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 

 

Click to buy

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

The greatest writing challenge of all

Writers never finish learning how to write. ‘We are all apprentices’, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘in a craft where no-one ever becomes a master.’

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Too true.  It is an endless learning curve. Steep at first – as novice writers realise how much they have to learn, take their first unsteady steps into that world. Later it’s easier. But even those who have mastered the craft – who have achieved the 10,000 hour, million-word goal, cannot rest on their laurels.

There is no such thing as saying ‘I have learned how to write’. No writer ever finishes learning. The onus is on all writer, always, to push the edges – to sit down, as Hemingway also put it, at the typewriter and bleed.

My take? When you finish writing for the day, the question isn’t ‘what is my word count’. The question is ‘on what emotional journey have I taken my readers’?

And then you have to ask ‘how can I make that a better journey tomorrow?’

Take on the challenge.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Sherlock’s public domain – but will writing new stories be elementary?

A recent US court ruling that 50 Sherlock Holmes stories published before December 1923 are in public domain – hence free for all to use – raises questions about whether we’re about to be inundated with a flood of new Holmes adventures.

Holmes in action, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Holmes in action during the ‘Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, illustration by Sidney Paget for Strand Magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It’s subject to possible appeal, I suppose. But it’s a tricky issue. Here in New Zealand, all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have been public domain since 31 December 1980, the end of the fiftieth year after his death. But copyright terms and protections vary and his material has remained in copyright elsewhere. Some countries run 75 or 100-year copyrights after death, and the US has more than one term. The US court case came about, it seems, when a licensing deal with the Doyle estate tripped up.

To me, that raises a question. Sure, that ruling means any author can freely go ahead and use Sherlock Holmes and all the concepts and ideas that pre-date 1923 in stories of their own. This includes most of the classic Holmes imagery from the deerstalker cap to the pipe to the violin to the fact that it’s always 1895 and Hansom cabs are the way around London.

But should they?

Sherlock Holmes revisited has been done by authors. Nicholas Meyers’ The Seven Percent Solution, for instance. Or Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes-Dracula File. And there have been innumerable adaptations of the stories for movies or TV.

Another Paget illustratioon for Strand magazine.

Another Paget illustration, from the ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’, for Strand magazine. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

As far as I am concerned, the only two adaptations that have come close to the spirit and intent of the Conan Doyle original were both by the BBC. There was the Jeremy Brett/Edward Hardwicke adaptation of the 1980s, which was utterly faithful to Doyle’s work in essential details. And there was the 2010 Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman re-telling, which was so faithful to the spirit that we can easily imagine Conan Doyle writing it, were he starting out today. Don’t forget, Holmes was set in what was, when Doyle started, the modern world.

I question whether re-imagining the Holmes character is effective. There’s been stupid Holmes and smart Watson (Michael Caine/Ben Kingsley Without a Clue, 1988). Or Holmes as action hero (Robert Downey/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes, 2009). But Holmes, as Conan Doyle imagined him, is iconic – so aren’t these new characters? Riffing on the old, but really something else?

That highlights what, for me, is the key issue for any author writing ‘new’ Holmes stories. Sure, there’s a market. But Holmes stories are hard to do well – and really, it’s elevated fan fiction. Isn’t it better for an author to invent something new?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

The science of the inevitable Taupo apocalypse

A couple of weeks back I read Firelands, debut dystopian thriller by US author Piper Bayard. To call the book fantastic is an understatement. I was hooked from the first pages, dropping the book I was writing myself, despite looming contract deadline, so I could keep reading.

A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. Not a placid lake filled with trout. Well, it is. But it's also the caldera of one of the world's biggest supervolcanoes. Uh - yay.

A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. A placid lake filled with trout. And the caldera of one of the world’s biggest supervolcanoes. Uh – yay.

Firelands is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become a theocratic dictatorship – a provocative setting that makes the novel far more than just Hunger Games for grown-ups. Firelands is in a class of its own. A wonderful, insightful, thoughtful and exciting story.

Bayard’s instrument of doom is a supervolcano – Taupo – that casts the world into darkness.  A scenario that’s not just plausible. It’s already happened at least twice.

I live within 260 km of Taupo’s Hatepe vent, so I thought I’d post about the historical apocalypse while scrabbling for my asbestos suit, hard hat and breathing apparatus.

On the face of it, Taupo is a lake with thermal district. The full name is Taupo-nui-a-Tia; ‘the great cloak of Tia’, referring to a flax cloak of the rangitira Tia. It’s often mispronounced. The first syllable rhymes with ‘tow’ as in ‘towing along’. Technically, Taupo should also have a macron over the o, indicating a long vowel. In IPA terms it’s ‘tau-poh, which is close.

