Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the Seattle Public Library, perhaps a small ray of hope

On Monday evening, I attended a Seattle City Council meeting regarding the proposed city budget for the coming year.  Due to the economic situation, not just here, but all over the country, in the past year, Seattle city revenue is down, down, down.  I pleaded the Seattle Public Library System's case here at that time.  I also left a copy of my little speech to them.  I couldn't say it all, despite the fact that I pared it down to a bare minimum, as you can only speak in front to he Seattle City Council for two minutes. 


Perhaps in response, or perhaps because I sent an e-mail urging them not to cut anything more from the Library System's budget, I got an e-mail from one member of the Seattle City Council, Nick Licata.  In conjunction with the Seattle Public Library Board, and the City Librarian, he has proposed several alternatives to these drastic cuts.  This would involve spending some money, but it would also have the benefit of keeping the library branches more or less open as they are now, though some staff would still have to be cut.  If adopted, it would probably also relieve the library system of being shut down for a week -- again. 


Finally, the most important of these proposals is, to create a dedicated fund, similar to what another regional library system has done, which would help to soften the blows rough economic times deliver, and perhaps help people locally in their efforts to find jobs and further their educations.  I hope the Seattle City Council is sensible, and passes one of these proposals, and finds a way to create a dedicated fund for the library. 


For those interested, here is the proposal Mr. Licata has put forward:




Thanks for writing.

I urge you to write other City Councilmembers and ask them to support my proposals to restore library hours at neighborhood branches in 2010.

As Chair of the Council committee overseeing the library’s City budget, I am sponsoring four proposals to restore library hours and related staff positions. The Library Board and the City’s Librarian submitted these options and support each one for consideration by the Council.

Option 1 calls for $1.2 million to restore all 330 branch hours and 27 related staff positions proposed to be cut by the library in response to the Mayor’s 2010 budget proposal.

Option 2 seeks approximately $1 million to restore 191 hours and some of the 27 staff positions.

Option 3 would cost $860,000 to restore 140 hours and some of the 27 staff positions.

Option 4 requests $433,000 to restore 65 hours as well as some of the 27 staff positions.

Additionally, the Council is asking the Library to explore the creation of a dedicated funding source that could provide more stable and predictable financing in the future.

You may know that the City is required to balance its budget. That means every time the Council proposes to add funding to the Mayor’s budget we must find a corresponding cut.  As you might imagine, this poses a significant challenge for me and my colleagues, particularly this year.

As our economy continues to slip, City resources are stretched thinner than ever. The Mayor has again asked all departments to reduce their budgets for 2010, including The Library’s, because 2010 revenues are expected to drop even lower than previously predicted. Our financial forecasts indicate a $72 million revenue shortfall in the city's 2009-2010 biennial budget.

The Mayor asked the Library to identify approximately 5 percent in cuts adding up to roughly $2.8 million. $1.2 million would be saved by cutting library hours - 23% fewer hours than this year. The remaining $1.6 million in savings would come from a one-week closure of the Central Library, management and administrative reductions, putting off replacing staff computers, and absorbing citywide inflation, health care and rate adjustments that don't affect services or staff.

I believe reducing access to books, computers and library services when times are tough is not in the public’s best interest. During economic downturns, demand for library materials and services actually increases because people find themselves more in need of the free high-quality services and materials provided by libraries.

You may wish to consider listening live by phone to any Council budget meetings in progress by dialing 206.684.8566. You can also watch via streaming video by visiting and clicking on ‘LIVE! Council Meetings’. To watch previous budget-related meetings, visit and enter “budget” in the search field toward the top of the page. Then, in the results, click on “Budget Committee and Events”.

To learn more about the City’s 2010 budget and its schedule, please visit:

And finally, you are welcome to contact my staff member Frank Video with any Library-related budget questions you may have. Frank can be reached Tuesdays through Thursdays at 206.684.8849 or

Thanks again for writing.


Nick Licata

Chair, Seattle City Council Culture, Civil Rights, Health and Personnel Committee

P.S. If you'd like to keep up with Council goings-on, subscribe to my Urban Politics, Seattle’s longest running City Council e-newsletter.


I wrote to the rest of the Seattle City Council in support of these proposals.

Anne G

Did we love Neandertals? Did they love us?


Sometime late last week, a story started circulating  around various science news feeds, that went something like this:  "Neandertals had sex with humans".  The source of these headlines(and news stories with lots of speculation) was Svante Pääbo, a paleogenetics specialist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany  He has done a lot of work on woolly mammoth genomes(he was one of the first to extract and sequence the woolly mammoth genome), and, more germane to this discussion, Neandertals.  It seems that Pääbo is kind of hinting around that he's going to publish some bombshell about Neandertal(and "modern" human) mating habits in the paleolithic era. 


