Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Debunking Neandermyths and medieval myths, too

Since this is the end of the year, and things are a bit slow right now, I thought I’d possibly round out the year with a few musings about our ideas about Neandertals and also about the Middle Ages.  There are lots of these myths in both areas, but just a few will suffice here, to give the Gentle Reader an idea  of what is going on here.



They were dumb brutes who walked bent-legged

In reality, Neandertals were awfully smart to have survived for some 200,000 years, under harsh climates and often erratic conditions.  They were pretty resourceful, too.  For instance, it is now known that they made a kind of glue out of, among other things, birch pitch(in Europe, anyway).  In the Middle East, they did the same thing with bitumen.  The techniques of gluing, and then hafting a stone point to a shaft of some kind, required some pretty sharp thinking. Furthermore, it takes some knowledge and practice, and control of heat, to make glue out of things like birch pitch.  As for walking bent-legged, well, the trouble with that idea is, it was based on a mistaken idea that a man with arthritis, who walked bent kneed because of it, was representative of the entire Neandertal population.  This was the infamous La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil.



In medieval times, nobody ever bathed or washed.

In reality, medieval people, of all classes, bathed, or at least washed their hands with some frequency. In the 12th century, one Alexander Necker mentioned the frequency of bath houses in London. Some of these “bath houses” had other functions as well, but people did try to keep themselves clean.  And some chronicler expressed surprise that King John of England(yes, the notorious one), liked to bathe twice a month!  I suspect other people did, too.  The problem, in medieval times was that collecting and heating bathwater was something of an “enterprise”, and unless you were high enough up on the food chain, this didn’t happen as often as it does today, when we have central heating and hot and cold water.  The fact is, that later centuries were actually “dirtier”; especially after the second plague pandemic – the one known popularly as the Black Death, a lot of things had changed, including the climate, and it may have been more dangerous to bathe in relatively cold water(compromised immune systems, for example,might have made many people more vulnerable.  17th century France was apparently the “dirtiest” at the time; even the nobility then, rarely bathed, preferring to cover up their smells with perfume.



Neandertals were cold-adapted, and this led to their extinction when it warmed up, because they couldn’t stand the heat.

This one is sort of true, in that Neandertals exhibited a body type that is somewhat similar to that of some people who live in arctic regions today.  Like modern Inuit, and some other northern people, they had short arms and legs relative to rather broad trunks(chests, waist, etc).  This kind of adaptation conforms to what scientists refer to as the Bergmann and Allen rules; generally, organisms that live in warmer climates will be long and thin, and have long, thin arms and legs.  President-elect Barack Obama conforms to this in his body shape, since his father was a Kenyan, and Kenya is a hot, sunny place.  Many Kenyans are also like this.  African elephants have big ears, presumably for this reason.  Asian elephants, which apparently evolved in cooler climates, have smaller ears.  And woolly mammoths had the smallest elephantine ears of all.  Other organisms follow the same rules, north to south.  Polar bears have very small ears, “grizzly” bears(Ursus arctos) have larger ears, and the most “southerly” bears in the northern hemisphere, “black” bears(U.americanus) have the biggest ears of all.  It is no surprise, therefore, that Neandertals also followed this body shape rule, since they lived in a relatively cold climate.  However, some “modern” humans take this particular “cold adapted” body shape, to mean that Neandertals preferred it cold.  You can see evidence of this kind of thinking in Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, where he has Neandertals keeping indoor temperatures about 5 degrees or so, cooler than “modern” humans would have them, indoors.  Trouble is, (a) some “modern” humans like it on the cool side, too, and (b) Neandertals lived through warm periods similar to our globally warming climate, and became extinct in a cold period.  Besides which, they lived in places like Israel, which isn’t exactly known to be “arctic”. 



This particular myth about the Middle Ages is not all that different from the myth about the stupidity of Neandertals.  The “medieval” version goes something like this:  People in medieval times believed the world was flat and you could fall off the earth if you sailed far enough.  A correlate of this is, that they were superstitious and “oppressed”, and went around burning witches all the time.  As above, the reality is somewhat different.  People in the Middle Ages did not have access to sophisticated equipment like, say, telescopes and microscopes; they had no way of knowing, exactly, what caused disease, nor what a gene was(this, by the way, is important in my Invaders trilogy, since the Neandertal heroine and her two male associates(not her love interest, however), does know what a gene is, though they don’t call it that.  Be that as it may, medieval people had at least a crude understanding of things like inheritance, otherwise, monks(who were traditionally responsible for this), wouldn’t have been able to create warhorses for knights.  In the earlier Middle Ages, these horses tended to be rather small by modern standards, but they were bred to be both tough and agile.  And the best warhorses were often crossbreeds between Arabian or Barbary horses, Spanish horses and some “native” horses!  They had no idea what a germ was or did, but in England, at least, there are some very early(Anglo-Saxon era) “leechbooks” which were compilations of the medical knowledge of the time.  Again, these seem crude by modern standards, and some of the material in them is, well, hilarious by modern standards, but there were other things in them which were probably good advice(e.g. one leechbook suggested that women moderate their intake of ale and wine!).  Even in the “earliest” Middle Ages, after the “fall” of Rome, there was at least some trade, and later, when things started to pick up again, there was a lot more of it.  Not everyone could travel, of course, actually relatively few people did.  But enough people traveled, by land and sea, to know the world wasn’t flat.  This would actually be a relatively easy thing to figure out, especially if you were a sailor.  As for “witches”, well, again, there wasn’t much in the way of “witch persecution” in the Middle Ages, anywhere.  You would have to work very hard to get yourself executed as a “witch”(such people were usually called “cunning men” or “cunning women”, because they had some knowledge of herbs and the women, at local levels, were often midwives).  You basically would have had to be known to be advocating what was thought to be heresy.  This almost never happened, in part because the “higher ups” weren’t terribly concerned about individuals at the local level, and partly because the “cunning women” and “cunning men” probably had other things ont heir minds besides preaching or practicing “heresy”, even if the Church didn’t exactly approve of them. 


These are just two examples of Neandermyths and “medieval myths”.  There are a lot more I could mention, but that would make an endless blog.  You, gentle reader, can surely think of more, if you’re interested. The point is, the mythmaking here is about groups most people know very little about, and, in the case of medieval people, have been filtered through such venues as Hollywood movies, to give us “moderns” some terribly strange notions.  Since my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece has main characters who are Neandertals, and is set in medieval England, I feel it is my duty to try to correct these impressions.

Anne G

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On organization and disorganization, writer’s style

Sometime back in May or June of this fast-ending year, I joined an online critique group for writers of (broadly) historical fiction. I did this to get feedback on my Invaders trilogy, but what I decided to do was revise the very first book – which, originally, was going to be the only book! So far, so good, and I've gotten lots of feedback, mostly pretty encouraging, but also areas where I could make the story or the characters more interesting, and certain suggestions from various quarters, on how I could do it. Again, so far so good. At the same time, I have been working on the third book of my trilogy, which wraps everything up into a more or less happy ending for most of the characters.

The problem with this is, that I sometimes have a hard time keeping track of what I'm doing, or what chapters I've been working on. So I sometimes have to go back and look to make sure each book that I'm working on is in its proper three-ring binder. Usually I don't have any trouble locating what I'm looking for, and I can tell at a glance whether it's the original draft – and everything is fine.

But today I was looking for Chapter 22 of The Melding. I found Chapter 21 and Chapter 23, but not 22! Fortunately, I did do a draft and then a revision of 22, and I'm going to put it away next Wednesday after I have my writing partner look at it, with comments, again. There it will sit, until I finish the first book, plus critiques from all over. I also plan to save all this stuff on a portable hard drive, just in case. I have lots of space on that, and that is one of the reasons I bought this external hard drive. Moral(if there is one): I'm going to have to figure out how to keep better track of my work, especially when I'm doing two things at once. Otherwise, I will be totally confused.
Anne G

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Growing older, backwards

The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens tomorrow, Christmas day. It is a strange time to open a film like this. It was originally a short story of the same name, which I first read years ago, and found it haunting, and slightly creepy, because it was about a man who was born 80 years old and "aged backwards". I don't remember where I first saw the story, except that it was in some fantasy/horror collection. Nor, despite the fact that I read it several times, could I recall the author, though I knew that he was someone well-known. It turned out to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. Once I discovered who the author was, I decided I actually wanted to see the film, though whether in a theater or on video, I don't know. The review in Salon seems to think it's an odd film, despite having Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles. I've seen several other reviews which seem to suggest the same thing, so I have no idea whether it's a good adaptation or not.


