I am a writer who has lived in rural Hokianga in the Far North of New
Zealand for over thirty years. My published work ranges from short articles
and fiction for children and adults to longer commissioned
non-fiction books and junior novels in English as well as collaboration
in readers and radio plays in te reo Maori.
The following attempts to show how I developed some useful techniques
of non-fiction research and writing without access to libraries or other
Research is a term that can cover many different ways of finding out
what you need to know. These days, students are encouraged to use libraries
and, increasingly, the internet, to ferret out facts and support supposition.
However, the internet is a comparatively recent phenomenon and, for those
who don't live in a city, libraries may still be inaccessible or inadequate.
When I began to write, our family was trying to be self-sufficient on
a bush property 20km up a dirt road with three small children, no money,
no electricity and unreliable vehicles and phones. A major challenge was
the community itself: an interesting mixture of urban refugees like ourselves
scattered in the bush valleys, the Maori community and,
finally, and for years most unaccepting of us, the traditional Pakeha
However, this place and the people themselves have been the source of
much of the content of my writing, both fiction and non-fiction, over
the years. The very challenges of learning to live in this kind of place,
distant from the mainstream in every way, have contributed to my development
as a writer. Now that I teach creative writing from home over the internet,
this knowledge and experience has informed and continues to inform my
teaching and course development as well as my own writing.
I will use three major pieces of writing to illustrate what I mean by
this: a local history, Waimamaku: a Very Special Settlement (1988);
a technical manual, Build Yourself a Low-Cost Quality Home (1990)
and a series of readers in Maori, collectively known as Nga Pukapuka
Whanau (1991-1995). Each was very different from the other, but the
lessons learned were transferred from one to the other.
The first, the local history, taught me these things: not to take the
'accepted' version of events as the only truth; how to find primary sources
quickly; how to approach people from another culture with respect and
an open mind; and how to work with people I didn't know very well to achieve
a common aim. In 1988 the Pakeha community in the Waimamaku valley decided
it would prepare a booklet for the centenary of their ancestors' arrival
in 1889. As the only local person they knew of as a writer, I was asked
if I would do it: in six months. They formed a centennial committee to
which I had to report. I discovered that the Polytechnic (which now employs
me) would supervise my work through a scheme that would pay me a minimum
wage for the six months to do the job, so off we went. I had no previous
experience of writing anything longer than a couple of thousand words,
but it quickly became obvious that a centennial history of fourteen families
could not be squashed into a small booklet. In fact, it turned out that
there was enough anecdotal and archival material for several books, so
even confining it to about 80,000 words was going to be difficult.
A hundred years of research - looking back I can't imagine how I thought
I was going to find, read, select, write and rewrite such a thing. However,
I suggested two things that proved essential: that the local people compile
a list of all their relatives and create a network of interested people
who would send them photos, diaries and any other relevant material; and
that they pre-sell the book to this network for $15 a head to pay the
printing costs. (That was not an original idea; I attribute it to Bill
Mollison of Permaculture.) I also found a photographer locally to deal
with reproducing the photographs. I count that whole experience as a watershed,
both as a member of this community, and as a researcher and writer. As
the diaries, scrapbooks, photos, letters, family memoirs and other snippets
flowed in via the post for six months I became immersed in the colonial
history of this one tiny community.
I went back and reread my New Zealand history to put it in its wider
context. Several interesting things emerged from that.
One was that, unlike some other parts of New Zealand, Pakeha settlement
in Waimamaku was at the invitation of the local hapu,
Te Roroa. Although the general Hokianga
area was one of the earliest settled by both Maori (Kupe, the discoverer
of Aotearoa) and Pakeha, this particular rich valley
was still entirely Maori land nearly fifty years after the Treaty of Waitangi
(1840) and over twenty years after the land wars (1850s and 1860s). Then,
in 1878, four chiefs decided that they wanted to have a European settlement
of their own. They set aside part of their land for that purpose and offered
it to the government for a special settlement. The rest was to remain
tribal land. Through the Department of Lands and Survey I was able to
get copies of those original maps, which clearly showed this land to be
sold, and also that retained as 'native reserve'.
One particular piece of history deserves mentioning as having taught
me something about research and how not to believe the first piece of
printed information you come across. This discovery also affected me and
the local community in real time. In 1902, two of the
Pakeha settlers discovered some carved chests in a cave on that land reserved
by the hapu as wahi tapu (sacred land).
The caves were burial caves. That discovery and the subsequent hearing
were part of the first inter-cultural dispute and the first argument over
land ownership this community had ever had. Only part of this information
came from the Jubilee booklet (published in 1941 and hitherto the main
authority on Waimamaku history) and the old diaries and memoirs. The mindset
of the time portrayed the finding from a purely Pakeha perspective: the
Jubilee publication described the incident as explorers finding carvings
in a hitherto undiscovered cave on government land. The authorities must
be told. Some of the natives were angry but they got over it. The magistrate
ruled the chests should be sent to the Auckland Museum, which duly happened.
