Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A word to the wise

I like to get feedback from those who take a peek at this blog. I really do. And so, normally, I reply to every comment, and, when appropriate, I encourage people in various venues to visit. I do not want to have to moderate comments, if I can help it, and, so far, most people have been good. However, my last post, about medieval English diets --- a serious and perfectly reasonable subject, given the nature of my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals --- generated an advertisement for some diet plan. And I didn't like this at all. This is an "ad-free" zone. It is also open to anyone who wants to comment about something I've said, the links I've posted, any resource material I may use, reviews of my books, etc., etc. It is not open to people who want to try to sneak ads for whatever product they're selling.

I am not, for the moment, going to put any restrictions on who can comment. I think that would discourage people, and I don't want that. Besides, I will usually answer any comment that comes through. I like to see that this blog is of interest to somebody. And I have deleted the comment which linked to the diet plan. But if I get many more "false" comments like this, I may have to take sterner action. So, all potential spammers --- be warned! Do not try this trick again!
Anne G

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Another nice book site

Gateway: A World of Books has an interview with Elizabeth Chadwick, the author of several books on medieval historical people. It seems that her writing process is a lot like mine, though her "favorite books" is not. But everyone's taste is different, so I don't mind.
Anne G

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Anthropologists make good writers!

I have a degree in anthropology. It's from long ago, and not very "useful", in the "real world", but. . . if I hadn't had that degree, I wouldn't have had the slightest idea of where to begin to start researching the "Neandertal" part of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals! And I wouldn't have had the slightest idea of where to continue. The "medieval" part was harder, at least until I decided I was looking at a time and place where the culture was different from ours, but could be looked at in the ways anthropologists look at other cultures(and our own, current one, too). Once I did that, the writing wasn't easy, but I had a framework.

All of this is just a lead-in to the latest John Hawks blog. He interviewed Anne Weaver, the author of a delightful-sounding children's book, The Voyage of the Beetle. It's interesting sounding and relevant, because it's a children's book from the point of view of a beetle that sailed with Charles Darwin on the famous Beagle. I haven't read it, but I hear that kids enjoy it. And the author started out as an anthropologist!

I thinkk there's hope for all of us,
Anne G

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The "healthy" Middle Ages

It seems that medieval English peasants were generally much healthier than most people today. Or at least their diets were generally better: lots of vegetables and some fruit, plus a fair amount of fish and meat when they could get it. Which, apparently was oftener than one might suppose. Of course they had to work pretty hard, and sometimes they went "short"(generally in July, just before harvest time), and nobody seemed to live terribly long. But they didn't get things like coronary disease --- probably in part because people in medieval times got lots of exercise of one kind and another.

I note all of this, because, as I have mentioned, my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals is set in medieval England. Furthermore, it's set in a particularly "healthy" period for most people, namely the so-called "medieval climatic optimum" which lasted from about 800 to 1300 CE. Oh, maybe that's a little generous for the length of time, but, interestingly, this time period more or less coincides with the so-called "Viking era", which, as the Gentle Reader might guess, was the time when people in various parts of Europe became familiar, one way or another, with the Scandinavian people. Which is also, in a way, an important background to my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. But if the Vikings invaded England, and formed the so-called Danelaw, at least the people already there were a healthy lot.
Anne G

More "holiday" stuff!

Over at Greg Laden's blog, there's a funny little quiz about what movie your Christmas is most like. Mine came out like the Brady Bunch, though I often feel more like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, which is my favorite Christmas movie/book/play/whatever of all time, bar none. Try the quiz. You might be surprised.
Anne G

Medieval holiday cheer

Just to keep things in the holiday spirit, so to speak, and to remind you that my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece is set in medieval England, I would like to direct you to Living the History, Elizabeth Chadwick's blog. She has a "Twelve Days of medieval Christmas" piece there. It has a nice little cartoon and even a "William Marshal Christmas", if you're interested. It's kind of fun!
Anne G

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wars on Christmas and other nonsense

This isn't about writing, but over on Greg Laden's blog there is an entry that, in my view, is extremely appropriate for this time of year. It's about the supposed "war on Christmas". Every year, it seems as if certain segments of the population(in the US, at least), declare some "war on Christmas". This year, according to Laden, there are bloggers who have declared that Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist evolutionary biologist who wrote The God Delusion earlier this year, actually sings Christmas carols! Jeez! Horrors! How terrible! An atheist singing Christmas carols! What desecration, according to these bloggers.

Now on this blog, I almost never interject "political" material. This is primarily a writer's blog, after all, and I'm more interested in publishing my own struggles with my writing, plus the science that inspired it, where appropriate. I have not yet, but probably will, comment on some of the historical material which inspired what I'm currently writing. I am extremely firm about keeping "politics" out of it.

But the idiocy(again in my view) of these bloggers claiming to have some "handle" on the one, true, and right way to celebrate Christmas(or any other important religious or secular holiday for that matter), just totally boggles my mind. Because Dr. Laden's family basically sounds a lot like mine. For that matter, Dr. Laden's family sounds like an increasing number of American families in this day and age. In other words, as generations pass and children grow up and form families of their own, there is an increasingly wider pool of traditions, religious and secular, to draw from. In my own family, there are people who were born in Mexico. There are people of several different "races". A cousin of mine adopted children from China, when this was still possible. And so on and so on. This kind of thing is getting more and more common, as immigrants come to this country, often from places we barely knew existed when we were growing up, and traditions, religious and otherwise, are quite different from anything my generation knew. And Christmas has never been quite the "sacred" time that these bloggers seem to imagine it once was. Any social historian can easily tell you this

But this doesn't stop these bloggers from pronouncing on who can "celebrate Christmas" and who can't. I suspect that, by their own standards, they could not have "celebrated Christmas" 200 years ago, right here in the infant US. But again, logic and historical/social records are of no concern to these people. They're far more interested in chipping away at tolerance and inclusiveness(for their own reasons, none of them, again in my view, particularly good ones), to pay attention to that. What's even worse is, at the time Jesus lived, I have a horrible feeliing that they would not have been able to find room at any inn for Mary and Joseph, and later, when Jesus was a grown man, they would have been exactly the kind of people who sided with the Romans. Ugh.

Have a better Christmas than that and a New Year full of happiness and peace,
Anne G


I haven't been blogging much lately. At first it was because there was a lot I was planning and doing. Lately, it's been because a lot has been going on besides my personal planning, and much of it is not good. So I don't think the Gentle Reader should expect too much for a while. Not forever, just for a while. Sorry. But I'll be back in time when the Creative Spirit moves me.
Anne G

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Music that inspires

It's been kind of slow lately. I haven't had many topics to talk about, at least not topics that relate directly to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. So, mulling things over in my mind, I remember several discussions about the kind of music authors listen to when writing their masterpieces! One author said she liked, I think it was, bands like Meatloaf. Is Meatloaf still around? Anyway, such discussions always get me thinking. Because I have been, and still am, "inspired" by certain music. In my case, it's all classical, and it's only certain composers. Perhaps it's my background(I studied Russian for years), but I have a definite liking for Russian romantics --- and a lot of Shostakovich. And I was "inspired" originally by several works.

So here's the list. It's not in any particular order, just the ones I think of first.

Tchaikovsky, especially an early work called The Snow Maiden. Why? There are a couple of what I can only describe as kind of medieval-sounding pieces within.

Rimsky-Korsakov, especially The Golden Cockerel. It, too, has a medieval "sound" to it(though he was trying for Nationalistic Russian at the time), and a certain "dark" undertone to it that seems appropriate to my work. And, like all the music I really like, it's very "visual". Other pieces that were important: Sadko and the Tale of Tsar Saltan.

Finally Shostakovich. Strangely, it's some of his lighter movie and dance pieces that are "inspiring" here, although several of his symphonies "fit" my theme, because they are so broad and grand. And my trilog is broad and grand. But I like the way his music swings from rather light to very sweeping(in the symphonies, esp. 5, 7, 8, 11, and 12.)

I may end up being "inspired" by other composers in other works, but for now, these are my "inspirations". I even derived or pictured what I call a key scene(around which I've built part of my narrative), from listening to one piece.
Anne G

Saturday, December 1, 2007

"Guy books" and "gal books"

I started reading a new book yesterday. Well, actually, I tried to read another one yesterday, having checked both of these books out of the library. The one I tried to read was so ridiculous I put it down after about a page. It's going back to the library as soon as I can get there, weather permitting(it half snowed and half rained today, and it's supposed to rain, rain, raing tomorrow through Wednesday). It was something about Templars and troubadours and Cathars and Tarot cards or something like that.

