Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On writing"forsoothly"

I am in the rather interesting position of just having finished, and being in the middle of, two books that take place in the same medieval time period -- the reign of Henry II of England, to be exact. It was an interesting period, to say the least, and the two writers, Ariana Franklin and Sharon Kay Penman, couldn't be more different. Ariana Franklin -- the pen name of the writer Diana Norman -- writes mysteries set in this period.  And I think they are quite good, though some readers are upset by what they think is her "historical inaccuracy"  Sharon Kay Penman writes "straight" historical fiction, and is generally very good at what she does. I will be reviewing both books shortly,so I don't want to get into the books themselves, at this point. 


Their writing styles couldn't be more different, either. Though her mysteries are all set in medieval England, her characters all speak in plain standard contemporary English.  No, I don't mean slang.  I mean standard contemporary written English.  Sharon Kay Penman, on the other hand, seems to like writing in a style that is "modern English in sentences construction, but there are places where I end up grinding my teeth at her prose and the way she makes her characters speak. This is a style that Ariana Franklin, in her notes at the end of her latest mystery, calls "gadzooks" writing.  I've heard others call it other things, including "writing forsoothly"  I myself call it "fake poetic".


This style, beloved, among others by most romance writers(at least those who write "historical" romances) and some historical novelists, has people talking in "mayhap", "'tis", "'twas", "nay", "aye" and Ms.Penman's favorite, "for certes", among others. This style also tends to include convoluted sentence structures like "On the morrow, Uncle, I shall go hunting," when she could just as easily have written "Tomorrow I will go hunting."  She also has a tendency to use "Britishisms" like "whilst", which is fine if you happen to be British, which Ms. Penman isn't.  And her "fake poetic" or "forsoothly" writing isn't consistent;  she tends to drop into more modern constructions.


I have to say I really like Penman, and so do a lot of other people.  I also know that I will probably enraged many of her devoted fans by saying this, but my criticism of this style of writing isn't directed just at Sharon Kay Penman, but at all authors who write this way, presumably to evoke an "atmosphere".  The trouble is,these sorts of language constructions owe more to Shakespeare than the medieval period; they go back basically to about the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; by the middle of the seventeenth century, they were starting to die out in English. I suspect a lot of writers who write historical fiction, set in any time previous to about the middle of the nineteenth century, just don't realize this.


I also realize that many readers of historical fiction find a strictly "mod.  ern" style just too jarring.  They actually like this kind of "forsoothly" writing, I suppose because they think it supplies the relevant "atmosphere", particularly if it is set in some period relatively remote from our own.  But you have to remember, as Ariana Franklin pointed out at the end of her latest book, English speaking people of Henry II's time spoke an English that was much closer to the language of Beowulf than to anything spoken today. So even if we had time machines at our disposal, we would just barely be able to understand what they were saying.  So the first thing a reader of any of these books has to do is suspend disbelief.  After all, that is partly what happens in almost any "genre" novel. And historical fiction is a genre.


There are better ways, in my opinion,of creating the requisite atmosphere, trying, and generally not succeeding, in writing "forsoothly". One could mention the name of types of cloth, for example. Or items of clothing which are no longer worn. Or modes of transportation. One could go on and on. This does not mean you have to bog the reader down with endless descriptions of someone's dwelling, or the construction of a castle,or the preparation of a feast,etc. This can be done quite easily by having a sentence like "Hardwin put on his woolen cloak, lined with marten fur and pinned it together with his silver cloak pin" or the like(Hardwin is the hero of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece). This gives detail:  he wears a fur-lined cloak and pins it together.  It tells the reader they didn't have buttons in "them days".  A book set in a given period can be sprinkled throughout with details like this, giving the reader a picture of a different time and place, while allowing the characters to speak in "modern standard". The advantage of this is that it's easier to write consistently with "modern standard" than it is to go  back and forth with "forsoothly" or "fake poetic" writing.  But obviously, some writers don't see this.


