Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Friday, May 21, 2010

Writing male, writing female

Since I started this blog, I've had some quite interesting conversations with a number of writers, about various aspects of writing. And I've discovered a number of interesting things. One is, that some writers will write only male or only female main characters. Here, I'm not talking about writers who write romances(largely by females and for female readers) or what I call "guy books"(almost exclusively male writers and a male audience). These are pretty much extremes. They're popular, but I don't necessarily think representative of any gnere.

What I'm talking about here has more to do with the way some writers think about conceiving stories and characters. I've mostly talked to writers of historical fiction, but the kind of preferences I'm talking about here exist in other genres, as well. I should mention that I think there is something of a natural bias toward writing about people of ones own biological sex. When I first started writing, I generally conceived my principal characters as female. I thought I "understood" them better. Somnetimes this bias works, if it happens to fit the story. For example, I have a book that I'll be working on whenever it is that I finish with my Invaders trilogy. It's not medieval, but it does describe the life of a fifteen year old girl in her own words. Hint: in a continuing effort to make Neandertals respectable, and kind of connect it with what I'm now writng, she's a Neandertal too, but only a few peopel know this, and to most of the world, they're just basically middle-class folk. It's kind of an adventure story set in the near future in a former Wester Washingto timber town(fictional, of course). In any case, I go into detail describing this, because having a female lead here fits the kind of story I tell.

In The Invaders, the situation is a bit different. Illg is the lead female character(she's the one that looks sort of like the Neanderlady that sits near the title of my blog). But two of the main characters, both rivals for her affections in various ways, and the story is partly driven by Illg's inability for a long time, at least, to make a choice between the two. This inability has consequences that ensue. So I had to flesh out the male characters in some ways. I needed to have them think at least somewhat like men, and think about their world and women more or less in the context of their time. I don't know if I have succeeded or not, but in order to draw characters, I had to open my mind to the way men often think. This wasn't as easy as it may sound, but I did it, and found it an interesting perspective top say the least. I also have a prequel in the worls, which centers around one of the secondary characters -- Mat Fartraveled. Needless to say, he's a Neandertal character too. Again, I have gone into some detail about this, because I've learned something, at least about myself. As a writer, it's a good idea, in my opinion -- whatever one's natural instincts -- to keep one's mind open and flexible.

However, not all writers agree. I find this particularly troubling when (some) women writers seem to continually write male characters, and, at least ion historical novels, find them more "interesting". Now I understand how some historical novelists might feel this way, because until quite recently, there were a lot of things women supposedly weren't "allowed" to do. Except that they often did them. In the Middle Ages, a lot of women ran businesses, particularly after their husbands died, and nobody thought this odd at all. They were sometimes very good at this, are records all over the place, particularly in England, about some of these women. Of course, women had to work their way around a lot of restrictions, but that, to me, could be one way a writer of historical fiction could make their female characters as "interesting" as those men.

But I am equally disturbed, in a way, with women writers who will "only" write female characters, whether real, historical people or not. In this case, it feels to me equally restrictive to "only" write about one sex/gender, on the basis that they "understand" their own sex/gender "better". I am disturbed by this personally, because it suggests a sort of rigidity which, to me, at least, is unbecoming to a writer. Writers work with imaginative twists and ideas, and that in itself should suggest more openness about "what it might be like" to be a man(or a woman(if you're a male writer) Even if you end up "getting it wrong", you have, at least, tried. And yes, I've "met" both kinds of writers.

It's true some male writers(and again, I'm not talking about the writers of the average "guy book"), can't seem to "write" women at all. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein comes to mind, but there are plenty of others. This, oddly enough, is less of a problem in science fiction today. Although a lot of sci-fi is still writtne by and for males, there are an increasing number of female science fiction writers, some of them quite good, and there are plenty of strong female characters om tjat genre.

Oddly enough, there is an overabundance of female characters in historical novels. This is partly driven by what publishers think their audience(apparently mainly female) will actually read. This is both good and bad. It's good, because the reader gets to know some pretty strong female characters, such as Elizabeth I. The bad news, that these writers all tend to write about the same female characters(like Elizabeth I). The other "bad news" is that some writers concentrate on male characters because they "prefer" them, thinking them more iinteresting in historical terms, but perhaps this is also a reaction to the overabundance of female historical characters.

