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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Announcing my next book on the New Zealand Wars

I’m pleased to announce my first title for 2014. It’s being published by Libro International on 29 July. Here’s their media release. I’m quite excited, and I hope you will be too.

The cover of my next book.

The cover of my next book.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history tells the tale (briefly!) of the thirty years of sporadic fighting that marked New Zealand’s mid-nineteenth century.  Two of these wars played out at the same time – and with much the same technologies – as the US Civil War being fought on the other side of the Pacific.

It’s an era that had had its share of controversy and its share of myth-making. Late twentieth century historians reversed the way the wars had traditionally been seen. But were they right? And what was the actual story - in brief – behind the dramatic events of the day?

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

New Zealand and the American Declaration of Independence

I am often intrigued by the unlikely ways history has conspired to make the world we know today – the connections, often unlikely, that link the world.

John Trumbull's painting, of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

John Trumbull’s well known painting of the authors of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Take the US Declaration of Independence, for instance. I figure that it was thanks to a combination of this document and the fact that too many Englishmen were caught poaching that we have Australia and New Zealand as we know them today.

Let me explain. The British lost the War of Independence – and with it, one jewel in their Imperial crown, America. It had a significant ripple effect – and in ways nobody could have predicted. You see, Britain didn’t have a state prison system as such. After 1717, most poor criminals who weren’t hanged were banished to America. By 1776 some 40,000 had been bundled off across the Atlantic, where they were usually put to work as labourers.  That door closed with the revolution – just at the moment when, as far as anybody in Whitehall could tell, places to exile petty criminals were needed more than ever.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his 1820 book Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders. British Library, public domain.

Pickpocket in action. Picture by Thomas Rowlandson, from his ‘Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders’ (1820). British Library, public domain.

The problem was that the American Revolution came just as Britain also fell into the Industrial Revolution. That brought social upheaval on unprecedented scale. Authorities responded by tightening punishments on those dispossessed by the change, who had been reduced as a result to petty crime. But there were a lot of them, and by the early 1780s there was nowhere to put them, except the rotting prison hulks anchored around Britain’s harbours. Home Secretary Thomas Townshend, Lord Sydney, summed it up. These places were so crowded that ‘the greatest danger is to be apprehended, not only from their escape, but from infectious distempers, which may hourly be expected to break out amongst them.’

The prospect that they might also become a focus for uprising was probably not lost on authorities. There was only one answer; and at the end of August 1786, Sydney ordered the Admiralty to get moving on a scheme to set up a new prison colony on the other side of the world in Botany Bay, on the south-eastern coast of Australia.  The first fleet of eleven ships, led by HMS Sirius, left Portsmouth in May 1787.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

Botany Bay, New South Wales, around 1789. Watercolour by Charles Gore, collections of the State Library of NSW, via Wikipedia. Public domain.

The prison colony at Botany Bay soon expanded; other prisons were set up – all with the aim of becoming nuclei of proper settlements. And they began leaking. Prisoners who had no idea where they were took to small boats, thinking they might reach Tahiti – or home. Actually, many ended up in New Zealand, where there was virtually no European presence at the time. Others went across on ships – men given their parole who found work on sealers and whalers. All lived riotously, and they soon gave New Zealand a repute for wild lawlessness.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, were disgusted with the behaviours they saw playing out before them – and complained, on occasion, to authorities in Sydney.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

It was largely to curb this bad-boy behaviour by British subjects who were out of reach of the law that the British finally angled towards setting up a Crown colony, formally, in the late 1830s. But there was no money available, and prevailing mood in the Colonial Office was tempered by the Church Missionary Society. A colony, the Colonial Office insisted, could only be set up with free agreement of Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi followed – a three-clause document hastily written and signed for the first time at Waitangi in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands in February 1840. Today it is regarded as New Zealand’s founding document, much as the US uphold the Declaration of Independence. And – by the path laid out here – likely wouldn’t have happened if the American colonies hadn’t decided to do something about the problems they were having with the British.

History, as I say, has some funny connections. Do you ever think about the way events conspire to connect – and create the world we know today?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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A glistening quote from the Wellington Writers’ Walk

I was out on the Wellington waterfront the other day with my camera and spotted the light falling just so across this quote from New Zealand’s best known short-story writer, Katherine Mansfield. She’s one of several authors commemorated in the Wellington Writers’ Walk.