Every time I read it, though, I kind of shudder. I think Fitzgerald intended it to be a short meditation on how transitory life is. Perhaps he had reason to, living as he did in the long shadow cast by World War I. A lot of people were confronted with the transitory nature of life, perhaps for the first time, in that war. And it made me shudder because it reversed the way we are supposed to think about the way life progresses. What's even worse, in this fantasy/meditation, is that growing younger, Benjamin Button loses and loses and loses, and is finally a helpless baby at the end of his life, just the way we are born. In any case, it confronts you and makes you think, however briefly, about these things.


You don't have to be a Great American Novelist to do this, though obviously, Fitzgerald did this extremely well. In my opinion, and decent writer can make you consider such things, at least momentarily. Few nowadays do, at least in "popular" literature, but that is another story. The point is, I considered life's transitory nature, however unconsciously and tentatively. I was young enough to draw back when I first read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which, I think, is why I thought it creepy. My instinct is still to draw back, but having lived for a while, I'm more cautious about doing so.


Happy holidays, dear readers,

Anne G

Neandertals in 2008

According to Robert Sawyer, this last year was a good one for Neandertals. At least it was a good year if you follow his link to New Scientist, where a bunch of Neander-related articles are listed. All of them are interesting, and I've read them all, though I don't necessarily agree with everything in any of them. Still, they're good reads.

Anne G

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snowed in

It's been snowing all day, off and on. And I've been snowed in! It's pretty, too. It looks like a Christmas card, and it isn't even Christmas! The snow is kind of crunchy on top and kind of soft below, which makes it fairly easy to walk in, safely. Now you may be wondering at this point, where I live. Not in Alaska. Or Minnesota, or some place that routinely gets a lot of snow in the winter. Nope. I live in Seattle, where it's supposed to rain all the time(but it doesn't, particularly in the summer). And people around here are snow wimps and heat wimps(I'm not a heat wimp any more, because I lived in Texas for two years). Nan Hawthorne has a discourse on the um, dark side of snow in Seattle, which is considerable, because everything shuts down if the white stuff comes. I think people around here have a love-hate relationship with snow. They love to play and ski in it(the former especially when it first falls, and everything is ethereal). But if it stays cold long enough, everything essentially shuts down, like today, which fortunately is Sunday. And things may stay that way, indefinitely. That is the "dark side".

Still, it's nice to be snowed in once in a while, and be able to post to my blog, without feeling totally squeezed for time like I often do. I have more time to write, too.
Anne G

Friday, December 19, 2008

Indoors and out, medieval style

The weather around here has lately been frightful, but there hasn't been any delightful fire yet, contrary to the song. So I've been snowed and iced in. Of course, I did have to go out today, and, bundled up properly, I didn't feel terribly cold, though the temperatures today never rose above freezing. I had to go out to buy an "appreciation" Christmas gift for a friend of mine. It wasn't far, and I didn't mind, since I also was able to stop in the neighborhood Tully's(a local rival to Starbuck's, with, in my opinion, better coffee and free wi-fi. And I was soon back to a nice, warm home.


All this has gotten me to thinking about what people in medieval times did during the cold months. For example, as I was returning home(after slipping on hidden ice and fortunately not injuring myself or my purchase to any extent, I met a lady who was trying to walk a small dog. The dog was cold, despite being bundled up, and it didn't like walking on the partially-icy sidewalk. She mentioned she hadn't gone to work that day, because my neighborhood is at the bottom of a steep hill, and the buses simply couldn't get up and down. , People in medieval times wouldn't have had this problem. They probably wouldn't have had such a small dog, either, or at least they probably wouldn't have been carrying it around in a stocking or purse(I can't quite remember what she was carrying the dog in. Nor would they have had problems getting to work, whatever work was for most of them(most of them were rural peasants). But they probably wouldn't have spent much time traveling in conditions like these, although both in towns and in villages, people probably went out and threw snowballs or skated(there are apparently descriptions of these activities). During a snowstorm or windstorm, they simply would not have gone out at all.


Even in relatively "clement" weather, travel was hard, and roads weren't all that good. It was sometimes dangerous to travel, too, even in the warmer seasons because there were always outlaws ready to steal and even kill you. In England, roads on both sides were supposed to be kept clear of bushes and other obstructions so travelers could see miscreants coming. Whether or not this was effective is another question entirely. So people tended to huddle in their houses, just like we do today, but for entirely different reasons.


It wasn't that travel was impossible, and people did travel when necessary in inclement weather. It is just that travel, at the best of times, was a difficult enterprise, and it took longer to get from Point A to Point B than it does today. So people tended not to go anywhere unless it was important to them to do this. In any case, it's an interesting thought that, despite the different eras and "mindset", (yes, medieval people did think somewhat differently about some things than we do now, though I think this "mindset" can be vastly exaggerated), that people then, and people now, probably reacted much the same to snowy weather, at least in those areas where there is a chance of snow.


Happy holidays everyone,

Anne G

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Gender Genie, again

It seems like Gender Genie has been making the rounds in various places. Greg Laden's blog did an experiment with it, and so has Nan Hawthorne. Nan Hawthorne, or rather those who commented, came to the conclusion that this Gender Genie was a rather silly device. Greg Laden didn't comment, but given the writing samples he put up, and the results, he really didn't need to. I commented, and came to the conclusion that this is not only silliness, but sexist silliness. But I'm not going that way; that's another story.
Anne G

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gender genies(geniuses?)


A recent discussion about what I might describe as "gender-based" reading and writing preferences, on a historical novel e-mail list, was quite lively. It seems that some people like to read only works narrated by female protagonists, or only female characters, but some writers like to write only from a "male perspective". For me, this is kind of a "nonstarter". Though I have what might be called "feminist hackles", I am absolutely appalled when I hear somebody claim they won't read anything written by a man(if they're a woman), or the opposite if they're a man. I also wonder about women writers who can "only" write a "male" POV or find this "easier". To be fair, I've read plenty of works by men whose female characters are flat and forgettable, but write pretty good stories, reasonably well-told. I will comment more fully on this kind of thing in another post.

For now, I just want to mention that on this same e-mail list, somebody brought up something called the Gender Genie . This Gender Genie is a website. On this website, you can submit your own or others' writing samples to a little program that claims to be able to tell whether the work you submit was written by a man or a woman. The program, developed by a "genie" at Bar Ilan University in Israel, assumes that male and female writers use words differently.

Now I think it's probably true that men and women write somewhat differently, even in this, more equalitarian day and age(at least in the western world. Men who write, often write a lot about adventure and battles and exploration, in a way that many women still don't. And as a general rule, women who write, tend to be more focused on emotions and relationships and, perhaps "character development". But I don't think Gender Genie is really concerned with differences in subject matter, or the differences in style that may go with them. They are more concerned with the kinds of words that are actually used in the written piece. Even more interesting, however, is that about half the time, the Gender Genie gets the writing samples wrong. Several writers on the historical novel e-mail list, submitted samples of their own writing. They were women. But the Gender Genie "thought" they were men. I submitted some of my own current writing, and the Gender Genie "sexed" me correctly. Which again was interesting, because one of the samples I selected had a lot of action in it.

However, when I submitted a book review from this blog to the GeTnder Genie, I was a male! I thought that was very amusing. I thought that, since it was nonfiction rather than fiction, word usage might be different, and I was right.

Then I began to think about this issue. I know women who write(and talk, also), in a kind of "passive voice" style --- and sometimes this is deliberate. "Passive voice" as in constant use of "I had gone to the grocery and I had bought milk and other things, then I had gone to the bank to deposit my paycheck", etc., etc. You used to see a lot more of this kind of writing even ten of fifteen years ago, than you do now, along with a lot more "formal" usage(e.g.) "upon" rather than "on", for example. And people who wrote this way were almost always women. And generally women of a generation slightly older than mine.

I came of age, so to speak, in a period when feminism and women's equality began to be seriously considered . Feminism and its offshoots have produced a certain amount of silliness, e.g. women who won't read anything written by a man, no matter how sensible, or women who think the world should be run entirely by women. What it produced in me, though, was an appreciation that women and men both have interesting things to say and contribute to the ongoing discourse that's going on out there, in reading, writing, and speaking. And so, I've structured my stories that way. How important the sex of the main character is, depends on what I'm writing. I have a novel called Inside, Outside, narrated by a 15-year old Neandertal girl. It's science fiction, set in the near future, and thus not medieval. It's unfinished, because I couldn't figure out how to end it in a non-flabby way. Besides, my Invaders trilogy, which I'm now writing, tugged and tugged at me. And The Invaders, and it's sequels, have one female and two male lead characters, plus several "strong secondaries" of both sexes. The Gender Genie has always pegged my fictional material as "female", possibly because the way I use words, suggest emotional states, though I can write "action" when I need to.

