Worldbuilding: inspired by history – and Peter Jackson

The other week I had lunch with a PhD student from Wyoming who’d tracked me down for advice on the New Zealand Wars and the similarities between New Zealand’s nineteenth century experience and that of the US.

History informs writers when it comes to creating worlds. And there’s a world which has largely gone entirely under the radar outside the academy. I’m talking about the Pacific Rim of the nineteenth century. Back then, life and times from the western US to Australia and New Zealand all had similar look, feel, cultural values – even spellings (we spelt stuff the American way). It was no coincidence. The western US was opened up at the same time as New Zealand and Australia in the same context of social innovation. By the mid nineteenth century it even featured some of the same people – tens of thousands of gold miners who surged from California to Victoria to Otago during 1849-65.

All the settlers around the Pacific Rim in that turbulent, dynamic mid-nineteenth century shared that same sense of pioneering, of building a new society built around principles that took the best of the old and added something. The same sense of egalitarianism – of equality that the new world could have in ways that the old did not. Gridwork by-the-block street patterns were the least of it.

The common cultural context, ‘frontier mentality’ and commonalities of building materials made frontier towns from Denver to Gore look much alike. Even today, it’s hard to tell the difference between some mid-west American towns and places in New Zealand – they’ve all grown up through the same style changes. Except, of course, that Americans drive on the wrong side of the road. In look and feel, many New Zealand places hark to California, in Napier’s case Hollywood and Santa Monica. Here’s a photo I took in Napier during the annual art deco weeekend. See what I mean?

It’s a pointer as to just how societies actually spread, operate and build. While everybody, on the face of it, has always looked for connections between New Zealand and Britain, the real nineteeenth century common factor was withthe US. Just now, New Zealand authors are angling towards stories set in our own wild west era – the South Island gold rushes of the 1860s. And there is not a lot to choose between that and the American experience. The only real difference has been scale. New Zealand is like a middling-ish US state. The usual comparison is Colorado, which shares virtually the same land area and current population. But New Zealand is more insular, partly because of isolation in the South Pacific, partly because it is a sovereign nation, not a state. That carries a plus side. Virtually everybody has either met, knows or is related to someone who did something.

But there’s a down-side. New Zealand struggled for decades  with a built-in inferiority complex – born when nineteenth century notions of destiny clashed with the reality of being a tiny colony in the South Pacific.

That mind-set dogged us through the twentieth century. I think we’re getting over it now. And something tells me Peter Jackson has had quite a bit to do with that, of late. Well, he has, hasn’t he. Think about it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

This is the last of the Worldbuilding series. Next week: Writing Inspirations.

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