But the book I'm reading is different. It's by Christopher Forrest who is a lawyer by profession. The name of it is The Genesis Code. And from the first page, it's very obvious that it's what I call a "guy book". There are "gal books" too, but I'll get to that shortly.

Anyway, "guy books", as one might guess, are pretty much written by and for men. No, I'm not tal;king about porn, or "erotic", which can be written by anyone of either sex. I've never read that stuff anyway and don't intend to now. "Guy books" are quite different. They are relatively short, written in a "punchy" style of the sort that was first introduced or popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and "read" quickly. They're full of action, and often, but not always, any female characters are basically a peripheral part of the story. The female characters are frequently not very well characterized. Since I just started this book, I can't say very much about it, but the premise looks interesting as long as you don't take it seriously as science. In other words, a kind of "fun read" on a long airplane trip, unless you're using your laptop for some purpose. Or reading one of the Harry Potter books, as I did on a trip to Los Angeles.

I am well aware that my statements above are generalizations, based on the "guy books" I"ve read(yes, women read these things too, from time to time). There are male writers of fiction who characterize very well, who have plots that while decidedly "fictional", have a believable premise, and don't just jump from "action" to "action". Stephen King and Terry Brooks come to mind. I mention these two writers because I rather like what they do, but many people don't like fantasy and horror. But these writers don't really write "guy books".

On the other hand, another writer who does write "guy books" is Bernard Cornwell. Almost all of his output is relatively short, punchy, "adventurous", with lots of attention paid to the battles the hero participates in. And his characters(the male ones I've come across, at least), tend to be all the same character, in different interesting situations. His female characters tend to be, well, forgettable. One thing in his favor, he does do a lot of research in writing his "historical action" books. And he does write very well. For this reason, I"ve kept up with his two medieval series, both the "Uhtred" one and the earlier one about the 100 Years' War(can't remember the series title at the moment). But nevertheless, I would have to characterize these books as "guy books". I haven't read any of his other output in this vein; stories about naval battles just don't interest me very much. And his output is fairly typical of "guy book" writing.

But we can't leave the female half out of this. Because there are "gal books" too. These are (mostly) romances, but also include a lot of what is commonly characterized as "women's fiction" and some historical fiction written by women as well. The latter category varies tremendously in quality: some is very easily accessible and well-written, some verges on the "literary" and there are a few which I would categorize as rather "soulless" or even "pretentious", but I won't go into that at this point. Some of these writers, including a few romance writers, are actually quite good; Mary Jo Putney comes to mind. So does the late Anya Seton, who, in writing Katherine, inspired me(eventually) to write a book set in medieval England, which I'm now doing. I'm doing something quite different, since my effort is unabashedly science fiction as well as history, but it doesn't matter. And I hope I"m not writing a "gal book" only.

Because a lot of "gal books" aren't all that interesting, either. Most romances are about as bad, in their way, as the more stereotypical "guy books" I mentioned earlier. It's just that their badness, so to speak, is of a different kind. Things like interchangeable cities, emphasis on dress and appearance, "fluffy" names for both male and female characters, plotlines that probably came out of a "how to" on romance writing or "women's fiction". For these reasons, I don't often read such "gal books", though I'm beginning to find exceptions in some romances. On the other hand, some of these women writers make a nice living writing "gal books". The romance market continues quite strong, and a lot of romances get churned out every month, most of them highly forgettable. And, on still another hand, there are readers who actually like to read this kind of material, and at least one woman I know of, who doesn't read anything but romances.

Which brings me to another point here: A lot of women evidently have more tolerance for "fairy tale" fantasy than men evidently do. If men --- especially the writers of "guy books" --- "do" fantasy, they tend to make it seem more "realistic". Is this good or bad? I don't know.

But push comes to shove, I wonder why, in this day and age, there still have to be "guy books" and "gal books"? Does this mean that women writers are still taken less seriously than men writers? I wonder, because I can't imagine most men bothering to read a romance, and a lot of women won't, either. Some women go the opposite route and try to read little but "literary" stuff. How many women besides me read some of the "guy books" I've mentioned? There seems to be a broad audience of both sexes for the Cornwell fiction. Shouldn't that tell publishers something? How many women write "adventure" novels? Not very many, as far as I know. I heard of one author who recently wrote a "thriller", which heretofore had seemed to be exclusively a "men's club". But then, the kind of "guy books" that John Le Carre writes are much better characterized than, say Cornwell's output. But again, they're different writers, doing different things. How would a woman approach a thriller? How would a man write a romance, if he could bring himself to do this? I don't have any answers to these questions, because the "how" lies in the pen and imagination of each individual writer. Still, I wonder if some of the demand for "guy" and "gal" literature comes in part from a perception by publishers that "only" certain kinds of writers can write these things(e.g. "only" a man can "really" write adventure stories, and "only" a woman can "really" write fiction that revolves more around relationships and feelings). And I wonder if there really isn't an audience out there, who would be willing to look much more broadly at fiction written by "nonstereotypical" writers.
Anne G

Friday, November 23, 2007

Neandertals,anthropology, writing

Every time I write something about Neandertals, it seems I get a response. Even though this is supposed to be a writer's blog! And a science fiction writer's blog, at that! But hey, that's nice. The latest mention of my efforts is in the most recent edition of Four Stone Hearth. Four Stone Hearth is a biweekly anthropology blog "carnival". And there are a lot of interesting links there. And you can find a link to my Cavemen, the TV Show piece posted on October (you'll have to scroll down a bit to find it; just look for the title above). Or you can read it right hiere. Thanks, Tim, for uploading the link. This is much appreciated.
Anne G

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Greg Laden again

"Did they or didn't they", the first line of the Greg Laden blog, re the Cioclovina fossil says. He thinks they "did". But the article itselv(soon to be published in a journal), doesn't quite see it that way. Nevertheless, Laden is to be commended for this, his latest entry!
Anne G

Let's get medieval

Sometimes you just stumble across good stuff that may stimulate that Writer's Muscle, completely by accident. I was reading Elizabeth Chadwick's blog Living the History today, and found this. It's in the latest entry. The title, The Senses in Late Medieval England, is kind of misleading, since it covers "earlier" medieval times as well. It's apparently a "scholarly" book, but the kind that, for writers writing in the period(or any other period a "scholar" may cover, which interests the writer), can add interesting detail that can help flesh out a story. It seems to have many examples, e.g. making the sign of the crosss when yawning, to prevent devils from entering the body through the mouth. Sounds wonderfully stimulating!
Anne G

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The "writing" muscle(metaphorically speaking) Part II

This isn't exactly about the "writing muscle", but it affects how the "writing muscle" may be used. To explain: I belong to several writers' e-mail lilsts, and from time to time, quiestions about POV(point of view) come up. Also questions --- always important --- of what agents and publishers will accept in certain genres.

For example, it has been asserted that, in historical novels, a female POV main character is preferred, because women are the main readers of historical novels. No, not historical romances --- historical novels. This may or may not be true. OTOH, there are writers, both male and female, who prefer to write male POV's for various reasons. One author I've corresponded with, has "fallen in love" with certain (male) historical characters, and while she started out writing things with female POV's, she is presently doing a lot of writing from the "male" POV. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that; in some periods, it's just a lot easier to find "interesting" male characters without "digging", especially if you insist, if this author does, for a variety of reasons I won't go into here, that the characters must reflect the "thinking" of whatever historical period they'rw writing about. Again, there's nothing wrong with that --- up to a point. There is nothing potentially more annoying than having some female character acting like a "feminist"(whatever that may be), 500 years before feminism was "invented". OTOH, there's also nothing wrong with "bending" the social rules a little, as long as you don't have your character "bending" them too much. But again, some writers insist on not "bending" what they imagine to be the "rules" of a past period, this, despite the fact that, in reality, past and present, social rules are "bent" all the time, with varying consequences. The people who "bent" them weren't always famous enough or noted enough to get written about, though. This applies, to both male and female characters.

Going a little farther with this, how do you even choose whether or not to have a "male" or "female" POV in any piece of writing? As a general rule, most male writers tend to stick with a "male" POV, though I hasten to add that there are plenty of exceptions here. Women --- as a general rule --- again, there are notable exceptions, which I'll come to in a moment --- tend to write in either POV, depending on the kind of story they're writng. The exception is romance, although even here, there may be "switches" from male to female POV's. But then, romance is almost exclusively a woman writer's domain; other genres, with the exception of thrillers, are created by both men and women(and even that may be breaking down; just recently a woman wrote a thriller).

