Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Friday, May 29, 2009

How very "prescriptive" of you!

This morning, I was looking over a chapter of my Invaders trilogy that I'd been working on. I have a friend who also writes science fiction, though of a somewhat different kind than mine.  She is really very nice, and we critique each others' work each week, and in the process, have become friends.  She majored in literature at a local college, not the same one I went to.  I majored in anthropology.  We both had "nothing" jobs for a while, then were able, by various means, to be able to devote ourselves, however fitfully, to writing.  But that is not what I'm writing about here.


When I glanced over the copy of the chapter, which I'm going to be putting away so I can work a second draft of it, and eventually put it into shape to start peddling it to whatever agents might be willing to look at it, I noticed the following comment:


"Technically, this means that she nauseates others(which may be true). 'Queasy' might be a better word."


Here is the offending sentence:


"Illg lay huddled in a miserable, nauseous heap on the deck of the ship that was returning her to England, along with Duchess Matilda, with whom she had spent most of the last year."


A website called Grammar Girl backs my nice English-major friend on this.  I can sort of see why.  It was more or less the way I learned to write and speak.  Besides all the English teachers I had, at least until college, I had a heavily "prescriptivist" mother -- also an English major, but of a considerably older and stiffer generation and background. Be that as it may, both my friend and Grammar Girl seem to think that  "technically" , describing  Illg(the heroine of this trilogy) as "nauseous" means that she nauseates other people.  Except that she doesn't "nauseate" anybody!  Not even the villains in this novel(the villain is the older brother of one part of her love triangle, and he is a sort of antihero).  Quite the contrary! So why don't I use "queasy", the "technically correct" "nauseated"?  Because, gentle reader, neither of these two words quite packs the punch of "nauseous".  People who get seasick(which is what I spend a lot of time describing in this chapter, and the effects of her eventual ability to cure her fellow passengers(and sufferers of this form of motion sickness), are nauseated, but they often describe themselves as nauseous.  Okay, okay, you say.  This isn't "grammatically correct", but then, a lot of writing isn't. Here's another example, also from Grammar Girl says the same sort of thing about "all right" v."alright".  But do you know what's really weird about this?   I can't tell  you how many times I've seen "alright" in books of various kinds, so writers use it.  Furthermore, this self-same Grammar Girl claims that it has "shadow acceptance" in the UK, but is not acceptable in the US!  And this is simply not true!  While I am of a generation to whom "alright" often looks a bit "funny", I had most of the "grammar prescriptivism" these two examples show knocked out of me in,of all places, anthropology classes.  So, while I have my "prescriptivist" tendencies, these usages simply don't raise my "writer hackles".


I should note here, that I have never gotten seasick, although I have had my share of "nauseous/nauseating" episodes, from other causes. The closest I ever came to being in this condition was on a trip from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, just after Christmas, on a Victoria Clipper boat ride.  It was quite windy, and the seas were correspondingly heavy in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  And the people who  got this Victoria Clipper from Seattle to Victoria carefully announced, before we even started moving, that Dramamine was available for those who needed it.  I didn't, though trying to negotiate my way to the restroom under such conditions was an adventure in itself.  I don't know if any other passengers needed Dramamine. I didn't ask.   In any case, the problem I see,again referring to these two examples, is that usage in English has changed drastically since the days when the Vikings(or as the English then called them, the Danes, since what is now Denmark is where most of them came from)started invading England. Many of these Danes settled, often in places like York, which grew large and fat on the trade which many of these "Danish" settlers engaged  in.Old English was, among other things, a highly inflected language, much like German today.  What happened?  Well, the Danes didn't go away; many of them settled down in a peaceable manner, and the English often had to communicate with them.  The two languages were both in the "Germanic" family, so there were probably any number of words that were common to both.  But because these Scandinavians were such an important presence in parts of northern and eastern England, their "grammatical" influence eventually began to be felt, initially, perhaps, in the form of a kind of "pidgin" language.  Some Old English words dropped out and Scandinavian ones(all I can think of at the moment is "sky", but there were others) got substituted  and spread.  But the most important change was, that sentence structure began to simplify in English.  Case endings and conjugations began to be dropped, and words began to contract.  This process has actually been going on in some respects, from that time to this, which is well over 1000 years.  It was going on about 150 years after the first "Danish" invasions, though by that time,for somewhat different reasons. And in some respects, it's still going on, because in that time, English has absorbed a lot of vocabulary and usage from other places and people. And this is what these "prescriptivists" like Grammar Girl(and to a lesser extent, my writer friend -- but she can't help it, I suppose; she was an English major) fail to grasp. But then, people like Grammar Girl, who purport to show writers how to write "properly", are dyed-in-the-wool "prescriptivists" themselves; they wouldn't understand the linguistic "descriptivist" approach(Ron Kephart, this is for you!)at all!