But there are other, younger writers, who apparently write differently than I do. The current fashion is, especially for authors relatively new to the publishing world, to write tight, short fiction(it's less costly for the publishers), unless they are writing for young adults. I guess the Gender Genie "perceives" this as a "male" style(is this program channeling Ernest Hemingway?).

Combined with the willingness of some female writers to write from a "strictly" male POV, and I can see how the Gender Genie would not be able to match the sex of the writer with the style of writing. And about all this proves to me, at the end of the day, is that each writer is an individual, and each piece of writing is unique. That is something no computer program can calculate.
Anne G

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Research woes

Give me a roomful of quarrelsome paleoanthropologists arguing over which australopithecines were ancestral to "us", or a roomful of quarrelsome paleoanthropologists participating in the ongoing contentions about who and what Neandertals actually were! It's relatively easy(if you have access to the proper journals) to follow the courses of these paleoanthropological arguments. And access to the relevant papers is relatively easy if you are on some e-mail list where some kindly professor makes some of these available on pdf. I have a bunch of these stored on my hard drive.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case with medieval-themed material, especially the earlier part.

Mirella Patzer an author with two published books to her credit, has written on the difficulty of research into earlier medieval characters. Mirella Patzer writes historical novels, and she seems to be particularly interested in medieval Germany, a place from which a lot of mythic stories seem to have arisen, but which, to me, at least, is a very obscure place. But then, for earlier medieval Europe(approximately from about 500-1000 AD/CE, or a little later), there is very little written material. For this particular time period, the only extant continuous chronicles anywhere are :

Anglo Saxon Chronicle

The Irish Annals

The Russian Primary Chronicle

That's pretty much it. Sometimes there are things like the names of people witnessing charters, and from this you can verify that some half-legendary person actually existed. But it's hard to piece together a historical character from such scraps of information. This is especially true given that the people who recorded history then, were monks, and monks liked to tell "improving" stories, often putting speeches in the mouths of their historical personages. Needles to say, some of these "improving" speeches were never uttered by the people in question. But the conception of history as it existed in those 500 or so years, was quite a bit different from the way we understand historians should write history today.

Also needless to say, this makes it extremely difficult for a modern writer to try to reconstruct a historical personage, for the chronicles may conflict in their assessment(especially if a given monastery was engaged in some sort of conflict with the person they were writing about), or nothing much is known of the person except their name on some charter.

And while I'm not a "strict" historical novelist – I don't exactly consider myself a "historical novelist" at all, I do appreciate the problems Ms. Patzer has in conductiong her own research. If anything, I think her area of research is even more obscure than mine. I'm not boasting here, but I have at least the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, plus one or two other "period" resources to work with; I'm working with early medieval England, not 10th century Germany(which , as I said, I know absolutely nothing about). Still, I sympathize with Ms. Patzer. I've been there, done that, and have more or less torn my hair in the process. This is one of the reasons it took me so long to settle into starting to write the Invaders trilogy. I just didn't have enough information about some of the characters. In a way, I still don't. But I haven't let that stop me. Basically, though it kind of runs against my grain in a way, I've had to invent – invent personalities and motivations.

Also, my main characters are completely fictional, so I more or less have a free hand with them. Some "strict" historical novelists say they prefer to work only with actual historical characters, saying they feel more comfortable with a structure imposed by whatever historical period they're working in. That, of course, is a choice only they can make. But I'm perfectly happy using a mixture of "invented" and real people, even if I have to "dig" quite a bit to find anything out about them. And while this "digging" has caused me to tear my hair during the writing process, it has, at the same time, been very exciting to do it. It has opened up a whole new vista of information for me, and it's ongoing(as is the paleoanthropological research I mentioned at the very beginning). Whenever I discover something new, I try to see ways I can integrate it into my book(s).

Anne G

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Getting (warmly) medieval

While scrolling through some very interesting material about various subjects, from other blogs, I came across a blog post from Nan Hawthorne, on medieval climate. It didn't say much that I didn't already know: namely that the earlier Middle Ages, from approximately 900-1300 AD/CE, saw a warming that was not unlike the "global warming" we see today. Of course, the human impact was far less; the population of various parts of the world grew, but not at the rate populations are growing today. They didn't have the technology to control for what are called "crowd diseases" during this time, nor did they have the technology to get children much past infancy. Some kids, even the children of the rich and well-born), just didn't live to grow up.

I am writing at an early medieval period, but later than the one Ms. Hawthorne is writing about, and unlike her, I'm not making up the events that frame the narrative, though a number of my characters are completely made up, though plausible for the time and place. The climate plays an important role as I describe what's going on at various times of the year, weatherwise. Because people are going to react to it in some way, even if it's only to complain about it.

Fortunately, I live in a place that has a similar climatic signature, so to speak. Both the England of the Early Middle Ages and the Pacific Northwest have "marine" climates. That means, among other things, that it doesn't get extremely hot, at least not for very long, in the summer, nor does it get very cold in the winter, though we do have cold spells for a few days sometimes. Wind and rain and floods are more important, in terms of "weather problems", and the floods are often caused by "warm rain" that falls at inconvenient times. In England, this is often in the summer, though here, it's often in the winter. Also, England doesn't possess any volcanoes, as far as I know, so they don't have to worry about some mountain exploding like Mount St. Helens. So it's not too hard for me to visualize conditions at any given time of year.

But I don't want to give anybody the impression I go on and on about the weather. I don't. I don't go on and on about the scenery, except in one or two places where the central female character, Illg, is unfamiliar with the plants and animals she sees. I don't like to bog stories down with description. I'm not writing newspaper serials, as Charles Dickens was, and I wouldn't even try.
Still, a little description of this type doesn't hurt – it adds color to the narrative, and gives the reader a sense of place.

One final note: this climatic bounty didn't last. Shortly after the beginning of the fourteenth century, the medieval climate started to get a lot cooler. This is one of the reasons the Greenland colony is thought to have finally failed: unlike the local Inuit people, the Norse Greenlanders couldn't or wouldn't adapt to the changing climate,, and they either died out or left the place(there are conflicting claims about this). Worsening climate may also have been partly responsible for the destruction caused by the second plague pandemic – because crops failed and people literally starved and their immune systems were weakened, making a lot of people more vulnerable than they night have been to deadly diseases. But that's probably a topic for another medieval-themed blog, if I find some interesting tidbit to set it off.
Anne G

Saturday, November 29, 2008

More on historically real v. historically fictional

The last few months I haven't been blogging as much. That's partly because I've been writing more. At the same time, I've also been more on the alert for more "medieval" themed material, as opposd to "Neandertal" themed material(I believe in balance, you know, and my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals naturally has bNoth). But in view o a previous post on writer's preferences re "historical characters only" v. "fictional characters in historical situations", Nan Hawthorne has a really good post about this. Well, it's not precisely about the "fictional" v. the "historical", but she does make a very good argument as to why she prefers mostly "fictional" situations. If, as she points out, you write a novel about Richard III, and it's sympathetic to him, then the "Tudor lover" crowd will denounce it with vim and vigor. For the record, I have no particular interest in rehabilitating or not rehabilitating the reputationof Richard III, but yes, I've encountered some members of the "Tudor lover" crowd. If, however, a "Tudor lover" writes a novel about Richard III, and makes him as awful as can be, then the "Richcard sympathizers" will be up in arms. That has happened, too. As Ms. Hawthorn points out, the would-be historical writer can avoid all these pitfalls by not making their main characters historical figures. This may make the writing harder in some ways(you have to invent more, even in times where there were a lot of well-known figures and events), but you have the freedom to imagine a character acting and living in those times. The counter-argument for some people is, though, that if you take a historical character in historical time, you can then "plot around" the history and what is known of that person. Which takes some types of burdens off the novelist, but imposes others, and while a goo writer can get around this, many writers, in my opinion, don't do all that well at fictional eiographies, which is what these kiinds of works often are.

However, I am not making any judgment here. I have my preferences, obviously, which are equally obviously similar to those of Nan Hawthorne. But then, I read all kinds of stuff, fiction, nonfiction, biographies of various kinds. So who knows? I look forward to finding a really engaging historical novel about some very real person. Heck, somebody out there might surprise me!
Anne G

Some new Neandertal reconstructions

Reconstructing prehistoric humans is an art. It's also something of a science, because the reconstructor has only fossils to work with. He or she must take those fossils, add muscles and skin, and decide exactly how they might have looked and moved. This is not easy, and sometimes the results are dictated by the popular attitudes --- usually about unrelated subjects --- of the time the reconstruction is done. This is why some early 20th century reconstructions of Neandertals are basically pretty awful.

