Lost Stories, Part 1

I’ve had a lot of ideas for stories over the years, going back to my childhood when I first started thinking about becoming a writer. Most of those ideas never progressed to a completed story, and usually there was a good reason why they didn’t. But there were also good reasons why I started the projects in the first place—good ideas, interesting characters, and clues as to how I was developing as a writer.

And so, I’d like to share some of these almost-stories with you, beginning here, with my first attempt at real fiction.

Little Shop of Horrors with Rats

I rewrote Little Shop of Horrors as if it occurred in a community of genetically engineered, intelligent rats. Why I did so is rather a long story, and I’m not going to get into that now, except to say that I had Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, an excellent children’s novel, in mind. That my characters were rats, not humans, was entirely incidental to the story, except that it gave me a convenient excuse to set the story in a culture I made up, instead of actual 1960’s America, which I knew virtually nothing about.

I was ten.

For those who haven’t seen it, Little Shop of Horrors is about the staff of a florist shop, inexplicably trying to do business in a very bad, very poor neighborhood, coping with the sudden appearance of a rapidly growing carnivorous plant that can speak, sing, and generally take advantage of the fallible humans around it. The movie is a musical, based on a musical play, which was in turn based on a non-musical, grade B horror movie.

The musical play is a work of genius, at once an important modern morality play and a silly wink at its own silly premise. The musical movie is a much simpler beast, essentially a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, but still fun to watch. For reasons unknown and probably unknowable, I was obsessed with that movie for a good couple of years and decided to write what I now know is properly called fan fiction.

My story had essentially the same plot as the movie, all the same main characters, and even the same musical structure—while I wrote new songs, each one corresponded to a song in the movie. I added a few extra scenes, removed some minor scenes, and removed the “Greek chorus” girl group entirely (it seemed superfluous to me at the time. Now I know better). I made very few deliberate changes, but quite a lot of accidental ones. In my version, there is no drug addiction, no domestic violence (the Dentist is merely a vaguely no-good boyfriend), no deep ethical questions, no sexual posturing, no ethnic stereotypes, and no complex emotional wounds. All of the above is in the movie, but it had gone right over my head.

I was ten.

The most interesting deliberate change that I made was to the character of Audrey, the female lead (the plant is named Audrey Two, and has a male persona). In all the official versions, she is a bimbo. She is also much more than a bimbo, and there are reasons why she acts the way she does, but her complexity also went right over my head. All I saw back then was “bimbo,” and I didn’t want to write about someone like that. My Audrey was a wholly original character—playfully feminine, with a touchingly unquenchable faith in her fantasies of a better future, but intelligent, practical, and self-possessed as well.

The one verse I remember from all the songs I wrote (the lyrics are written down somewhere, though the tunes are not) is hers, from my counterpart to the movie’s “Skid Row.”

I love tomato sandwiches, tomato stews

My favorite show’s the tomato news

But the tomato crop just brings blues

‘cause I’m living in a rat hole.

Living in a rat hole.

In other words, she can’t afford to buy the fresh tomatoes she loves because she’s living in animalistic squalor. And yes, she’s actually a rat, but she knows all the awful things people say about rats aren’t true—except in her case she’s worried that maybe they are. It’s a pretty complex line.

The most important change I made was actually accidental.

In the movie, Seymour, the male protagonist, ultimately kills the plant by electrocuting it with a handy broken wire. That is, he takes advantage of rather fantastic luck, but his is still a deliberate and determined act. He embodies the archetype of the dragon-killer, the hero. In my story, there is no electric wire—my setting precluded it for various reasons. So, I had Seymour kill the plant by accidentally setting a fire while trying to get away.

My Seymour is not therefor a hero. He’s just lucky. He came into possession of the plant in the first place through luck, and got rid of it the same way. He never actually commits a deliberate act that changes his fate, even though he tries to, and wants to.

At the time I wrote the story, I was largely interested in the plant. I can’t explain why. I had little respect for, or interest in the human characters, except as foils for the being I saw as the star of the show. But the story I conceived works as a story about humans (or hyperintelligent rats), and as such, it has a very different message than the movie it was based on.

As I said, the movie is a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk. A poor and not very intelligent boy comes into possession of a magical plant and thereby accesses all sorts of wonderful blessings, but also a terrible danger. He then kills the plant, severs his access to the magic, and lives happily ever after with what he has left. It’s a story of luck, but also of triumph.

But my Seymour never triumphs. He and Audrey live in a world moved by forces that are simply bigger than they are. They begin powerless and, as blessings and curses alike roll over them and change their lives radically, they remain powerless. And they find love and meaning anyway. In each other, they find a little oasis of caring in a world that fundamentally doesn’t care.

That’s pretty deep, for a ten-year-old.

I wrote about three quarters of my story, then put off writing the scene where Seymour and Audrey declare their love for each other. I was uncomfortable with that scene, and put it off, then put it off again, until finally I lost the momentum of the story and got interested in something else instead. Had I completed it, I think it would have been around 12,000 words, or about twenty typed pages. As I recall, it definitely had its childish elements, and of course it was heavily dependent on other people’s creative work, but it had its original components, too, and some of them had real promise.