So, I shall keep "nauseous" in the sentence I copied here.  It describes Illg's miserable condition perfectly, much better than "queasy", which sounds weak, or "nauseated", which sounds too darn clinical when writing about a young girl traveling on a vessel that probably looked a lot like a "Viking ship" and was probably constructed much the same way.  Although my friend is a writer, "prescriptivists" like Grammar Girl aren't, even if they have websites that tell others how to write.  This doesn't mean a writer should make egregious grammatical or spelling mistakes, unless he or she is describing an "uneducated" character who tends to speak in "dialect"(and it's better to hint at that than actually write it).  What it does mean, though, is that, unlike Grammar Girl, a writer needs to develop an "ear" for what is strong and good and gives the reader a good picture of what is going on.  "Nauseous" is a powerful word. The others aren't. And I'm a writer. And that's the end of it, Grammar Girl or no Grammar Girl

Anne G

A (very quick) correction

Ron Kephart of the Cranky Linguist blog, has informed me that he teaches at the University of North Florida, not Florida State University.  I apologize for this error on my part.  My memory isn't always as sharp as it should be in these matters. And it's probably also just as well that he doesn't teach at FSU; he says he's heard rumors that they are trying to eliminate the anthropology department at that university, presumably due to budget constraints! Ugh, ugh, ugh!

Anne G

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Introducing "The Cranky Linguist"

Today, I would like to introduce the blog The Cranky Linguist, created by Ronald Kephart.  Ron is a linguistic anthropologist who teaches at, I believe, Florida State University(my apologies if I don't have this right; I will cheerfully correct this if necessary). Much of his subject matter doesn't seem to have much to do with my writing, but since linguistics is the study of language, and language -- any language that a writer speaks -- is used in writing, it is, in this sense, relevant.  Of course, Ron has a lot to say about all sorts of things.  While the things he talks about may not appear relevant at first, I would like to believe that at least some of them would be of interest to any writer with half a brain.  Take, for example, this post, written back in early May.  Dr. Kephart has his own "take" on the incident in question, and expands it into some questions of a type I generally don't go into on The Writer's Daily Grind.  But.  However.  From a writer's point of view -- oh, the possibilities!  He paints a very dramatic scene. I can picture it quite easily. And if I was a writer like, say, Stephen King, I might use something like that, to lead into something even more dark and dramatic.  But then, I'm a writer, not a linguist, and while I share some of Dr. Kephart's views of certain ongoing problems and events, I"m primarily a writer, not a linguist, and I'm not primarily "political" in my orientation.   But still. . . . .So, I will have a look at The Cranky Linguist from time to time, and urge anyone else who wishes to drop in, to do so.  I am sure he would love some visitors!

Anne G


This blog has been operating for a little over a year.  Well, almost two years, now. Given that it started "from nothing", I consider it reasonably successful -- I have some loyal followers, have a presence on Twitter and Facebook(for what those venues are worth, have a "network" of writers with blogs, and even some nice anthropologists. How I'm connected to all of this is probably food for another blog entry, though.  And last, but not least, it seems like almost every time I post something about writing, or Neandertals, I get responses.  Sometimes, lots of them.  But as time goes by, things begin to change. And I want to change with them. So I'm going to change certain aspects of this blog, and I'm considering some other changes. 


First of all,I definitely plan to add some other, though related, subject matter. In this case, wolves.  I wrote about wolves on this blog a while back, but that was in the context of the possibility that "modern" humans and Neandertals might share something more than the same genus.  Let me explain. Just recently, I bought a book by the mystery writer Nevada Barr.  It's called Winter Study, and takes place on Isle Royale National Park, in winter, when there aren't any visitors, just researchers, doing one of the longest ongoing studies in science.  The wolves(and moose that live there), have been the subjects of this study for over 50 years, and a lot of what we know about wolves, comes from the database. Ms. Barr uses this work quite extensively in her novel.  Although wolves aren't part of the scenery in what I'm presently working on, they appear, and drive some of the action in work I haven't finished, but intend to return to, eventually. These are novels that are not "medieval" but take place in the near future. Furthermore, where I live, there is some evidence that wolves are returning to certain areas. Besides that,I've been "into" wolves for a long time. If I hadn't gotten "into" wolves, I probably never would have stumbled onto Neandertals in the way I did, and if that hadn't happened, I wouldn't now be writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals. I might not be writing anything at all. But that's probably a subject for another post.  In any case, I now feel I need to add this as a subject related to my writing efforts, though I don't know that, to begin with, I'll be writing about them all that often.  But who knows?


The other changes I want to make, may involve changing the look of this blog.  I haven't quite figured out how to do this yet, so that remains somewhere in the future when I have a lot of time on my hands and can experiment.  And for now at least, the "background changes" may be relatively minor,involving, most likely, background color tweaks. I'm also considering a more major change, and that is,adding Google Adsense ads to this blog. The reason for that is, times are what they are right now,.and I'm a Starving Writer.  The ads themselves are supposed to relate to the content of this blog, and I fully intend, should I add them, to keep them discreet, and follow all the rules you're supposed to follow when adding them. The only reason for me to do this is to generate a bit of possible income. I really don't want to turn people off this blog,because I enjoy hearing from anybody kind enough to drop in, unless, of course, they turn out to be spammers, and I have ways of dealing with that.