In the meanwhile, however, several news outlets have glommed onto this story, with various, shall we say, viewpoints.  One of the (slightly) more "sober" of these -- at least it does quote Pääbo and some others at some length -- come from the Times Online, and is, I think, fairly sensible, in view of the fact that the actual scientific paper hasn't come out yet.  No doubt Svante Pääbo will speak to the press at length, when he is finished sequencing the Neandertal genome.  To be fair, his team has sequenced Neandertal mitochondrial DNA, and has come up with a bunch of differences in sequence, though the vast majority of "our" and "their" genome is identical!  And, to Pääbo's credit, what he says, in the above mentioned video, and in print, is, perhaps deliberately, inconclusive. 


However, this hasn't stopped some people from "getting wild".  Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist who has long studied Neandertals, seems to think that "if" they "had sex", they must have been like horses and donkeys, that classic example from Biology 101 showing that species are defined as separate(more or less), when they cannot mate and produce fertile offspring.  Or at least that's what the above-mentioned Times Online article seems to imply. It should be noted here that I have a lot of respect for Dr. Stringer.  He has worked on Neandertals for a long time, and has garnered a good deal of respect in many quarters for this work, which is careful, but which, in my opinion, may be influenced by whatever biases he has acquired over a lifetime of work.  And when it comes to Neandertals, there are plenty of biases at work, and always have been, practically from the minute of the first "official" discovery back in 1856.  Just to remind everybody, this was three years before Charles Darwin announced his theory of evolution.  People then had no idea what human evolution might have been like, and Neandertals were fortunate or unfortunate, to be the first "nonmodern" human type ever discovered.  About all I can say to Dr. Stringer is, I would love to show him around various bodies of water in the Seattle area, give him a bird identification field guide, and then ask him what kind of gull he sees walking around the shores of Green Lake or Lake Washington, or the Ballard Locks, or. . . .  What he might not realize is, the gull population around here is a "hybrid" one:  they are a mixture of "Western" gulls(Larus occidentalis) and "Glaucous winged" gulls(Larus glaucescens).  The Puget Sound area is the southern end of the "glaucous winged" gull range, and "Western" gulls have been flying, and settling, north for some time.  They meet here.  And mate.  And produce apparently fertile offspring.  The gulls obviously don't care about such minor details as what species they are supposed to belong to.  Their only criterion for being a suitable mate is (a) is the potential mate of the opposite sex and (b) do they have pink feet?   Both "glaucous winged" and "Western" gulls have pink feet.  To complicate things even further, in western Alaska, "glaucous winged" gulls mate with "herring" gulls(Larus argentatus), and yes, they, too, produce fertile offspring.  And they both have pink feet.  I can imagine the gull gene pool .  It kind of boggles the mind.  The reason this is possible is, that these gull populations were separated in various places during the last glacial advance, and because of the separations, these gull populations all diverged, genetically speaking -- somewhat.  But not enough, apparently, to create anything like a reproductive barrier.  Among "generalistic" species, and gulls are pretty darn generalistic, if you've ever seen one in action(they'll eat just about anything), this is not as  uncommon an occurrence as one might think.  And so, the gulls around here are called "Puget Sound hybrids", because they may look like "glaucous winged" or "Western" gulls, but they have cheerfully been exchanging genes for an apparently not inconsiderable time.  After all, there are no glaciers to impede their attempts to mate, at least not at the moment.  Besides, evolution is a decidedly messy and complicated business.  That includes the human variety.


But if Dr. Stringer still wasn't convinced that such things are possible, I would love to see the expression on his face when, on my theoretical journey, we stopped off at Isle Royale, Michigan.  As many people are aware, Isle Royale National Park is world-famous, and its wolves have been studied intensively and extensively for some 50 years now.  Except there's one thing about them:  These wolves aren't entirely wolf.  They have mitochondrial DNA sequences characteristic of coyote populations.  And there certainly are coyote populations nearby, though not on Isle Royale itself.  But then, the "wolves" of Isle Royale trotted themselves across Lake Superior and onto Isle Royale during an especially cold winter, when that part of Lake Superior froze over,it is thought, in about 1948.  And they've been there ever since.  They came from nearby Ontario, Canada, where there are also numerous coyotes. . . .and at the time, people thought nothing of trying to shoot every wolf they could shoot.  The wolves were probably safer on Isle Royale at the time; there certainly weren't very many of them, and coyotes seem to be somewhat more adept at not getting themselves shot.  But that's another story.  I should add that, to someone just looking at them, the wolves of Isle Royale look like wolves; they're big, furry, mostly gray, and they regularly hunt moose, when the hunting is good.  They don't exactly look like coyotes, other than the general resemblance all members of the genus Canis(dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals, "red wolves") have to one another.  But they still have these "coyote genes".