Photo taken by my wife one day in early 2005 of the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.

Photo my wife took in early 2005 when we visited the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.

Pakeha (white settlers) got to know it in the 1840s. Donald McLean, the dour, God-fearing Presbyterian Scot who trudged into the district in 1846, saw a Christian apocalypse, confiding to his diary that ‘No person could see this place without feeling intensely the awful end of a miserable sinner, when committed to his last home; and may God in His providence prepare us all for such a serious change…’

The science behind that hellish setting emerged only as vulcanology developed through the twentieth century.

Turns out the lake is a caldera, part of an immense volcanic field stretching from Mount Ruapehu  to the Whakatane underwater volcano. The field has erupted many times. White Island is active now, monitored by a webcam and plastic dinosaur.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate up to 13 percent of the North Island’s power. This is my photo of the Wairakei station. The techniques were developed  in New Zealand.

All are dwarfed by Taupo itself, the centre of the system. The last eruption around 180 AD, from the Hatepe vents near the south of the lake, was modest by Taupo standards, but still cast the world into shadow.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Taupo_2.png

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Via Wikipedia.

The benchmark remains the Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago  (earlier analysis cited 22,690 ±230 BP), to the north of the current lake and the world’s last eruption to score 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index – the maximum. Back then, the lake was different, known to paleogeographers as Lake Huka. In 2012, PhD student Aidan Allen discovered the trigger for this cataclysm was likely an earthquake.

The eruption blew out the current lake bed – and more. Everything in the central North Island was destroyed by a fall of ingimbrite some 200 metres deep. Then there were devastating floods. Even the major river, the Waikato, changed its course. Ash fell  as far away as the Chathams.

It was a world cataclysm. Although debate continues over specific triggers for Pleistocene glacial cycles, there is evidence that the worldwide glacial maximum that began 26,500 years ago was pushed, in part, by this eruption. In New Zealand, certainly, a warming period prior to the eruption came to a dead stop afterwards.

Oruanui may not have caused the glacial cycle alone – but  it made things worse. Humanity was nearly wiped out in the deep cold that followed. The downturn seems to have been the last blow for Neanderthals, our cousin species already reduced to the edge of extinction at Gibraltar. It destroyed a nascent H. Sapiens agricultural revolution among the Gravettian culture in what are now Russian steppelands. Had that not been cut short, civilisation might have been with us 20,000 years earlier.

This was the apocalypse, Pleistocene style.

And to give that perspective, the Oruanui blast was itself dwarfed by the Whakamaru eruption in the same zone, 254,000 years ago.

We’ll have warning before the next one. Taupo is monitored by New Zealand’s Geological and Nuclear Sciences department via GPS and seismographic stations. No rubber dinosaur, but hey…

Hopefully it won’t happen in our lifetimes. Because when it does, it will bring the apocalypse. Certainly for New Zealand, maybe the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

A close encounter with cyber Katherine Mansfield and her poodle hair

A stainless steel statue of New Zealand’s greatest short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, was unveiled the other week in a city park in Wellington.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...

Cyber Katherine Mansfield…I think…

It’s incised with words from her stories, and captures her with her classic hairstyle – a Louise Brooks-style blunt cut that Mansfield insisted made her look like a poodle.

Mansfield – real name Kathleen Beauchamp – was born in Wellington in 1889 and remains a remarkable figure, beloved of biographers. She was the main topic of a university course I did, many years ago as an undergraduate, on how to write biography – and for good reason.

Writers, as people, always seem to be somehow attractive to write about; perhaps readers want to know what makes them tick. Most are less interesting than we imagine (I’m pretty boring myself, for instance).

But not Mansfield.

She clashed with New Zealand’s tightening social values and fled to London, where after becoming pregnant to Garnett Trowell, indulging in a one-day marriage to George Bowden and finally seducing Floryan Sobieniowski, all interspersed with at least one miscarriage and one abortion, she met John Middleton Murry and slotted into the Bloomsbury set – a dissipated, hedonistic world of illicit chemicals, salacious conduct and lives built around expressed angst and unrepressed desire.

At one point, her mother rushed across from New Zealand – insofar as one could rush in the first decade of the twentieth century – to have her wayward daughter packed off to a German spa and literally hosed down, a physical washing that did little to dislodge what by period standards was moral soil.

Mansfield went on to marry John Middleton Murry, though the salaciousness continued; they spent extended periods with D H and Frieda Lawrence – who, shall we say, were all more than just friends.

For Mansfield the lifestyle carried a cost; she contracted tuberculosis – and in those pre-antibiotic days, that was a death sentence. It has been argued that one side effect was intense creativity. Perhaps. But it was all cut short in 1923.

