Friday, June 9, 2023

An Accidental Experience Leads to a Novel: Guest Post by Robert McCaw

An unexpected experience can spark a novel. In the 1980s, I visited the summit of Mauna Kea, one of two 14,000-foot volcanoes that comprise most of Hawaii Island. My goal was to see the array of telescopes atop the mountain and experience the special place in Hawaii that is first to see the sunrise and last to enjoy the sunset. Along the switchback gravel road to the summit, a sign led me to discover the Mauna Kea Adze Quarry. At this stone age industrial site, ancient Hawaiians mined and shaped an especially hard rock for high-quality adzes from around 1000 AD until they abandoned the quarry sometime before Western contact in the late 18th century.
You might not think a rock quarry would inspire imagination until you consider the details. The quarry is vast, covering roughly seven and a half square miles. Its main extraction pits lie between 11,000 and 12,400 feet in elevation on the southern slope of Mauna Kea, where the air is thin, and wintertime temperatures drop to zero degrees Fahrenheit with wind speeds of up to one-hundred miles per hour. Even today, snow frequently covers the mountains upper slopes in winter. So why would anyone—especially ancient Hawaiians wearing woven sandals and little protective clothing—choose this site to mine stone?
The answer lies in a quirk of nature. Lava is everywhere in Hawaii, but most of it is porous, crumbles under pressure, and is thus unfit for good stone tools. The basalt near the top of Mauna Kea is different. During the Ice Ages, glaciers covered the summit of Mauna Kea. When lava erupted under the ice, it cooled rapidly to form a particularly dense and hard stone called Hawaiite.
Now comes the imagination part. How did the ancient Hawaiians—whod probably never seen snow before reaching the Big Island—find this rugged rock more than 11,000 feet above sea level? How many adze makers worked on the mountain, and how did they organize an industrial-sized mining and production site? To create the rock shelters, numerous religious shrines, and piles of stone chips more than twenty-five feet deep that still exist at the quarry site, they must have lived there for months at a time. If they had time to build and visit shrines, did they also create other art, such as petroglyphs that dot other places around the island? Did they maintain their own tribe with its own hierarchy of chiefs, or did they report to local chiefs from where they were born? Since they worked the quarries for hundreds of years, how did they pass their leadership and manual skills from generation to generation? Since it is improbable that they stayed on the summit through the winter, where did they go during the inclement months—back to home villages more than 25 miles away along the coast or to some more temperate workshop at a lower elevation? And perhaps the greatest mystery of all, why did they abandon the quarries before Western contact?
These and other questions led me to imagine a society of adze makers forming one of the major themes of my first book—Death of a Messenger. In that novel, the discovery of a mutilated murder victim leads to the opening of a concealed workshop in the saddle lands between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, where the adze makers could have shaped their stone tools during the winter when the weather prevented their work near the summit. To determine whether there is a connection between the murder and this extraordinary fictional archeological site, my protagonist, Hilo Chief Detective Koa Kāne, must explore the cavern. This setup allowed me to paint a picture of how the adze makers might have lived and incorporate some of the Hawaiian legends and mysteries surrounding their existence.
It also set the stage for introducing a grave robber trafficking in looted artifacts. Id love to take you step by step from the gruesome discovery of the murder victim at the cavern to the looters and beyond, but nobody likes spoilers! I hope you will enjoy the book, which Amazon and other distributors are giving away for free in Kindle format during the month of June 2023, and if so, remember, it all started by accident.


Robert McCaw 
grew up in a military family, traveling the world. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, served as a U.S. Army lieutenant, and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. Having lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, McCaw’ s writing is imbued by his more than 20-year love affair with this Pacific paradise. He now lives in New York City with his wife, Calli. Retribution is the fifth in his Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery Series.  For more information visit,

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