And if Dr. Strnger still wasn't convinced, I'd take him somewhere in New England, to pay a visit to the "coyotes" there.  The New England coyotes now appear to have some "wolf" genes -- they are somewhat larger, darker, and furrier than their western counterparts.  This is partly due to the fact that it generally gets colder in the winter in, say Massachusetts, than it does in the Puget Sound region; coyotes around here don't need to grow a lot of fur in the wintertime, though they do grow some. 


The thing here is, at least from what I've gleaned in my readings(and I* keep on reading this stuff as it comes out), the members of the genus Homo, which include both Neandertals and "moderns", had, long before there were any Neandertals, evolved to be "generalistic".  That is, they were, and are, capable of, and not too fussy about, eating just about anything, and adjusting t6o whatever environment they found, and find themselves in.  True, the origin of both "ancient" and "modern" humans is somewhere in Africa, but people wander, and adapt.  And, 300, 200, 04 50,000 years ago, there were small populations scattered all over the Old World.  Their numbers generally weren't very big, and in many cases, their populations tended to be local and somewhat scattered.  But they were there, and they would follow game, in cold climates and in warm ones.  They would sometimes meet each other(as Neandertals and "moderns" may have in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East, but this has always been true for that region).  And, I suspect, some of these little groups may have exchanged genes. 


It's another question entirely, whether these small populations of whatever kind, were able to pass their "paleolithic" genes to later populations that began to take up farming, and because they had more "reliable" sources of food, were probably more numerous.  As it was, Neandertal populations appear to have been quite small and scattered; more so than "modern" ones, who kept coming from Africa anyway.  And later Paleolithic "modern" humans(whether or not they had any "Neandertal" genes), were smaller than later "Neolithic"(farming) ones; their genes may well have simply gotten swamped out of existence, just as (in my opinion)Neandertal genes likely were.


Which brings me back to Svante Pääbo and his possible "bombshell".   He is probably right that Neandertals and "modern" humans "mixed it up" on occasion when their populations met, in any number of ways and for any number of reasons.  And I'm guessing, since both Neandertals and "moderns" had evolved to be "generalistic", that, like the gulls, and coyotes x wolves, were perfectly capable of producing fertile offspring.  Whether they had much opportunity to do this is no doubt another story. And, absent a time machine, there is no way of telling if this was the case.  But I think the capability was there, if for no other reason than both groups seem to have had broadly similar strategies for accomplishing tasks like hunting or making tools or setting up dwelling places. 


This is difficult, nowadays, for a lot of people to believe, because most of them have been told, over and over and over again(if they pay any attention to these things) that Neandertals were fundamentally "different" in some basic way.  Well, as far as I, and a  number of other people can tell, they just weren't -- at least not in a behavioral sense. Just like wolves and coyotes, or the "hybrid gulls" of Puget Sound. And that belief, based on what evidence I've read in learned papers, gentle reader, is partly why I ended up writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals.

Anne G

My eyes just fell out of my head when I saw this!

Things are getting really interesting around here! I don't know exactly how this happened, or who picked it up, but the Redheaded Neanderlady is now on this YouTube video about Neandertals. Given that my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals takes place in medieval England, the music is appropriate, too, I guess. Anne G

Sunday, October 25, 2009

My plea to the Seattle City Council, to keep libraries open

This is a copy of my plea to the Seattle City Council, to keep the Central Library, and 21 branch libraries, open for the same number of hours they are now open, and to prevent, if possible, another weeklong "furlough" where the library system shuts down completely, some time in 2010. Too many people are getting hurt here. But this is just my personal plea.

TO: Members of the Seattle City Council
FROM: Anne Gilbert
RE: The Seattle City Semiannual Budget and the Seattle Public Library System
DATE: October 26, 2009

I am here, once again, on behalf of the Seattle Public Library System.
It has come to my attention that once again, even more drastic cuts in the budget of our library system are being contemplated for the coming year. These cuts will result in an approximate 25% reduction in hours for all libraries. It will:

Also result in another weeklong “furlough” for the entire library system
Closure of 21 of the 25 neighborhood branch libraries for two days, Fridays
and Sundays,
And a resultant loss of access and services for the many people who need them

This is utterly unsupportable. As I’ve noted earlier, I’m a writer who frequently uses the library system for research and other purposes. I have a friend, also a writer, who, like many people at the moment, is looking for a job, and has not yet found one. She is one of the fortunate ¬¬– she has a computer at home. But I met one job-seeker downtown, who was not so fortunate. He was looking for a job, and the only other place he could go was WorkFirst. I know from experience, as he did, that there are far fewer computers in the WorkFirst branches, than there are in any branch library, or the central library, but there was nothing any of us could do about this. The WorkFirst offices often have less adequate or comprehensive job-search facilities than the Seattle Library system. In this economy, with so many out of work, and therefore unable to contribute to the budget through their taxes, it is a terrible thing to shorten hours and services, even on restricted budgets. For the sake of those job seekers, for the long-term sake of our budget, and the cultural future of this city, please do not cut the library’s budget any more than it already has been.