My DSLR’s not new-tech, and CCD’s being what they are, I wasn’t sure a photo into the light would actually work. But it did. I had to share it.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

Flying saucers and other aerial crockery

A UFO was caught over the South Island the other week by an Australian film crew. By “UFO” I mean “unidentified object” which was “flying”. We don’t know what it was – and the objects could have been an artefact of the video.

Jupiter rising over Io - a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Needless to say, I am certain they weren’t alien spacecraft, any more than any other UFO is.

I can hear the howling. ‘But the universe is big, surely other planets must have life?’

Sure. Space is enormous.  No doubt life’s emerged elsewhere. But – again – it doesn’t follow that the aliens have developed civilisation, jumped into spacecraft, and flown here. It particularly doesn’t follow that they’ve done so merely to lurk mysteriously on the edge of our vision, violating cows, revealing themselves to lone witnesses on dark country roads, and so on. Or that they’d be big-headed, big-eyed, child-bodied versions of us with an ethical view that fixes the faults of western society.

The fact that lay-people presented with partial evidence can’t explain an observed phenomenon doesn’t prove it’s an alien spaceship. The fact that science can’t explain it from partial data doesn’t, either. That’s false-premise logic.

I’ve seen plenty of weird aerial stuff myself. The best was over Wellington in April 1986, when I spotted a slow-moving fireball parallel to the southern horizon, shedding sparks. I knew what it was. The thing was moving in the direction I’d expect from the usual orbital paths, the only ‘unidentified’ part was whether it was US or Soviet.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

To me the phenomenon of ‘space aliens’ is a product of the way western culture is conditioned to think. The trigger was the mid-twentieth century assumption that Earth was archetypal and that every world capable of supporting life would bear one intelligent species, probably a bipedal hominid. In due course, this would become civilised, space-faring and visit other worlds. Just like Europe’s explorers during the age of exploration.

It is no coincidence that we decided aliens were visiting just as we began to take spaceflight credibly. The idea emerged in June 1947 when US pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine boomerang-shaped objects paralleling his aircraft near Mount Rainier. A journalist misquoted that as ‘saucers’, which promptly became the shape of the interlopers thereafter. The origin of that shape as a journalists’ misquote was rather lost amid the flood of blurred photographs of aerial lampshades that fringe enthusiasts were subsequently able to provide as proof of their own encounters.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. NASA/JPL, public domain.

These 1950s-era aliens came from Mars or Venus and looked like us, only with handy super-powers such as telepathy. Alas, the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s revealed Venus was a runaway greenhouse oven – and Mars was a cold, cratered world without breathable air. Luckily it turned out, after that discovery, that the aliens really came from well-known stars on the school science curriculum, like Aldebaran. Then in 1978 Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the cinema, and the current alien trope followed.

You get the picture.

My take? We have had civilisation for an eye-blink against the age of the Earth. It may only last another eye-blink, by that scale. Who says aliens have the same capability at the same time? They might have flourished and gone a billion years ago. Or their time might be a billion years in the future.

Space is also immense. Who says they’d find us anyway? Or that we could be important? To give that a sense of proportion, our sun’s invisible, without telescopes, from just under 60 light years.* I’ve heard it argued that ‘they’ could hear our transmissions – TV, radio, radar and so on. Actually, we’re just as invisible that way too. In theory I Love Lucy – which began transmission in 1951 – has just reached the planet we photographed, orbiting Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away. Actually our broadcasts, even high-frequency radars, don’t get that far because of the inverse square law, coupled with natural background radio noise. Our stuff’s lost in the static. Yet our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Feel small? You should. And if aliens did arrive, would we recognise them as life? Or be able to communicate? They’re alien, remember. Maybe they’d be too busy talking to their own kind – you know, other algae.

Put another way – sure, we see stuff in the sky we can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicable. Or that ‘aliens’ are among us.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


* Geek time. Muahahahaha. Stellar brightness is measured by magnitude, an inverse scale in which lower is brighter. The true magnitude of a star is its absolute magnitude. But this fades with distance (inverse square law), so its visual magnitude, the brightness we see from a distance, is less. This is known as the apparent magnitude. Any star of apparent magnitude greater than about 6 is invisible to the average naked eye. The distance where the apparent magnitude (m) fades to invisibility can be calculated from the absolute magnitude (M) using the distance modulus equation r = 10<exp>((m-M)/5+1) where r is the distance in parsecs. If you apply that to the Sun, absolute magnitude 4.83, you discover it fades to apparent magnitude 6 at about 57 light years, which is about 0.057 percent the diameter of the galaxy.