I really don't want to offend anyone's sensibilities here.  This is still going to be a writer's blog.  The photoshopped Neanderlady will still be here, and so will the subject matter, with the addition of wolves. But it's time for some expansion.  So, would anyone who follows me or drops in, like to voice an opinion?  I'll cheerfully listen.  Thank you all very much.

Anne G

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dysfunction and mayhem -- medieval style(Book reviews)

Franklin, Ariana,

Grave Goods

G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York, 2009, 337 pp.

ISBN 978-0-399-15544-4


Penman, Sharon Kay

Devil's Brood

G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York, 2008, 736 pp.

ISBN 978--0-399-15526-0


Dysfunctional families often make interesting, and sometimes horridly fascinating, subjects for writers.  If they are spectacularly dysfunctional, and the writer knows what he or she is doing, these families can make for spectacularly interesting stories.  And few families were(or are) more spectacularly dysfunctional than the family of Henry II of England, who reigned from1154 until 1189. He married Eleanor of Aquitaine, something of a personality herself, and another subject that has caused novels of varying quality to be written.  And they had a lot of children, including four sons:  Henry, Geoffrey, Richard, and John.  All of them had "issues" with him, in part because, at least according to Sharon Kay Penman, he wouldn't give them the kind of responsibility they needed and deserved.  The youngest of the entire brood, John(who was later King John and was considered very bad, but probably wasn't quite as bad as some chroniclers painted him), got almost nothing, at least not until adulthood.  Richard was "the Lionhearted", and spent more of his time crusading than ruling England.  But Penman's story doesn't begin with Richard's crusading adventures,and neither does Franklin's.


If you like to read books -- any books -- about medieval times, both of these are very good, and very well written.  But they are quite different.  Grave Goods is a mystery, set around Glastonbury Abbey,where the supposed remains of King Arthur were discovered by monks there, in this period.  And the book is written around this discovery.  I should note to anyone interested, that it was at this time, when King Arthur's supposed remains were discovered by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey, that the "Arthurian cycle" really took off,and was apparently popular and well-known among all classes of people.  Needless to say, the "Arthurian cycle" has wielded tremendous influence among many in the English speaking world, from that day to this.  Ms. Franklin has taken these known facts, and woven a very satisfying mystery around it,involving an abbot and his mysterious and troubled past, a crazy woman innkeeper, a  possibly drunken monk, and a rather nasty woman who is trying to hang onto a manor she owns, rather than allow it to descend to the widow of her son, and their child. It is also part of an ongoing -- and in my opinion, very interesting series about an outsider -- Adelia, who isn't English, and has, furthermore, had a very odd, at least by medieval standards, upbringing.  She also has a very "nonstandard" relationship with a bishop, and they are frequently separated. The backstory is, that Henry II supposedly has her "on loan" from the king of Sicily,and she is always being sent out to try to find the truth of some event.  She is supposed to be good at this, because she is basically a forensic detective, in medieval terms, a "mistress of the art of death"(needless to say, an extremely odd occupation for a medieval English woman). Her interactions with Henry II don't dominate the book; they form a sort of background that drives the action.


Finally, Ms. Franklin -- refreshingly, I think -- has her characters speak in what I call "modern standard" English.  In the afterward, where she explains some of the historical background to her ongoing series, she has this to say:


I am occasionally criticized for letting my characters speak in modern language, but in twelfth-century England, the common spoke a form of English even less comprehensible than Chaucer's in the fourteenth; the nobility spoke Norman French, and the clergy spoke Latin.  Since people then sounded contemporary to one another, and since I hate the use of what I call "gadzooks" in historical novels to denote a past age,I insist on making those people sound modern to the reader.


Which brings me to Sharon Kay Penman's Devil's Brood.  But more on the "language issue", later. To begin with, there are large differences between the two books, though there appears to be plenty of "crossover".  People who like historical novels often like historical mysteries as well, particularly if they are set in roughly the same time period.  Second, Devil's Brood  at 736 pages, is somewhat over twice as long.  But then, Ms. Penman has a lot of ground to cover.  Basically, she is telling the story -- a continuation of the story of Henry II and his family started in earlier volumes -- of the "dysfunctional" aspect of his, and Eleanor's fractious brood. The oldest son, also Henry, sometimes called The Young King, since he was crowned king in his father's lifetime, is written as something of a lightweight. The elder Henry apparently gave him a title, but little in the way of real responsibility.  The second son, Geoffrey, marries the daughter of the Count of Brittany, and more or less inherits that title.  He does have responsibilities -- at least in Brittany, but is unsatisfied with those, so he leans toward the king of France and away from his father.  Then he rebels. As does younger brother Richard, eventually, partly because he thinks he should be ruler of Aquitaine(Mama Eleanor is all for that idea), and partly because his father ignores him, too.  The only one Papa Henry doesn't ignore is John, who starts out as a ten year old.  Unfortunately, when Henry does give John some responsibility -- to lead a campaign against the Irish, he makes a hash of it.  Meanwhile, Eleanor takes the side of the older sons, and is essentially put under house arrest for nineteen years, at various of Henry's castles, because she understands her sons' needs better than Henry does.  She is portrayed very sympathetically, which is another difference between Ms. Penman's and Ms. Franklin's books:  in all of the 'Adelia" series, she is a somewhat less sympathetic figure, but the author does suggest reasons for this. 