Thank you.
Anne G

Friday, October 16, 2009

I met a writer in person today, and it was an awe-inspiring experience!

I met Nan Hawthorne in person for the first time today, and I was absolutely amazed at the experience.  It took me a while to get to the place where she had some artwork exhibited, and one of them was a lovely creation she'd crocheted out of various purple and "blue-family" yarns.  She is really a talented woman, and has lots of interesting ideas.  I wish I could get her with my other writing friends.  I think they would all hit it off very well.  Besides, she, and one of the other writing friends, likes cats.  Nan has four of them.  It's funny how writers, anthropologists(and a lot of people who "do" prehistoric humans), seem to mostly like cats.  Don't ask me why.  I like cats, too.  Of course, I also like My Beloved Wolves, but I wouldn't keep a wolf in a house.  The wolf would be unhappy.  But that is another story entirely.  Anyway, I have a feeling my other writing friends would like Nan.  I sure do.  We're on the same page about a lot of things.  We will, of course, have to find a way to meet more often.  Don't ask me how, don't ask me when, but it's going to happen!  Oh, and the meeting also gave me a frame for my upcoming Seattle City Council speech on behalf of funding for the Seattle Public Library.  You see, Nan Hawthorne has "low vision", and this exhibit and meeting was in the Seattle Public LIbrary's Talking Books outlet, a nice place once you find it.  But that, too, is another story.  I'll probably end up blogging about that, too!  Stay tuned.!

Anne G

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Independent publishing has promise, but also pitfalls

I recently read a book by a first time author, that was independently published, or "self-published" if you prefer.  I won't go into its plot or characters, except that it was a book I generally liked.  I then  let someone else borrow it.  I don't know whether this was a mistake or not, because the person who borrowed it, and then returned, who is a writer, gave their professional opinion.  It was not as good as mine.  Now I understand that different people have different tastes in fiction, and the reader didn't have any "trouble" with the substance of the story.  However, this reader was much more critical of things that I noticed, mostly about the struggles of this character in an alien environment, than I was.  The reader of the book felt that the author had just, as they put it, "taken a novel writing course and written a bunch of character notes, to fill in the character, but didn't really fill them in, in depth.  What I noticed was that the lead character seemed to have an awfully easy time adjusting to the alien environment in which they found themselves, which did seem somewhat "off" too me, and probably should have been shown more.  But the book was reasonably well-written, and enjoyable in its way, so I can say I rather liked it, even if my borrowing friend didn't, and I wish that author well in the future. 


There were, however, things about the book that were kind of annoying.  They weren't very obvious, if you weren't looking for them, but they were there, and I think this can be a real problem in "independently published" books.  In this case, there were paragraphs in the book that looked as if the line heights were somewhat different.  Only a little, but they kind of stood out, as if whoever was responsible for printing the book  had violated some computer code, or the code got oddly "translated" from one word processing program to another.  This sometimes happens to me, when, on occasion, I am sending copies of the second draft of the first book of my Invaders trilogy, to people I trust to tell me how well the story flows.  I should note that I need to know this so I know where to tighten, loosen, consolidate,etc, in the next draft, which, I hope, will be good enough to peddle to agents.  Naturally, I want the writing as smooth and polished as possible, so the agents will want to read it, and sell it.  It's hard enough as it is for a first time, unknown author, to do this. 


At this point, I should say that I think that "independent" publishing is probably going to end up being a pretty big chunk of the book business in the not-too-distant future.  It may not be for everyone, but because of the nature of the publishing business today, there are authors who may be able to make some money from the "niche" markets they write for, or their work just doesn't fit neatly into some category.  My fiction, for example, is set in historical time, but it's not strictly "historical novel".  And it's not set in ever-popular Tudor times(I think this time period is way overdone, myself, but that's probably just me).  I have a strong, and I hope, interesting female lead character, but Illg is not, shall we say, strictly "human"(at least not "modern" human, though she acts in recognizable and understandable ways).  So my book(s) might not "fly" with a lot of agents and publishers.  And I've heard similar things from other authors, and not just here in the US, either.  So, for many people, "independent" publishing might well be an option.  Whether it may be for me, I don't know. We'll see.  But in any case, I want whatever I finally get published, to look professional, as if a "real" publishing house did it. 