Refurbishing with colour and deco

I’ve refurbished my blog this week – added a new header, new background and changed some of the colours.

Here's the original image - also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

Here’s the original image – also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

The header’s from a photo essay I took in late February in Napier, New Zealand.  It features the upper parts of the 1932 Masonic Hotel building on the right, in early streamline style, and the 1936 T & G building, now called (rather unimaginatively) The Dome, on the left – partly obscured by deco-style foliage.

Napier is set apart by its stunning 1930s architectural heritage. And by its climate, which matches Santa Barbara. It was around 100 degrees F on that scorching late summer day. The camera got hot too, and the photos that came out of it glowed – even the shadows were fully lit, by reflection. The photo at bottom shows what I mean. It was taken facing the opposite direction from the blog header.

What do you think of the new blog look?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

This is the exact image that came out of the camera – editing was restricted to scaling down for the blog, and adding the copyright notice. It was taken with full polarisation. Note the flared highlights, and how the shadow side of the car is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the footpath. Same phenomenon is why Apollo astronauts appeared to be side-lit on the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

It’s true. New Zealand Moa once flew. Cool.

The latest science suggests that the Moa, New Zealand’s giant and extinct flightless bird, may not always have been flightless.

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell - son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,

A conjectural picture of a Moa drowning in a swamp by early New Zealand settler Walter Mantell – son of the man who first discovered the Iguanadon, in England. Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant (Hon), 1820-1895. [Mantell, Walter Baldock Durrant] 1820-1895 :Moa in a swamp. [1875-1900]. Ref: C-107-002. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. From the collection of the New Zealand National Library,

Yup, Moa once flew. Setting aside the prospects of what might happen to anybody caught underneath one of these giant ratites at the moment when they decided to release one of their commensurately plus-sized dollops of Moa-guano , it also raises the question about what they might have been called. Flymo, perhaps?

Moa died out very soon after humans arrived in New Zealand. We’re lucky enough to have specimens of moa tissue – mummified skin and feathers, found in dry caves. I still recall being able to examine some of these, close up, behind the scenes at the Otago Museum. A great privelige. Anyway, the latest DNA analysis suggests the likely closest relative, which definitely still flies, is the South American tinamou.

We’ve already discovered that Kiwi probably also flew – in fact, may well have flown here after New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland, near the end of the Cretaceous period.

Both they and moa lost the power of flight, once here, because there were no predators – no need to keep flying, in fact. Along the way, moa split into several distinct species. Not as many as we once thought; they seem to have also had extreme dimorphism – what settler-age analysts thought were separate species, we now know, were actually males and females of the same species.

It’s pretty cool. We’re learning more and more about these extinct creatures every year. And it is also, I think, time to put one issue to rest. The debate over whether they died out for natural reasons – or because they were hunted to extinction.

The actual answer is that they were hunted to extinction. And fairly quickly. The archaeological evidence is extremely clear. New Zealand was the last large land mass in the world reached by humans. They arrived late in the piece from Polynesia – the Cooks and Marqueses islands, mainly – around 1280 AD, probably at the Wairau bar. And a biota that had been largely stable for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly changed.

It was the last great collision between humans and Pliestocene megafauna – and the result was the same in New Zealand as it was elsewhere. Moa, in particular, were unafraid of humans; had no evolved response to them.  And they were slaughtered. Hunting parties would roam the high country, snacking on moa eggs and killing the birds. Often they would partially butcher them on the spot, then carry the choicest cuts downstream to great ovens near the coasts.

All of this is very clear in the archaeological evidence. And the hunters didn’t have to kill the last moa. All they had to do was reduce the population below breeding viability. It didn’t take long. By the fifteenth century at the latest they were largely gone. It is possible that relict populations may have survived a little longer in places like Fijordland, but soon they too were gone.