Of course, this is just my personal opinion, but also personally, I don't think "style" should get in the way of "story".  And if you have characters "speaking forsoothly"  or the writer tries to write "forsoothly", I think that is exactly what such writing does.  So while I find Penman's tales to be very good reading, I wish she,and other writers who write like this, into serious consideration.

Anne G

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hard-line writing "purity"

The most recent manifestation of the debate between "accuracy purists" and those who cry "story first" has wound down a bit, with people on both sides of this issue in various forums, tending to take rather "hardline" positions on both sides. I might not have much more to add to this debate, except that one writer said she spotted anachronisms at the age of 10, in the writing of an author that was well-known when I was about 10!  While I knew of some of these anachronistic things at that age(I don't recall reading anything by that particular author at the age of 10, though), it would never have occurred to me to write the guy and complain about it. Times were different then, I suppose.  But this issue raises some interesting questions in my mind.


The most important thing is, it may all boil down to the author's own experiences informing his or her work in certain ways. For example, I've been reading all of Bernard Cornwell's "Uhtred" series, to date, and quite enjoy them.  And he is known for " fact-checking" the periods he writes about. The "Uhtred" series takes place at the time of King Alfred, and concerns, in part, the Danish invasions of England, and their consequences. He gets the "politics" and the social milieu of the time right, I think, at least within reason.  In this sense, no one can fault him for his accuracy.  He doesn't get anything obvious, wrong.  Yet I've learned some things about Cornwell that suggest he has views of certain things are colored by his own experiences.  For example,his portrait of King Alfred can only be described as "unpleasant". He describes that monarch as being pinched and  "killjoy pious". He also describes King Alfred as rather "sickly", hardly the brave leader that repelled the Danes!  And he is very hostile to "organized religion":  his hero, Uhtred, is unrepentantly "pagan", and he describes all Christians as tending to be unpleasant of temperament in various ways, and themselves extremely hostile to "pagans". 


But before we get into Cornwell's possible perceptions., let's look at King Alfred for a moment.  Historically, Alfred did manage to hold the England of that time together under one rule, no easy feat at a time when there were strong regional forces that could have divided it, and frequently threatened to do so. He also did hold the "Danes"(mostly Danish, but "other" Scandinavians as well) off of the England of his time, by winning battles. We also know that he was originally destined for the Church,and he retained this faith when he became king. On the other hand, he also encouraged literacy at a time when very few people, including those in the highest classes of society, could read or write.  And all of this strikes me as being quite sensible, not "killjoy pious".  We also know that he suffered from some unnamed malady that put him "out of commission" at times, but when he was well, he apparently was a smart politician and strategist. Not at all like the almost "wimpy" Cornwell portrait. So, in a broad sense, Cornwell's portrait is accurate.  It doesn't do any violence to the facts.  It doesn't get dates out of order. It doesn't put historical  personages in the wrong place, or give  them attitudes they wouldn't have had at the time.  And again, I must emphasize that I've enjoyed reading his books(including this series so far).  And yet. . . .


Bernard's birth family name was not Cornwell, but Oughtred, which could derive as descent from the historical Uhtred around whom he weaves this story.  He obviously likes to think so, though in my opinion, at the distance from that time to this, it's probably a bit of a stretch. But he was adopted at a very young age by a family which belonged to a very unpleasant-sounding Christian sect called The Peculiar People,which he apparently came to loathe as he grew older. Given their "peculiar" theology, it's not hard to understand why he might think "Christianity sucks" as they say, though there is more than one possible response to that kind of situation,one of which might be, for example, to find a more tolerant religious "home".  Many people have done this.  And, for the record, my perspective on this comes from having been exposed to far more flexible brands of Christianity than these "Peculiar People"  This is why Uhtred  is "happy pagan" constantly in conflict with "nasty Christianity".  Is this an accurate portrayal?  Well, maybe. Or maybe not.  We also know that the Christian missionaries who went all over Europe trying to convert "the people" sometimes met with a lot of hostility, but this was frequently for "political" reasons:  rulers didn't want to give up their own paganism, or feared losing their power.  In general, Christian missionaries in the early Middle Ages(later times were quite different), tended to think that they could "educate" people into accepting the Church and Christianity, and pagans weren't particularly hostile to Christians, unless there were other factors involved. 