There is still some of this, because when it comes to Neandertals, there are "difference mongers" and "similarity mongers". The "difference mongers" tend to feel that Neandertals were, indeed, very "different" from "us". Which, perhaps, in some ways, they were. But then, it's possible that early "modern" humans were also different from more recent "modern" humans. This is somewhat the position of the "similarity mongers".

As far as reconstructing what Neandertals may have actually looked like, the "similarity mongers" seem to be in the majority at this time. One example comes from a blog called Mundo Neandertal(which, unfortunately for me, is in Spanish, and my Spanish isn't that good! Still, it's an interesting picture. And it's quite recent! It's so recent that the somewhat older woman in the middle, talking to the younger woman as they cook somkething over a fire, looks a great deal like --- Hillary Clinton! And please don't ask me if that's some sort of comment on the future Secretary of State. I really don't have any idea. But this reconstruction does take into consideration that Neandertals were probably light haired, skinned, and eyed, like many Europeans today. Hence, the younger woman is definitely blond.

There's another pciture of Neandertals, that's --- in my opinion --- somewhat more "mixed". It's also from this Mundo Neandertal. I think this particular picture is supposed to conjure up images of a Neandertal Adam and Eve. The woman looks kind of like the central female character in a sort of "thriller with Neandertals" that I have on hold right now, but her eyebrows are thicker and darker than I would envision Eln's eyebrows(she has some rather unusual abilities, too). The man? Well, he's awfully hairy, and lots of people seem to think Neandertals had lots of hair(this despite evidence that they made some sort of clothing!) He's a little too "beetling", too. But they both are reccognizablyhuman. Which in my opinion, is a vast improvement over some earlier reconstructions. The makers of these reconstructions seemed to be under the impression that Neandertals were more like great apes than "late archaic" humans. I'm glad times have changed somewhat.
Anne G

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Writers and their comfort zones


I've recently had some experiences as a writer and as a reader that have rather strongly suggested to me that it is sometimes difficult for some of us, both readers and writers, to get out of certain types of "comfort zones". I belong to an online critique group where the writers are all writing some sort of historical stuff. It's not all straight historical, and since my Invaders trilogy (sort of) crosses genres – in a way – I call it "romantic science fiction" because to me, that's what it is, some readers who do the critiques get confused. Some of them appear to get so confused they claim they "don't know the genre" and try to bow out. Never mind that I've tried to make what I'm writing as easy as possible to understand, these readers still don't feel comfortable.


The thing is, I'm not asking for an assessment from an agent here; if it was a potential editor or agent, I would expect a much higher, and more "critical" standard. Furthermore, a cursory look through the annual Writer's Guide will give the writer a pretty good indication of who takes what kind of genre literature, or if they take it at all. This actually helps the writer, since he or she then doesn't have to send hundreds of query letters, dozens of copies of manuscripts, etc., etc., to agents, publishers, or editors who aren't prepared to read them(even then, it's a "crapshoot"; there's at least one famous agent that's very "upfront" about his "gut feelings" about whatever is sent to him, and though this agent has sold a lot of work to publishers and is an agent for a number of best-sellers, I suspect he tends to prefer a certain kind of male-oriented "adventure" or "thriller" story. It's best for a writer to know these things in advance, so as not to get too disappointed, especially if one is a novice.


But critiquers? Hmmmm. . . .I kind of wonder. If they're in a critique group, even one that has writers who are doing more or less the same kind of writing(e.g. broadly, historical fiction), shouldn't they be prepared to get out of their comfort zone? It's fairly easy for me to tell, when I'm looking at something, whether it's Young Adult, science fiction/fantasy, romance, mystery, etc., and I can pretty much "work it" from there. If the story isinteresting, I've found I'm perfectly comfortable reading it and seeing how it fits together, and how the writing and structure of the thing could be improved --- and believe me, there's always room for improvement --- somewhere. This has certainly been my experience with "live" critique groups, though I found these unsatisfactory for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to critique. About the only thing I would be uncomfortable with trying to critique, is certain kinds of more "experimentally" oriented literary fiction I don't generally read literary fiction because the authors who write it tend to prefer "downer" endings(see my blog post on literary fiction). I don't object to literary fiction per se, I just don't want t read "downer" stories. But if it's something else, I'm willing to read just about anything.


But it seems not everybody takes the advice of writers like Stephen King or Elizabeth George, who have both informed readers of their books on writing, that they should try to read all kinds of literary outputs. I can see why. I don't usually read mysteries or Young Adult material, but recently have read quite a few of these, and am finding I'm learning a lot about how various kinds of works are put together. I feel this has helped me in my own writing, even though I'm not writing mysteries or Young Adult(although there is one work "on the shelf", that might qualify and it's also in my fictional "Neanderuniverse". But clearly there are readers who mainly read romances or mysteries or "straight" historical novels, or whatever, and just don't venture much outside these "comfort zones". Again, per se, there's nothing wrong with this per se, but a potential writer should be able – in my opinion, at least – to see if the story "works", even if they're not familiar with it. This means, also in my opinion, that there needs to be a certain amount of "commitment" on the part of the potential reader. And for some, this will mean getting out of their "comfort zone"


Again, obviously, not everybody is going to agree on this. My general rule is, If I don't know much about whatever they're writing about – for example, a historical period I'm not familiar with or interested in – then I won't critique it. I don't think that's fair. But otherwise, I'll give it my best shot.


Finally, it's also interesting that readers have their "comfort zones". I've just been having an interesting e-mail conversation who didn't like Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, who also writes historical novels as Diana Norman. In the book there was a rather nasty, to this reader, description of some child's eyes being pulled out, but as I recall, it was rather brief, and served to show just how nasty the person doing it actually was. It "creeped out" that particular reader, whose apparent sensitivity level was so high that they apparently forgot they weren't watching Nightmare on Elm Street. Again, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything here, just acknowledging that different people, as readers, have different sensibilities, so to speak. I would be just as bothered as the reader was, if some TV newscaster described such an act. But this was on the pages of a book, and therefore provided the necessary "distance". At least that was the way I looked at it.


I guess all of this is just part of the writer's learning process. Learning how people react, and what they're comfortable with is very much , I think, part of a writer's job. It's just as much a part of a writer's job, as putting together a coherent story. Not, mind you, that this will change the way I write my own stories; it just informs me of how varied the potential audience out there actually is, and what they may or may not be comfortable with.

Anne G


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A (maybe) medieval noir

Westerson, Jeri
Veil of Lies
St.Martin's Minotaur, New York, New York, 2008
280 pp.
ISBN 13:978-0-312-37977-3
ISBN 10:0-312-37977-3

Jeri Westerson is a new author. If her first novel, Veil of Lies is any indication, she promises to be a very good mystery writer. I have read or tried to read, a number of mysteries set in medieval times, and in my opinion, most of them just aren't that good. Jeri Westerson is an exception. Again, in my opinion, she compares quite favorably with Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death.

Like Ariana Franklin's "Adelia" character, the hero of Veil of Lies is an outsider, though in this case, a "self-made" one, in a senswe. He used to be a knight, but was divested of his knighthood thanks in part ot King Richard II, who apparenlty had some "spoiled brat" qualities(these weren't entirely his fault, but that's another story). So he's not a knight and he's not an "ordinary person", though he lives in a decidedly downscale part of medieval London. And he's known as The Tracker, who helps a rather blustery Sheriff of London on occasion.

Westerson calls this book a "medieval noir", and I suppose you could say it is. In some ways, though, it's more like Tami Hoag's latest Eleanor Estes mystery, Alibi Man. Eleanor Estes, though living in modern "horse country" Florida, is also a "self made" outsider, for reasons somewhat similar to those of Crispin Guest. Both Guest and Eleanor Estes are very "dark" characters. But it's also like the Ariana Franklin books, in that it's set in medieval times, and gives the reader a very good flavor of what it must have been like for most people living then(note: Ariana Franklin's books are set over 200 years earlier).

Westerson also knows how to write a good mystery --- with lots of twists and turns of plot, just like any good mystery should have. And though she calls this tale a "noir", the ending is very satisfactory, without leaving the bad taste in your mouth, that you sometimes get reading "noir" type mysteries. I also really appreciate the fact thast the characters(unlike in some books of all genres set in medieval times) don't "speak forsoothly". I, personally, hate this!