This is my plea yere: I would like to see both interesting and strong male and female characters, in historical novels, and in any other genre as well. For historical novelists, perhaps part of the answer is to write less biographical fiction, and write about people, male and female(either one can be a lead character, depending on the situation), living in a historical time and being affected or somehow participating in the events of that time. This is what I see as lacking, and if some writers opened their minds a little more, perhaps they could become flexible enough to do this. I should also finally say that one of the reasons I like Ariana Franklin's and Jeri Westerson's books is, they have strong male and female leads, who also share in the events of their disparate times, and furthermore, the novels themselves seem to be reasonably accurate reflections of those times. I would like to see more of this kind of writing.
Anne G

Thank you!

I just want pass a great big Thank You on to all the people who have decided to become my followers. I really appreciate this, especially since I'm drawing from a number of different fields which don't appear related(except they are, in my book, in a way). In any case, I'm glad you're all here.

Again, thank you,
Anne G

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Yet another medieval-themed book review

Franklin, Ariana
A Murderous Procession
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2010, 337 pp.
ISBN 978-0-399-15628-1

When Ariana Franklin's first book in this series, Mistress of the Art of Death, first came out, many people criticized her heroine for somehow "not being of the period", which was the latter half of the 12th century. This, BTW, was roughly just before the Third Crusade started, but that's another story.Ms. Franklin, whose real name is Diana Norman, and who has written books -- all historical, under her own name, seems to me to be quite well-versed in the century and the people she's writing about. And her feisty heroine, who solves cases through "the art of death", namely what we would now call forensic science, remains delightfully feisty.

Many, though fortunately not all, authors who write in and of various periods we call "medieval" tend to shy away from having central characters who are women, unless they are writing romances. Usually, though, romances set in historical periods tend not to be long on accuracy, and sometimes this is glaringly obvious. Ariana Franklin is a welcome exception to this(though there are a couple of others I can think of. She is also, in my opinion, a happy exception to the trend for writing medieval mysteries with monk or nun detectives. To me, monastic life in the Middle Ages is at best, only mildly interesting. Perhaps this is my background, which didn't include much in the way of r"religious" training, but I don't know. In any case, I'm glad Adelia has an interesting, but believable background(n the context of her time)., and, almost as delightful to me, are her struggles to somehow carry out a place for herself that allows her reasonable independence, yet give her some security in life. In her other books, it is obvious she has made sacrifices, including marriage to a man she really cares about, but who ends up headed for a bishopric.It's obvious he cares for her, too, though he doesn't make a huge number of appearances.

Like all good detective heroes and heroines, Adelia is kind of an outsider. An orphan raised by a couple , one of whom is Jewish and the other Christian, and given an education unusual even in the rather liberal Sicily of her time, she gets caught up in the politics of a completely -- to her -- foreign country, thanks to the wishes and needs of the formidable King Henry II, and she keeps ending up working on mysteries for him. A Murderous Procession is no exception, as this story deals with Adelia's travails when ordered to accompany Henry's ten year old daughter Joanna, to marry the ruler of Sicily. From practically the moment she joins the "procession", murder and mayhem ensue in various forms, and she becomes increasingly aware that a murderous figure from her recent past may be involved in some way. Of course, like all good mysteries, there are plenty of hints along the way, and everything is more or less revealed at the end. I also like the way Ms. Franklin has (sort of) used both Arthurian themes(her last mystery was set in and around Glastonbury Abbey, where the monks there claimed to have dug up the bones of Arthur and Guinevere, and, along with the stories then circulating and very popular with everyone, , got the legends really rolling. She also hints a bit at Robin Hood as well; this comes out more in A Murderous Procession, but she never lets the legendary overwhelm her story. It is a mystery, first and foremost, and an engaging one at that.

Some readers and writers may disagree with my assessment. I myself was afraid that this third book in the series might be a letdown. Endless series often are. They just get stale after a while. Fortunately, I can say, after having read the book, that this has not happened with A Murderous Procession. For this reason, I continue to recommend her Adelia books, and look forward to the next one, whenever it comes out.
Anne G

Sunday, May 9, 2010

(Neander)life is imitating art!

Gentle readers:

I've been meaning to blog about tthe latest findings re Neandertals.  You see, according to Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, they have sequenced 60% of "the Neandertal genome".  This genome was extracted from three pieces of bone from Neandertals found at Vindija Cave, Slovenia. And it seems that many of us living today have a little bit of "Neandertal" in them.  People from sub-Saharan Africa don't seem to, but since people from sub-Saharan Africa seem to have been the population that gave birth and rise to "modern" humans, I can kind of see why this would be so, although, despite the barrier of the Sahara Desert, there was probably at least some interchange, at least later on in human evolutionary times.