On the other hand, it's quite obvious Ms. Penman has "done her homework.  She is writing what is essentially fictional biography, and like many who write in this subgenre, she is careful of her facts to an almost "anal retentive" degree.  In many ways, this is good, because the reader can rely on a reasonable amount of veracity in what she writes.  I certainly got a very clear picture of what was going on,and yes, I ended up feeling kind of sorry for everybody involved.  The family was spectacularly dysfunctional, in a "larger than life" way.  And she writes very well; Penman's books are always easy, and to me, relatively enjoyable to read.


I say "relatively" enjoyable, because I do have some issues with the way Penman goes about constructing her books.  Before I go any further, let me state for the record, that I know she has legions of loyal fans, who like her style and like the fact that she is so careful in her research. I, too appreciate the fact that Penman has researched carefully and written her research into her books in an engaging way.  However, like many writers of biographical fiction, she seems excessively cautious about ''deviating", even for minor characters, from anything she sees as"historical".  Thus, she says in her Afterward, that she tries to use actual characters that she comes across, even if they are minor, or "walk-ons".  To me, it doesn't make much difference if you stick in an invented character in a novel like this, if it's a minor one, but then, she has(at least in her previous books) a relatively major "made up" character named Ranulf.  I have a feeling she didn't really know what to do with him after the first book in which she appeared, which was When Christ and His Saints Slept, a novel about the so-called Anarchy which immediately preceded the reign of Henry II.  A second problem is that, while Eleanor is portrayed with relative sympathy, there are other times when it appears Ms. Penman has distanced herself from everyone else. On some level, she seems to dislike both the oldest son, Henry, and Richard,the future "Lionhearted".  She does show some empathy, if that's the right word, with Geoffrey, the middle son.  Unfortunately, in history, the two older sons died, Henry of an apparent wound, and, it's claimed, Geoffrey died as a result of an injury incurred in a tournament(and tournaments were technically illegal at the time, because of the high rate of injury), so she has a "sort of" alternative explanation for what he was doing at the time.  This rather annoyed me at times, but I didn't stop reading; Penman is a strong enough writer to hold a reader's interest.


The other issue goes back to what Ariana Franklin calls "gadzooks" language.  Some people refer to this as "writing forsoothly".  I call it "fake poetic".  It's a kind of artificial "archaic" that is supposed to suggest an "olde-tymey" type of speech.  Ms. Penman spreads this on quite thick, and seems to be quite in love with usages like "upon"(rather than just plain "on"), "ere", "nay", "mayhap", and some others.  Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of language that a lot of writers of historical romance use when they think they are conveying "olde-tymey" speech patters.  There are several problems with this kind of writing, especially in the context of truly medieval England.  First of all, the style is actually closer to that of the time of Shakespeare, than it is to the kind of English spoken at the time.  Second, it's also a type of usage that was picked up by some historical fiction writers in Victorian times, when this kind of language was thought to be a realistic reflection of whatever period the Victorian novelist was writing about.  And this "tradition" has never, unfortunately in my opinion, entirely died out. On the other hand,I've spoken with readers of historical fiction who really like this kind of fake "archaism", thinking, I suppose, that it lends an air of authenticity to the book.  I suppose this is the attitude of most of Penman's loyal fans.  All I can say is, there's no accounting for tastes.


A somewhat more minor issue is Penman's use of "Britishisms".  Which I think is odd, considering she's actually an American writer, living in New Jersey.  By "Britishism", I mean spellings of certain words, like "whilst" or "amongst", rather than "while" or "among", as is more usual with people on this side of the Pond.  For the record, I have no objection to these "Britishisms" as long as the writers actually are living in the United Kingdom.  On that side of the Pond, such usages(plus some other differences in spelling over which British and Americans will probably never agree). When American writers do this, I always wonder, why?  Interestingly, an increasing number of British historical writers, of whom Ariana Franklin is one, seem to be writing in a style that a few years ago would have been considered more "American", while still using "whilst", "amongst", and so on. 


But these quibbles will probably not be noticed by most of Penman's readership, and perhaps, even for me, they are more matters of taste than anything else. Both books are very fine reads, and for anyone who, like me, enjoys reading(and for me,writing), about some of the "larger than life" personalities of the Middle Ages, are two books well worth looking for, even if, as I had to do with the Penman book, you have to get it out of your local library.

Anne G

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Neandercannibals or Neandervictims? Or both? Or neither?