I am really very impressed with Ms. Westerson's first book. I believe she put a lot of effort into it, and she is an excellent writer besides. I look forward to her next book, which is supposed to come out sometime in 2009. For those interested, the title is Serpent in the Thorns. It will also feature Crispin Guest, and I myself look forward to reading it.
Anne G

Friday, November 14, 2008

Some Cool Writer’s Tools


Every writer needs a good word processing program. I have two: WordPerfect X4(the latest version of it), and Word 2007. I've used various versions of WordPerfect for a long time, and I use this particular program for my writing. It's very powerful, and I've gotten used to the way it works for my writing, so I continue to use it. It has something called Lightning to go with it, which maybe I could use, if I could figure out how to use it efficiently. Maybe I will, someday.


But when I got my newest "computer toy"(my laptop, actually), I also got Word 2007, which just happened to be on sale at the time. I needed Word 2007(or some version of Word), because so many people use it, and when I upload the draft of The Invaders that I'm working on, it's easier to use Word than try to "translate" what I've written in WordPerfect, into Rich Text Format. I don't have any particular objections to Microsoft programs the way some people do, I'm just finding that I'm using different programs for different things.


For example, Word 2007 comes with another, bundled program called OneNote. I've just started using it, partly to store ideas to fill out my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece(s) With Neandertals, but also for mundane things like recipe collections and "to do" lists. These are not related to writing, but they do help me keep track of what I'm supposed to do on any given day. And while I waste a certain amount of ink printing this stuff out, I can always pull up the recipes and print those, any time I need to(I lost one recipe for cranberry-pear chutney that I was going to make for Thanksgiving, and I had to Google it today. It is now in OneNote). The equivalent program on WordPerfect, Lightning, doesn't have these features organized this way. So I am actually using the two word processing programs somewhat differently.


Most people would probably have Word, and that's fine. I, personally, find it quite useful to have both programs. Word 2007 also allows you to send things you've written to a blog. And that's what I've done with the last two blogs at The Writer's Daily Grind. I find this convenient, though not perfect, since Word only sends the entry into the Drafts section, and you have to edit it on the blog itself. I also haven't figured out whether it's possible to upload pictures at the same time, but since Blogger allows you to upload your own, I just save mine in my picture files and upload them from there.


No program, or set of programs, will suit everyone's needs, so I'm not recommending or "dissing" any of them. Some of you may find other solutions may work better for you, and I have no objection. I have just found some things that work very well for me. If, gentle reader, you are also a writer, you may want to look into these things. Or you may wish to try something entirely different. Again, I have absolutely no objection. My only advice here is, find something you like, and that works well for you, and stick to it! It will only make the writing go more smoothly.

Anne G


An Addendum to my Writing Methods


I didn't quite get everything I wanted to say about my writing process down in print yesterday. Which is kind of too bad. I wanted to say that there are other things that go into a revised draft, technical things like correcting spelling or changing sentence order in paragraphs. Or clarifying who said what. But in my opinion, the "technical" side of multiple drafts and revisions become less important , except perhaps for the final draft – than the way the writer develops the story itself: showing a character or characters you can relate to, a plotline or story arc that makes sense, believable scenes and vivid action. This takes a lot of work, and while the imagination is the starting point, this is where discipline and growth occur.

Anne G

The Write Stuff


I post to a number of e-mail lists where various discussions related one way or another, to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. In this case, I should mention that one of them, DebunkCreation


has some pretty lively discussions.


There is one person on this particular group, and he shall remain nameless, who appears quite confused on a number of issues, which I will not go into here. But in the course of my, and other people's discussions with him, he more or less asked me how I write. I answered him, describing how I come to refine the stories I'm telling.


That got me thinking. Writing is an interesting process, but it requires a certain amount of discipline, and how you go about creating your final product, depends a lot on what sort of product you're trying to create. For example, the moderator of DebunkCreation told me he does a lot of research, then works from an outline. He writes nonfiction, though. And I've tried writing chapters from outlines. Or outlining the overall "story arc". But that method just doesn't work for me. Why? Because elements of my story keep changing slightly as I develop new Mdrafts, revise, and learn more about my characters.


Let me give one example. In the first draft of the first book, two or the Neandertal characters were looking for a third character called Mat. In that draft, Mat Fartraveled didn't show up until about halfway through the book. Which might have made some sense had he stayed a minor character, as I originally intended him to. But he kind of grew and grew and grew, and now he's a major player, and he will eventually have a prequel of his own, that describes how he ended up in medieval England in love with lovely Hild(another character who was originally going to be quite minor and transitory). Hild, Wulfwynn and Godric all grew and grew and grew, as does the villainous Ralph(he was originally mostly "offstage".) So goodly portions of The Invaders had to be revised.


The other interesting thing about this process is, that when you revise, you often cut things(and characters), to make the story make more sense, or else make it flow better. I don't, for instance, need the pages I wrote about people traveling from one place to another, unless something is happening when they travel. And at present, I'm working on a timeline, to keep this "cast of thousands" in their proper places at the proper times, because my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece(s) With Neandertals take place in real, historical time, not some alternate history time I can make up. This, too, is going to require some revision of the plotlines of the first book(and possibly the second, as well). Also, one of the characters is a witness to some very traumatic — for her. I didn't describe this in the first draft.


I don't know if all writers write this way. Basically, I had four scenes(what I call "key scenes") all involving the lead female character(who bears some resemblance to the redhaired Neanderlady that's the "portrait" of this blog. I built my story arc for all three books around these "key scenes", one of which is supposedly "historical". And I filled in the rest from my imagination, and from what I knew of the period in question. This is perhaps not the "best" way to write a novel, and finding a good way — is part of the writer's learning process.


I must say, I'm still learning, and some of the things I'm learning surprise me. But being a writer, I have to keep on with it. For me, there is no other way.

Anne G

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Again, more good writing advice

Robert Sawyer has gone back to giving good writing advice. This one is about how many characters should be in a novel. I don't know how many there should be. It depends on what you're writing. But "as few as you can possibly get away with" is awfully good advice. I wish I could follow it in my own writing. . . .
Anne G

Monday, November 10, 2008

I was going to blog about writing, but. . . .

I was going to blog about my writing, because I haven't been blogging as much lately. I've been writing. But not as much --- especially last week --- as I should have. Why? Well, in my opinion, last week's presidential election was historic! I know. I said right at the beginning, more or less, that I would almost never put anything in my blog other than material related to my writing, that is to say, Neandertals, medieval England(especially the earlier medieval period), and of course, my own writing process. But Nan Hawthorne's blog Tales from Shield-Wall Books
/a> had a post on this historic election. I could not allow myself to be outdone by a fellow writer, though she expressed herself much better than I!

But I can't help myself. Nan is right. This election has truly been historic. I can remember a time when it was inconceivable to even imagine that a nonwhite man, or a woman, could even dare to dream of getting elected President of the United States. True, this election happened the way it did, because after eight miserable years of an incompetent president and an even more incompetent --- and avaricious --- presidential team surrounding him, people simply got tired of the "same old, same old", and were demanding change. And a lot of people voted with their pocketbooks. The mess on Wall Street and elsewhere didn't help things much.

But this doesn't alter the fact that in so many ways, President-elect Obama represents change. Not only does he represent change, he represents a significant breakthrough for many people, perhaps for all of us, in the future. I think a lot of people realize this and acted accordingly, whether they were aware of this or not. And it's about time. I am now living in hopes that this country will begin again to try to live up to the ideals on which it was founded, and go forward. There is going to be a lot of hard work ahead, and though I was euphoric last week, I am realistic this week, both for myself, and for my country. I do not know how an Obama presidency will play out in the long one. But for now, we have hope again. And for now, that is enough.

And that, gentle readers, is all I'm going to say about anything "political" or "current affairs" here on this blog, for a long, long time --- at least until something of equal importance ivertakes us. It's now back to writing my Great Medieval Science Fiction Epic Masterpiece With Neandertals,
Anne G

Friday, October 31, 2008

Some good advice from a writer --- how to submit a manuscript

Here is some more good advice from a published writer. This one is on how to submit a manuscript, and it comes by way of a blog called Cute Writing, which I sometimes use. It's a good blog, and the advice is also good. Any writer who has gotten to the point where they think they can submit a manuscript, should read this.

One should look especially carefully at the parts about going over the manuscript and cutting out awkward phrases wherever possible, etc.,, and to be prepared for lots of rejectons(e.g. develop a real thick skin, something I myself am not very good at)

About the only thing that I would add to this good advice is, the writer who submits a manuscript, should research who is and is not an appropriate agent or publisher to submit it to, well before they send it out! Things can change, and change rapidly.

Now back to writing, and taking my own advice. . . .
Anne G

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I wish I could do this!