That clearly isn't Cornwell's view.  And I've run across any number of people who would agree, more or less, with Cornwell, citing "incidents" of one kind or another.  These "incidents" are true, but this kind of behavior isn't confined to Christianity, or indeed any other religious tradition.  It isn't even confined to "religion".  You see it,even today, in "ideologies".  One doesn't have to go back very far -- only 50 or 60 years, to see what nonreligious "ideologies", rigidly followed, have done to people in various places. It's not pretty.  In other words, people in power may use "religion" or "ideology" to push their own agendas,and have done so throughout history.


None of this really resolves the "accuracy" v. "story" issue.  It won't, because in historical fiction, both are important, and as I said in a previous post,both are important when you're writing this kind of fiction. Depending on what you're writing, one may get slightly more emphasized over the other, but both must  be there if the story is to be credible and readable.  I can't, therefore, say that Bernard Cornwell's perceptions of King Alfred are any more or less "accurate" than any other writer's, but in his "perception context" they are credible, and it's a tribute to his skill as a writer that people like me, who have other perspectives, can find them credible in a way, even if they reject some of them. And, in closing,it's also wise to remember that not every reader(very few, in the case of Anglo-Saxon England) is going to be very concerned with the history anyway.  They will just want a "good read".  Which, I think, is all any writer can do.

Anne G

Friday, March 20, 2009

It all depends on what you're writing. . . .

There's been another round of discussion(or should I say, argument) regarding the whole question of "historical accuracy". I've discussed this elsewhere on several occasions, so I won't go into excruciating detail here.  However, there seems to be a division of opinion about whether "story" is primary, or "accuracy". If you're writing something that takes place in historical time,then you do have to be true to the period you're writing about. In other words, unless you're writing "alternate history" type fiction(and that's basically a kind of fantasy anyway), you can't have people zipping around in flying saucers in the time of Good Queen Bess.  But the discussion then devolved into how primary "story" is.  And if "story" is primary, can you alter facts slightly, in order to make a better story?  I think the majority of people(some of whom are writers), came down on the side of "story", with some vociferous objections on the part of people who "demand" a great deal of accuracy.  This is fine and dandy; if you're doing historical novels and you want to get it "right", you had better be prepared to do something more than superficial research. 


One writer claimed you could actually do both.  You probably can -- if you're someone like Dorothy Dunnett. For the record,the author I'm referring to, who is quite successful in her niche, admires Dorothy Dunnett, as do a lot of other historical fiction fans.  For the record, I'm not one of them, but now I think I know, at least in part, why she writes what to me, are such excessively detailed and "talky" stuff.  She was also a portrait painter, which may have given her an eye for a lot of detail, and many readers obviously like this, but to me, it was just a little too much(plus the fact that she often used obscure words that made a lot of people rush to the nearest dictionary).  This is, perhaps, a matter of taste, especially as she's not writing fictional biographies, as her writing admirer does.


If one is writing fictional biographies, one had better know a lot about the person one is writing about.  The aforementioned writer does meticulous research.  I've seen some of it. Furthermore, she has access to material that I can't possibly get.  The same woman does a number of things that I think probably influence her view of the whole "accuracy" discussion, for she thinks you can have both "story" and accuracy. 


But what if you're not writing fictional biography?  There were people on this same list, who absolutely insisted you have to be totally "accurate",no matter what, no exceptions allowed.  One person even  sounded as if they "worshiped" research!  I had to remind this particular person that research for historical fiction is a tool, not an end in itself.  I don't know how the person took that; they never replied, as far as I could tell.


