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.


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.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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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:

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.

Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

The other week Peter Jackson met fans in Wellington for a sneak part-preview of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Even Smaug was there – well, the pet lizard, Hermes, they used for mo-cap sequences, anyway.

I am a huge enthusiast for Tolkien and Jackson. But I didn’t don my magic elven cloak (the one that renders you invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water) and go along. I don’t cosplay. I don’t go to conventions. I don’t have a book filled with autographs from the Guy In The Red Shirt or the set-sweeper for Star Trek: The Original Series, who’s made a living from convention fees ever since.

Partly it’s because I’ve been at the receiving end to some extent. As an author I get approached every so often by strangers. Setting aside the odd incident in which a would-be author thinks I’ve written one of ‘their’ books, sees red, and barrels over to take a pop at me – which has actually happened – most of these people are friendly, but I never quite know what to say. I just do stuff. It involves a lot of hard work and doesn’t make me special.

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

Ordinary Kiwis at the Hobbit craft market, late 2012.

I think this is true of most writers. They are professionals whose job happens to be creating stuff –  who have normal lives and do their own supermarket shopping. Actually that’s true of the whole entertainment industry. A few years back She Who Must Be Obeyed and I lived a block or two from an actor who was known internationally. My wife knew his wife slightly, and we used to run into them in the local video store. They were totally normal, unassuming and nice people.

As far as I can tell, modern ‘fandom’ emerged in the 1920s on the sci-fi magazine boom. It took on life in the 1970s – largely fostered by Trek.  Back then it was seen as a symptom of maladjustment. ‘Trekkie’ became a perjorative, usually taken to mean socially inept nerds who couldn’t function in a normal world and relied on their obsession with somebody else’s fantasy to define their identities and social interactions.

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

I had to go prone to take this picture of Hobbit market stuff. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

It’s likely, I think, that a proportion of fans then did fit that category. But not many. Certainly I don’t think that characterises fandom these days. It’s been mainstreamed, commercialised, and evolved into a way for people to express their enthusiasms. (That’s another reason I don’t go to conventions – they’re so crowded you can’t get in the door).

So why do fans become ‘fans’? I think it’s an indication of the power that stories and settings have to evoke emotion. It’s a way of sharing that experience with others who think the same way. It’s an endorsement of the ability of writers, movie-makers and actors to create emotional transfer and capture an audience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: the final NaNo prompts for 2013, more writing tips, and more.

Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.

Not so smug about Smaug

Warner Brothers released the first clips of Smaug the Dragon this week, six months ahead of The Hobbit, Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

‘You are?’ the stranger asked politely. ‘Why, I am Bioquxqwehr, a Gchqetuzgchzghghughwy from the city of  Cigghguhqchchgh in the land of Aqghpowiqghghghpoewqgch.’ ‘A land,’ the stranger observed ‘where the commonest cause of death is choking on one’s own tongue?’ ‘Why yes,’ said Bioquxqwehr. ‘How in all the name of Pwqhexghxghxghchchghxiud did you guess that?’

‘I say, George old boy, off for a spot of dragon hunting, eh what?’ ‘I should jolly well think so.’ “By Jove, bit of a ripping wheeze, that!’

The creature is the whole rationale of The Hobbit and, I suppose, focus of the next two movies in the nine-hour epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s modest childrens’ tale.

We know what Smaug looked like because Tolkien carefully drew him – my copy of The Hobbit has the author’s own illustration on the cover, in fact. A classic dragon, a creature St. George would have been proud to defeat in single combat – and deliberately done that way by Tolkien, for good reason.

Does the dragon look like that in the movie? Noooo.


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. And the imagery we have in our heads as we read a story will always differ between people

But Tolkien was pretty specific about the look of his dragon

Question: should film-makers follow the author’s vision – or is it adding something to have a new look to Smaug? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sneaking a peek at a character from the second Hobbit movie

Today New Line Cinema revealed Tauriel, an elf warrior from Mirkwood, part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit cast.

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'.

Me at the Hobbit Artisan Market in December 2012. Yes, I am a geeky fan, kind of.

It’s part of the build-up to the new movie, but the character never existed in any of Tolkien’s works, and  when I add that to the rather loose adaptation of the first movie, I can’t help thinking that the liberties apparently taken with Tolkien’s charming childrens’ tale have turned it into something else.

I do kind of wonder. But I’ve been a Jackson fan for years, and a Tolkien fan for even longer.So in the interests of helping a fellow Kiwi I thought I might provide a list of characters I’ve invented that never appeared in The Hobbit but who might – perhaps – be suitable for the movie version. I hope I’m not too late.