One of my local news dailies had a nice article about a local author. His name is Dave Boling, and he's a sportswriter turned novelist. He recently wrote a novel called Guernica. Guernica is in Spain, and was relentlessly bombed by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War, which was well before my time. This act inspired Pablo Picasso's famous painting of the same name. He "made it", as they say, on the first try. Not only has he "made it", he "made it" internationally! I'm happy he did. I'm happy when any writer makes it like this. And since he got a good advance for this work(few Americans nowadays know anythng about this), I'm even happier for him. Most writers aren't that lucky.

But later on, two other news writers who made the transition to novels, wondered why he "had not gone through the usual training wheels of becoming a fiction writer --- short stories and learning the craft and then getting 70 pages into a novel and losing faith"(Direct quote from the Seattle PI) Which makes me wonder. Is there some equirement that a writer follow these steps? Certainly every writer should "learn the craft". How else can
they write? But writing short stories? While Robert Sawyer seems to think you must write short stories(he called it "paying your dues" in a column I can't seem to find), I wonder. If you're writing literary fiction, probably. And if you can write short stories, it's a good way to establish publication. But not everybody is good at writing succinctly enough for a good short story(I'm not; I write "big"), and I"m not at all sure that there are too many short story outlets for genre fiction. There certainly don't seem to be many for science fiction. So why the claim? I don't know. All I know is, that aside from being happy for Boling's success, I wish I might hiave a shot at similar success for my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. But I probably won't, so it's back to writing. . . .
Anne G

Monday, October 20, 2008

Writer's learning curve

I've been reading a variety of interesting stuff lately, of all kinds. And learning from all of it, one way or another. Not all of it is science fiction(in fact, I'm rather picky about the sci-fi I read, so I haven't read much, lately). But I've learned things from all of it.

Currently I'm reading Katherine Neville's The Eight. Or rather, rereading it. I read it almost 20 years ago, commuting to and from work on a long bus ride. It has been reprinted, since Ms. Neville recently wrothat Ie a sequel called The Fire. What is rather strange is, when I started reading it, I couldn't remember that I had. This is not usually the case. I remember picking up some romances I'd read early in my reading/writing career, and finding I'd already read them! This was not the case with The Eight, at least not till I got to a part of this long, complicated, and many-layered tale that involved that famous French Revolutionary and Napoleonic character, Talleyrand. His explanation of how he came to walk with a limp sounded vaguely familiar.

As I am not through rereading this book, I will not comment any further, except that it looks like a fascinating and exotic mixture of elements, and evidentlhy Ms. Neville was very successful in putting them together, since it seems to have been What I I have learned so far is that a lot of changes in "preferrred writing styles" seem to have happened in the last 20 years or so. For one thing, she switches points of view a lot. She doesn't exactly use an "omniscient" point of vies, but she achieves this by switiching scenes and "voices"(the main narrator in modern times tells her tale in first person, but most scenes are in third person, whether in the past or the present). She also uses a rather "formal" way of writing, e.g., consistently using "upon"where most American writers, at least, would probably just use "on". I didn't notice any of this when I first read the book, but since I've started writing my own book(s), I notice these things a lot more. There is nothing really wrong with such usage; it just kind of leaps out at me. I've also noticed she made some rather odd, and in some cases, egregious(to me, at least), mistakes, which, I suppose, is natural for a writer writing a book of such broad scope.

To name just a few I've spotted so far(but apparently didn't or forgot about when I first read it), she has Russian the Gregorian calendar in the time of Catherine II(better known as Catherine the Great in the West), and the West is on the Julian calendar. The reverse is the case. The Russians continued to use the Julian calendar until 1917, when, in the throes of their revolution, they "upgraded". The West had been using the Gregorian Calendar(two weeks ahead of the Julian by that time), since the 16th century, though the British didn't adopt it till the 18th century, for religious/political reasons.
Then there is the little matter of names. Russian names are often confusing to westerners, but there is no excuse for confusing Alexander with Alexei(Alexis to Westerners), especially when she "umlauts" the name Potemkin(pronounce Potyomkin in Russian).

Still, all this proves is that no writer is perfect, and so far, the book is very entertaining. It has been a "learning curve" for me, because when I first read it, I had no idea that I would ever be writing anything. And now that I am writing something, I am finding the book very entertaining reading, despite its flaws, but I am looking at The Eight in quite a different way than I did before. But then, this is true of all the books I read nowadays.

I will probably review the book later, as well as read, and review its sequel. Stay tuned.
Anne G

Friday, October 3, 2008

Neandercannibals --- not?

Julien Riel-Salvatore has a long post regarding the supposed Neandertal cannibals at Krapina, Croatia It seems that the latest investigations of the numerous bones there, which Gorjanovic-Kramberger studies over 100 years ago, which, being abundant, provide a lot of important information about Neandertals, suggests a lot of these bones may have just been chewed up by scavenging critters --- perhaps after they had been buried. There also may be evidence that ritual burying deflesing was going on. Despite its length, the post is well worth reading. Riel-Salvatore also has a long post regarding the whole question of the significance of Neandertals at Gibraltar dining on seafood, and the question of "behavioral modernity". Whether or not one agrees with Riel-Salvatore's conclusions on this, there is no question --- at least not in my mind --- that Neandertals and "moderns" behaved in very similar ways, at the time they coexisted, and perhaps even before that.
Anne G

Thursday, October 2, 2008

October odds and ends and some good advice from Holly Lisle

As usual, I'm behind. I wanted to write about odds and ends, to begin October. Odds and ends about the writing process, for example. Well, it turns outn I'm not writing the "odds and ends" I thought I was going to be writing about! For one thing, I had an idea, right around the start of October, and now it's October 6, and I can't quite remember what the idea was, that I'd originally planned. That's because I couldn't find the time to write in The Writer's Daily Grind! Lesson one: if you have an idea about something --- for a blog or anything else ---write it down!. That's the only way to remember anything. Especially millions of brain cells later!

Which brings me to lesson two: the more you write, the more you find out about your characters. It's a growth process. Well, I learned something about my "antihero" character a few days back, when I started reading a book that has some of the same characters in it(iincluding the "antihero", who was a real person, but in the otherbook, he's just a stupid, well, idiot). His grandma was a (sort of) witch --- okay, I know what some readers may be thinking --- this is just in time for Halloween! But that wasn't my intention at all. A woman called Melusine is referred to on various occasions, and the legend current in the period my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masgterpiece With Neandertals takes place, she was supposed to be some sort of demonic witch. But the Dauarga(that's what the Neandertals in my story call themselves)know her as Mala, and her story was tragic. Well, by various means , the grandma is descended from Mala/Melusine and, well, by the time the "antihero" is old enough to be really conscious of her, she's thought to be kind of senile, because she tells wild tales. She also has, or had, a reputation as a "cunning woman", which is what they called witches at this time(mostly, these "witches" were left alone, because they knew something about herbs and healing). In any case, it partially explains the name of the character, and partly explains how he happens to be what I call a Conduit --- one who has Dauarga DNA in a certain combination, which is quite rare, and makes people unusually in tune with their surroundings, in a way(for good or evil, so to speak). This will not appear in my "Invaders" trilogy. It will come up in the prequel. For now, it just remains "backstory".

Finally, there is one more "odd or end", and that's the Holly Lisle website. She is a prolific writer who actually makes her living writing and believes in "paying forward" to other writers, published and otherwise. The other odd bit I was trying to find was something she wrote about style, and sticking to it, which I couldn't seem to locate. However, if you click on that website, you'll find a cornucopia of information, all of which is chock-full of really good stuff for any aspiring writer, at any stage of their writing process. And I'm only too happy to pass this information on.
Anne G

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Swearing and sex, medieval style

The blog Historical Boys has a nice guest entry from Jeri Westerson. She also has a blog called Getting Medieval. Both of these are on my blogroll. The entry concerns medieval "swear words", which were quite different from "swear words" nowadays. "S-words" and "f-words" would simply have described bodily functions or bodily activity, I don't have much to add to this, except that in Anglo-Saxon times, calling someone a "nithing" was considered an insult --- though it wasn't a "swear word". "Nithing" was an insult because it implied that the person so named had done something so horrible that he was basically outside society. On the other hand, people in medieval times probably would not understand what all the fuss with some hip-hop artists is all about. And on still another note, Nan Hawthorne has some "cautionary tales" about medieval attitudes toward sex. She correctly points out that the manuals directed at couples, were written by monks, therefore not precisely objective. Again, I don't have a whole lot to add here, other than that the advice in these manuals apparently varied, depending on the monks who wrote them. Some of them apparently felt that, while sex was a duty for procreation only, enjoyment could be mixed with "duty" since "enjoyment" was, according to these monks, more likely to produce children. I suppose what they actually observed was, that if the couple truly enjoyed each other's company, they were more likely to spend the right sort of time in each other's company, that would insure that children were produced! Still, even if they came up with the right answer for the wrong reasons, it definitely suggests that medieval people were not the mealy-mouthed puritans some of us imagine today.
Anne G

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Historically real, or not?