As  the Gentle Blog Reader probably will guess, I come down pretty much on the side of "story".  After all, as someone else pointed out, it's fiction,after all.  You're not writing a history book.  I realize that this reply can also be,or seem like, an excuse to do "anything".  Again, for the record, while I consider the Invaders trilogy to be science fiction, it is set in a particular slice of medieval England, and I feel, based on what I've read about this period and how people operated in it, to be as true to that particular period as I can, given the fact that I don't have all the source material I'd like, and given the fact that there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge. It took me a long time to even start writing this trilogy, for precisely that reason.  I spent that time gathering information, which I continue to turn to, before I even dared start putting words into the computer.


if you're writing a novel set in historical time,whether it's a mystery, science fiction,or something else,  what you know about your period is important. Sloppy "research" will show.  I've seen it. But if it's not fictional biography, do you have to "count rivets" as I have discovered some readers of historical fiction seem to like to do?  Some of these readers, especially those who are "in love with" or "know"a period very well, will essentially throw a book at the wall, if it has the slightest "inaccuracy" in their view. They also tend not to like Authors' Notes as explanations as to why some of these inaccuracies are in the book. I, on the contrary, find these perfectly acceptable. After all, the author has taken the time to explain what s/he is up to.


In the end, however, as still another person(a writer) pointed out, agents and editors will often point out where things can be "fudged" or at least "fused" to make a better story -- a story readers actually want to read. If you're too busy "rivet counting", my feeling is,you can't really do this properly, despite the fictional biography writer's assertion that you can. For myself, therefore, I will wrap "history" around "story", while striving to be as accurate in my writing as I can. I think this is about all any writer can do, especially with a project like mine, which started out simple and got very complicated, very fast,once I really started plunging into the research.  But that is another  story, for another time.

Anne G

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Women in Paleoanthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology

I don't normally step outside of the boundaries I've set for myself on this blog, namely my writing journey and writing in general, subjects related to medieval England(particularly late Anglo-Saxon times and a little bit beyond), and anything related to Neandertals.  The reason for this is, I want to keep this blog focused on that which is related to my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals.  I once had another blog which was supposed  to focus on stereotypes and Neandertals, but became entirely unfocused, and I ended up not having time to do anything with it.  Ugh.  I deleted that blog, and started over. with this one.


But every so often, I stumble across something so compelling, at least to me,and so important, that although it's not strictly within my sphere, I feel I must write about it, or at least briefly comment. Such is the case with a recent Greg Laden blog, which is generally about women in the field of paleoanthropology  and more specifically about Barbara Isaac, the wife of the late Glynn Isaac, the Africanist prehistorian.   This kind of information is important to me, even if it doesn't directly affect the material I read, as ongoing background research for my writing(s).  Paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology have long been, and in some quarters still are, considered primarily "male" fields. I remember being told, in my student days, that I would not be allowed to go on a local field trip to hunt for arrowheads and other Native American artifacts, by a professor of some note, whose name I remember well after all these years, but which will not pass my cyberlips.  He apparently just couldn't "handle" the idea of a woman being there. And I was to naive at the time to complain about it to anyone who might have been able to do something.  But in fairness to myself, I was pretty young and tender at the time. 


Still, something of this ethos lingers in the image of scientists and fieldworkers, especially in fields like paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology,of these workers being primarily male. It is also fair to say that a lot has improved in recent years, and this is why it is important to acknowledge the often unsung contributions  of women like Barbara Isaac, as Greg Laden does so well in his blog.  She faithfully helped her husband Glynn in the field for many years, then, after he passed away, she continued to contribute to the field, in other ways, large and small.  Arranging  with various authorities, through contacts she had accumulated over the years, to put the Georgian site of Dmanisi on the archaeological map was one of her more important here.


So I urge any interested parties to read Greg Laden's blog and find out more than I can possibly say.  His blog is often very informative on a number of subjects, especially doing archaeology and anthropology in the field, and he is very supportive of his female colleagues.  I hope it broadens the understanding of paleoanthropology, and the fieldwork involved, among the interested.

Anne G

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Not much

  I haven't blogged much this month.  I haven't really had much reason to, though there have been some very interesting encounters with other bloggers on a variety of subjects related to my writing project. And I don't see any reason to blog often, unless there's a lot "out there", as, for some reason, there was in February.  I don't even have any books I want to review.  And a steady, though small, stream of people drops in from time to time and looks at my blog.  Gee. I'm even being "followed" at Twitter now! 