Tyhmä Nimi – legendary King of the Dwarfs and part-time truck driver known for making magic rings disappear, only to have them ‘reappear’ about 48 hours later.

Sierain Sormella – northern Elf who wields the legendary Sword of Cutting, named Kauttaviiva, known to the Dwarfs as Khlunk, also called ‘Erittäin terävä teräväkärkiset laite‘ on alternate Wednesdays.

Wendy – escaped from another kids’ book after being kidnapped in Hyde Park. (Actually, I didn’t invent this character.)

Glugg – large CGI-style Orc with a big nose. Has no obvious story function.

Kala Kalakauppias – an Elvish fisherman who could appear on the far left in Scene 3.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Remember Gandalf? He’s baaack….

Stars of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have re-convened here in Wellington NZ for final pick-up shooting.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

I’m undecided whether I’ll see the rest of the trilogy. I saw the first – and wasn’t impressed.

My gripes? The cast couldn’t be faulted. Wonderful, wonderful performers. But The Hobbit (novel) was a tightly constructed hero journey. Jackson’s first-part movie wasn’t. It rambled. It brought sub-plots and details that Tolkien never wrote.

It seemed to veer between epic serious – on a scale well above the novel – and Jackson-style visual slapstick, which didn’t bear much resemblance to Tolkien’s quietly intellectual jokes.

I am a huge Tolkien fan. And a huge Jackson fan. Movies don’t have to follow books – but they do have to work as a movie.

This time? Meh.

Have you seen The Hobbit – what are 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.

How Tolkien became part of my life. Is he part of yours?

Forty years after I first encountered the work of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, I am still on a wonderful journey of discovery in his world.

I had moment to think about it on the weekend when my wife and I passed through Miramar, Wellington and stopped at the ‘Weta Cave’. It’s a store run by Weta Workshop, who made the props for Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s work.  In typical Kiwi fashion it’s in an unprepossessing building of late 1930s austerity construction.

Weta Cave - unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Weta Cave – unprepossessing ordinariness masking the home of something truly extraordinary.

Most of the buildings in the area are like this. It’s the heart of Peter Jackson’s movie-making empire. You wouldn’t think so, to look at it. But that’s the magic of movies for you.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

It’s all in an ordinary industrial-style street. I don’t know if these warehouses, directly opposite Jackson’s post-production building, are part of the studio or not, though interesting drumming noises were coming out of them when I took this photo.

Though the Park Road Post Production building is pretty impressive.

I took this from the street.

I took this from the street.

The visit – coupled with last week’s viewing of The Hobbit movie - got me thinking. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘fan’. I approach Tolkien with a critical eye, I don’t consume every word.  Each volume in my copy of The Lord of The Rings is from a totally different paperback edition and I’ve never bothered to get any of the different illustrated, one-volume or ‘collectors’ versions issued since.

But I like his created world and his writing very much indeed, and have ever since I was eight or nine – about as long,  in fact, that I’ve been writing myself.

It was the Pauline Baynes map that captured me first. Her artwork  was evidently frowned upon by Tolkien himself. But it spoke of adventure, of exploration – of the unknown. I wanted to experience that magic – to live that world. I started imagining. A little later, I read The Hobbit. And I was hooked. I still have that copy of the book, the third edition paperback with Tolkien’s own ‘Death of Smaug’ sketch as cover art. It’s totally battered. I don’t know how often I’ve read it. Lots.

A year or two after that I read The Lord Of The Rings. And read it again. And again. And again. And many times again after that. I’ve read it only twice since I was a teenager – but I can still pretty much quote passages from it.

Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

Check out the wear and tear. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

Tolkien’s work spoke to me on many levels. He conveyed a sense of wonder on an epic scale, yet in terms that brought that wonder back to ‘ordinary’ through the hobbits. I could share their sense of discovery, of growth, as the world unfolded for them – and which they had to find the strength to handle.

Later, as I learned more about literature and writing, I came to realise just how much of the essence of the western mind Tolkien had put into his work. My enjoyment of his world became a journey of discovery – re-awakening a sense of wonder when I read his material.

I am still on that journey, and it is a wonderful journey indeed.

How about you? Are you a Tolkien enthusiast? What drew you to his work? And if he’s not your cup of tea – well, what doesn’t appeal? It’s all valid. I don’t like some of his material myself, actually – too inaccessible, too academic; or written in ways that don’t capture. As I say, I approach this with a critical eye – not adulating fandom. But what he imagined remains very much a part of my life.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013