In general, it seems to me that people write in the POV that seems to best fit the story. If it's more "action oriented", the writer may decide a male protagonist is the best choice. If there are lots of scenes where emotion and interpersonal relationships are involved, female POV's may work better, but again,t here is lots of overlap. OTOH, some people can't comfortably write novels featuring the "opposite" sex. Bernard Cornwell's novels seem to be of this type. They are very good and well-written and interesting, but his female characters tend to be rather interchangeable and "flat", and his emphasis is on lots of "action". Novels like this are what I call "guy books". Again, nothing wrong with these; they are basically the male equivalent of romance(and there's nothing wrong with well-written romance, either).

But unless we are Bernard Cornwell wannabes writing "guy books", or romance writers, or people who are just plain uncomfortable writing about the "opposite" sex, there will always be a question of who the protagonist should be. And this is where the "writing muscle" comes in. What kind of a story is it? Thriller/novel with lots of battles and actions? Romance? Science fiction? Mystery? Or something else, perhaps a combination of all of these, or "literary" fiction? Most of these genres or story types could use a protagonist of either sex, but which one is chosen, would depend on the type of story being told. If it's about someone with a "past", it may well be more conceptually easy to imagine the protagonist as female, and the writer will then go with a female POV, though there may well(or, in my view, should)be a strong male character or two. If it involves lots of action, particularly if it's historical action, a male POV may work better, though this, too, can be a mixed bag. I can speak from my own experience here. My first attempt had an alternating male and female POV. Both were strong characters, and both(eventually)came together to fight a "bigger problem". I'm still working on this one; it's kind of "on the shelf for now". The second attempt was about one of the characters from the first novel, who was a child at the time; now she is fifteen years old. And I felt it had to be a female protagonist, because it was what is sometimes called a "coming of age story". But I never thought of it that way; I just tried to remember my own experiences of being that age, and projected it into the near future. This too has not quite jelled. The third attempt is the one I'm writing now. There is a main female protagonist and two "strong secondary" females, who may get their own stories later on. And there are two main male characters, both of them emotionally involved, though in different ways, with the main female character. Plus there are two "secondary" male characters. This is the most "balanced" of my attempts, and it's in historical time, and has what one friend of mine calls a "cast of thousands". Originally, this was going to be a mainly "female" POV, but as I wrote it, certain characters just grew and grew, and I had to add more strong male characters. Again, I don't think there is anything wrong with this process. For a writer, it just is.

So, when it comes down to it, I don't really have any "advice". I just used my "writing muscle", which, in me, is quite well-developed. But if you, dear reader, want to write, and you don't think yours is very well-developed, don't despair. There are ways to strengthen "writing muscles", just as there are ways to strengthen and tone your body(as I have found out over the past week, and continue to find out). I'll suggest some in a later post. Nothing profound, just things you can try. And even if you don't think writing something creative is for you, you still need not despair, because your "writing muscle" is basically nothing more than a "creativity muscle", directed in certain ways. And everyone has a creative side!
Anne Gqq

Friday, November 16, 2007

The "writing" muscle(metaphorically speaking) Part I

A few days ago, I started an exercise program, mainly because, one morning, so to speak, I woke up "feeling flabby". I hadn't been getting the kind of exercise I should have been. And, for my birthday, I was entered into a local YMCA membership. Which meant I could take all the classes free of charge, and use their "workout" rooms any time I want. I am taking three different classes now, and I will be adding a fourth one the week after Thanksgiving(mostly because it won't be held the day after Thanksgiving, due to "late" opening). Be that as it may, I've learned/noticed a couple of things, after only a few days.

First of all, there are some things that "come easy" to me, even though at the moment, I'm more or less "out of shape" at the moment. I'm fairly flexible, and fairly "enduring". I was able to use a treadmill for a full 30 minutes(which I didn't think I could do), twice, and a bicycle for 20 minutes, and these activities got my heart rate up and "got me going". I also discuvered that in sopme workouts, I could use heavier dumbells and rubber tubes, than I thought I could. And I have a lot more endurance than I thought I had. Which, as the trainer I spoke to said, was a Good Thing, though not in so many words. Other things, like coordination of arms and legs, are somewhat harder, though one class(basically salsa steps and dancing) taught me that it's easier to do some of these things if you're having fun and dancing, rather than just plain exercise. Other things, I just have to "work up" to. I will probably be able to start doing more "strenuous" things in a few months, if not sooner. But I'm going to play it by ear, as they say.

Looking back at the beginning of a "writing career", it's interesting to see the parallels. There was a time, and not all that long ago, that I never thought I'd be actively reading aarchaeological journals, and papers dealilng with medieval subjects. It just never occurred to me that I might be doing this. For that matter, I never even thought I'd be trying to combine historical subjects with "prehistoric" ones, nor did I ever think I might even begin to write anything remotely resembling science fiction! Let alone writing a blog and monitoring an e-mail list. But I'm doing all of these things. And, of course, writing.

My first efforts at writing, resulted in something that tried to be like Terry Brooks' Shannara series, but after two tries at creating something, it just didn't work, although I ended up "mining" some "backstory" for what was supposed to be a "prequel" but turned out to be an independed story, set in the near future, in a former Western Washington timber town, whose existence is not unlike some former Western Washington timber towns, but is a complete product of my imagination. I felt I had to write this huge, unmanageable "epic" because of the way so many people seemed to be thinking about Neandertals --- and some people still do. I felt, based on my reading of various lines of literature, that this was a mistake, but I wasn't a scientist, so I had to "correct" it fictionally. As I said, my first effort didn't quite work, nor did my earliest version of Song of the Forest, my "near future" sci-fi piece. That's still"on the shelf" at the moment. As is my second effort Inside, Outside, also set in this imaginary timber town, and seen through the eyes of a fifteen year old(Neandertal) girl.

But each of these efforts resulted in a strengthening of my "writing muscle". And I found, now that I'm deep into the second book of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, that this "writing muscle" is much stronger! I have a better idea of how to write, as I keep writing. And I've also listened to my "inner voice" which pretty much demanded that this story, based on some very real historical events, must be written. In a way, this is not unlike what I found when starting my exercise class: I found that I didn't need to use 2-lb dumbells; I could just as easily use 3-lb ones without getting too "worked up". But on the other hand, it took a while to get to that realization; I'd tried another exercise class elsewhere, and gotten discouraged. Basically, in that one, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And it took me a long time to gather up the courage to start writing my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals! I read and read a lot of "academic" material about the period I was interested in, and learned as much as I could about the historical characters that appear in this story, but as I also subscribe to a list of medievalists, I was terribly afraid that they would be critical of my idea when it finally got published and printed, that I held myself back. At some point(don't ask me when; it just happened), I decided that the story was yelling too loudly at me to just write it, that the professional medievalists didn't matter any more(although I still hope they won't be too critical when it gets written and published; it's my "baby"). And I'm glad I did, though the process itself hasn't always been smooth. But one thing I've found out in both exercising and writing is, that persistence is important And I'm good at that.

So, I'll sign off this long post for now, and more on related material in a bit,
Anne G

The Neanderbounty never ends!

A lot of stuff about Neandertals has been coming out lately. And this interview, on the John Hawks blog, is more of the same. Especially intriguing is the apparent fact that the famous Teshik-Tash child seems to cluster, genetically, with European Neandertals, although earlier reports claimed it was more "modern". But there 's more to it than that. . . .read the interview, and see for yourself.
Anne G

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Whee, yippee!

Yay, too! Julien Riel-Salvatore's blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed, has linked my posts from yesterday(on the overhyped Boston Globe article about Neandertals), to one of his blog entries for today. So thank you, Julien Riel-Salvatore, even if you don't agree with some of my conclusions. Now if I can just get some science fiction publisher to link here, once my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals is finished. . . .
Anne G

Monday, November 12, 2007

Blog: active, or not?

I got a bit of a comment the other day, suggesting that my blog hasn't been very "active" lately. Let me reassure you: It's always "active" in some fashion. There may be times when I don't post very often, because I'm either hard at work on my book, or dealing with the rest of my life, or adding links to other blogs I come across, that may be worthy of the reader's attention. And some things, like book reviews, will be added when I find something interesting, or "when the spirit moves me". But my spirit does move, and if you don't see too many posts at times, it just means I'm busy with my writing and my life!
Anne G


Whee! I got a very nice compliment from Shobhan Bantwal, whose book The Dowry Bride, I reviewed a few posts back. Thank you, Ms. Bantwal. We writers should be supportive of one another.
Anne G

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Silly picture

Here is the silly picture of hunting Neandertals, from which I derived some of my comments. Note the garments. If you do, you'll see why it's silly.
Anne G

Stone Age "feminism"

Today the Boston Globe has a piece called Stone Age Feminism? which purports to explain why Neandertals are no longer among us. This explanation(which I'll get to in a moment) is rather silly, as is the accompanying picture(I'll explain the silliness of that a bit later, too).