A story has been going around, the last few days, on various news media about Neandertals. It has turned up on several venues, all of which I have at least checked, and this story is pretty typical.


Now I don't doubt that humans of various kinds have practiced forms of "cannibalism".  There have been many reports of this, often, however, from what can only be described as hostile sources. Or, if  the sources do understand the practice, somebody even farther outside, and not a direct observer, misunderstands and sensationalizes the practice. For example,the unfortunate Fore people of Papua New Guinea used to practice a type of "cannibalism", which unfortunately for them, resulted in an infection similar to "mad cow disease", at least until governments stopped the practice. But enough is known about it so that it's obvious it was part of funeral rituals.  Some  Amazonian tribal groups are known to have eaten their enemies, either to absorb their valor or to show how much they despised them. And then, of course, there is "survival cannibalism" of the "Donner Party" type, where starving stranded people sometimes ate their dead to survive.


To get back to Neandertals, there have been reports that the Croatian site Krapina was also the site of some sort of Neandertal "cannibal feast", since the fossil remains were often incomplete and some of them appeared to have cutmarks on them, or smashed in such a way as to get to the bone marrow. Others, more recently(unfortunately, I can't track down the article at this point), have suggested that what look like cutmarks may actually be the result of hyenas or the like, digging up Neandertal remains. There is also the French site of Moula-Guercy, which also seems to be the site of some Neandertal "cannibal feast".


This raises some interesting questions. News media that pick up on these stories, tend to sensationalize them for various reasons, especially, in my opinion,when it comes to Neandertals. This is not surprising, since Neandertals have routinely been treated as a "despised group" of humans, albeit a prehistoric "despised group" that are not here to speak up for themselves(as I am quite sure they would, were they around today).  "Despised groups" are often portrayed as groups that routinely engage in "despised practices" that "we" can feel "superior" about.  If the Gentle Reader doesn't believe this, try investigating almost any media story about, say Muslims, and you'll quickly see what I mean.


The problem with any "prehistoric cannibalism" story,regardless of who or what it involves, is that "we" weren't there! Thus, at Moula-Guercy, for example, we have no way of knowing whether they (a) loved Aunt Sue and Grandpa Joe so much that when they died, they ate them, (b)whether it was some "enemy" Neandertal group, or (c)whether they had an ethic of somebody being hopelessly ill or whatever and they were starving anyway, so it was "eat me so the tribe can continue". The evidence would probably be much the same, regardless of the cause. And that's what the media don't generally "get".


The story I linked to above, also seemed to suggest that, in this case "modern" humans ended up eating some hapless Neandertal at a French cave.  The story, along with some others pretty much in the same vein,that I've read, suggests that "modern" humans did in the last Neandertals by eating them! Well,well!  This certainly fits in with some people's notions about "modern" humans somehow being "naturally" violent-- actually, a modern variation of a rather distorted "take" on the Christian idea of "original sin" -- but all theological notions or distortions thereof aside, human nature, whatever that is, happens to be a lot of things, not just one thing, and there's no reason to believe that when "moderns" and Neandertals encountered one another, the encounters took a variety of forms, from violent to friendly to possible gene exchange. We can't know, because we weren't there.


Finally, to conclude, the latest John Hawks blog entry has some interesting observations about this story, plus a link to one of the first news reports about this find. His conclusion is especially interesting, because until now, at least, there have been few or no diagnostic human fossil remains associated with the earliest "Aurignacian" period.  This period has been assumed to be the work of "modern" humans, but it's more likely that "Aurignacian tool types" are a stylistic artifact. Whatever the case may be, the "cannibalized jaw" appears to be Neandertal or has "Neandertal-like" characteristics, which may mean,according to Hawks, that "modern" humans were very physically variable then -- or -- according to this latest post -- that we might be seeing a diagnostic fossil associated with the Aurignacian period.  Remember, that this is the period the famous Chauvet Cave paintings. Hawks suggests that the jaw might be an actual Neandertal. If this is the case, that will really make science headlines, and doubtless cause considerable uproar for a long, long time. Neandertals are "controversial" because they are a "despised group", and this is not likely to change for the foreseeable future.

Anne G

Thursday, May 14, 2009

. . . .And still more Neandernews

I love the John Hawks weblog! I really do. I've been avidly following it for some time now, and it just keeps getting better and better. Today, he picked up on something I'd never heard of, namely, a study of a cave where there are fossils that seem to show Neandertal-like characteristics in the "early Aurignacian"  He goes into great detail about this, and what it might mean. He is very careful, as usual, in his interpretations. I have great respect for this,though I don't always agree with him about all his interpretations.  But then, I don't fully agree with any  paleoanthropologists or prehistoric archaeologists when it comes to Neandertals or other prehistoric humans, though I tend to agree with some more than others.  I generally have little quarrel with Hawks.  He also mentions other studies regarding this issue, and his posts are always useful, because he always has references at the end of his posts, just like any competent scientist would.  Be that as it may, it's an interesting study, because it seems to show that (a) there could have been cultural and/or genetic exchange between Neandertals and "moderns" in the "Aurignacian" period and (b), it either shows that Neandertals made at least some "Aurignacian" style tools, or that they used them, or that they lived in close proximity to those who made them. It also shows that early "moderns" in Europe,at least,showed a wide variety of "modern" and "archaic" characteristics,  which at the very least, points to a huge amount of physical variability in that population. Bear in mind that "Aurignacian" is a tool type, but it has been generally considered the province only of the earliest "moderns" in Europe.  Maybe, maybe not.  The study sounds interesting, and as usual, some of the possible themes here, are reflected in my Invaders trilogy.  Ina way.  But that's another story, as they say.