Which brings me to another problem.  I read another "self published" book not long ago.  The writing and characterization was much more to the taste of the aforementioned, nameless critic, I think, but for various reasons I won't go into here, the author felt that  their work was too "niche-y" to be "traditionally" published.  So the author published the book on their own.  Which was fine -- but. . . .


While the dialogue and paragraphs were recognizable as dialogue and paragraphs, they weren't formatted properly.  There were no indents at the beginning of each line, either in the dialogue or in  paragraphs describing actions or scenes.  It basically looked as though it had been originally published to some web page. 


Again, I'll recount my own experiences here.  When I first started writing, I "fully justified" my pages, more or less like a legal document.  I didn't know, at the time, that when writing fiction or most nonfiction, you are supposed to left-justify your writing, but in the first critique group I joined, someone who had once been a copy editor or the like, rather quickly pointed this out to me.  So I changed to left justification.  The other thing I did, which this copy editor didn't notice, was that I put "widow and orphan" spaces  in the pages.  Nobody pointed this out to me, but it began  "arranging" paragraphs in a really weird-looking way.  It was so weird-looking that I soon abandoned this, and my pages looked much, much more like a "professional" job, even though my writing at the time was hardly "professional".  Heck, I'm still learning.  But at that time, I was pretty much at the "apprentice" stage.  Or worse.  And if I'd been stupid enough to try to self-publish that material at the time, and then try to use that as a way to interest an agent, they probably would have thrown me out the door.  Professional agents notice these kinds of goofs.  And they don't like them.  Which is one reason why, still, many people who have self-published, don't get anywhere.


Maybe this is "too picky" on the part of agents, but I know for a fact that agents have to wade through a lot of literary "slop" before they find something they think they can sell.  Not only that, but they tend to complain about such things, though usually not from authors who are at that point, trying to self publish. 


But there is also something else going on here.  And it's my guess that a lot of would-be writers may just not know the "rules" here.  I also critique, and have my own work critiqued, on some web sites.  The critiquers are good at what they do, most of them not being "professionals" or published, but it kind of seems like  they don't understand certain formatting conventions.  And in some cases, they may not even care.  For example, I've read manuscripts where , when the author starts a new scene, they don't indent the first paragraph.  Why?  These people aren't writing "arty" stuff that deliberately defies literary convention; they're writing what are supposed to be readable, "popular" stories.  Some of these same writers do things like indicate scene changes by a space and asterisks -- in the middle of the page!  Again, I've been in other critique groups where the writer tries to justify this by saying they "like" it, but in the case where the author tried to justify this,they were writing something that was supposed to be literary fiction, with an overlay of "mystery".  The author deliberately wanted this "artiness".  But normally, when you shift a scene, you just leave several blank spaces, if it's in the middle of a page.  Only at the end of a page, or the beginning of the next, do you put asterisks if there is a "scene break".  That's because, when you turn the page, that's the only way you know there is a scene break!  Otherwise, this may confuse the reader.  They might start asking themselves, whether this is another scene!  And if you send this kind of thing to an agent?  It could possibly be a deal-breaker. 


I'm not against new ways of doing things, as long as they "do something" for the writing, and the person doing the writing knows what he or she is doing.  But these writers don't appear to have a clue about these simple conventions of formatting.  For a novel, you don't make your work look like a web page.  You don't  have lines that are different heights or sentences in formats different from one another(e.g. one paragraph in Times New Roman 12 and another paragraph in Arial italics, unless you're doing something like having the person write a letter or the writer visualizes, say, a poster or a sign at a demonstration or the like.  If  writing is self-published this way, it's very unlikely that any agent will fulfill their dream of picking it up and being impressed, and successfully peddling it to a publishing house.  However, if they pay attention to the normal conventions, and make sure that whatever they published doesn't look like an "amateurish" job, they may well have a chance, especially as markets change, open up, and readers become more aggressive about making their buying choices.

Anne G

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another BIG woo-hoo!

I just found out today that The Writer's Daily Grind has been pegged at Spot 91 by something called Wikio!  They have a category, Literature, and that's where I'm 91! As far as I can tell, the site is legitimate, and there seem to be a fair number of interesting blogs on all kinds of subjects.  I'm at 91, because I just got put there, and there is some kind of gadget I can put on my blog that recognizes this.  The only trouble is, so far, I've only been "indexed" but not "ranked", at least not officially, so I can't download the gadget or widget or whatever it is.  But still. . . . along with the 11 followers I've accumulated(thank you very much, followers, please feel free to spread the word), I feel that at last, after a little over two years of hard work, I'm finally getting recognized.  Woo-hoo!

Anne G

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Gendered) POV preference? Why?