What it does do, and does rather well, is summarize the latest research on Neandertals: there is a bit about the discovery of the "modern" type of FOXP2 gene, which, combined with the existence of "modern" type hyoid bones, strongly suggests Neandertals had language, as we do. There is also some more about "flame haired Neandertals", this due to the presence of a type of MC1R gene, which in some forms, suppresses certain types of melanin in skin and hair, and gives the possessor of such a gene, red hair. Some Neandertals apparently had such a variant, although it is apparently not quite the same as that of modern northern Europeans with red hair, though John Hawks has other opinions about this. He thinks that, at best, Neandertals may well have been light skinned, but "only" reddish blond.

But the real "kickers" in this article are the explanation, by a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists, as to why Neandertals became extinct, and the picture that accompanies the article.

First, the MaryStiner/Steven Kuhn explanation: basically, they claim that Neandertals became extinct because the women hunted, alongside the men. According to this theory, they were vulnerable to being gored or stomped or trampled or otherwise injured as they hunted alongside their men. Okay. I don't know. There are some modern hunter-gatherer groups where women have been known to hunt alongside men, at least under some circumstances, for one thing. It's also well-known among anthropologists, that other perfectly "modern" humans had women who assumed "hunting" roles if necessary; hunter-gatherers(or more properly, "foragers") often don't have the kind of rigidly-defined sex roles many people "expect" everyone to have. In any case, if this is true, there is no reason to assume Neandertals were any more or less rigid about these things(this, despite the efforts of some popular authors like Jean Auel)than any given "modern" group. In other words, looking at what archaeological evidence exists, Neandertals probably had the same behavioral ranges as "modern" humans do.

Which leads to the question of Stiner/Kuhn's conclusions. What they claim is, that the Neandertal practice of such equality(if that's what it was), made the women more "vulnerable", since it is women who have children; if they got killed, there went another possible addition to the tribe, or whatever. It also supposedly made them more vulnerable, because if the women didn't hunt, they could go out and gather seeds and nuts, or whatever. Which is just another way of saying "shame on you, you don't follow 'traditional' sex roles or division of labor"!

In a way, I can see their point; according to some anthropologists who have studied Neandertals extensively, Neandertals may well have been among the smallest human populations ever to have inhabited Earth. I think the 10,000 figure is decidedly low, overall, but 10,000 of them, at any given time in the period of their existence may be "on target". And with populations of that size at any given time, the loss of one member of the tribe, band, family group, or however they organized themselves, would have been considerable, to say the least. But Stiner and Kuhn don't stop to consider that it's far more likely that Neandertals, just like other human groups, had some kind of sexual division of labor, just like "modern" groups do, even if it wasn't organized exactly the way such divisions among "modern" groups are. For example, if a woman was pregnant, it may not have been customary for her to do any "group hunting" for obvious reasons. Very young children might also not have hunted, for all we know. Absent a time machine, we'll never know, but it seems reasonable that Neandertals at least tried to assure that women could have children safely. As for gathering seeds and nuts, etc., I think the idea that the women "didn't" stems from the idea that they ate nothing but meat. Well, I suspect that they ate a lot of meat, all right. After all they lived in a climate that was probably frozen over for a good six months of the year. But I also think they probably gathered plant food when it was available; food on the hoof was just their most reliable source of sustenance in that kind of climate. And no doubt there were women and children who gathered these things. Again, absent a time machine, we'll never know.

Stiner and Kuhn are good archaeologists, and they've done valuable work. But their thesis of Neandertal extinction just doesn't make much sense. It only sounds plausible, because most "modern" societies have the kind of "recognizable" sexual division of labor where women, generally, do not hunt. Certainly, if you go to certain rural parts of the US, you don't see too many women hunters, though there is a strong "hunting culture" in many of these places. So, perhaps, Stiner and Kuhn are influenced by these kinds of cultural considerations. But this doesn't make their explanation of Neandertal extinction any more plausible, at least not to me. Still, I guess you could say it's an entertaining explanation.

The article has some other paleoanthropologists and archaeologists sounding off about this topic. There is Richard Klein, who is still going around claiming Neandertals lacked some "brain mutation" that "modern" humans(and only "modern" humans)supposedly possessed. Recent evidence, from Africa, moreover, seems to suggest he is wrong, but that didn't stop the Boston Globe from quoting him. Then there is Daniel Lieberman, who went so far as to claim that Neandertals would look "weird" to us if they were resurrected, but we would (somehow) have less trouble sending one to Harvard! Again, this doesn't make much sense to me; "weird" in what way? The most "modern" artistic reconstructions make them look a little "different" in some ways, but hardly "weird"! Unless you consider a large and prominent nose "weird". Considering that lots of people have rather big noses, that seems an odd statement to make. Or is it the prominent browridges? But then, some early "moderns"(notably at the Moravian site of Mladec) have large nasal openings and fairly prominent browridges too. It is only after the advent of agriculture that tthe "gracile" form most of us exist in today, really came into being. And that was long after the existence of Neandertals. As for going to Harvard. . . well, it would seem Neandertals had brains that worked pretty much like ours do, if the archaeological evidence is anything to go by.

Finally, there is the picture that accompanies the Boston Globe article. About all I can say about it is, the hunters are dressed in a way that suggests "primitive" by artistic conventions. But on the other hand, if Neandertals really dressed only in those fur outfits with one arm hole, it's really no wonder they are extinct! They would surely have frozen to death in Ice Age winters in such outfits!
Anne G

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Exotic writers?

This is the first in a series of periodic book reviews. I will be reviewing and commenting on any books that seem interesting, more or less "as the spirit moves me". Some will be "relevant" to what I'm writing, but writers should read a lot of things, so they may not be about science fiction or medieval history, or Neandertals. But if it looks interesting to me, I'll do my best to explain why.

Yesterday, I was browsing around in the local library, after running some errands. The main library in Seattle is always an interesting place --- the floor where they have the newest fiction and nonfiction, has essentially been designed to be a giant solarium. It's all glass, and even on the rainiest and most disheartening days(and Seattle has enough of these at this time of year), it feels full of light. it was here that I found a most interesting book called The Dowry Bride. The author is one Shobhan Bantwal, and this appears to be the only book she's written --- so far.
There are several things that are interesting about this book. The first is, that while the author is of East Indian heritage, she is writing a piece of "popular" fiction, which is quite unusual(as she points out in her Afterward)for an author of East Indian heritage. Another fascinating feature of the book is, that for non-Indian readers, it's a peek into a slice, if you will, of contemporary Indian life. And even more interesting, she wrote it as a (sort of) romance.

The premise may at first seem offputting: a young woman runs away from her husband and his family because they are plotting to tie her up and set her on fire so he can marry somebody else. The reason? Her parents are not rich, but they are trying to cough up dowry money in installments. This does not satisfy the mother-in-law, who is basically the villain of the piece, and quite an unpleasant one at that. Essentially, the woman's parents have themselves been deceived; they thought her husband's family was very well-off, but it turns out they are not only not as well-off as they said they were, but they are excessively "conservative"(in terms of contemporary India, at least), and basically pretty stultifying. But then, as Ms. Bantwal points out, these "dowry killings" are also a part of contemporary India, unfortunately.

When Megha, the young heroine, runs away, she manages to find her way to the very contemporary living quarters of her cousin-in-law, Kiran Rao, who is well-off, well-educated, and has a much more modern outlook. Furthermore, he has been in love with her from the moment he saw her --- at her wedding to her unsatisfactory husband.

Neither of them feel they can fulfill their desires; he has to try to keep her safe from her would-be assassins; she has feelings for him, but has been too "conservatively" brought up to act on them, but would like to. What each of them do about this situation, and how they change their outlook, forms the bulk of the book.

This is not a "typical" romance; there are parts of it that, from a "non-Indian" point of view seem quite odd. There is one scene where an old grandmother confesses to having been molested by an "untouchable" man, and the result was the villainous mother-in-law. But perhaps Ms. Bantwal wanted to show that this was a somewhat old fashioned attitude; in the same scene, she has Megha remark that an "untouchable" man came to their house to do heavy work, and was actually quite nice. Even Bollywood seems to have caught on to this, if some recent works I've heard about are anything to go by, but on the other hand, India is still India, and there's no question that some attitudes take longer --- in any culture --- to change, than others.