All of this is quite all right with me. I don't have a mania for posting "nonsense" like some bloggers do(there's been a lot of complaint about this in the sphere of "political" blogs, which I am not).  I'd rather post less often, if I don't have anything much to say, than simply blather. 


Interestingly, though, my blogging isn't the only thing that's  slow at the moment.  So is my writing. It's not that I don't have ideas, nor is it that my story isn't going well. Both are, though the story itself needs at least one more revision,before I think it will be anything close to publishable, and that's just the first book!  It's just that, unlike some writers, the words often come s-l-o-w-l-y.  I have a scene in my head, but I don't quite know how to put this scene, dialog, and characters down on paper(or more precisely, in the computer).  This is much more difficult than one might imagine, but I keep doing it, even if I only get half a page done. In my view,that's the only way I can write at all "creatively".  I'm definitely not a "formula" writer. But I'm also disciplined.  And  lately, I've been doing more critiques of other people's writing, than I started out doing.  I enjoy that, partly to see(with the more "polished" writers),what I can aim for, partly to see where they're going,and partly, just to see what they're writing!


Be that as it may, you, Gentle Reader, can rest assured that I will remain a "presence" here. You may not agree with some of the things in my blog, or you may love them so much that you "lust" for more. I will eventually have lots to say, I am sure.  I might even repeat myself, on occasion. But this blog will continue,and of course,I will continue to encourage people to drop by and correspond. Who knows?  Maybe someone will stroll in here and give me information about how I can write "faster".  Someone like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling?  One can always hope.

Anne G

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A writer's enlightenment

When I'm not working on my own Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, I spend a good deal of time critiquing other people's efforts.  To this end, I'm part of a Yahoogroup  called medieval_fiction_writers.  It's an online critique group for writers of historical fiction, many of whom don't just write "medieval" fiction. Recently, I've been expanding my pool of critiquers,  as time and energy permit, so to speak. In doing so,it's been an education. Critiquing someone else's work is, in my opinion, always educational anyway, for the writers are generally in various stages of writing and trying to get things published or polished.  And it shows.  I've had the experience of reading work that is basically "raw", a first draft or first attempt of some kind, and other work where the writing is essentially a finished product waiting only for some agent to pick it up or some publisher to publish it.And everything in between. I try to be helpful, and not too hard on the writers, for writing is a learning process, and a lifelong one, I think. I try to share what I know, and those who critique me do the same.  I've learned a lot this way, and I think my writing style and technique have improved since I started writing this. It's been a long slog, and I"m still working on it. And so are the other writers I critique. This is the joy of it:  you see a writer or writers develop, and hopefully publish something that many people want to read.


While my work isn't strict "historical fiction", I feel this group is broad enough to encompass anything that takes place in a historical period, and I appreciate that.  And learning to appreciate the efforts of other writers, even if I wouldn't approach the subject the way they do, is part of my own learning process.  So I look forward to see what other people are doing  in their writing efforts.

Anne G

Monday, March 2, 2009

Whee! Good news down the line!

And the good news is, the author Elizabeth Chadwick is going to write a novel, at some point in the future, about the Empress Matilda, a much neglected lady, in my opinion. Perhaps not very likeable in some ways, but definitely interesting!  I can hardly wait!

Anne G

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review: Nan Hawthorne, An Involuntary King

Hawthorne, Nan

An Involuntary King

Shield-Wall Books, Bothell WA, 629 pp.  2008

ISBN 978-1-4196-5669-9


An Involuntary King is an odd book. I don't mean this in the least unkindly.  By "odd", here, I mean that it doesn't fit easily into a category of books that many readers might be looking for. There is a reason for this:  Ms. Hawthorne frankly admits that it was generated by stories she and her friends told to each other during their teen years.  I remember doing this, mainly with science fiction, and the science fiction I tried to write was kind of "after the bomb" stuff.  I suppose it wasn't bad, and, had I developed it further, it might even have sold as science fiction.  There were several things against this, however, in my case.  First, I didn't really get much encouragement for anything I wrote(my mother, for example, wanted me to write "pretty"), there were few women writing science fiction at that time, and last but not least, I went to college and got "into" other things. 