On one of the e-mail lists I inhabit from time to time, an interesting discussion has been going on. It concerns the question of whether one prefers historical fiction with real historical persons as central characters, or whether one prefers historical fiction with fictional characters.

Let me say at the outset, that I prefer the latter. I've tried to read several fictional biographies over the last few years, and frankly, I haven't found them all that interesting. Why? Because, especially if the central character is well-known, the plot is, in essence, predictable! Margaret George's Autobiography of Henry VIII comes to mind here. I never finished it, although Margaret George is an excellent writer, and many people like her material. But really, how many books can people write about Henry VIII without "saying it all over again"? Some writers can pull this off, especially if they are dealing with people and times that aren't so well known. This is one reason why I like the earlier Middle Ages --- there were plenty of interesting real people around then, but often you have little to really "go on" about them.

To go a little further here, the debate came down to whether or not people preferred to

write about real people in real historical situations, or fictional characters who participated in some historical event. It turned out(though I wasn't terribly surprised, in one sense, that some writers consider writing about real people "easier", because they don't have do so much story plotting. Well, that depends. These writers often seem to feel that you can "invent" their emotions, and it's enough trouble trying to "get at" the historical person's actual character or personality, and let the history take care of the plot. I guess that's fine if you want to do character studies, but that is not enough to a novel make, as they say.

This doesn't mean interesting work can't be done about real people in real historical situations. Another of the debaters on this list, is writing a book about a real person who I think I've heard of, but is basically very obscure, yet apparently led a very interesting life. I am sure the writer of this novel did the best he could to learn as much as he could about the period in which the person lived, and tried to be as accurate about the accounts of that peson, as he could. But the author is dealing with "obscurity" and probably had to do a lot of inventing. This often works.

What doesn't work, for me, at least, is taking a very well-known character, and writing yet another fictional biography about him or her. As I said, try as these authors might, their lives are too well-known to be anything but predictable. And that "turns me off".

I much prefer something like Patricia Finney's TheFiredrake's Eye, which takes place in Elizabetghan England, but the majority of characters are products of Ms. Finney's imagination, working their way through very real historical events and processes. This makes for compelling reading if done right, and, if done right, may stimulate reader to learn more about whatgever period the author is writing about(though I myself am not a big fan of Tudor or Elizabethan; there's just too much of it).

And, I might modestly mention that my own work is, of course, in the latter category, though it is built around some very real medieval events. Some of the real people are well-known, but one of the characters, whose activities the story is basically built around, is historical but decidedly obscure. And two of the really central characters aredefinitely products of my doubtless overworked imagination! I've had a lot of fun digging out "historical nuggets" from a variety of sources, though, and even more fun putting them together ito my Great Medieval Science Fi ction Masterpiece(or should I call it "romantic science fiction"?). In any case, I continue to take the advice or writers who have gone before me, and read, read, read, everything I can get my hands on, not all of which is historical fiction, but is always valuable.
Anne G

Enough, for now

I'm going to try to refrain from blogging anything more about Neandertals for the next little while. First, I have a lot of writing to do. Second, I suspect some people are bored to death with this. Finally, there is so much going on, that I'm going to have to try to integrate, that it's going to take some time to do that. And so,it's back to writing
Anne G

Monday, September 22, 2008

Neandertals liked their variety -- or at least the ones in Gibraltar did!

It would seem that Neandertals, at least the ones living around Gibraltar(who were also among the last of them) liked their food variety. At least there seems to be evidence that they liked to eat marine mammals when available. Previously, it seems, a lot of people thought they ate nothing but meat, meat, meat, from woolly mammoths or some other four-footed land creature. Here, though, they apparently even ate mussels, and they weren't raw, either.

John Hawks(You have to scroll down a bit to get to his comments, though) has a commentary on the original paper, which went into considerable detail about the Gibraltar Neandertal diet.

About all I can say to this is, every time someobody comes up with a theory as to why "modern" humans are here and Neandertals aren't, a discovery like this comes along to confound people. We really don't know why Neandertals aren't around any more. IMO, the reason probably has a lot to do with their rather small and scattered population, But I'm only a Starving Writer, not a scientist, so I know no more than anyone else.
Anne G

Sunday, September 14, 2008

More thoughts about this blog

It's been a little over a year since I started this blog. Okay, I said that already, in another post, which you can read here That was "anniversary musings", and it was more about Neandertals than about writing. Which brings me to the central point of this little essay.

I write a lot about Neandertals: the latest discoveries in the news and what they seem to imply, any studies I can get my hands on, and my thoughts on them, and the musings of other writers on Neandertals, where appropriate. For example, see my thoughts on a recent Robert Sawyer essay(there are links to that piece). I do this because Neandertals, and some of my ideas on them, are a central element, and implicitly embedded in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. Even the setting in medieval England is used, as there are mentions of places like Boxgrove.

Less frequently, I write about medieval subjects. I say, "less frequently", simply because medieval-themed material of the kind I'm interested in, doesn't get into the public venue(at least not in the US) with anything like the frequency news Neandertals does. "Neandernews" isn't all that frequent, but when it comes out, I usually get it rather quickly. I have some ideas about medieval-themed stuff, too, but it's as much to correct misimpressions that people then lived in a dark and ignorant age. They didn't, but that's another story for another time.

This dichotomy of subject matter has produced interesting results. I get a fair number of comments(yay!), but they come from two quite different groups. One group seems to be intereste in historical novels, and the other group seems to be interested in prehistoric humans. That's all fine and good, and believe me, I've had some interesting conversations with members of both groups. But there is
absolutely no crossover interest! I realize that people interested in medieval things and people interested in prehistoric things are basically two different groups, but surely I'm not the only prson in the universe, so to speak, who has interests in two divergent topics and am trying to combine them in writing or some other venue? But then again, maybe I am.

This has been an interesting revelation to me, and perhaps a litle bit saddening, but on the other hand, if I'm out there by myself, I'll start a movement. Or maybe not. In any case, I look forward to another year of blogs and comments on them, where appropriate. And regardless of interest, all are welcome to comment.
Anne G

A lesson learned

Because I'm still waiting for the Family Computer Guru to help me transfer my files from my old computer to my new one, I had a little problem. Or rather, I have one. I can't print out whatever I'm working on, and revise it from there. So what I had to do was, turn on my old computer at the same time I had my new one on, and copy the old chapter exactly. I knoew I had to revise it, but I had no idea, until I actually copied the whole thing down, how much I've learned about the writing process since I started writing this Invaders trilogy! I'm still learning, but I think my writing has improved derasticly, and I have less trouble cutting out a lot of the fat, e.g. tightening chapters and concepts into something workable. I saw where I could chop out a lot of "ands" "buts", "he said/she said" stuff, to make it tighter and move more smoothly.

But there was another problem which I didn't have at the time I first started writing this. One of the characters, called Mat, was originally a rather minor one. And one character who was definitely secondary, didn't "jell" at all, so I cut m out in this, the second draft. Mat became so important that though he's a secondary charactefr in this set of books, he will have his own story whenever I get through with this one. That will be a prequel. So I will have to make some adjustments, because the revisions so far have found Mat(originally, one character went looking for him). This is important to the development of the story, as I've found out some intriguing and suggestive possible information about one of the historical characters that will probably alter parts of the 'story arc"(though not by much; it will all come out the same in the end)

The point is, unless the writer has an extremely clear idea of where the story is going, and how it's going to get there, and plots every chapter and scene in tremendous detail --- and there are writers who do this --- changes of one kind or another are inevitable. Even those writers who spend a lot of time "plotting out" their work(as mystery writers and some historical writers have to do), will find inevitable changes. It's startling, and sometimes disturbing to a writer, that this process almost inevitably happens , even if the writer has been writing for a long time.

On the other hand, all this means is, that creating a work is also a wondrous thing. You never really know what changes lie around the bend. I have a much clearer idea about some of my characters, major and minor, than I did before I started this. And I'm not sad about it, though sometimes the process itself is difficult. But it was a real "learning experience" to go through this and see exactly what I wrote. I would never have seen this, had I been able o simply print out the old chapter and then correct it.

Every writer should go through this experience.
Anne G

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Real writing, some good advice

Cute Writing(don't ask me why the title), is a writer's blog. And it's a good one. Today, it has some really good advice to writers. It's good, because of the questions she asks of potential writers:

For example: Why are you writing?