While this book is not great literature, and the manuscript could have used an editor in places, it is extremely entertaining. Better yet, it gives some insight into some aspects of India today. And that's a good thing. Many readers fall into ruts in their reading habits, but perhaps if Shobhan Bantwal keeps on writing(she says she's working on another book), and encourages other people of East Indian heritage to do the same, perhaps some of us mentally curious folk will learn more about this extremely old, rich, complex, yet forward-looking culture. For that matter, she should probably encourage people from all kinds of cultures to write about contemporary life for "popular" audiences. Our horizons need to be broadened periodically.
Anne G

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fantasy? Or not?

There has been an interesting discussion going on at various historical writers' blogs lately, generated by a discussion on an e-mail list about the differences between "historical fantasy", "historical fiction", etc. I should note that, try as I might, I couldn't track the URLs down; I didn't save them. They're in some of those blogs, though.

But the gist of these discussions was this: Why some writers(and readers) don't like fantasy, and why does(or deosn't) certain kinds of fantasy work very well. In particular, "historical fantasy", which is defined as historical events "assisted" by non-means, or "alternate history"(which should be self-explanatory) came in for criticism.

Just for the record, I do read fantasy. I always have. I can't even remember a time when I wasn't reading science fiction, though there must have been such a time when I was very young. So, in a way, I can't understand why some people don't like fantasy --- except that some people don't, and I happen to live with one. In this person's case, I can understand why: it had a lot to do with the opportunities she had to read much of anything in the rural community she was brought up in. Besides which, her parents never had much money anyway, and the public libr4ary system in that area could only be described as "crappy".

But the author who said she didn't like fantasy(and who writes historical fiction), was another matter. She just never did like fantasy of any kind. Not even what are mistakenly called "fairy tales", even as a child. I can sort of understand; there are authors that some of these writers absolutely adore, but I can't stand(I won't go into that here, at this time, however). A lot of this is a matter of taste.

Unless the person in question never really, psychologically, was a child, or else was brought up to think that you "put away childish things" once you get past a certain age. There are a lot of people like that, and it's hard for them to give up their long-cherished beliefs about what is right and proper. And maybe we shouldn't even try.

Be that as it may, the discussion was quite interesting, because it touched on the kind of material I'm writing. It's set in medieval England, and closely(at least as closely as I can) follows real historical events. But three of the most important characters are Neandertals from a refuge planet, where they have learned space travel from "sasquatch-like" beings. They also have certain abilities not found in "modern" humans, though I(sort of) posit that these abilities stem from genetic material found in the so-called "junk genes"(which aren't all that junky, apparently). So my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpieces With Neandertals(it's turning into a trilogy)may seem "fantastic" to some people, and therefore may turn them off. This, despite the fact that there is no other "fantasy" involved, no "alternate realities" or "alternate history", just the factual history. So what would you call my book? I like to call it "romantic science fiction"; there's no such actual category, but it's very "romantic" and is somewhat like romance in that most of the characters end up happily.

Finally, I can see why some people don't like "historical fantasy"; certain authors try to "play" with historical characters and situations by adding "magical" elements. And unless the author knows exactly what they're doing, this just doesn't work. One quite awful recent example was Judith Tarr's Rite of Conquest. The premise was utterly ridiculous, if you know anything about the period involved. And Tarr is generally a good novelist. Even I, who am generally tolerant of fantasy elements, since I like good fantasy anyway, had trouble with this one.

None of this really answers the question of why some people don't like fantasy, but it raises a lot of interesting issues about what readers will tolerate, and what they won't.
Anne G

Monday, November 5, 2007

Our cousins, the "cavemen", again

Just as I finished one blog, from a scientist who was kind enough to list my humble blog on his bloglist, I come across another gem, this one at Julien Riel-Salvatore's blog A Very Remote Period Indeed. I should add, for clarification, that A Very Remote Period Indeed can be found listed under Anthropology and Prehistory on the right-hand side of this blog. He blogs primarily on prehistoric archaeology and human evolution. And I find his views generally extremely informative. This particular blog was generated by a column by the anthropologist Meredith Small --- regarding the latest finds on Neandertals, naturally, to wit, that at least some of them had red hair and they had the exact same "talk" gene "we" do. Which, in her view makes them a lot more sophisticated than many people like to believe. But then, I've always known two very important things: one, that there were Neandertals with red or at leat "light" hair, skin, and eyes, and that they most certainly could talk! They talk quite a lot in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. And they're pretty sophisticated, too.
Anne G

More Greg Laden

I should add that Greg Laden writes on a variety of scientifically-tinged subjects, and some "topical" ones. Perhaps not much to interest the writers who may happen by here, but on the other hand, there's plenty of food for thought there, and that's something a writer or potential writer should always look out for.
Anne G

Thank you, Greg Laden!

I had been thinking about creating another post, to start November off with a blast, but Greg Laden's newest version of his blog appropriately named Greg Laden's blog, lists The Writer's Daily Grind on his blog! Yay! It's a very special yay, because I'm not a scientist, and all the other blogs he lists are from scientists! True, I'm writing "romantic" science fiction that features Neandertals in one capacity or another. And it's also true that my current efforts --- currently finishing Book 2 of my epic --- are set in medieval England. And he might not necessarily agree with the general thrust of my literary efforts. But I do appreciate hisl listing my blog anyway. Because we've "known" each other for quite a while now. There used to be a site called Palanth, which was kind of a meeting place for those who were serious about discussing various aspects of human evolution. And he had a lot of things to say about human evolution. Sometimes we disagreed. But I've always respected his ideas, and will continue to do so. I can't imagine doing anything else. So, to return the favor, I'm going to add Greg Laden's newest blog to my own list. Which I would urge any visitor here, to read.

So, once again, thank you Greg Laden,
Anne G

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Redheads forever

I knew it! Iknew it! According to this article in Nature, a respected science journal, some Neandertals had red hair, just like my Neanderlady picture! The reason? They had one variety of the MC1R gene, which under certain circumstances, produces red hair. Of course, the authors of the article are quick to point out, it wasn't "the same" as the "modern" one(I think they were probably a little too quick on this, but that's another story), but it had the same results.

Personally, I think that since MC1R seems to come in several different "varieties" or "strengths", as I understand it, it is hardly surprising that Neandertals may have had another "variety". But it is also not surprising that this "variety" seems to have more or less worked the same way as "modern" types of MC1R. Apparently, as I indicated in a post last week, Neandertals were "chatty" too, because they had the same version of FOXP2, which is one of the genes involved in speech. The more genes these people recover, the more Neandertals seem like "us"(or at least some of us), in important ways.

Anyway, I'd like to end this "newsflash" with a hint, related to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals: the heroine, Illg, is not unlike my "Neanderlady". And her Neanderfriends who accompany her(sometimes) in her adventures through medieval England, are rather chatty, though none of the others are redheaded.
Anne G

What books do you never finish?

I was going to write about something else, something that I saw yesterday, and is one of my "writing" bugaboos. But I have been invited, so to speak, to tell about the books I don't finish, and the reasons I don't finish. There are many, both books and reasons.

Let's start with the books. As I say, I have read so many books I didn't finish, that I can't remember them all, either titles or authors. Usually it's because their style or writing, or the subject matter just doesn't interest me. Often, I can tell within the first few pages if this is the case. I recently attempted to read a science fiction novel, whose author and title now escape me, but which looked interesting on the library shelf. So I checked it out. Unfortunately, it was one of those science fiction novels which can only be read by "aficionados", and it's also one of the reasons why a lot of people hate science fiction! This wasn't full of "techy" stuff, exactly, just full of strange names and situations, and there was no obvious plot structure that I could see. I tried valiantly for a chapter or two, then closed it up, never to open it again. I took it back to the library at the earliest opportunity. The other book was one of those "guys adventures". Now I like a good thriller from time to time, and if the author of such a book has an idea that makes at least some logical sense, and writes reasonably well, I will read it. To the end. But this book(again, by an author I don't remember, and I can't remember the title, either), could write well. The trouble was, his idea made absolutely no logical sense, and furthermore, it was full of all sorts of military style "hush hush" "secret" stuff that just made absolutely no sense to me, even given the military mind's penchant for secrecy. It was supposed to be happening underneath a purported oil rig off the coast of Greenland. . . .and there were things about the description of that which didn't make sense at the time I was reading them.

In short, I don't put up with anything that defies logic too much. A story has to be readable, and it has to be believable. If these two qualities aren't there, it doesn't get read.