Anne G


Again, a story about another study purporting to show how smart Neandertals were.  This one apparently showed that Neandertals would hunt herd animals such as reindeer/caribou in more "open" or "colder" areas, but in more "forested" and "warmer" areas, they would hunt single animals.  My reaction?  Oh duh! I've seen reports of studies like this for years!  They used different stone tools and weapons in different places over time, and there is plenty of evidence over time, sometimes at the same sites, that the kind of stuff they brought home to their humble caves for dinner, varied over time.  They also were quite capable of figuring out how to haft points to wooden handles, and even figured out how to make "binding glue" out of birch pitch in Germany and tar in Israel! I realize there are some workers who, more or less "terminally" consider Neandertals were "stupid" and "inferior", when, in fact, they seem to have been quite adaptable to changing circumstances.  But that doesn't make them stupid, no matter how some people might wish them to have been.


Some of you might ask what all of this has to do with my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece,or why I write so much about Neandertals.  Well, I'll tell you why.  First,look at the picture at the top of the blog.  My heroine, Illg, looks something like her, only a lot more neatly put together(even in the supposedly "filthy" Middle Ages -- see my "Flabbergasted" post for more on that!), and she's quite smart and adaptable,even a bit stubborn. Of course, she's only 15 or so when the story starts out, and teenagers. . . well, she gets into a fair amount of trouble by making some impulsive, though ultimately good, choices. . . .

Anne G

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I have a Follower of my blog! Yay! Just one, but that's a start. I haven't had a blog that long(not quite 2 years yet, and still feeling my way, in a way). But it's a start. Hopefully, there will be many more.  . . .

Anne G

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Flabbergasted again -- but maybe not quite so much

On the same romance readers' e-mail list where I reported that some people got all upset about the supposed lack of cleanliness in the Middle Ages, someone up and complained about romances where cousins get attracted to one another.  Her  reaction was "eeewwww!" She was complaining about this in Regency-era romances. Again, I'm somewhat flabbergasted, but not as badly as I was when I heard about the "cleanliness" issue. Well, at first I was.  Then I thought about it for a while, and after a while longer, I remembered stuff about kinship and marriage rules in various societies.  In the US, cousin marriages are mostly illegal, but in Britain, they are legal, but uncommon.  It isn't normally the pattern, any more, in the West, at least, to marry "family", which I suppose is why the woman had a "eeewwww!" reaction. I can kind of see this, if some romance writer tries to set this up in the modern US or the modern western world generally.  But in Regency England?  Jeez.  Cousin marriages were still fairly common.  Charles Darwin, at a slightly later period, married his cousin Emma Wedgewood(I mention this partly because it's the 200th anniversary of his birth, but that's another story).  Today, our culture considers "cousin marriage" pretty off-putting for a variety of reasons, but in other parts of the world, it's still going on, but has begun to decline, again for a variety of reasons. This is why I mentioned kinship and marriage rules at the beginning of this post -- in parts of the Middle East, cousin marriages are not only permissible, they are actually encouraged in some places, on the grounds that the man and the woman will probably be acquainted with one another to begin with, and doubtless reasonably compatible. A different perspective entirely, but perfectly normal in, say,Saudi Arabia, where(from our Western perspective, at least), most people don't have much choice.  Cousins from different lineages can marry in parts of Africa, too, and the rules can get awfully complicated.  And so on and so forth.  The thing is, every society has different rules and expectations about what makes a "good" marriage partner, and there are often other considerations as well(like keeping whatever it is, "in the family").  Plus, there may not be too many "suitable" marriage partners around, in a given "traditional" society, for a variety of reasons.


The point is, a lot of romance readers, even consumers of historical romance, just don't seem to  be aware of this.  It appears to me that many of them aren't even aware that societies and cultures around the world aren't "all the same" through time and space, and what applies in the modern West, doesn't necessarily apply elsewhere in the world, nor did it necessarily apply in earlier times. Cultures change and adapt.  But that isn't part of the "romance" world view, I guess, unless the writer is unusually sensitive.


