-style fort was built on the bank on the left of this picture in the late 1840s. There’s no trace now, of course. What this picture doesn’t convey is the stagnant smell.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there's a lot more water in it than this.

The Hutt river, looking south towards the rail bridge. Usually there’s a lot more water in it than this. Its pakeha name comes from Sir William Hutt (1801-1882), one of the shareholders of the New Zealand Company.

It’s the main source for most of Wellington region’s water. And it’s virtually dry.

Worse, New Zealand also generates a big chunk of our power with water, down south. That’s not in good order either. I’ve got a post coming up on our nifty eco-friendly hydro-power engineering. But that won’t fill the storage lakes.

Time, I think, to plan Laundry Day. That usually spurs rain. At least if I’m involved.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: more writing posts – ‘sixty second writing tips’ and ‘write it now’. More geekery. And, aside from blogging, rain… I hope.

Inspirations: New Zealand’s wild wild west

A century and a half ago, New Zealand could easily have been mistaken for mid-west America. It was the spitting image of the frontier across the Pacific.

The towns had the same limed roads, hitching posts and clap-board buildings. When the railway went in, even the locomotives were the same.

In a literal sense our ‘west’ was actually our south, our middle and our north. Oh, and our west. The whole country, really. It wasn’t surprising. Colonial-age New Zealand was part of the ‘Pacific rim’ – a frontier subculture that shared values, look, speech patterns and even people. Many of them were gold miners, rushing from California to Victoria and finally to Otago.

You can still see traces of it today – a point that came home to me a little while ago when I was in Cromwell for the first time in many years.

Cromwell's preserved historic district - once a road at the top of the town, now lapped by the waters of Lake Clyde.

Cromwell’s preserved historic district – once a road at the top of the town, now lapped by the waters of Lake Clyde.

I have to say, the phrase 'yeeeee-haw!' went through my mind when I took this photo. Inappropriate, really...

I have to say, the phrase ‘yeeeee-haw!’ went through my mind when I took this photo. Inappropriate, really…

Cromwell is unique; the town was part-flooded during the 1980s when the Clyde Dam was completed and Lake Clyde began filling. There was a scrabble to do some last-minute archaeology. And what had been one of the upper town streets was preserved as a historic district, redolent of the way the town had appeared during its golden age in the 1860s.

Elsewhere,  glimpses of later history still poke through – in places, redolent of mid-twentieth rather than mid-nineteenth century – less American, but still here and there with that cross-Pacific influence.

OK, the car's English - a give-away really. This scene is pretty classically New Zealand, I have to admit.

This scene is pretty classically mid-twentieth century New Zealand, complete with English car – except for ‘gasoline’. We usually call it ‘petrol’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more sixty second writing tips, ‘write it now’ – structure, and total geekery with ancient astronauts.

Inspirations: Scotland away from Scotland in New Zealand’s deep south

In the late 1840s migrants from Scotland poured into New Zealand’s deep south, looking to build a devout Presbyterian settlement untrammelled by the schism that had ripped the Church of Scotland asunder, unbothered by the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.

It didn’t work. When they arrived, they discovered the Anglicans – the ‘little enemy’, as they called them – had got there first. The Scots also brought their social problems with them. And then the gold miners arrived, with their rough and rouse-about life, sending shivers up the spines of the more God-fearing Dunedinites.

Still, there were some compensations. After travelling half way around the world, they found their little corner of New Zealand was altogether familiar. I covered that story in a book I wrote a few years ago for Penguin, Old South. But what I didn’t mention there was just how awesome that landscape is.

Lake Clyde - an artificial 'hydro' lake formed in the late 1980s after the huge Clyde Dam and associated hydro plant was completed.

Lake Clyde – an artificial ‘hydro’ lake formed in the late 1980s after the huge Clyde Dam and associated hydro plant was completed.