The other problem I have with some novels is, they simply don't engage me very much. For this reason, I have trouble reading most literary fiction, because by its very nature, literary fiction is designed not to have any of the kinds of "resolution" I'm used to. Call me lowbrow if you want, but that's the way I feel. But even a lot of "genre" novels may get this treatment, if they don't engage me, and this is usually a problem because of the writer's skills(or lack of them, more usually). And I tend to avoid anything, in any genre written in the present tense!(more oh this in another post). But these, I don't bother to read at all.

Finally, if it's in a historical context(again, no matter what the genre), if the writer makes glaring mistakes, either as to what might be called "cultural accuracy", or as to the events involved, the author doesn't last very long with me. The last experience I had with this was with a book that came highly recommended. It was Lawrence J. Brown's Cold Hand, Cruel Heart. The man was writing about the period my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece is set in, but he made some absolutely glaring "cultural accuracy" mistakes, which could have been easily corrected. And he had one "clownish" villain, and one villain that was so stereotyped he could have jumped off the boards of some 19th century melodrama, twirling his mustache! I don't suffer these kinds of novels, either.

Do I sound picky? Well, maybe. But I've read an awful lot of stuff, and an awful lot of what' I've read is just not that good. And I wonder why it gets published at all.
Anne G

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Re the previous post:

Here is the article I mentioned in the previous post. Don't be put off by the silly headline or the equally silly picture, though.
Anne G

Chatty Neandertals

It seems some European geneticists have found the "modern" version of FOXP2 genes(which control speech), in Neandertal DNA. Which would suggest they could talk as well as "we" can. But we already knew that, didn't we? They talk quite well --- in several languages in the first two books of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, and they will keep on talking in Book 3, when it gets written!
Anne G

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Time-specific mindsets

Over at Historical Fiction, a forum for writers and readers of historical fiction, an interesting discussion has been going on about "historical" mindsets. One author at this link had quite a bit to say about people in historical novels having the right "mindset" for their times. She gave the example of a heroine in medieval times who goes riding around on a stallion and gives baskets of goodies to peasants, etc., and then acts like a "modern" woman when she's required to marry someone. I don't have any problem with this author's overall objections, per se. But I really don't think that a woman in medieval times(or a man, for that matter)would have just "bowed their heads and obeyed family dictates" if they truly didn't like the idea of the match. This doesn't take into consideration the fact that most families "back then" at least attempted to make compatible matches, just as, say, families in India try to do today. Of course, attitudes to and about marriage were different in, say 1350 than they are now. For everyone, marriage was a practical affair. It didn't mean that people didn't have some affection for one another, but it did mean that "love" as we understand it today, wasn't thought to be synonymous with marriage. People married for "alliaances", to obtain property(usually through a female), for security, among other things. Their expectations were different. In this sense, the author is correct about "mindset". But I don't think she's correct that everybody was "obedient". Cultures just don't work that way. And even in more "restrictive "times and cultures, there is usually a certain amount of "allowed" wiggle room.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, everything, if you're a historical novelist(or even writing science fiction set in a historical period, as I am. Some writers are simply not careful about the more general elements of "mindset" and therefore will often make egregious mistakes that even I can spot. But then, there can be "gray areas", especially if you're writing about fictional characters. You, the writer, do not have to be rigid about these things, if you have done halfway adequate research. And that is important. If you know something about the customs of the time and place you are writing about, you can play with things a bit. Of course you will always probably get some criticism from scholars about these things, but that's to be expected. Just don't make your heroine act like a 21st century Queen Bee . . . unless, of course, she is a queen. . . .
Anne G

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Cavemen, the TV show

I am not going to make a habit of doing TV reviews, particularly of situation comedies. Mostly I stick to books. But I'm making an exception for Cavemen. Why? Well, the lead characters on this show, for which you can find a review here , suggests that this is another Hollywood bright idea which has turned into a stinker.

Cavemen is basically a spinoff from the Geico "caveman" commercials, where some Geico representative cheerfully tells us "it's so easy a caveman could to it". And then a "caveman" appears, showing how completely insulted he is, to be deemed so utterly stupid. Oh, and he doesn't like Geico Insurance, either. These ads, appearing as "spots" on various TV shows, were actually quite clever. The actors in these ads were made up to look like Neandertals, but they were dressed as "modern" humans would be. I don't know if the people who dreamed up these ads know anything about the way Neandertals tend to be portrayed, both in "reconstructions" and as a group of prehistoric people, but the Geico ads captured the ambivalence we "moderns" feel about them, very, very well. And that was what made the ads so popular. It made them so popular, in fact, that some Hollywood types got the idea that they could do a "spinoff" comedy about them.

In a way, this is actually a good idea. It might be possible to create a TV series around a group or family of Neandertals living in the present time(let the creative Hollywood types figure out how they got here in the first place). But it would have to be completely independent of any "advertisement" tie-ins. And I think it would have to make them both "different" from "modern" humans, in some ways --- and I'm not talking about the obvious anatomical differences, but things that are likely to be more subtle, e.g. cultura values, etc. And it couldn't just focus on guys, which would be tempting, but it wold miss the point. It would also have to demonstrate, in some way, what they would be likely to have in common with "modern" humans.

Yes, there could be "racial" or "ethnic" issues --- if you want to put it that way. And these issues could be framed in such a way as to highlight our own, shall we say, imperfections, in a comedic way.

But such a TV series would have to dig deeper in order to have any lasting impact. And it would have to be a "dramedy" rather than the kind of comedy that the producers of Cavemen have opted for. It's unfortunate that this seems to be beyond the imagination of the producers and the scriptwriters of this show. But I suppose that's Hollywood.

In any case, if there are any Hollywood types out there reading this blog, I have a potential script for them. It's about a teenage Neandertal girl and her family, who live in a former Western Washington timber town that has been partly "invaded" by yuppies, among other things. Oh, and nobody knows she and her family are Neandertals; they keep quiet about this, and besides, they're supposed to be extinct. So yoo-hoo, Hollywood! If you want a show that might have a chance of succeeding, get me in touch with somebody, and I'll find someone who will help me write a script. It can't hurt anything, and it might even be successful!
Anne G

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Traveling Neandertals

This isn't about writing. I do that quite frequently. But it is about Neandertals, because when I started this blog, I mentioned(I believe), that I would load any interesting news about them, that I could find. Or something like that. So. . . . .here's this And also this. The last link isn't really about Neandertals at all. It's about the "hobbits", the little fossils found on Flores Island, Indonesia. But at the very end, the author does suggest that Neandertals and "modern" humans had very similar, if not identical, behavioral characteristics. In this last case, Dr. Riel-Salvatore thinks Neandertal and "modern" tool types were a lot more "advanced"(whatever that means) than those of the "hobbits", and goes to a great deal of trouble to explain why. But both feeds are worth checking out.
Anne G

Saturday, September 22, 2007

POV, again

I've been reading some interesting stuff lately. Interesting in that one of them, Indu Sundaresan's The Splendor of Silence, is written both in present and past tense. No, she doesn't do it all in the same place. The book takes place between 1942 and 1963. It's interesting because the "1963" material is set in and around Seattle. That is where Ms. Sundaresan lives, apparently. Which is nice, because I live in the same area. But the main part of the story takes place in World War 2, in India and Burma(now Myannmar). It revolves around a "grand passion" between an upper-class Indian woman and an American soldier whose brother disappeared in the Indian town he's been sent to. What is interesting is the way present tense is used: in the sections where the daughter who is the result of this affair is cleaning out a cabin in the Cascade foothills(an area I know fairly well), it's in the present tense. Her father has just died, and there's a letter from India that explains the woman's "background". This is all in the present tense. So are the soldier's actions in Burma, just before he goes to India. In these two incidences, the use of present tense makes a certain amount of sense. In the first instance, the "immediacy" present tense implies is dictated by the woman's chaotic feelings when confronted with her father's death. In the second instance, the immediacy is dictated by the soldier's situation: he has to get two friends out of the jungle, and the Japanese are in the area.

The parts about the four days in the town, however, are written in past tense, because presumably the woman in 1963 is reading the letter explaining "where she comes from". That, too makes sense: it's a remembering or recounting of past events. And Ms. Sundaresan is a skilled enough writer to pull this off without leaving the reader asking him or herself why present tense is necessary.

Unfortunately, as I've said earlier, not all writers are skilled enough to do this. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the use of present tense as a narrative device comes off, at best, as merely annoying. At worst, it feels kind of "precious" and "faddy". I say this, because there seems to be an increasing tendency, across a lot of genres, to write this way. Yes, I know the standard answer that might be given to the question of why. Present tense conveys a kind of "you are there" immediacy to the reader. Or it is supposed to. It also avoids some awkward constructions.