I subscribe to a lot of e-mail lists, all related, in various ways, to my writing.  For example, I'm on a very lively anthropology e-list, full of anthropologists, naturally, who end up discussing everything under the sun, including science fiction on occasion, and prehistoric humans, including Neandertals, on more than one occasion.  Then there is a more "generalized" list, that started out as a "defend the theory of evolution" list, and "fight creationists".  That also is a lively discussion group.  Sometimes I get information, or links to information, from these sites, that I can use on The Writer's Daily Grind.  I never know, from day to day, what will pop up!  But I also subscribe to several writing-related e-mail lists, and here, the discussions, mostly writing-related, can get really interesting.  For example, on one such list there has been a recent, ongoing discussion of POV characters in fiction.  This isn't, as is often the case, a discussion about the advantages of a first-person v. a third-person POV(just to let everyone know, "first person" is a narrative from the POV of the main character; the kind that has him/her describing what happened  or happens to him/her; third person is the more common narrative style).  In this case, the discussion revolved around preferences for a male or female as the main character, particularly in historical novels(but this might apply more broadly, as well).


It's an interesting discussion, for several reasons.  First, in relation to historical novels, it seems that of those written nowadays, the majority are written about female characters.  Supposedly the reason for this is, and there's probably some truth to it, that the majority of those who read historical fiction are women, and presumably women relate better to the lives of other women.  Second, and this is where it got interesting, there is  a perceived bias against male main characters!   But here is where it gets really interesting -- some readers will read only fiction with a female protagonist, some others will only read or write fiction with a male protagonist. 


Personally, I'm really puzzled by this.  Which is odd, since I grew up in an era when the majority of "serious" writers, even of historical fiction, were men.  there were writers like Samuel Shellabarger, Lawrence Schoonover, Irving Stone, Thomas Costain, all to varying degrees, popular authors when I was young, and when I was a little older, I read many of their works and liked them.  But they didn't write about women to any extent.  There were some women historical novelists.  Norah Lofts comes to mind -- and then there was Anya Seton, of Katherine fame(though she wrote a number of other works as well).  And they wrote almost exclusively about women in historical contexts. They came later, and by the time they came along, I believe the genre had begun to change.  However, at the time, these women were not considered truly "serious" writers, though their work, especially that of Anya Seton, seems to have influenced some romance writers, in a roundabout way.  But by and large, this writing world was very "gendered": it was before anybody had heard of feminism, for better or worse. 


That was a good many more decades in the past, than I care to think very much about at this point, and since then, things have changed.  For one thing, the publishing world is pretty "bottom line" oriented, and anybody that writes today, if they're writing historical novels, has to cater to that market.  In other genres(except for romance, generally speaking), the writing world is far less "gendered" in this way; readers of mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, etc., seem not to care about the biological sex of the protagonist as much as how good the story is, although male writers still tend to write male characters for the most part, and women tend, though not so sharply, to write about women protagonists, though this is a lot more evenly split, as far as I can tell.


So what's up with people -- particularly some women, who can "only" write or read male characters, or who can "only" write or read female ones?  This is what puzzles me.  As I said, I grew up in a really gendered era in "popular" fiction, but I read both male and female POV's and enjoyed both, if the writer was good enough. This attitude informs my own writing; my works up to now have involved female protagonists, but for the next month, I'm going to start writing about a character from my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, who just grew and grew and grew on me, and I had to write (gulp!) his story.  One of my earliest stories, which, with much revision, I'll probably get back to eventually, have two equally "protagonistic" characters, one male, the other female.  I just can't write any other way. 


So again, what's with people who can "only" read or write one sex?  I have some ideas here.  First, those people who feel they can "only" write about males(especially if they are women), may, unconsciously or half-consciously, think that "only" men did "interesting" things in the past(I'm addressing readers or writers of historical fiction here).  Some of these people seem to be entirely unable to imagine a woman doing anything  -- other than standing around and waiting for her "man" to come home.  I read a novel like this, some years ago, that was like this, except, oddly enough, it was written by a man.  Which brings me to another point that seems to be the case for some (male) writers:  a fair number of them seem quite unable to conceive of, or write about, a well-rounded female character.  The late Robert Heinlein was notorious in this regard, but then, in his heyday, sci-fi was largely a "boys club".  But at the present, Bernard Cornwell has much the same problem; he has women characters, but they're mostly, well "flat", and relatively interchangeable.  I hasten to add that not all male writers have this problem; some of them are much more sensitive to nuance, both in their own sex and among women.  These male writers are concerned about what makes a person interesting, not what sex they happen to be, so they probably don't think that just because somebody happens to be female, that "nothing"  interesting happened to them.  These writers also know that there are plenty of boring men around. 