End of story. A darker side emerged from diary entries and a memoir: settlers'
children went up and played in the caves, throwing bones around and taking
away souvenirs. In one instance, the mother threw the items in the fire
and swore the child to secrecy. In another, a local tribal leader, who
had a business relationship with the man who found the chests and called
in the government agent, remonstrated with his business partner for not
telling him. It almost came to blows. None of this was mentioned in the
official history. Then a friend doing family research in Lands and Survey
archives came across some original correspondence from the discoverer
of the caves. One letter was a list of exactly what he had packed up to
send, which included a number of bones and a complete skeleton. Another
Maori friend of mine had copies of papers from the Justice Department
his father had left him, which gave a little of the Maori evidence at
the magistrate's hearing in Rawene and therefore their
perspective on the issue. I say 'a little' because the magistrate at the
hearing cut short the evidence of the kaumatua.
I found I had to give this story a whole chapter to
itself because it was so complex and sensitive. I decided I had to approach
the local marae and show them my first draft.
So began a whole new research experience for me.
Of course others before me had had to develop appropriate methods for
researching material concerning Maori, especially anthropologists and
historians. Not all of it was Eurocentric in its approach either. But
in the 1970s Maori began to be more assertive - not just about how their
history was approached, but about who was going to be allowed to write
it. Michael King's book on Te Puea (1977) was the best that had been done
and was written with the full support of the Tainui people. However in
the 1980s King himself stepped back from writing about Maori in acknowledgement
of the fact that Maori were reclaiming that right for themselves.
So I was nervous. I couldn't leave the burial chest story out. It was
a story with two sides, only one of which had been told in the 1941 history.
I needed the approval of Te Roroa to use it. Or one of them would have
to write their side of it.
I made copies of my draft and gave them to those who wanted to read and
comment. I showed them the Lands and Survey documents (carefully copied
in handwriting by my friend) and the faded copies of the Justice Department
documents. We sat for a whole morning there on the verandah of the marae,
talking about an incident that they all knew as part of their own story
and that I knew only through the dry accounts written by officials and
the diary entries of settlers. One of them commented that they knew of
the Justice Department accounts of the hearing, but no one knew of the
Lands and Survey letters and their precise descriptions of exactly what
was found and what was sent. The Auckland Museum had denied having the
bones for 85 years. Now they were an issue again.
The hapu, the local sub-tribe, instructed me to deal with their
kaumatua, Piri Iraia. Whatever he decided would be the right thing
to do. A week later, Piri approached me in the garage and told me to go
ahead with what I had written. I had done the right thing and that was
the most important thing to them. I learnt from this experience that not
only is it important to look beyond the obvious sources for information,
but that the process of dealing with people, particularly if they are
from a different culture, is just as important as finding out the facts.
Indeed, the facts by themselves can be interpreted quite wrongly if the
cultural background is ignored.
Later, during a visit to Auckland to interview a former Waimamaku resident,
his wife gave me an envelope and said, 'This has been in the family since
Mum was a girl. I hate it and I don't want it. Find someone who should
have it.' It was a photo of a group of young people in turn-of-the-century
clothing standing in a cave with bones scattered on the ground. One or
two were holding bones. I gave it to the kaumatua who was giving
evidence in the Waitangi Tribunal hearings at Whakamaharatanga Marae.
It turned out to be proof of the disturbance of those bones. They were
subsequently returned to the community and buried. I was invited to both
hearing and funeral. It was a tremendous privilege to be so included.
Out of this particular incident came a number of other lessons and opportunities,
even a direction for my writing. What had started as a commissioned task
for a small community turned into a life-long fascination with the history
and culture of my country as expressed through the stories of this small
distant place. Meanwhile, the committee had pre-sold enough copies for
the printing to go ahead. In 1989 the centennial happened and it was a
wild success. Two thousand people flooded in and a great time was had
by all. Everyone bought the book, Maori and Pakeha alike. The burial chest
chapter was the most talked-about part and corrected a lot of erroneous
assumptions that had been held for 85 years.
I wanted to carry on with this kind of research, but the next large project
was quite different. My Polytech supervisor asked me to research and write
a book about building a low-cost home. This was to accompany a new course
that was being introduced at the local campus. The research and writing
techniques gained from this exercise were different again. In addition
to the gathering and reading of relevant texts and interviewing people,
techniques that I'd used for the history book, I now had to understand
mathematical and construction concepts; use drawings and photographs as
informational material that illuminated the text and, most crucially,
present the written material in a form that was accurate yet readable,
precise and easy to refer to.
By now we'd built our own house with recycled materials and I knew a
number of others who'd done this as well. I thought it would be a straightforward
matter to get hold of the building code and the plumbing code, talk to
a few builders, engineers and my handy husband, and get it done. This
book took me all over the North eventually, being shown every kind of
owner-built home you can imagine: recycled, home-milled, soil cement brick,
rammed earth, logs. I asked a friend who could draw to do the diagrams
showing how things were done. It was a fascinating project. Another aspect
of this remote, relatively poor community is its incredible self-reliance
and creativity. And the stories! Except for the officials, practically
everyone was self-taught and they came from all over the place to make
a life here. The way they told how they went about things was in sharp
contrast to the way the textbooks described the same processes. This had
a direct effect on the style I used for the text.
