Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

One of the ways J R R Tolkien broke new ground with The Lord of the Rings was through his massive back-story, partly published at the end of The Return of the King in the form of appendices.

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 The Hobbit artisan market in 2012. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

That story was better there than interspersed through the text – ‘information dumping’ is the biggest turn-off to readers – but it underscored the sheer depth of Tolkien’s master-work.

In the 1950s it was unusual for this sort of thing to be published. Tolkien, of course, re-defined the genre and now the notion of back-story has become passe. Authors are almost expected to be able to have a complete world behind their story, to create chronologies, maps, gazeteers – even to provide swatches of cloth for their characters’ clothing.

Few, I suspect, can ever get the detail that Tolkien did, without an equivalent amount of work. He began crafting Middle Earth in the trenches of the Western Front. That framed a good deal of the darkness in his mythos. His world also grew from the languages he developed – two full languages and several partial constructions. And it grew from repeated iterations – endless work, which he put into it in university holidays, of evenings, even scribbled on the back of old exam papers. Lines like ‘In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit…’ expanded into – well, I don’t need to repeat that story, do I?

It would be difficult to repeat such a tremendous construction. But we can approach it, and I think every fantasy story deserves to have a fair back story.

That’s where e-publishing comes into its own. One of the ways to sell books these days is to have ‘extras’ available online.  And what better place to put the back-story than as extra tales, stories and appendices online?

It’s a thought. What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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14 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: we all need to write Tolkien’s appendices

  1. A particularly timely post for me as I am, once again, re-reading TLOTR, having felt a real “need” to hear it once again. I have the unabridged on CD, and it is a true treasure. I am in the first of the books, at Rivendell listening to “the tales” regarding the ring (what marvelous backstory and rich writing), before the Fellowships starts out again. Whether I read it or listen to it, the wealth of detail amazes and delights, both in new ways for me. Hard to imagine life without TLOTR. Enjoyed the post, Matthew.

    1. Thank you! It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. It’s a decade this month since I last read LOTR, and I must re-read it again. It has been with me – as it has been with so many people – over a lifetime. I used to read it at least annually, but it got to the point where I could just about quote whole passages… Weirdly, I have an odd set – each of the three volumes is from a totally different edition. The ‘definitive’, for me, was always the 1966 ‘Second Edition’ with the green covers, which is how I originally read it.

  2. So, like … that library of aviation history books I use to research my novels is actually backstory? 😉

    If you’re building a world you have to know how it works, especially in those gray areas that lie between something just like the world we all know and the world totally unlike our own experience.

    Maps, in that regard, are invaluable tools. Seeing, on the map, how far it is from the Shire to Rivendell makes the journey that much more believable.

    The most masterful exposition of backstory I’ve ever seen is in the first few chapters of John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Smiley recapitulates the sad state of the Circus while fuming at a tiresome dinner companion, putting the reader into the picture while entertaining at the same time.

    But, yes … the massive, wonderful appendices at the back of Return of the King…!

    1. Maps are wonderful devices for conveying fantasy world…and for pinning real-world settings down even in outrageous novels. One that springs to mind is William Deitrich’s ‘Ice Reich’, with its map of Antarctica – have you ever read that? Pure Indiana Jones/Nazi Antarctic trope, but executed so brilliantly it was weirdly plausible…and the map helped nail the action into real places.

  3. Matthew, I love JRR Tolkien’s work. I cannot help feeling that he went only so far with his work, and then turned inward. Maybe we missed out on what else he might have conjured. That is one of the reasons I cry at the end of the Trilogy. I know there won’t be any more.

    1. He definitely had plans for other stories & like you I have to lament the fact that he didn’t tackle them. I believe he had to be prodded to finish anything – an inveterate tinkerer, but that tinkering paid off…I’m hard put to think of a fantasy novel and milieu of equal quality. Just fantastic stuff. I am pretty sure Middle Earth won’t ever be licensed to other authors, either (though that’s probably a good thing…Tolkien’s stuff was just SO good and SO magical).

  4. There is a key thing here that I feel gets missed by many (epic) fantasy writers: Tolkien left it for appendices. There are heavy doses of exposition in Tolkien, but the depth of his world-building was in those appendices and the notes and other projects. The Silmarillion and what eventually became the “lost tales” and the like are variably interesting on their own or as backdrop the to war for the ring. Again, though, they’re kept distinct.

    It’s an easy temptation to let world-building stand in for story (or to eclipse it). There are things an author needs to know that aren’t necessarily relevant to the story. Answering questions about the world helps make it more cohesive and keeps the background from being blurry. It’s great for verisimilitude. We just have to resist the temptation to let it creep irrelevantly into the foreground.

    1. Yes, the back-story has to be relevant – and if it IS in the narrative, it definitely has to be worked into the story in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story structure. Some authors don’t. I think Tolkien had a pretty good balance, and chapters like ‘The Shadow of the Past’ was a pretty good way of bringing the story, dramatically, into the narrative.

  5. Back in the Myspace days, I remember collaborating on a large project where we made extensive use of hyperlinks… essentially super-convenient appendices. The net effect was of a “choose your own adventure” book… if something in the main story piqued your interest (say, you didn’t want to leave Gollum alone in the dark, and were tired of Hobbits and Dwarves) you could follow the link to the “appendix” of what Gollum did next, how he dealt with the loss of the Precious(ss)(sss). That link took you to another writer’s blog, whose own account of Gollum could in turn spin out into multiple other links to other writers.

    It was a fun project, and I think if we’d had full commitment from all the players and a stronger intial outline, it could have been huge. It definitely showed the potential for digitizing appendices.

  6. I’m on board. Ever since reading LOTR when I was fifteen I’ve dreamed about the possibilities, about how appendices might enrich a story. The internet age updated my thinking, but the dream remained. As I write this I have six notebooks behind me containing that information. The vast majority, though, doesn’t make its way into my stories. Multiple languages I’ll leave to Tolkien’s brilliance…I’m still working on mastering English. On the other hand, I’ve linked my WP site to Pinterest and once my website is complete I’ve other ideas in mind, including a map menu. Tolkien redefined the genre in so many ways, but technology is here and the opportunity to build upon his work is before us.

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