The fact that this happened has been ideologically difficult to accept; the arguments have raged back and forth, mirroring the way that indigenous populations have been re-invented in post-colonioal vision as greener and more eco-friendly than our own. Which they were, to a large extent. But that doesn’t reduce the clear evidence of an orgy of slash-and-dine in fourteenth century New Zealand. We have to accept the point. Moa died out not because their population was much in decline, not because of sudden climate change – but because they were delicious.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


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Don’t forget to watch TV this Sunday

The first episode of the four-part history documentary Making New Zealand, for which I was interviewed, will be screening nationally on Prime TV in New Zealand this Sunday, 18 May, at 8.30 pm.

The remaining three parts are showing at the same time next week, the week after and so forth. I don’t know how much of the interview I did will be shown, but we’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Figuring out when a non-invasion happened

I don’t often discuss some of my historical work on this blog – that’s what my books are for.

But today I thought I’d share a snippet – the arrival of Ngati Kahungunu in Hawke’s Bay. A story usually typified by their arrival at the strongest defensive point in the district, the massive double pa Otatara-Hikurangi.

Close-up of the reconstructed palisades at Otatara, Taradale.

Close-up of the interpretative palisades at Otatara-Hikurangi, above Taradale.

A pa (pronounced ‘paa’ with a long ‘a’, which should be shown with a macron, except the symbol set on this font doesn’t have one) is a protected structure. Over 6000 have been identified from when the age of pa building began around 1500, to its end with the ‘rifle pa’ of the 1860s. They range from look-out posts to large fortresses enclosing villages. Technically, all are field fortifications – wood and earth structures, and Otatara-Hikurangi was a classic ditch-and-bank structure built on a discontinuous scarp.

The pa at Otatara-Hikurangi (pronounced ‘Oh-taa-ta-ra’) was one of the biggest in the Ahuriri district, likely built in the late sixteenth century, sited on the hill above Ahuriri harbour for a reason. You can see everything coming.

Otatara pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. Click to enlarge.

Otatara-Hikurangi pa with reconstructed elements of palisade, Taradale, Napier. This is the upper pa, Hikurangi; the adjacent Otatara pa was quarried out of existence from 1925. Click to enlarge.

The oral record tells of an ‘invasion’ of Hawke’s Bay by Ngati Kahungunu, who had been living at Mahia, a peninsula 100 km distant. They arrived under their rangitira (chief) Taraia to settle. Although portrayed as an ‘invasion’ by settler-era ethnographers, it was more a process of heke (migration) followed by settlement and intermarriage with Ngati Mamoe and other inhabitants of Ahuriri and neighbouring Heretaunga.

The thing is, nobody knows when this happened. Maori oral tradition is geared to preserve – accurately – details important to Maori. From it they can determine the relationships required to identify land right and status, among other things.

That did not suit scholars of western tradition,who were looking for dates. Such as when Taraia arrived. That was one thing the tradition did not supply, and early western guesses – based in part on genealogies – put the ‘invasion’ anywhere from 1570 to 1650.

View from Otatara looking northeast. Now Napier city.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking northeast. Now Napier city.

Archaeological work has helped, and although little has been done directly on Otara-Hikurangi, other areas have been examined. But even then, carbon dating carries built-in uncertainty which doesn’t much narrow the date of Taraia’s arrival. But I think it’s possible to get a more precise figure – deductively at this stage. I think it’s likely to have been around 1600-1603. Without detailing the calculations I made, the logic runs:

View from Otatara looking southeast - now a wine growing region.

View from Otatara-Hikurangi looking southeast – now a wine growing region. Click to enlarge.

1. My calculations from the genealogical record (using multiple lines) put the heke at 1600-1610.
2. Oral tradition makes clear Ngati Kahungunu moved for resource reasons; they were jammed into the Mahia region after moving from East Cape.
3. Those resources were constrained in 1601 by a double whammy; an earthquake dislocated local mussel beds, and fallout from a well documented volcanic eruption in Chile that year disrupted the growing season.
4. These pressures likely prompted the disputes over resources, documented in the oral record, that prompted the move to Ahuriri. Exactly when is unclear, but my estimate is that it must have been within a year or two.

The knock-on effects were significant – as I explained in my book Old South (Penguin 2009)the intrusion by Ngati Kahungunu pushed Rangitane south, with knock-on results that rippled through New Zealand into the South Island. The echoes helped push southern Maori together, a process still under way in the mid-eighteenth century when James Cook turned up and New Zealand’s history changed forever.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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