I wrote it for Northland people. It had to be easy to use, easy to read
and make sense. As an exercise in organising information, being precise
and clear about exactly what to do and why, it was hugely educational
for me. For example, I had to learn how to calculate the volume of a water
tank or septic tank and the quantity of materials needed to make it, so
that I could make the same exercise intelligible to the lay reader. I
learnt how to calculate the number of nails in a bag and the amount of
timber in a standing tree. Having a husband who is a mathematician helped
greatly, but I still had to do the workings myself in order to write about
it. Most of all, for people with little money I showed exactly how to
make comparative costings for the different materials and methods of building.
Costing involved thinking about design. The draughtsman was a great help
here. Between us we developed a process of self-designing a simple dwelling
and used that as the basis for the comparative costings. Through that
interaction I added some tools of visual appreciation to my list of writing
skills and techniques. For non-fiction, illustration is a vital element,
but up till now I'd concentrated on the textual aspects only, leaving
the illustration to others. Even with the history book I'd left much of
the photographic selection and layout to the photographer, though I did
get involved in the final design. Now I was learning how to think in this
way. I even used some of my own photographs. The Housing Corporation picked
up the publishing of the building book and it was used throughout the
North for their clients. Although the costings and the building codes
are now out of date, that book still sells. People tell me that they find
the water tank and septic tank designs in particular extremely useful.
The third major research and writing project was the series of readers,
Nga Pukapuka Whanau, which was written and published in collaboration
with three local Maori women. This came about through both the previous
commissions: firstly because of the connections made with the Maori community
and my subsequent involvement with and interest in Maori language and
culture; secondly, because I wanted to improve my photographic techniques.
The research and writing skills learnt on this project included developing
a much deeper awareness of Maori language, writing for young children
and the educational market generally and the Maori market in particular.
Not least was the involvement with local people, who modelled for our
photographic stories, and the teachers who were always willing to talk
about what they needed and to offer ideas. My fellow writers and I met
on a local photography course, discovered a mutual interest in education
and writing, and decided to write and photograph a story in te reo
Maori together. We couldn't find a publisher, so
decided to do it ourselves. We set out to produce good quality books for
Kohanga Reo, the Maori-language immersion pre-schools.
Te Hi Ika (Fishing) was our first effort. It looked simple, but
the research was complex: the needs of Kohanga in terms of content, approach,
language level, size and shape and quality of the book and so on. For
all of us, getting the language right alone was a major piece of research
as none of us was a fluent speaker or an academic. How correct should
you be? How simple can you be without being ungrammatical? Whom do you
ask? Writing in a second language raises all sorts of questions, not least
that of who has a right to do so.
Finding a printer who would take us seriously was also a major achievement.
Funding wasn't so difficult, oddly. We marketed by finding the address
lists of pre-schools and schools and sending them all a letter. Over the
next few years we refined our systems, found reliable local language sources
to proofread our efforts and improved our photographic skills. From the
beginning we chose to write the texts directly in te reo Maori
and that proved to be the best way to do it. We devised a method of layout
using a photographic enlarger and making mockups to show the printer.
It was truly homegrown publishing. In all, we published and sold ten books
in te reo Maori, two of which went into second editions.
Looking back on the kind of research and writing I've done I conclude
that no matter where you live there are fascinating stories. In fact,
living in a small, remote community can present opportunities for research
in its most intimate form that would be hard for the most sophisticated
library to match. Nowadays, I do also use the internet for research but
for me there is nothing like the delight of hearing the story handed down
through the family and told by the descendant of a chief, or the account
of construction details of a house by its builder. Perhaps the most poignant
example of how intimate and affecting local research can be is that of
the reader we did called Rapu Kai Moana (Gathering Sea Food)
which featured nine-year-old twin girls. Both had cystic
fibrosis and died in their mid-teens. That little book is a precious taonga
for their family, part of their history and also of mine.
In the end, research is simply finding out what you want to know. The examples above may be particular in some to respects to a time and place, but they can be applied universally by anyone who wishes to write about their society.
Ten years ago, with one of the Maori women involved in the publishing venture, Janine McVeagh developed the Diploma of Applied Writing at Northland Polytechnic (New Zealand). Four years ago, the course was redeveloped for online delivery. It continues as a fully online course with the opportunity for students to write in English or te reo Maori. Many of the students for this diploma live in remote places. Janine and her colleagues encourage them to draw on their own communities and resources for their writing. This article is an adaptation of a presentation made at Alchemy: Blending Research and Creativity, the Tenth Annual Conference of the Australian Association of Writing Programs, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, 25-27 November 2005.
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Vol 10 No 1 April 2006
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb