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“Research: The Lifeblood of a Story” by Lee Murray

When Adrian Collins of Grimdark Magazine asked if I’d be prepared to write him a story, I’ll admit I gave a little shout. I love grimdark. It’s a violent amoral genre, full of dirt and misery. Bleak, brutal, and fantastically real, there is no happily-ever-after romanticism in grimdark, which makes it the perfect vacation stop-over for a horror writer.

I wrote straight back.

“Is there any particular gap you’d like me to fill?” I asked. I already knew the magazine tends to feature high fantasy historical grimdark in European settings and by absolutely amazing authors. “I’m wondering whether something with a New Zealand theme would work… Maybe early gold diggers or kauri loggers?” I wrote.

“I think that would be really cool,” Adrian replied.

I jumped into my research.

I almost always begin my story preparation with a visit to Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, a great online resource for general information about all things Kiwi. First up, I read reminded myself about the economic and cultural importance of our iconic Kauri. Now endangered by die-off, this gorgeous native conifer is one of the largest and longest living trees in the world and is renown for its stunning soft wood (perfect for boat building and furniture) and, in the 1800s for its lucrative aromatic gum, a staple of New Zealand’s economy in those early colonial years. The tree was a valuable resource for Māori too, used in daily life for building canoes, as a fire starter, as a pigment for facial tattoos, even as a natural chewing gum. The kauri also has spiritual significance. In our Māori creation story, for example, Tane, the god of the forest, separated his parents—Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and Ra the sky father—in order to allow the light into the world. Trees therefore are the embodiment of Tane, and the kauri in particular, since the native conifer has been towering over our forest canopy for millennia.

I referred to the George Gibbs book Ghosts of Gondwana for a quick overview of the Kauri’s evolutionary ecology, as well as Joanne McNeill’s excellent article Northland’s Buried Treasure, which appeared in the New Zealand National Geographic (Issue 10, April-June 1991). While McNeil’s article is an older one, it is superbly written. It provides a highly useful overview of gum-digging industry, and there was this snippet, which caught my attention:

“When they [Dalmatians] arrived in New Zealand they were technically Austrian, but ethnically and sympathetically otherwise. And, like the Chinese on the goldfields, they were persecuted. The Yugoslavs’ great industry, co-operation and ingenuity made them formidable workers on the gumfields. Their success led to resentment among other diggers and, fuelled by fluctuations in gum prices and traditional British suspicion of foreign tongues, resulted in their scapegoating.”

Naturally, from there, I dived into some reading about the1898 Kauri-gum Industry Act and its brutal and unfair impact on Dalmatian (Dally) immigrants. Nothing rose-coloured and romantic there. It was exactly the kind of rugged seedy backdrop to set a grimdark story. My protagonist, Nikolai, was beginning to take shape as a down on his luck gum digger, too.

However, before starting my story, I wanted to get even closer to the people who lived on those dreary scrub-ridden marshlands, so I consulted Papers Past, an online site which makes old newspaper articles available to researchers (for non-commercial use) under a creative commons license. At last, an opportunity to closer to the lives of those hardy pioneers.

The Otago Witness told of James Elliot, a gumdigger who was found drowned, after drinking heavily. Another report in the Evening Post in 1872 recounted how a gumdigger was killed by a blow from a rifle during a quarrel with another gumdigger. In Poverty Bay, a gumdigger named Hugh McCullough tried to hang himself, the attempt unsuccessful. The Thames Star made mention of Albert Edward Frost who was sentenced to ‘eighteen months hard’ for the thief of money and kauri. Then there was a long and detailed account from “Someone who has been there’ writing specifically for the Hawkes Bay Herald in January 1899, near the end of the industry’s heyday, who took umbrage at the price of goods charged by greedy storekeepers. The author complains at length about the impossibility of making a decent living, given that the gum was getting smaller, and especially given shopkeepers’ stranglehold on their livelihoods. You can read a scanned version of the article here. Finally, there was this chilling narrative which appeared in the Auckland Star, not more than a month later on 10th February 1899:

Clip from the Auckland Star
Clip available via Past Papers for non-commercial use

This wonderfully gruesome (and true!) story served to remind me that Kauri naturally exude the golden gum as a means of inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi while the tree repairs damage to its trunk and branches. This then sparked the notion that there are other supernatural protectors of these mighty life forms, and the concept for my story Lifeblood was formed.

Lee Murray at the Stokers - Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow
Photo of Lee courtesy of Ellen Datlow

Lee Murray is a double Bram Stoker Award-nominee and multi-award-winning writer and editor (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). The author of the Taine McKenna military horror series, and several novels for children, she is also the co-author of the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series (with Dan Rabarts), and the editor of ten anthologies of dark fiction. Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at
She tweets @leemurraywriter

Photo of Lee courtesy of Ellen Datlow.

Published inGuest Posts
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