ThePääbo people estimated that people outside of Africa carry about 1-4 per cent "Neandertal" genes, probably arising from fairly early gene exchanges between wandering "moderns" and wandering Neandertals, though this study is probably far from complete, and some people who have heard about it, think the "Neandertal" contribution may well have been higher. The John Hawks Weblog gives the Gentle Reader an excellent overview of the study, though it is rather long and scientifically detialed. There are also plenty of news stories about this, as the story had been all over the media over the last few days.

This is an exciting discovery in many ways, and kind of confirms some of the suspicions I had, when I first began gathering information for the book I was then writing, which was quite different from what I'm writing now, although I ended up with a bunch of spinoffs, some of which take place in "modern" times, from just this one point of entry, so to speak.

But this story takes place in medieval England, and there are three Neandertals in it: Illg, the heroine -- who looks not unlike the Neanderlady in my picture, though her hair is less messy, but it is very obviously red, just as, a few years ago, it turned out that Neandertals apparently had a version of the skin pigment gene MC1R, which can confer light hair and skin, and sometimes red hair and freckles. It isn't quite the same version of MC1R as exists in "modern" humans today, in certain parts of the world, but from a hair and skin color point of view, an average viewer wouldn't be likely to be able to tell the difference.

Curiously, or not so curiously, perhaps, neither Illg, nor her companions Ren of the Three Trees(her older cousin who is supposed to be her guardina), and Mat Fartraveled, a friend of Ren's(and there seem to have been a lot of Viking-era people called Fartraveled, which doesn't raise too many eyebrows among those people who encounter Mat, either. seem particularly "noticeable" to the medieval people they encounter, except for their "big" noses(though Illg, being female, has a somewhat "daintier" one), and in my sotry, all Neandertals have a certain sexual charisma which, if they choose to exercise it, can prove irresistable to some people, especially those with the requisite "Neandertal genes".

It just so happens that the hero, Hardwin, and the antihero, Ivo(who springs from a medieval family "from hell"), both have the requisite genes, which makes them unusually sensitive to conditions in their surroundings in various ways, though both of them are what I call "fighting men" and what later became known as "knights". But they both become attracted to Illg, and Illg is attracted to both of them, though from the beginning, she's more attracted to Hardwin. From this, spins a ver complicated tale, with a "cast of thousands", many of whom are real people.

The point here is, much of what I deduced from my early reading about Neandertals -- their behavior, probable genome, abilities, brain power, even their ability to speak -- have turned out to not be too far off what I learned and put together. It would make sense, for example, that Neandertals were probably light haired, light skinned, and light eyed, because they lived in cool, cloudy, Paleolithic Eurasia, for the most part, though some lived in the Middle East and Israel. So, like modern Western Europeans, they would not have needed a lot of protection from the sun in order to survive.

They also seem to have had all of the prerequisites for ability to speak a language, incliding physical ones like a modern-looking hyoid bone(the bone that attaches the tongue to the muscles of the throat, certain "speech genes" which are identical to "ours" and so on. And in my books, they speak perfectly intelligibly.

It's also true that Neandertals differed (somewhat) anatomically speaking, but unless they had arthritis, and a fair number of them did, they could walk upright like we don, and used their environment in similar ways to "modern" humans, given what they had available to them. Their heads were somewhat differently shaped, having lower foreheads and a kind of "bun" or "bump" at the back of the head, which has led some people to believe that their brains must have developed differently, though there appears to be no evidence of this. But the people in medieval England don't "notice" this, either, as they are careful to blend in as much as they can.

Most importantly, since the people they meet, don't "know", other than to guess(sometimes), that they have some rather um, unusual abilities(which is part of what makes this science fiction rather than a kind of "alternative history"(they even know space travel, since they are on a kind of mission from a planet where their ancestors were taken before they apparently became completely extinct, in a solar system in a nearby part of the galaxy. they are accepted as perfectly human, thank you very much. This allows Illg and her hero, Hardwin, to fall in love, but for most of the story they are kept apart, partly by circumstance, and partly by Illg's dithering, because she's pretty young when she starts out, and also is somewhat impulsive when she sees wrongs that need, in her opinion, to be righted, and these get her into various kinds of difficulties.