Finally, if this sounds like I'm criticizing the romance genre, I'm not, really.  Basically,what appalls me is not the genre itself, although some romance novels are pretty silly, but the apparently limited world view of some "romance consumers".  It seems that these people can't get it through their heads that change happens, and that things like cleanliness standards and marriage rules change over time, too.  Which is ironic, because, in a way, romances are about change, especially if the writer has the heroine taking charge of her life in some way. But then, I'm not really qualified to comment further, as I'm not writing romance novels.  So I guess I'll shut up about this.  For now, at least.

Anne G

Friday, May 8, 2009

Getting ideas -- maybe

I've started taking a yoga class.  Well, I haven't really started, exactly, since I've been doing this for several months.  And I'm getting better at it. Actually, I've been taking yoga classes off and on for around a year.  I like them.  And I like yoga, though some of the poses are, well, kinda difficult.  And I really like the instructor, a woman I'll call Beth.  She's about my age, I think, and very encouraging, a generally nice person, who makes me want to get better at yoga.  And that started me wondering.  I know a little about her.  She teaches yoga classes at several different YMCA locations around town.  One of them is the one I started out on, in a different place than I am now, at 7:30 in the morning.  That was too early for me, which was one of the reasons I ended up at another YMCA at a more reasonable hour -- for me, at least.  And Beth teaches yoga there, too.  She also is a Pilates instructor, and I hope to try that out one of these days(I would have tried it earlier, but she's been doing a training class). 


And that, basically, is all I know about her.  We all have people like that in our lives -- people we see regularly, but only under certain circumstances,e.g. your doctor, your fellow workers, people you see in classes of various kinds.  You might or might not become friends with some of them; instructors, doctors, dentists, etc., are probably going to be a different matter.  Even if two people work at the same place, one of them may be married with kids, and the other a single with none, with their own friends. 


What I'm getting at here has to do with a writer's imagination.  What is the rest of Beth's life like?  Surely it isn't all yoga instruction.  I also know she is a true fan of our local baseball team, the Seattle Mariners.  But suppose I wanted to write something about a character like her.  What would I have to go on?  Her appearance, certainly, and her love of Mariners baseball could be a "quirk" I could use to develop something about her.  But here's where the writer's imagination comes in.  If you only know that much about someone -- and I would definitely not make a character like Beth "exactly" like her -- you have to use your imagination to fill in the rest. That's not always as easy as it sounds, but on the other hand, if you start with some character based on somebody you meet, perhaps occasionally, perhaps more often than that, you have the basic tools to start constructing a character.  How you fill in those blanks, and the methods you use to fill them in, are going to  be very much up to you, the individual writer.  That is part of the creation process. 


Here's another example:  In my Invaders trilogy, I have a character called Elfgiva.  She's not a "major" character, though her activities play a considerable part in influencing the lives of some of the major characters in the story.  She's not particularly "sympathetic", but she's not the villain, either.  And she isn't like anybody I know well.  In appearance, she's a combination of two people I met in work situations.  Both were blonde, blue eyed women, but they couldn't have been more opposite.  One was a woman of average height, but definitely on the plump side, and she had very pale hair and a complexion and general appearance that reminded me rather strongly of Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Dough Boy.  I neither liked nor disliked her.  The other woman was also blonde, but more brownish blonde, and her hair was dull and straggly.  She was very thin, and had red-rimmed eyes, and didn't look well at all.  I was rather put off by her.  For the Elfgiva character, I combined the physical attributes of both to create an "ideal-looking" person who has some definite flaws, which, incidentally, runs counter to notions common in the Middle Ages, that conventionally good-looking people must somehow have good characters, just as people who were not so good looking were supposed to have "bad" characters.  I did this to underscore the fact that though she's not a "villain", she's not really likeable, either, though she looks quite ethereal.  Writers do this sort of thing all the time.


The point of all this is, a writer, or any other creative person, should let their imagination flow freely all the time.  Many writers have notebooks that they carry around with them.  I don't; I'm basically not that organized, and besides, I'm not writing the kind of novel where you have to pay a lot of attention to the details "around you"(that's more the "literary fiction" type, I think).  But that's another story. I do have an imagination, it works, and I use it.  Otherwise, I wouldn't be he here writing this blog entry.

Anne G

Friday, May 1, 2009


There's been a recent discussion going on at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list,which I frequent.  For anyone interested,it's at the Historical Novel Society e-mail list  The discussion started out with an observation that the famous archbishop Thomas Becket was found to be wearing a hair shirt and crawling with lice when he was murdered.  There was a general reaction of "eeeewwww", at least until someone knowledgeable about the period explained that some ecclesiastics of that period found it perfectly acceptable to engage in "self-mortification" ,the better, it was thought, to sanctify themselves.  Not everyone did this.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Most people, contrary to one of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages, at least attempted to keep themselves somewhat clean, even if this consisted mostly of washing their hands and faces with some regularity.  Alexander of Neckham noted, at about the same period, that there were a lot of bath houses in London, which should tell the astute investigator something about how people felt about these things. 