But all too often, I think, people write this way because they don't want to take the time to write more carefully or think out why they need to write in the present tense. For many types of narrative, I don't really think it works all that well. I'm not sure it would work very well in a novel set in, say ancient Egypt. I have to admit I've read very few novels set in ancient Egypt, and none of them were written in the present tense, so it's hard for me to imagine a writer writing about, say, the lives of people building the Pyramids, in the present tense.

And while some science fiction writers use it, I'm not sure it works there, either, even if whatever the author is writing about is set in deep space in the 33rd century. There are some things that are just too jarring for the average reader to handle very well.

Then too, perhaps the author ought to ask him or herself, what s/he is trying to accomplish when writing in any tense. First person past works well for a lot of narratives, though it does restrict the author to that character's point of view. But if you're writing a book from the point of view of some teenager, it might work very well. After all, the teenage years are often "all about me" angst. And present tense can work well when describing a teenager or group of teens; the adolescent years are full of immediacy, at least as far as teenagers are concerned.

But the rest? What on earth is so bad about using plain "old-fashioned" narrative style and letting the story tell itself without embellishment? Perhaps this is too retrgrade for some writers, but when one actually sits down to write, one of the most important considerations for use of any style should be: how well does it serve the story you are telling?
Anne G

The Letters to the Editor

For fothse of you who are interested, here are the Letters to the Editor I was referring to in the last post. They are almost uniformly negative about Ms. Chaudhry's "review". I agree with one of the letter-writers; if one wants to write political commentary, that's fine. Do it. But don't confuse a popular series like Harry Potter with political commentary, although some of the themes in such books may reflect a particular sociopolitical situation. Anyway, I'm glad the series was "vindicated".
Anne G

Harry Potter vindicated

I am pleased to announce to anyone who would like to read it, that the Harry Potter series has been vinidicated! It has been vindicated in, of all places, the letters to the editor section of the current Nation Magazine. I am referring, of course, to the blistering review on Lakshmi Chaudhry gave to the final Harry Potter book. One might have expected Nation readers, being the kind of people who probably like to read "serious" fiction of the literary kind, to side with her. But none of them did. What was important is, that most of the letters insisted she'd missed the point --- the series was originally conceived and written for children and "young adults". The readers, at least understood this, even if Ms. Chaudhry didn't. But as I said in the earlier post, perhaps Ms. Chaudhry was never really a child.
Anne G

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Again, Robert Sawyer

Robert Sawyer again has a lovely entry in his blog. It's his definition of science fiction. It's short, but it sums up the genre pretty well. I should note that he doesn't write like I do; I doubt that he would write a novel with a medieval historical backdrop that basically contains "Harry Potter-like" elements. But science fiction contains a pretty wide variety of "critters", so to speak, so I think that the "alternate reality" he speaks of would certainly fit anything I'm writing. Or what my writing-partner friend is writing. Or any number of writers are writing. Be that as it may, for anyone interested in science fiction, or writing in general, the Robert Sawyer blog and website is a good place to go from time to time.
Anne G

Monday, September 10, 2007

It's been a while since I posted. But from time to time, writers give other writers good pieces of advice. Robert Sawyer, a science fiction writer with considerable experience in the "nuts and bolts" of writing, has some pretty good advice. In this case, Sawyer didn't even bother to answer the inquirer's query. It should be pretty easy to see why when you read what Sawyer reprinted. The inquirer didn't even bother to do his/her "homework", so to speak. It's nice that s/he was given an award by "Wiinning Writers", whatever that is, but at the very least, they should have used their spell checker. We writers are kind of fussy about that kind of thing. And heaven knows, I'm guilty of these things, in first drafts and such, where I have to do a lot of correction anyway. But not in a query letter. Please. It's just the same as if you're applying for a "regular" job. If potential employers are fussy about the appearance of such letters, believe me, writers, editors, agents, et al, are even fussier.
Anne G

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A potpourri, inspired by the comments

First, let me say I'm pleased and gratified that I'm getting comments to some of my posts. I'm also pleased and gratified that I'm getting requests for links! Keep it up folks! I'm always interested in your responses, even if I don't necessarily agree with every one of them. Blogs, IMO, should be "interactive". And I intend mine to be. Of course, they are also very much expressions of the blogger's pesonal opinion and taste. And that's the way it should be, too.

One of the comments, from a published author, dealt with the frustrations of dealing with agents who want you to write a "certain" way, or publishers who want you to write certain kinds of books, because those will sell better. I haven't gotten that far, as I'm currently still furiously working on Book 2 of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. I can certainly understand a publisher or agent wanting to shepherd the next "Harry Potter" into existence. Book publishing has become, for better or worse, very much of a "bottom line" industry. But not everybody can write another Harry Potter. In part, this is because there is only one of J.K. Rowling, and in part, because each writer,naturally, writes differently, and processes their writing experiences differently. If someone tries to write another Harry Potter, they may write a very good story, but it will not be the same. And there is no guarantee that it will sell gazillions of books. Publishers know this, but there is too much of a tendency to treat a very real process as purely "entertainment", and forget that, while everyone with half a brain is creative, not everybody is creative with words. And even among those who are creative with words, not everybody has the same creative process, or is willing to do certain kinds of creating.

I know of some authors, who have more or less found themselves "unpublishable" for a while, simply because what they find most interesting to write about, doesn't sell well enough. Some of these authors have tried to move into other types of writing, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But I think that, while there's a hard reality out there, it diminishes us all to be treated as "saleable" or "unsaleable" depending on what the current fashion is. After all, ten years from now, how many people will still be reading The Da Vinci Code? Not that it matters, when Dan Brown himself is probably laughing all the way to the bank. And even he wasn't writing The Da Vinci Code to begin with; he wrote, if my memory serves me, a couple of "men's adventures". They sold respectably, but not like The Da Vinci Code. Which is often what happens, even with "best selling" authors. But that's another story. For another blog.
Anne G

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Works in progress

I came across an interesting blog from a writer by the name of Kim Norton. It's interesting because she is working on a novel that deals with Neandertals. Now since I am writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece in which Neandertals play a very important part, I am always interested in other people's thoughts about them. I must admit, my thoughts about Neandertals are not quite the same as hers. She seems to think they either communicated in some nonverbal way, or else they could not "compartmentalize" thought "domains". Perhaps she's right. We really don't have any way of knowing for sure. And it seems to me that this way of viewing Neandertal brains and Neandertal thought, comes from the work of Derek Bickerton, who is, I think, a linguist. I believe he is the one who came up with the idea that Neandertals apparently couldn't cross "thought domains". And what I've read of his work, just doesn't seem convincing to me. But again, perhaps he may be right.

On the other hand, this view of Neandertals as somehow fundamentally "different" derives from some old, and mistaken, notions that somehow, Neandertals were "closer to apes" than "we" are. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this notion was dominant in part because Neandertals were the first non-modern human fossils ever to be discovered. Furthermore, the famous Neander Valley fossil, after which they were named, was discovered in 1856, three years before Darwin published his theory of evolution. Therefore, when confronted with remains that seemed to belong to a human, but at the same time, did not look like any human type the researchers were familiar with, they simply did not know what to do. This "ape" view of Neandertals was reinforced some fifty years later, when Marcellin Boule "described" the now famous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil from SW France. Boule made some pretty egregious mistakes; he either ignored, or did not know, the fact that the poor fellow had a rather bad case of arthritis, and had lost most of his teeth. All I can say, from a more "modern" perspective is, that you too would probably get arthritis if you had to live in a dank, damk cave during a cold and clammy Ice Age. But his fellows apparently thought well enough of him to bury him! The very fact that Neandertals frequently buried their dear departed, has allowed a lot of them to be preserved for posterity. And there is some evidence that they may have practiced some sort of rituals around these burials. In any case, as more was learned, the "brutish" image wore off--- to a certain extent.

Yet still there persists the idea that Neandertals were somehow fundamentally "different". Again, maybe this notion is correct. One difference, aside from the obvious anatomical ones, is that their populations were apparently quite small and scattered. Given the geographical area where they lived, and the time they lived in it, this isn't very surprising. One has only to consider people who live in northern Eurasian regions, and in northern North America. The populations of such groups as the Inuit aren't very large, either. In such severe and often fluctuating climatic conditions, resources may be scattered far and wide. The same was probably true for Neandertals.