Of course, there's a lot more to this story than what I've suggested here, but it is, in various ways, firmly based in the scientific findings I've outlined above. There are some pretty firm archaeological and human evolutionary references as well, for those who like the scientific, even in an obviously historical setting.

And for those who like the "historical", everything in this book is as factual as I can get it, where the facts exist(and in this particular period of time, there aren't all that many "facts" to go on). To fill in gaps of various kinds, I've had to make up certain things, but I've tried to be as careful as possible. And it's been very hared work, though I have enjoyed, and am still ejoying, every minute of it. Scientific research like I've been doing is exhilarating and often exhausting. So is the writing process.

Now that I've mentioned the names and relationships of the most important characters in my book, I'll probably be writing more about them(and others, as well), at least from time to time. I'll certainly be blogging a lot more about the latest Neandernews and what it all means,

Stay tuned,
Anne G

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How not to write a historical(or any other kind of) novel

From time to time, people who have written something they've had published, ask me to read it, and let me know what  I think.  I am generally willing to do this.  The experience is often pleasurable, and the writer not infrequently has a story worth telling.

On the other hand, I sometimes come across something that the author really wants people to read, but when I read it, I find that the person who did the writing simply hasn't done enough work.  And after reading the last one of this kind, I can see why Robert Sawyer is so "down" on self-published material.  What I read isn't science fiction, and just so as not to offend anybody who has self- published, I've read some self-published material that is actually quite decently written and edited.  

But too often, I think self publishing is just a way for an author to just get "something" into print.  This is the case with a book I've been reading off and on.  I won't name the author, or the historical period it's in, other than to say it takes place in medieval England, with historical characters being the principals. 

This author chose an interesting subject, but apparently started out to, uh, write a romance.  Except that, for the characters involved, the situation was probably anything but "romantic".  Still, s/he got kind of carried away, especially with what the author Elizabeth Chadwick calls "twisy-twasery" writing(I call  it "fake poetic")/ Others have called it "forsoothly" writing.  The people use a lot of 'tis, 'twas, "fake Biblical" or "fake Shakespeare" language, some of which isn't really appropriate, and in any case, does absolutely nothing to make the feel of the time and place any more "authentic".  Author should have stuck to plain modern English.

There is also a little matter of some of the historical characters acting in a way that they probably never would have done in real life --I can't give any details, since I'm not naming the author or the period --but no matter how one interprets the actions of a particular historical character, it is possible to see that some actions an author makes up, would simply have been "out of character" for that person, place, or circumstance. There are a few possible errors of fact, also. 

These could probably be forgiven, since any given reader will probably not know very much about the period they're reading about.  Even the "twisy-twasery" could be forgiven -- some readers of historical fiction actually like this.  But what can't be forgiven is the apparent lack of thorough editing.  There are numerous examples.  Conversations are not indented, as they should be.  The author didn't bother to indent conversations, either, which is, well, usual in most writing. There are also a good many apparent  spelling or typographical errors, and inconsistent spellings of some place names.  Which doesn't even even cover  some fairly basic grammatical errors, like being able to understand where you should use "I" and where you should use "me".

The author had an interesting premise, and a possible very good story there.  I really don't know whether s/he just thought it was finished, was in a hurry, and didn't realize s/he should have done another draft, just to smooth this kind of stuff out, or whether s/he just wanted to get it in front of the public so badly that they rushed it into print.

And I also hasten to say that I'm not totally against self-publishing, unlike RobertSawyer(but then, I've never seen ay self-published science fiction, good, bad, or indifferent).  But I do  think that if you're going to write a novel, of any kind, please, dear writer, give it your best shot.  Write and rewrite the thing polish and polish some more, till you get all the grammatical errors, historical errors(if it's a historical novel), "typesetting" issues, etc., out of the way, before you send it anywhere.  "Traditional" agents will immediately reject the book I have been reading, on just these grounds, and the poor author will get nowhere, despite whatever interesting idea they have.  If you've done your absolute best, had other "eyes" look it over, sent it around to publishers and agents who have rejected it for whatever reason, and then you do decide to self-publish, that's one thing. Sometimes that may be all  you, the author, can do. You owe your readers at least that much. If you do decide to go the self-published route, you owe your readers that much.  If you don't do this, however, you will just make the reputation of self-published work even worse than it is at present(which is still not very good). Readers don't need this.  It's hard enough to find good reading material of any kind, as it is.
Anne G