However, the following day, I came across another discussion, on the site of a romance reader's, and author's site that I have frequented from time to time. It was part of a  blog post called Where Have All the Medievals Gone?  The! blog itself was unexceptional; apparently a lot of publishers just didn't think "medieval romances" sold very well-- at least in the US. What flabbergasted me was the responses to the post. A lot of the responders -- romance readers every one -- apparently couldn't get past the idea that people in the Middle Ages "never or rarely bathed"!  They all admitted that they had "cleanliness" issues, but romances, after all, are basically a kind of fantasy, and the readers regularly suspend disbelief as they read them.  So why can't they suspend disbelief here? 


Well, for one thing, this "cleanliness fetish" seems to be a peculiarly American attitude, e.g., "cleanliness is next to Godliness", and probably goes back to (some of our) Puritan ancestors.  Now there's nothing wrong with keeping oneself reasonably well-groomed and cleaned up.  This is one reason why, I suspect, that Alexander Neckham, who was more or less contemporary with Thomas Becket, wrote that there were a lot of bath houses in the London of his day.  It's also obvious that the readers who have "eeewwww" reactions to "medieval romances", simply don't know this. And, to be absolutely fair,I should note two things:  first, many of the responders also said that they liked medieval-themed romances, and many of them listed books, like Anya Seton's classic Katherine which, while not strictly romances, are certainly medieval-themed. Second,to be fair, I don't bother with "medieval themed" romances any more, either.  Why?  Because the authors of these romances(as well as many authors of historical romances set in other periods),simply do not pay any attention to the actual way people of whatever time period they're writing about, actually acted and thought.  One dead giveaway, in my opinion, is the use of "out of period" names, usually the kind that would be found in some contemporary "baby name" book or the like, especially for the female characters.  Thus, too many of these fictional "medieval" heroines have names like "Tamora" or "Candace",which don't fit the period.  And while the men have "masculine sounding" names, they're not medieval by any stretch of the imagination.  Just this past Monday, I picked up a paperback whose title and author I can't remember,whose hero character had the given name "Wulfson".  This was supposed to be taking place in Anglo-Saxon times, and you'd better believe that no English male of that time and place would have had the given name Wulfson! He might be referred  to as something like Edmund Wulfson, if his father happened to be named Wulf(except that's not how men in those times were named), but a given name??  Ugh.  As far as I'm concerned, if the names are "out of period" just about everything else will be wrong, too. And I won't waste my money on anything like that.  But that's another story.


To get back to the subject, it seems to me that this peculiarly American attitude is partly predicated on the idea that things that aren't somehow "American-related" just aren't very important, interesting, or worthy of notice. It's not just that the readers who won't read "medieval-themed" romances are projecting their own quite modern -- and culture-specific attitudes onto a period they probably know about only through the medium of Hollywood -- but it extends much farther:  few of these "medieval" romances get published, because they are too far out of the "range" of many readers'  ability to conceive.  Romance readers, on the whole, tend to like the familiar and the predictable,and while people from the Middle Ages are recognizable in their quirks, their "context" often is not.  And romance readers(as a whole), don't like "alien".  There does seem to be an exception made for "paranormal" romances in which vampires, werewolves, witches,etc. appear in modern contexts, but the reader knows this is fantasy, yet the setting and the "mores" are probably reasonably familiar(you don't have to try to understand "alien" mindsets, among other things).  A lot of this distaste for medieval-themed romance also seems to stem from what I call a "Hollywoodized" version of medieval times that a lot of people seem to have in their heads. While I, personally, enjoy the "larger than life" quality inherent in certain historical personages of the time,  I don't have any illusions that they would have exactly thought, or had the same attitudes toward, a whole range of things.  Including the "cleanliness" idea. It seems, again via the knowledgeable author, that many people in that era made an effort to bathe and wash, because doing so was a sign of "good breeding".  And given the difficulty of getting together enough hot water to bathe with, it is easy to see why this kind of thinking existed, though there is evidence that even peasants tried to keep themselves as clean as they could, given their circumstances. But as some other posters in the Historical Novel Society list pointed out, part of these "insular" attitudes may be a function of faulty educational systems as well. Combined with the apparently "conventional" socialization,and "conventional" attitudes that many of these romance readers seem to have -- but again, I must emphasize, not all of them -- there seems to be little interest in exploring a world that is somewhat, but not completely "alien". 


Of course, I'm "prejudiced" here.  I was not brought up "conventionally", and for a female of my time, I had somewhat "unusual" tastes.  Practically from the "get-go" I liked science fiction, though I liked historical stuff, too.  Thanks to Anya Seton's Katherine, which I devoured as a teenager, I wanted, then and there, to write something set in medieval England.  And, also apparently unlike most romance readers, I haven't led a "conventional" life.  But that's another story.  The point is, I think, that to read anything "different", or perhaps anything at all,one must be "open"  to new vistas. And if some romance reader can't get past the fact that they didn't have hot and cold running water, and scented soaps, and toothpaste and dental floss, in the year 1150, then, in my opinion, they are not doing themselves any favor, in the romance, or any other genre.

Anne G