How do you picture yourself once you've published your first novel? Are you still picturing yourself writing?

What kind of writing are you doing, and why?

What kind of audience are you looking for?

Finally, she reiterates something I've heard over and over from other writers: Don't try to write like the latest bestselling author! It just won't work, and if you do, you have less chance of selling your work, than if you follow your own writing passion.

I don't feel very confident about my own chances of selling my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, but OTOH, I feel it's important enough for a variety of reasons I won't go into here, to keep on writing it, and hoping I can interest somebody, somewhere, in it, enough so that it can be published! That's really all any writer can hope for.
Anne G

Monday, September 8, 2008

Two items on two of (my writing) fronts!

I got a good "double whammy" today. One is from Elizabeth Chadwick, one of my favorite writers, whose own work has helped me gain the courage to write my own Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece. But there's another part --- the "With Neandertals" part. And that's where the "double whammy" comes in. Because it now seems, according to a study published in a prestigious journal today, Neandertal brains(or at least their heads), grew pretty much the same way ours did and do. Which suggests a similar growth rate pattern, and not a "primitive" one at all.

This is important, because one of the salient themes --- though implied --- is that the "moderns" of the medieval time period in which theNow Neandertals end up operation, don't really "recognize" most of the differences between Neandertals and ourselves, that seem so "obvious" to people nowadays. They do recognize that there's something "different" about them, but it's not what many people nowadays would think it is, and they interpret that quite, well, differently. The "brain study" only reinforces my own beliefs that, whatever differences between "them", and "us" there were, they were actually rather subtle, and may or may not have contributed to their eventual demise(bear in mind that there were never very many of them to betin with).

Now, to Elizabeth Chadwick: She's apparently writing abook about Mahelt Marshal, the daughter of the much more famous William Marshal. Interesting project, that, since she admits that almost nothing is known about her, other than that she was Marshal of England for a while --- in the later 13th century! MosMipeople think that the Middle Ages was "a man's world", with knights riding off to do whatever they did and fair ladies just waiting around. . . .well it was "a man's world" in some ways, but that doesn't mean the fair ladies just waited around. They could be, and sometimes were, just as active in their own way, as their men. Of course, women didn't have the choices women do today, but heck, most men didn't have all that much choice either, at least not in the 13th century. Life tended to follow expected patterns, and most people "complied", at least to the extent that they had to: they followed in the footsteps of whatever status their parents had, they got married and had children, inherited lands if they were of the nobility, But even here, some men and women made their mark. William Marshal certainly did, and benefited. So, apparently --- at least according to Elizabeth Chadwick, did some women. I am really looking forward to seeing what she does with Mahelt Marshal. I'd really like to see her write more about strong women in a historical context. And maybe my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals will complement her efforts in various ways!
Anne G

Friday, September 5, 2008

Finally, at long last, peace and quiet!

At last, at last! I finally get to blog again. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever have time. My computer works, my printer works, and all I have to do now is get my old files tnsferred to my new ocmputer. I'm left with a pile of critiques and a chapter to upload to an online critique group, which will keep me busy for a while, but I'll stop in and keep everyone informed of my progress. Maybe I'll drop a few lines about some advice I've gotten recently, and how that meshes with my own writing experience, too. As they used to say, "the beat goes on"!
Anne G

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Robert Sawyer's essay on Neandertals

I have a lot of respect for Robert Sawyer.  Most of the time.  He is an excellent writer,and I've enjoyed many of the boos I've read that he's authored.  I will continue to follow his output.  And he has written an essay about Neandertals, which is worth reading.Unfortunately, he trots out the same old, same old, regarding what Neandertals did or did not do, though he does put a kind of different "spin" on it.  He claims that Neandertals were somehow smarter for not supposedly emulating the things "we" are supposedly famous for:  burying our dead and having "religion"(he implies, just as in his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, that Neandertals didn't), and he implies that they didn't "go in for" decorations, such as painting themselves with ocher. 

Trouble is, there are a number of known, and agreed-upon, Neandertal burial sites.  Even the (somewhat) controversial Shanidar is thought to be a burial site, though there is disagreement as to whether they "really" buried their dead with flowers(I happen to think that in this case, they probably did).  And there are others.  It is also true that there are some sites that were thought at one time to be Neandertal burial sites, which are now not thought to be, but that is entirely different from saying Neandertals never practiced rituals or buried their beloved relatives. 
It is also untrue that Neandertals "never" decorated themselves.  There is ample evidence of this, at some sites, and even in earlier sites, there is some evidence of ocher use, which may have served both practical and "decorative" purposes. 

Finally, he trots out the whole "extinction by genocide" argument which has been around in one form or another, practically since the time Neandertals were first discovdefred.  A lot of people seem to buy into it, because they have an unnecessarily "dark" view of what "human nature" is. There is "human nature" all right, but those people who seem to hold this view most strongly, also seem not to understand that philosophers and others have been debating exactly what "human nature" is for  at least the last 2,000 years, and have not come to any agreement on this subject. And again, while there is some argument as to whether Neandertals came up with thingvs like decorating themselves, and more "modern" tools by imitating "modern" humans, or whether they came up with these things on their own(the "great minds think alike" version of prehistory, perhaps), there is no doubt that they figured out such complex ideas as social distinctions and probably had rituals and belief systems and myths of their own.  The disadvantage to Neandertals is, these kinds of things don't show up in the archaeological record, except indirectly.  Whereas with "modern" humans, you have a time when somebody started writing down the myths and rituals of the people who were telling the stories, dancing the dances, singing the songs, etc.

Robert Sawyer is, as I said, a fine writer, and this essay was triggered by the fact that Neandertals apparently had tools that were just as efficient as "modern" ones, sometimes more efficient. But even in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, he seems to have ignored or been unaware of these findings. He may have had an excuse for ignoring or not knowing abou these things at the time he wrote these books. But, again in my view, he has no excuse ignoring these findings now. Shame on Robert Sawyer!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Neandertals were efficient tool makers

According to this article courtesy of the BBC, some researchers have discovered that Neandertal "flaked" tools were just as effective and efficient --- sometimes more so --- than  ththe later "blades" widely used by "modern" humans.  OTOH, there are instances of Neandertals using "bladed" tools, though they manufactured them somewhat differently than "moderns" did. These tools have been found in "Chatelperronian" sites --- these were among the last known Neandertals.  Some workers think they merely  copied these tools from "moderns" without knowing what they were for or how to use them, others(and I tend to at least partially favor this explanation)thinnk they developed these kinds of more sophisticated tools more or less independent of "modern" influence.  I also tend to think that if it is true that Neandertals stuck to "flaked" tools, it was because they found the "blades" didn't work for them as well, not because they "couldn't" make them, or couldn't figure out how to use them.  And the more evidence that comes in from sources such as those experimental archaeologists, the more it seems that there wasn't really all that much difference between Neandertals and "moderns"(if any), other than Neandertals, unfortunately for them, suffered from having smaller and more scattered populations, which made them more vulnerable to being absorbed or becoming extinct.Anne G

Monday, August 25, 2008

Computer problems resolved?

It looks like I may have my computer problems (mostly) solved!  I even set up my printer, and it prints beautufully.  For which I can only say I'm exceedingly glad.  I still don't have my old files, but the Family Computer Guru says he has a solution for that, in about a week.  So WhI guess I can do most things, though I'd really like my old files, so I can finish up the rewrite of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals.  Whether I can interest anybody in publishing it, is another story altogether.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More good writing advice

I periodically collect good writing advice from writers all over. This one is from the lady who runs Cute Writing, a blog full of all sorts of good stuff for writers. This one is about advice from an unfamous writer I never heard of and haven't ever read. But it's basically the same advice given by Stephen King in his book On Writing, which, I might add, is a very good book for people who want to be writers to take a look at. Basically, both of them say you should read all kinds of stuff: fiction, nonfiction, best-sellers and not-so-famous slog-alongers. The more you read, the more you develop an inner sense of good writing(I'll go more into that later, as there are two books I'm reading that illustrate certain things about good and bad writing, very, very well).What you don't want to do is to try to "copy" some best-selling author. You really want to try to develop your own style, whatever that may be. Otherwise, you just become a pale copy of the best selling author, writing "in the style of" Stephen King or whoever it is. I hardly consider myself an expert, since I'm pretty much learning my craft "by the seatit rmy pants", so to speak, but it really strikes me as very important, when two or more writers, both famous and not-so-famous, are essentially saying the same thing. As for me, I'm just trying to follow their advice while working on my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. That's all I can do.
Anne G