Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

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.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Tell me – have all the best sci-fi ideas been used?

H. R. Geiger passed away this year, aged 74. Probably best known as designer of the icky thing that exploded out of John Hurt’s stomach in Alien (1980).

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

When it comes to spooky haunted house stories – which is what that movie really was – Geiger’s Alien has to take first price for scare factor.

Also ecch factor.

The funny thing is, Alien wasn’t the first story about a parasitic alien that arrives on a spaceship and breeds using humans as hosts, defying the efforts of the humans aboard the spaceship to defeat it. That prize goes to A. E. Van Vogt, whose novella ‘Black Destroyer’ of 1939 did exactly the same thing.  The story was later integrated into his  ‘fixup’ novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His alien, Ixtl, could also pass through solid matter. The similarities were so obvious that van Vogt reportedly raised a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox for plagiarism. Apparently it was settled out of court.

That wasn’t the only movie for which we can find Golden Age antecedents. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, most of the really good Trek stuff was devised first by Robert A. Heinlein – including medical beds, Starfleet and Tribbles, all of which featured in his novels first under other names. (Heinlein also invented the modern waterbed).

Arthur C. Clarke, meanwhile, did one better by being the only person, ever, to predict the world wide web and its social consequences in specific detail. Here he is in 1964; and here is with a spookily accurate prediction in 1974.

Which leads me to ask a question. Have all the best sci-fi ideas been used? I suggest not…but let’s discuss.

It’s certainly a challenge for writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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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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Visiting Peter Jackson’s amazing cinema in Miramar, Wellington

The other day She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to have a look at the Roxy Cinema in Miramar, Wellington. It was done up a while back in classic golden-age cinema deco by Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, among others.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi frieze on the upper floor.

Dr Grordbort golden-age sci-fi sculpture on the upper floor. I took this photo hand-held, incidentally, and apart from adding copyright info and scaling back for the blog, it’s unedited.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork - Dr Grordbort himself in action.

Upper floor atrium with Greg Broadmore artwork – Dr Grordbort himself in action.

There is a magic about the cinema that we’ve lost, these days. Except here – where it’s been recaptured with a vengeance. And more. It was like stepping back in time – not just to the magic of the 1940s, but the magic of the 1940s as they never were, a bronze-and-gold world of deco-infused dieselpunk, streamline moderne spaceships and fantastic planet-scapes.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Exterior of the Roxy.

Inevitably, it featured heavy Weta Workshop influence. Not least in the Hobbit Hole entrance leading up to the second floor atrium with its amazing Greg Broadmore ceiling featuring his iconic Dr Grordbort dieselpunk artwork.

And if that wasn’t wow enough, we also found a model of the Wotwot spaceship – and a glass-encased Lego model of the cinema, which was simply extraordinary.

Even the facilities had been finished with full attention to period detail, down to the shape of the handbasins – though it’s unlikely, I suspect, that 1940s cinema bathrooms had hand-movement sensors to turn the water on and off. But maybe, in the dieselpunk alternate world of this cinema, they did.

I had only one thing to say about the whole thing. OMG!

And when can I watch the Dr Phibes movies here?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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Two interesting but possibly silly factoids about Star Wars

A while back Peter Mayhew – the 7’6” guy inside Chewbacca’s costume in the original Star Wars – released a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stills from the production.

They’ve got a period look – the movie was shot in the age of disco, flares and vinyl-topped cars. But it’s kind of cool to think Star Wars still has the power to capture our imaginations despite its stylistic origins in the decade taste forgot. Which leads me to a couple of factoids:

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Wait – yes it is. It’s Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

1. Tattooine is a real place. Most of the movie was filmed at Pinewood (hence the surfeit of British seventies brat-packers in bit-parts) but Lucas filmed the desert sequences in Tunisia near a town that looks like the Star Wars version. The name of that town? Foum Tataouine. Though before you all go ‘squee, how cool is it that they found a town of the same name’, think about how movies are actually made.

Not only is Tataouine a real place – it was liberated from the Nazis in 1943 by New Zealanders. I’ve met some of the guys who were in on the drive. (Just to compound the trivia, Luigi Cozzi’s Italian spaghetti version of the Lucas epic, Star Crash (1978) was filmed in part at Bari, where the Kiwis landed later the same year).

 2. Darth Vader’s real accent. Darth Vader was played by British actor and weight-lifter Dave Prowse, but he lost his voice to James Earl Jones. Prowse is from the West Country – Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was also West Country, spoke the same way. A soft, lilting accent that is one of England’s quintessential classics. But not, it seems, suitable for the movie’s chief villain.

Call it meta-entertainment. The story behind the adventure. Or something.

I can’t help thinking that the story behind the forthcoming Disney knock-offs won’t be anywhere near as interesting.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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All the good Trek stuff was invented by Robert A Heinlein

OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.

supernovaWell, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.

To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.

For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Why is it in this post? Just because. Click to enlarge.

1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).

2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.

3. Tribbles
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot – so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.

4. Starfleet
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent  – Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).

Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).

All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.

Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.