Afterwards she was idolised by her husband, her lapsed lifestyle overtaken by a cult of virtue and writing. It was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that some of the deeper – and more interesting – realities of Mansfield as a person began to emerge. Today her love letters have been published, and she has emerged as a much more rounded, fascinating, and colourful character than we ever imagined.

Just last year, several previously unknown stories of hers were discovered – dark, wild tales that nobody imagined she might have been  capable of writing.

Mansfield’s remains a wonderful, tragic, fascinating story. A statue to her, in her home town, is long overdue

Do I like it? I have to admit, I got the impression that she’d been hit by one too many Cybermites and ‘upgraded’. But hey…

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Being a Tolkien fan is all about the reading experience

It occurred to me the other day that I could probably be classified as a bit of a Tolkien fan. I’ve been soaking up Tolkien’s books ever since I was about 10.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

I had to pose in the entrance of the 2012 Hobbit Artisan Market in Wellington …but that’s the limit of geek, for me.

I must have read The Lord Of The Rings a dozen times or more. The Hobbit as often. I have the maps, I saw the movies, and I went to the exhibition of movie props.

But I wouldn’t call myself a total Tolkien fan. I don’t dress up in the costumes – you know, green cloaks that render you invisible against green grass, green rocks, green water, green sky etc.

My copy of The Lord Of The Rings is from three different editions. Nor do I collect memorabilia, or go to Armageddon comic-con gatherings to ogle merchandise and be photographed beside the guy who swept the studio floor on alternate Sundays while they were shooting out-takes for The Return of the King.

It is a limited kind of enthusiasm; and I also view what Tolkien did in a literary sense with a suitably critical eye; he wasn’t perfect, and he wrote a lot of stuff the hard way.

So what is it, for me? Well, it’s the reading experience. Tolkien created a world that became real for the reader. He did it by description – if you open The Lord Of The Rings at virtually any page, you’ll find evocative descriptions of the settings – the sounds, the smells, the feel.

He did it by depth; his world was rich with its own mythology and history, rich with culture, with language, with peoples of all kinds, all of them carefully described.

Tussock and Echium - Patterson's Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

Not actually Rohan. Tussock and Echium – Patterson’s Curse, in the top of Lindis Pass.

He did it with scope; his themes struck chords with the very heart of western thinking, western mythology, and western culture; epic battles between good and evil, between right and wrong. Clear-cut, scarcely shaded in any greys.

And he did it by giving us heroes we could identify with – not Aragorn, who was the archetypal mythic  hero; but the hobbits, who were ordinary, everyday folk. Effectively, people like us – people who we could identify with and journey with, who became heroic.

A message of hope, swathed in all the things that speak to our sense of culture, right, wrong – and place.

That’s why I like Tolkien. Have you read his books? What draws you to them – for you, is it the reading experience, or something else?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, humour geekery and other stuff.

Sixty second writing tips: how J K Rowling twisted the tropes

One of the secrets to successful writing is offering something readers can identify with, but that has enough originality to be new. The same…but different.

Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands - site of the Elf Fantasy Fair at which Hobb was visitor in April 2008, though that wasn't when I took this picture of the place.

Modern meets fantasy in another way – a pic I took a few years back of Kastel de Haar, near Utrecht, Netherlands.

J. K. Rowling’s shown us how it’s done. Back in the 1990s, Brit boarding school stories were dead, dead, dead. The world of ripping wheezes at the expense of The Beak, followed by clandestine visits to the tuck shop  with Bunter Major, was soooo 1930s.

Trad magic stories were pretty much dead too – I mean, spells, wizards and potions were so cliched. Put together, they should have worked even less well.

What Rowling did was genius – mashing up two cliches and giving them a twist. That came partly from the way she reinterpreted the spell-and wand trope, partly from the seven-story plot cycle, and partly from her style – easy, unadorned and well pitched for the readership. And now writing has its first billionaire author.

Time for the rest of us to follow suit. But not with school magic mashups. They’ve been done…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 17: Tolkien’s lessons about writing a best seller

How do novels become not just sellers, but best sellers – and hyper-sellers?

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

Hobbit Market, November 2012. I had to lie prone to take this picture. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

Quality’s important, but not always a criteria. Seldom have I read a novel as incompetently researched and clumsily styled as The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said). I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do I want to, but I’m sure somebody’ll comment about what I am told is, well, derivative dribble.

I posted the other week about how genre becomes popular because it keys into changing social ideals – and last week about how types of genre become specifically popular on the back of particular social trends.