But when female writers or readers can "only" conceive of male protagonists, I begin to wonder.  I know that, when I was growing up, it was quite normal for girls to wish they were boys, at least as children.  Oddly enough, though I grew up in "sexist" times, I never wished I was a boy.  I think what is or was going on here, though, was a desire by a lot of girls, to be able to do the things boys did or do.  There's less problem with this nowadays, at least in many of the more "developed" parts of the world, but this is a pretty recent development, and there's still plenty of pressure on women to "succeed" in only one way.  There are two ways women who feel so pressured(unconsciously, perhaps), can react.  One way is to "identify" with the "male"; if they're readers or writers, whatever a man, fictional or real, does, is perceived as "interesting", women, well, a lot less so.  On the other hand, I discovered on this same list, that there are women who will "only" read or write a female protagonist.  I think these women are actually(again, whether consciously or unconsciously) reacting to a perceived "male bias" here, and possibly feel they can "identify" more readily with a female character, whether they're writing or reading one.  Either way, I think such readers and writers may be limiting themselves.  If they're writers, limiting oneself in this way or any other way, is, in my opinion, absolutely deadly. 


I think, in my own case, I have been blessed with a very good imagination.  As I was maturing, but long before I started writing, I started half-consciously training my mind to be "open" to the possibility that other people, in circumstances different from my own, may see the world in ways different from the way I do.  This is, I might add, partly a function of my "anthropological" background; different cultures have different ways of conceptualizing the worlds they live in, sometimes quite startlingly different, but often, surprisingly the same.  And so, in my travels through the world I knew, I gave myself "thought exercises".


Let me give you an example of one of them.  Some years ago, when my daughter was small, I planted a small garden every summer.  In late April or early May, I would go to a particular gardening store to buy tomato plants.  This gardening store was located in a part of Seattle which had, by then, become populated by various "minorities", and to get there, I had to take a bus.  Now what was very interesting was, when I got on the bus, just about everybody on it was "white".  But when I got off the bus, in the neighborhood of the gardening store, I was just about the only "white" person!  Nobody was rude or unkind; not a deplorable word was ever spoken.  People just wanted to get wherever they were going.  But this experience got me to thinking.  What would it be like for one of those "nonwhite" people to do the reverse, e.g., be the only "nonwhite" person in a "white" area.  And I tried to let my imagination flow here, tried to imagine my life in someone else's skin -- literally.  It was an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable experience.  But I persisted.  I also began trying to imagine what I'd be like if I'd been a man rather than a woman.  Would I have turned out more like my brother, a gentle, quiet person, or more like my father, who liked to be the center of things, or something else entirely?  That, too was an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable experience.


But as a writer, the cumulative effects of these thought exercises have served me well, I think.  For one thing, it is impossible for me to conceive that a woman(or a man) would necessarily be "uninteresting" simply because of their biological sex.  It's true I've started out with female characters, who are, at least to me, very interesting, but I hope I've made my male characters interesting, too.  They are all individuals, and while, in my Invaders trilogy, the men and the women usually have different "trajectories", and they tend to be people of their time and place, with the general expectations of their time and place, that doesn't mean they don't do interesting things getting to where they want, or ought, to be.  That is how I think writing should be done, and while I don't claim to be a "superior" writer, whatever that may mean, I strive to follow this.  Again, in my opinion, if a writer doesn't try to do this, to stretch their imaginations in some way, then their limitations may be their shortcoming as a writer.

Anne G

In praise of Living the History

Elizabeth Chadwick's Living the History blog is one of the best, and most accessible blogs, for anyone interested in fiction, and/or medieval history, that I know of.  She also has a website(which you can access once you get to the blog), which is full of research material she's gathered, for anyone to use.  Today, I just want to post a short note on her latest blog entry, a biography of John Marshal.  John Marshal was the father of the more famous William Marshal.  For those interested in medieval history, and the famous figures of the period, I can't think of a better place to begin your research.  Thank you very much for your blog and your website, Elizabeth Chadwick!

Anne G

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I have done something I've never done before.  I've signed up for National Novel Writing Month, which begins in November. That's what NaNoWriMo You're supposed to write 50,000 words of a novel -- just write it, no editing at all -- during the month, till you get to 50,000 words.  So, dear readers and followers, I probably won't be doing quite as much blogging as I have in the past, but that's all right.  I will keep everyone updated on my progress, and I will let people know some of the things I'm doing or planning to do. 


At the moment, I know what I want to do:  begin to write the "prequel" to my Invaders trilogy, which will be about some of the characters when they were younger; certain others who are "secondary" in this trilogy or just mentioned, are going to be much more "central" and there may or may not be quite the mix of "historical" and "made up" characters I have now.  Heck, I can't even think of a title for this prequel, but never mind.  I'll start doing a little planning in a bout a week or so, and let people know how that is going.  I do have a possible couple of "key scenes" around which I'm going to start building the story, and I'll probably let y'all know my struggles with those!  But right now, it's all a "blank".