Not surprising in a way; similar latitude, similar geography and similar climate combined to make things – well, similar. Shortly intensified by the settler effort to import every plant and animal they could find. Including deer, rabbits and – if urban legend is anything to go by – at least one puma.

A photo I took of the Kawau gorge, north Otago, 2013. It wasn't easy, the place was socked in with rain most of the day I was there.

A photo I took of the Kawau gorge, north Otago, 2013. It wasn’t easy, the place was socked in with rain most of the day I was there.

Today, Southland and Otago are the only parts of New Zealand to have any trace of a regional accent – a slightly rounded ‘r’. Nobody outside New Zealand would likely spot it amidst the universal ‘I’ll have sux fush and a scoop of chups, eh’. But that slight ‘Southland burr’ is definitely there – a legacy of that old Scottish heritage. Cool.

Are there any places you know of that are weirdly similar – despite being geographically distant? Is there any landscape you’ve found that’s totally awesome? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: eco-recovery in extreme dirt road trucker land

Ever watch Ice Road Truckers? One of my favourite shows de jour. A few weeks ago I spent half a day in New Zealand’s own extreme truck-driving environment, the open-cast coal mine at Stockton. It’s New Zealand’s biggest mine, perched on a dizzying plateau north of Westport, right above a town with the apt name of Granity.

The view from the Stockton plateau, looking southwest towards Westport.

The view from the Stockton plateau, looking southwest towards Westport. I have to say it… is this an awesome view, or what?

The view from the plateau is stunning. As is the work in the mine – which is where the extreme trucking comes in. It’s to do with the scale. Everything looks normal, until you stand next to it.

This digger is way bigger than it seems. Seriously.

This digger is way bigger than it seems. Look at the size of the driver.

Some serious earth-moving.

Some serious earth-moving. The tech term for the soil covering the coal is ‘overburden’.

Here’s a picture of me in front of one of the trucks. I am 182 cm tall without the hat. I think I’ve lived in houses smaller than that truck. These can carry 70 tonnes of spoil downhill in one hit. And there are bigger ones on the mine that lug 100 tonnes uphill (not down – it’s a brake temperature problem). The big rigs operated by the trucking company I once worked for, an aeon or so ago, topped out at less than half the loaded weight of these suckers.

This truck is one big sucker. How big? I am 182 cm tall without the hat.

This Tasmanian-built Haulmax with Caterpillar diesel is one big sucker.

Kind of cool – certainly for blokes. Did I mention they start by using explosives to break up the rock? Then cut loose with that ultra-heavy moving machinery? My wife watched the earth-moving action and made some comment about boys in sandpits, but hey… A little later, we learned that women drive the trucks too, and have a better maintenance record than the men.

Down sides? Well, the coal’s exported, mostly to India, where it’s used for steel-making, but also burned. And as you can imagine, open cast mining leaves its mark on the landscape – piles of spoil, great ledged pits where coal has been scooped out, all surrounded with the detritus of heavy industry. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. I took a photograph.

Part of the coal mine.

Part of the coal mine. Kind of ugly.

Plus side? That landscape is temporary. New Zealand has strict resource laws, and this place operates under conditions. One is that there must be no visible sign of the mine from below. Another is that they put back the original top-cover, plant cover and animals – returning the plateau to a natural state as good as, or better than, it was before.

Restoration - back to what it was once like. A pretty bleak plateau, but with its own natural rugged asethetic.

Restoration – back to what it was once like. A pretty bleak plateau in natural state, but with its own rugged asethetic.

That’s been ongoing. Before excavation begins, the original top layer with its plant and insect life is re-positioned nearby for preservation and re-installation later. It’s important. The plateau is home to specialised life – unique plants adapted to the bleak environment, even rare native snails. Some snails, I am told, are collected and preserved for the future in refrigerators. Not only does the chill not hurt them, they’ve apparently even been breeding there. Slowly – uh, obviously.

I think it’s pretty inspiring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013