Category Archives: writing

The Lady Novelist is Charmed by a Hobbit Village

I am once more on the road, spending 11 days in New Zealand with my travel-writing husband, Tim Richards. Starting in Auckland, we’re taking trains (and a ferry) in stages southward and will end up in Christchurch.

Our first day in Auckland was spent initially with Dane of the Home Fires of Tamaki, learning about Maori history through arrival, colonisation, contemporary issues and the future – a superb, engaging and dynamic experience, and Dane’s an excellent and passionate storyteller. That afternoon was a wine tour on Waiheke Island which Tim’s written about.

The next day, however, we zipped down to Hamilton on the train and met Amber, who drove us to Hobbiton!

Samwise and Rosie’s house

I knew of Hobbiton of course. I remember that in the early days, just after Lord of the Rings, people had started to seek out the New Zealand farm that had been transformed into the hobbit village in the Shire where Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all lived.

underhill window

The place had been meticulously built with lots of detail, but after the filming was over most of it was taken away again. People came to see it anyway. Then The Hobbit (expanded into a trilogy) was made, so Hobbiton was recreated all over again, only this time the Armstrong family (owners of the sheep and cattle farm on which the village was built) managed to negotiate to keep everything in situ.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people visit a year, and you can’t go through it without a guide (possibly to make sure LOTR fans don’t go breaking off bits of hobbit houses to take home, or keen gardeners don’t denude the gardens and landscapes of cuttings).

A florist lives here

I thought I might find the hobbit village cute and fun to visit because of its Tolkein connections: I didn’t realise just how delightful the whole thing would be! Because it’s not just a leftover set from a set of two trilogies.

Giant bumblebee on the left…

Hobbiton in fact works on several levels: one of which is that it’s a living landscape, with glorious flowerbeds and lush vegetable patches; it has apple trees and herbs like mint and rosemary growing tall; as you walk around the village and up the hill to Bag End, a dell full of bluebells is below one track. A fat, loud, frankly enormous bumblebee (of the size I’ve seen in the UK but never in Australia) looms around bright red flowers.

The scent of all this nature combines with the fragrant smoke of four or five chimney stacks, which are stoked up with manuka woodchip to add the final touch to a delicious aroma that infuses Hobbiton.

On another level, Hobbiton is like a sculpture garden, with its curated plant life dotted all round with an art installation: “The Homes of Hobbits and How They Live”.

The fake oak tree over Bag End

At the same time as you’re enjoying the charming garden, and marvelling at the artistry of the hobbit houses and all the fine detail that is put into making the village feel occupied and as though the hobbits are all just at a party at another village, you have the nostalgia of remembering the films, and then the insider-delight of seeing under the skin of the movie magic.

For lovers of the Tolkein books and films, there’s the delight of seeing the Party Tree under which Bilbo holds his eleventy-first birthday party. That’s a real tree, unlike the oak which stands atop Bag End, which is entirely artificial and has 200,000 leaves wired onto it.

Southfarthing brews

After cooing over Hobbiton – our guide, River, even has a Middle Earthish name – we walk down the path to the Green Dragon Inn, where a hungry hobbit or human can fill up on a well made lunch or try out the ale, stout, cider or ginger beer (all brewed locally by Hamilton brewer Good George). The first three are brewed exclusively for the Inn, and I discovered for the first time that stout is… chocolatey! The ginger beer is still my favourite though.

A green dragon over the inn door

If you’re wondering if it’s worth a trip to Hobbiton, is absolutely is. Even if you’re not a fan of the Peter Jackson films or even Tolkein at all.

Find out more about Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

Party tree to the left, the Green Dragon over the lake.
Bag End

Research: Richard III

In case you didn’t know, I’m something of a Ricardian as a result of always having been intrigued by Shakespeare’s play, which is brilliant but hardly believable as documentary evidence of anything except Tudor revisionism. My further reading led me to the conclusion that history’s Richard was hard done by. 

Whatever his real faults and crimes, I joyfully took up the unequivocal pro-Richard cause as a balance to all the Tricky Dicky hate that’s out there. 

I’ve written a couple of pro-Richard stories, which were published in Grant Me the Carving of My Name and have low key aims to write an alternative history one day. I have no particular plot yet, but I’ve been doing general reading and research to deepen my knowledge of complexities surrounding the War of the Roses and Richard’s short reign.

While in London recently, I did my favourite London activity, which is to read old books at the British Library.

Horace Walpole and I ♥ Richard

The first I looked at was a 1770 edition of Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third, where he explores all the charges levelled against Richard Plantagenet by Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More and a host of other Tudor historians.  He uses contemporary accounts and good old courtroom logic to unpack what appears to be a heap of fabrications, misreadings, malign interpretations and Tudor self-interest.

Let’s put aside the thrill of reading a book published 285 years after Richard’s death, and 195 years before my birth and marvel at Walpole noting that the only “deformity” of Richard’s noted in his lifetime was his uneven shoulders – no sign of the limp, hunch, withered arm etc attributed to him by later historians. Richard’s scoliosis was only discovered/confirmed when they found his body in 2012.

Thank you, Mr Walpole, for researching so many primary documents so that, when i finally get to writing whatever I write, I won’t have to.

Real Person Hatefic

On the opposite side to me and Walpole, though, I found the most appalling/hilarious 18th century Richard III Real Person Fanfic by an anonymous author. 

Called A Dialogue Between King Richard III and his Adopted Son and published in Dublin in 1753 (good lord, I handled a 266 year old book!), it’s set in Hell, where the spirit of King Richard III greets a recent arrival, dubbed Richard IV, who tells of his journey to the underworld. 

Richard IV: I fell in much love with a great sum of money that was possess’d by a young Lady, whom I heartily despised, but as one could not be had without the other, and money was very necessary to me, I condescended to marry her.