But small populations are more severely impacted by such fluctuations than larger ones are, and this probably contributed to their disappearance, just as some small populations of "modern" humans have not survivied, or have strugggled to survive, into modern times. And this has nothing to do with "different" brains or "brutish"(whatever that means)behavior. Anybody so inclined can do the math and they will see how Neandertals --- or anybody else with a small population --- could disappear.

Which brings me back to the issue of language, etc. People who follow the Bickerton(and earlier workers') line of reasoning seem to be assuming that Neandertals were different from us in some fundamental way, because they disappeared. But such archaeological evidence as there is, doesn't seem to bear this out. They were perfectly competent hunters, thank you very much. They seem to have been able to organize the living spaces of their humble caves in some way which is familiar and recognizable to us "moderns", at least those among us who know something about hunter-gatherer traditional lifestyles. And, as I suggested above, there are tantalizing suggestions of rituals that probably brought "meaning" to their lives. Which suggests to me, at least, that their brains functioned pretty much the way ours do, and that they had a perfectly functional language, whatever that might have been.

How did they react to the presence of "moderns", when they arrived in Eurasia? We don't know. There are various ideas about that, which I will not go into at the moment. What "happened" to them? Again, we have no idea, and again, various ideas have been put forth. But their disappearance, in my opinion, was not due to some "inferiority" or "lack". They were "different" --- in some ways. But behaviorally, in the ways that "count"? I'm not so sure.
Anne G

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Points of view

I've been having some rather interesting conversations with some writers on Yahoo's Historical Novel Society's e-mail list. They're all writers or trying to write something. They discuss books they've read, quite a bit. Lately, though, they've been discussing point of view.

Point of view is, shall we say, a kind of funny thing. If you're writing fiction, there are, theoretically, lots of ways to tell a story and introduce characters. Usually, the most "pain free" way of writing a book, at least for a writer who is "learning the ropes", is, when you have a number of characters, have one or two main characters, and have one POV per scene or chapter. It is also usually easiest to write in third person.

For many readers --- and I think most writers must keep their audience or potential audience in mind --- this way of writing is also easiest to follow. This seems to be the consensus of the people in the Historical Novel Society's list. Generally, I agree with them. However, several things have come up during the course of these discussions, which, I must add, have been very useful to me. One of them is that readers may feel "disconcerted" if you switch a POV in the middle of a scene. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I can't say I ever noticed this, if the writing was good. On the other hand, I can see why this would disconcert a reader, if they've gotten used to "perceiving" their surroundings through the eyes and emotions of the character the writer started out with. As I say, I never noticed these things. Nevertheless, I don't do it, unless I've gotten distracted or confused. And then, the second draft, I "fix" it. That's what drafts are for.

Things get more complicated when a writer goes through the process of deciding what POV to use. Different ways of telling a story may require different "voices" and tenses. For example, I have a story that I've put aside for now, while I'm writing my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. It's also a Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, but it takes place in the near future, not in the past. And the principal character is a teenage Neandertal girl, living in a former timber town in Western Washington, that has sort of "yuppified" Needless to say, you will not find this town anywhere on the map in Western Washington. Be that as it may, I decided to write it in first person. After all, the focus is a girl who starts out nearly fifteen, and goes on for a year with some horrific things happening in this fictional town, till she's nearly sixteen. Writing in first person is far more difficult than one might think, because the writer is forced to stick to that one person's viewpoint. Unless, of course, you have two narrators and the narration switches between them. I don't think I've ever seen this done, but that doesn't mean it never has been. That would probably not seem intrusive.

But opinion on that list seems to be divided on some other issues. For example, some of the writers on the list, and a number I know, including me, will not read anything written in present tense. For me, at least most of the time, it just doesn't seem necessary. But I keep coming across more and more books that are written this way. And I wonder why? This includes some historical novels, and in historicals, I really don't think this is necessary. I can see a use for it if you're writing something very contemporary, particularly if it s "gritty" or kind of "sad" or dramatic. The immediacy, the "you are there" quality conveyed that way might just work. After all, a lot of people seem to be used to this "reportage" style from watching TV news. And some of these works are aimed at "young adults".

But if you're just telling a story, what is the point of getting "arty" about it? Because this is what writing in first person, in, say, a historical novel, is doing. And I don't think it suits such a form very well. But in my recent conversations with the e-mail list, opinion is divided on this. Some of the writers really like it in some works, though, interestingly, most of them won't use present tense themselves. I certainly won't, even in a "contemporary" or "near future" book. I just don't much like the "feel" of present tense writing, and I think you have to be an awfully good writer to get away with this.

On the other hand, considering that one out of four people in the US, according to a recent survey, didn't bother to read any books at all last year, perahps one shouldn't rant and rave. At least people who are reading books in the present tense are actually reading. And at least they know what they can tolerate. I think writers should, on the whole, be grateful for this. Because I, for one, just can't imagine a life without at least some books. And there are a lot of people "out there" who can. So if someone doesn't mind a book by some author, written in the present tense, perhaps I should just cheer. Because I can always hope that they will like mine.
Anne G

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Human nature/bonobo nature

The John Hawks blog has an interesting piece here regarding a recent piece in the New Yorker concerning bonobos. It seems that Frans de Waal, who has studied bonobos for years, objected to certain aspects of the article claiming that bonobos are not the peaceable creatures they have been made out to be. He sort of seemed to imply that the New Yorker was promoting some political agenda by publishing this. Now it so happens, I tend to agree with Hawks; he does not seem to think that the New Yorker is promoting some political agenda, whatever that may be. In fact, the New Yorker Magazine generally promotes "agendas"(when it does at all), that are the opposite of what de Waal appears to be implying. OTOH, I have come across people who sort of "valorize" a popular view of bonobos, that they are peaceable and "female dominated", which is partly based on some of de Waal's writings. Whether he's right or wrong, I don't know. I'm hardly a primatologist. But it's also true that for a long time, primatology was dominated by men who were "into" strong "dominance hierarchies" and exaggerated their importance among our closest relatives. This is hardly anything new; well before I got into anything relating to human evolution, I learned(and am still learning, everything I could about wolves. Supposedly, wolves have a "strong" dominance hierarchy in their packs, and, until very recently, most canid researchers were men. And most of these men made much of the "dominance hierarchy" of wolves. Interestingly, more women are getting involved in canid studies, which may, in the future, lead to some interesting results.

In fact, this lupine "dominance hierarchy" is mostly for reproductive purposes(a pack would get awfully large, awfully fast, and run out of territory rather quickly, if all 7-10 wolves in an average pack could be breeding adults). In other words, there's an "alpha pair" that (usually) does all the breeding, but the other wolves in the pack are (usually) all related to the "alpha pair". And eventually, one of the pair may get killed or die of old age or the pack just gets too large, and it splits up, possibly making room for another alpha pair. And even if the pack is "stable", the "alpha-ness" of the pair may be more fluid than meets the eye. I've actually read accounts of some alpha female sneaking off with some wolf other than the alpha male, and breeding.

Which leads me back to Hawks's comment, the New Yorker article, and Frans de Waal. Bonobo behavior is just as variable in its way, as wolf behavior. Which apparently means, as the New Yorker article, and Dr. Hawks, correctly pointed out, that bonobos are sometimes "peaceable hippies" and sometimes something else. Just like humans.

And this, in turn, leads me to the subject of human nature. A lot of people(and this, I think, is where "political" agendas may come in), seem to have the idea that "human nature" is somehow mean and violent. These people like to point to recent wars and conflicts and "ethnic cleansings" as "proof" that humans are "naturally" nasty and violent. This is why some other people with other agendas, sometimes wish "we" were more like those "peaceful" bonobos. Except that human nature --- which, in my opinion has never really been defined --- is a lot of things. Yes, sometimes "we" are nasty and violent. But think of all the saints, prophets, founders of world religions, humanitarians, heroes, who try to do good, and are not violent. Think of those selfess people who try to help poor people out of poverty or care for the very sick, or take in orphaned children or. . . . I think the Gentle Reader will get the idea here. Humans are as variable in their way as wolves, or bonobos. People act nasty or selfless, start wars or bring peace and happiness, often depending on their environments and circumstances.

But some people have a view of humanity that is basically dark and pessimistic. If they are attracted to "agendas", they will be attracted to those agendas that promote such dark and pessimistic views. And they may even work to make these agendas a reality. But in a sense, they are working against, and do not understand, the variability of what is called "human nature" All they are really doing is projecting their own dark views. And this holds true, whether they are projecting onto wolves, bonobos, or humans.

So, if anybody tells you that "human nature is__________(fill in the blank here), you, Gentle Reader, should view such statements with a good deal of skepticism. Because at this moment, we know that there is a "human nature". But at this moment, we don't know what it really is.