Nan Hawthorne, on the other hand, retained an interest in her stories, and that was a good thing.  But before I go any further, I should warn the Gentle Reader:  This book is not for everyone.  Many readers of historical fiction, especially the kind who insist on "total accuracy" will not like the book.  Though it's set in a historical time and place, the names of the characters are recognizable as distinctly modern.  Again, this was Ms. Hawthorne's choice, and in this context, it works. There are also a large number of readers who think that the  concept of "alternative history" is way overdone.  I'm one of them. However, this doesn't mean that I never read "alternative histories"; it just means that most of them are not very good, and in this regard, Ms. Hawthorne's book is a definite exception. 


The book itself is set in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon England.  In this period, there were local kingdoms and shires, etc., but there wasn't an "England", let alone a "Great Britain" as we understand that part of the world today. So while there never was -- as far as anybody knows, a "Crislicland", or an "Affynshire", politically, the kingdoms and shires were often fluid enough so there could have been such places.  The story tells of a young man, Lawrence, who becomes king of Crislicland(which looks a lot like the northern part of Lincolnshire), due to the sudden death of his father. He is unprepared for this, and all sorts of complications, both emotional and political, ensue.  This makes for a long, complicated, yet  ultimately satisfying and believable story, and Nan Hawthorne has done an excellent job of putting all the complicated elements together in a way which should satisfy any reader who likes a good story, well-told, in any genre or hybrid of genres, that the storyteller chooses.  This book will probably make "history purist" readers cringe, and those who prefer "straight history" probably should go elsewhere.  But if you like a tale with lots of adventures, multilayered plots and plenty of action, An Involuntary King  is the book for you.  Ms. Hawthorne writes well, and it is an easy, and entertaining read.  Another plus: though the book doesn't exactly take place in "real" time, it certainly has a flavor of Anglo-Saxon England, and, to her credit, it is obvious that Ms. Hawthorne did her research well.  I should also add that she is writing a mystery series set in Anglo-Saxon Winchester, which I look forward to reading.  Based on what she has done so far, I don't think I will be disappointed, and I don't think anyone who reads this book will be disappointed, either.

Anne G

The language loons get loonier?

The Got Medieval blog -- a not infrequently very informative blog on all things medieval -- has further thoughts on the whole "oldest English words"  story that has been making the rounds of the Web lately.  This was the story I wrote about yesterday .  And it apparently hasn't gotten any better.  It's gotten loonier and more hilarious.  One can just imagine, for example, some medieval gentleman striding into Tully's(a local coffee venue I like much better than Starbuck's) in swishing chain mail and trying to order "something"!  The help there would probably stare uncomprehendingly, especially if he was a medieval gentleman that didn't know any English, old or modern(yeah, there were plenty of those!).  As for the help, they'd probably think he was some street crazy.  Yeah we have some of those, and yeah, some of them "dress up" though I've never seen one in chain mail!  Even if he did manage to order coffee, he probably wouldn't have any idea what it was, and even if he understood it was something to drink, the chances are, he wouldn't like it, and probably he would try to trash the place with his trusty sword or mace or whatever(Hollywood would love that, I'm sure!). 


But it gets loonier, because there is a related story about the oldest word.  Not just the oldest English word.  The oldest word!. Got Medieval conjures up a visit to some cave family in their humble cave, with the "medieval" and the "time traveler" attempting to communicate.  Or maybe the cavepeople try to travel forward in time, to Tully's, and they are presented with coffee and try to drink some.  It doesn't exactly conjure up the Geico caveman, does it?  And whether or not they had words that in any way, shape, or form, were related to any modern words, English or otherwise, is, despite the efforts of the scientific gentlemen, completely unknown.  Still, I see a sitcom in there somewhere. . . .

Anne G