Still, if I manage to finish all 50,000 words, and I think I will, I will be quite satisfied, having gotten just that far!   So, wish me luck, followers and readers!  I think I'm going to need it!

Anne G

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "mindset" issue, from a slightly different point of view

I was going to post about that Anglo-Saxon hoard that was found a couple of weeks ago, and wasn't able to get around to it.  I was also going to say a little something -- since I follow paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology, though mainly with reference to Neandertals -- about the complete description of the ancestral Ardepithecus ramidus,  now know affectionately as "Ardi".  That kind of escaped me too, and besides, I don't have much to say about it, other than the description of this find, though the fossil's existence has been known for years -- was pretty awesome, in my opinion.


However, something happened last week which sent me off on a different angle, although it does relate, tangentially to the Anglo-Saxon hoard.  There is a woman I know, who has very strong opinions about just about everything.  She reads a lot, sometimes rather odd things, at least for her. We were conversing, and she happened to mention the discovery of Nero's revolving palace which he never used, apparently, because he got killed before he ever used it.  And no other Roman emperors used it, either, apparently.  I had seen media reports of it, but didn't react much, one way or another.  Greco-Roman stuff just doesn't appeal to me all that much.  However, I mentioned that I'd also read and heard about this Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold things and enameled-looking things.  I also mentioned that I thought they were quite beautiful and well-crafted. 


"Yeah, it's pretty militaristic, isn't it?" she replied.  Here I must mention two things:  First, this lady knows nothing about medieval times, particularly not the Anglo-Saxon period of England.  And the hoard did   contain a lot of sword hilts.  But my first thought was "militaristic?"  Huh?  I wouldn't have described it this way.   To be fair, this woman not only is very vocal in her opinions about things, she has a rather narrow concept of what she considers acceptable -- in modern terms.  And this brings me to the whole problem of mindsets, once again.   For this woman is projecting her own ideas about acceptable norms, in modern times, onto (a) a society she knows absolutely nothing about and (b) onto people who probably had absolutely no concept at all of "militarism".  And it is in modern projections like these, that the "mindset" problem arises.   When you're writing or dealing artistically with some past society, even if what you're writing isn't strict "historical novel" material, you have to accept  that people in this past, whatever it is, often accepted things that people today tend to find unacceptable.  This is true, even when we speak of the recent past.


I can give two examples here:  I grew up at a time when it was widely accepted by a great many people, that certain "minorities" didn't, for example, have the right to live in, or even visit, certain areas.  When I was a child, you rarely, if ever, saw people of African descent visiting the local zoo.  In that community, it just wasn't done.  And this was in "liberal" Seattle.  But a lot of people accepted this as  natural or normal.  Many people, both male and female, accepted the idea that women "shouldn't work"; they should just stay home, be housewives, and have a bunch of kids.  There are still people who believe this, but they are, nowadays, a distinct, though sometimes vocal, minority.  And times have changed, at least to some degree, for the better; women work in all kinds of jobs that would have been inconceivable for them in the 1950's and early 1960's.  Most of us, in the Western world, are glad these things have changed for the people who were the objects of such thinking.  But the point is, these two examples suggest a fairly common mindset at the time(though there were others, as well). 


Similarly, in Anglo-Saxon times, I am pretty sure that an "anti-militarist" mindset, even among churchmen and women, would have been quite inconceivable.  It was not so much that their militaries wanted to fight; just as today, it was better to avoid wars if you could. Besides, a local king or lord had to have fighting men, partly to protect him, and partly to keep whatever enemies he might have, away from the population.  This was necessary for two reasons:  in most parts of the medieval world, at least until fairly late, government pretty much consisted of whatever the king or local lord could manage to enforce.  If he was weak, people would tend to go their own way.  And strength often demanded armies or fighting men willing to stand behind the king or local lord -- and willing to fight. 


Certainly what any local population got out of this might be said to be debatable.  If some war did break out, clashing forces might burn everything in their path, but the path might well be local and narrow.  Some populations might even have felt protected, knowing the king or local lord had a competent fighting force at his command. 


Which just goes to show:  yes, various mindsets do differ from era to era, but they change.  And in any given period, there is not just one "mindset", there are a lot of them. Still, this doesn't give me, the writer, a license to project modern views about war and fighting onto people living in Anglo-Saxon(or any other) times.  Fortunately, the woman I began my essay with, doesn't write anything but reports about her specialty, and it's not medieval history or paleoanthropology. And perhaps equally fortunately, I know something about these times, and know that people thought somewhat differently about things, than we do today. But then, I'm writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece, and she's not.  Fortunately.

Anne G