King Richard: But cou’dn’t you get the money without committing Matrimony?

Richard IV: You may swear I cou’dn’t. I tryed indeed, but the squeamish Bitch would do nothing but in a lawful way, as she call’d it.

King Richard: Then I pardon you.

Richard IV: Yes, and I hope you will do the same for two or three more Marriages.

King Richard: With all my heart, but proceed.

Young Richard IV proceeds all right, demonstrating that he’s a wastrel, bigamist, cheat, highwayman, debaucher  and general nasty piece of work, to the general applause of the dead King. Well, except for when Richard Jr plotted the death of his nephew:

Richard IV: I was long in debate with myself as whether I should murder him myself or get him murdered.

King Richard: This is the only weak part of your History hitherto. How can you say you had my Character always in view? I am almost asham’d of you, you were foolishly faint-hearted.

Of course, the knave only exiled the nephew, which act of ‘faint-hearted foolishness’ comes back to bite him on the bum when the nephew returns to England.

Richard IV: It was then I cursed myself a thousand times every Hour for being so foolishly tender as not to have dispatched him at once, for Dead Men Tell No tales.

At this point in his narrative, he claims he’ll give it all up, beg for mercy and live like a gentleman. King Richard III is not amused, saying: 

King Richard: I in the like case chose to die bravely in Bosworth field, sword in hand rather than quit the least of my usurpations. I fear you were a coward.

Richard IV: I own sir I had always a great tenderness for my own person and had rather at any time have taken twenty kicks on the A___ or Twicks by the Nose than run the Risk of one Poke thro’ the Guts.’

The whole thing is blackly funny where it isn’t predictably banal, and ends with King Richard adopting this arsehole as a son before they both wind up wailing piteously with their guilt over how they treated their nephews. 

Even if you think  Richard did half the evil things he’s accused of (and Horace Walpole  and I definitely don’t) it’s a hell of a comedown for such a grand  villain to be cheering on a common thief and swindler. Even  Shakespeare’s Richard has more pride.

FutureLearning Medieval England

While I was in the UK a friend put me onto Future Learn, which offers some of its courses for free.

I’ve been studying  England in the Time of King Richard III and learning all sorts of things about the key players in the Wars of the Roses, layers of society, the impact of the Black Death, the development of writing, and Richard’s library.

Paying my respects to Dickon

Whatever the Tudors made of the man, Richard was popular up North with his people, and since his body was discovered and he was reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. His reinterment coincided with an unexpected victory for the Leicester City football club, so the locals have become Ricardians too.

The Leicester Museum is currently showing a royal portrait of Richard, adding another Ricardian tourism spot in addition to the Richard III Centre, the Leicester Cathedral opposite where he’s now buried, and the Bosworth Battlefield just out of town.

I like to pop by one or more of those places when I’m in town, just to say hi to the only royal I give the slightest damn about.

Who knows where all this reading will one day lead – right now my aim is to fill my brain with relevant material and let it all ferment away. 

Cover Reveal: Duo Ex Machina – Kiss and Cry

I’m delighted to reveal the cover for my upcoming fourth Duo Ex Machina novella, Kiss and Cry.

Set in 2014, Kiss and Cry sees musicians and life partners Frank Capriano and Milo Bertolone facing new challenges. Milo is taking part in a celebrity ice dancing show for charity; Frank is a busy music producer. They’re both working too hard and losing touch with the love that has kept them strong for so long. At the same time, some odd things are going on with other participants in Icing It! What new and unlooked-for danger threatens them now, and is it worse than the miserable estrangement they’re going through?

Kiss and Cry is currently being serialised for my $3 supporters on Patreon. That will finish in February 2020, when all Patrons will get the book as one of their regular awards. Soon after, it will be available for general sale.

In the meantime, this is the lovely cover by Willsin Rowe, who has created all the new series covers to date.

Review: Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends – Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court by Catie Gilchrist

Social history, especially as it pertains to murder and crime, will always be a lure to get me into a book.  Catie Gilchrist’s account of Henry Shiell’s 33 year tenure as colonial Sydney’s City Coroner through a selection of the cases over which he presided has been on my wish list for a while.

The cases that passed through Shiell’s court between 1866 and 1899 are presented in distinct categories: murder, manslaughter, suicide, accidental deaths occurring through the hazards of work, transport and daily life, and the deaths resulting from unwanted pregnancies, either through abortion or infanticide. It’s a sad and sometimes sensational record of life and death in a colonial city and the usual spread of human suffering, passion, cruelty and pity.

Gilchrist doesn’t simply provide a litany of cases and their outcomes – her research into various cases comes with commentary of how Sydney society responded to notorious and sometimes heartbreaking cases. She also records the instances of when inquests resulted in suggestions for changes in laws and attitudes – whether such calls for change were ignored, embraced or took several years for authorities to act.

Gilchrist adds her own observations on how poverty and societal attitudes towards women and men affected various kinds of deaths, remarking with asperity particularly on damaging and contradictory attitudes to women and the poor (and poor women especially) that created situations in which so much tragic death occurred.

The author’s occasional tendency to withhold the names of key perpetrators for effect was sometimes frustrating. The reader needs to stay alert too, as cases mentioned one or more chapters ago might come up again to demonstrate the timeline. (I took a four week break between starting and finishing this book, which meant I lost track a little!)

Coffee and sticky notes: research essentials

Those quibbles notwithstanding, I read Murder, Misadventures and Miserable Ends: Tales from a Colonial Coroner’s Court with morbid fascination and finished it with a greater understanding of the conditions in Victorian-era Sydney. My copy is now festooned with sticky notes against cases and relevant laws that I may refer to for further research in my own writing.