The best-sellers are the ones who float to the top of those heaps. The thing is, they’re usually transient. But every so often a book transcends that – becomes not just a best seller, but a lasting best seller. A classic.

Something everybody has at least heard of – even if they haven’t read it – and which stays in the public mind for years – even decades.

Like The Lord Of The Rings. In just a few heady years during the late 1960s,  J R R Tolkien’s epic effectively mainstreamed fantasy. His mythos was embedded in western popular literature even before Peter Jackson’s movies (filmed in my country and my city, bwahahahaha) catapulted his creation to stratospheric popularity.

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

Hobbit market, November 2012 – Tolkien, mainstreamed.

An astonishing achievement for a modest and retiring Oxford don who had to be nudged into finishing anything for a publisher.

Tolkien never planned it that way. His publishers didn’t anticipate it either. The book he presented Allen & Unwin with in the early 1950s was barely publishable – they broke it into three parts to spread the risk, and a glance at early print runs reveals it shifted only a few thousand copies.

Then, in the mid-1960s, it took off. Kicked into life by a pirated American edition, followed by Tolkien’s authorised edition. It kept on selling. And on. And on. And on….

What happened?

His themes struck chords with a new generation, particularly the idealised pre-industrial England of the Shire and the hippified, natural Earth-spirit lifestyle of Tom Bombadil. The link between Bombadil and counter-culture values was lampooned with all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer in Bored Of The Rings.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

This was a generation that read a lot of fantasy, partly because fantasy had become an element of their fabric of escape. Tolkien met their need on both counts. Genre tastes, in short, had caught up, though his own motives were different in many respects (eerily, also similar – every generation found reason to object to industrialisation).

Other authors tried to imitate him. Tolkien, in short, had created a new genre, about a generation ahead of its time.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

Hutt River or Anduin. Well, maybe the houses are the give-away.

As if that wasn’t wonderful enough, the book gained an enduring public audience. Part of that was due to the way that 1960s youth ideals were mainstreamed. Part of it was the scope of Tolkien’s vision, engaging symbolisms at a fundamental level. And that wasn’t surprising. He was trying to write Britain’s missing mythology; he wrote to fundamental themes – capturing our cultural framework in soaring battles between total good and utter evil; the symbolisms of mythic heroism.

All was given a dimension that ordinary people could identify with, through the ordinariness of the hobbits – little folk who, inevitably, were more heroic than anybody could imagine.

A stunning achievement. And not something that can be easily repeated – certainly, I suspect, not by design.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next time: getting down to the nuts and bolts of novel writing.  More humour, more writing tips – and, well, more. Watch this space.

Write it now, part 15: the rise and rise of the genre monster

One of the big literary inventions of the nineteenth century was one that transformed the novel-writing scene. Genre.

When novels first emerged in the early part of the century they were, as often as not, social commentaries. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was typical. So were Charles Dickens’ various stories. They were joined by others that we might , indeed, call ‘genre’ – notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But for a long while these things were few and far between.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

That changed with the commercialisation of novel writing – with the advent of the steam driven printing press, with the advent of mechanisms for mass-producing and mass-selling novels to the rising urban middle classes of the developing world who had the leisure time – and the spare cash – to buy books and then read them.

One of the earliest genres was science fiction, a device for social commentary. Jules Verne introduced the world to it, using his ‘science fiction’ stories –really, travel romances – to lampoon national cliches; German stern-ness and order (Professor Lidenbrock/Journey To The Centre of The Earth), American go-getting (From the Earth to the Moon) and British reserve (Phileas Fogg/Around The World In Eighty Days) among them.

H. G. Wells used science fiction for social commentary towards the end of the century. When five British Maxim gun crews slaughtered 1500 spear-wielding Matabele at the Battle of the Shangani river in October 1893 – and another 2500 a week or so later at Bembese – the world was horrified.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/the Maxim gun/and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, a little later. From that also emerged Wells’s The War Of The Worlds, a remarkably slim book pivoting on one question; how would the British feel if a superior technology descended upon London?

Detective stories flourished. Conan Doyle effectively popularised and defined the ‘short story’ format for them at the end of the nineteenth century – giving the world one of its most iconic and enduring literary characters in the process.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans thrilled to their own genre – westernsl, celebrating the myths of frontier. A form epitomised by Zane Grey, who spent periods big-game fishing in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

The point was that popular genres changed as society changed. Cowboy stories went in and out, detective stories rose and fell. Science fiction, which began life for social satire and comment, retained that function into the twentieth century – but became a way of popularising tech-wonders.

If anything, genre change is moving at hyper-speed on the back of the web revolution.  We have to keep up with – and ahead of – the trend if we’re to succeed.

Urban fantasy, anyone?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013