I wish I’d finished it.

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Printing the Unprintable. Or Not.

“Go to the unprintable,” Agustin said. “And unprint thyself.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. The line exemplifies not one but two of the remarkable things Hemingway does with language in that novel.

The less obvious one is the use of thee and its related pronouns. Most people don’t know what these vintage grammatical features are for anymore—I’ve seen them used wrongly in print—but Hemingway clearly did know, and his use of them is the clearest hint of the most linguistically brilliant aspect of the book; he uses English to write in Spanish.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is set in Spain, among people who either do not know English at all, or who are bilingual and thinking mostly in Spanish. And yet the book was written for potentially monolingual English-speakers. Hemingway therefore wrote in English, but in such a way as to give a flavor of Spanish. He does it in the expected way, by salting the pages with a few Spanish words and phrases, and he does it in the brilliant way, by using English cognates of Spanish words and a slightly altered phrase structure to approximate the vocabulary and patterns of the other language. The result is an earthy elegance of speech English usually doesn’t have.

Thee, thou, thy, and thine are used by Hemingway to stand in for the Spanish informal singular pronouns. In Spanish, which set of pronouns you use signals the kind of relationship you have with the other person. You use the informal set when speaking to friends, children, or people of lower social status than yourself. You use the formal set in professional contexts, to speak to strangers, or to address people of higher status. It’s a distinction we English-speakers can no longer make–but we could until recently.

Thee, thou, and thy and thine were the informal, singular pronouns of English.

(The English and Spanish pronoun systems are not identical; Spanish has the formal/informal distinction in both singular and plural, except in Mexico, where the formal plural is missing, whereas English only had it in the singular)

The other reason I like the quote I opened with is, of course, the lovely ridiculousness of “unprint thyself.” We know what Agustin is really saying. I’m not going to print it, either, not today.

In 1940, when For Whom the Bell Tolls was originally published, the F-word and its variously four-lettered colleagues may literally have been unprintable. Certainly, rendering them literally on the page would have made the novel a very different book, for a very much smaller audience. How do you write about characters cursing when you are not free to use the words yourself?

Hemingway’s solution isn’t the only one available. You can simply pretend that people like your characters don’t curse, writing as if in a parallel and PG universe. Or, you can use narration to refer to what you can’t quote, as Robert Louis Stevenson did in Treasure Island. Rendered in such a style, our Hemingway quote becomes “Go away,” Agustin said, with a cheerfully filthy oath.

Hemingway actually uses Stevenson’s solution, too, in some places. In other passages he uses printable synonyms, such as befoul, besmirch, or muck, but by inserting words like unprintable or obscenity in their grammatically correct places (“Go and obscenity thyself”) he achieves something at once clear, elegant, and humorous.

Of course, were he writing today, Hemingway would have had no obvious reason not to simply print the unprintable. The book could have been filled with four-letter words of Saxon derivation standing in for the wealth of intricate crudeness that apparently exists in Spanish. Why not?

Except that the book would then have felt heavy and blunt to read. Those words are unpleasant–that is the whole point. When a curse word ceases to be unpleasant, it ceases to be a curse word and is replaced by something else. Granted, sometimes unpleasant words are useful, necessary, even, to capture the ugly unpleasantness of a character or a situation. Some stories should feel gritty and harsh.

But must they all?

For Whom the Bell Tolls is about a grandly tragic situation, a place and time where many people were trying very hard to do the right thing and yet did awful things, while awful things were done to them. It’s entirely understandable that these characters use foul language quite often.

And yet the story is often lovely, full of the scent of a pine forest, the dedication of the idealistic, and the clean silence of falling snow. That lyric loveliness sharpens the tragedy. Crudeness, crudely printed, would have dulled it, rendered it cynical and ugly.

There is an argument to be made for not cursing, even if we can.

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Let’s Write About Sex. Or Not

Last time I talked about Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel, a book whose dedication to scientifically accurate detail was very much an inspiration for my writing. But the elephant (or, if you prefer, the panicked pachyderm) in the room with that book is its sequels, which are full of sex.

Lurid, graphic sex, with much throbbing manhood. Kind of difficult, for a series one might otherwise recommend to older children.

A few months ago, I was discussing these books with my sister, who called them “smut” and said that the sex scenes dehumanize the characters. She may be right. In fact, as I’ve developed as a reader (and as a writer), I’ve come to dislike Auel’s sex scenes to the point that I actually skip them. I’d never thought about why before, but my sister is right–they do seem like an invasion of the characters’ privacy.

But do all literary depictions of sex dehumanize?

My sister might say yes, but I do not have the same negative reactions to most sex scenes in novels—and, on the few occasions I’ve read actual smut, pornographic writing intended primarily to titillate, I haven’t reacted negatively, either. I’m not sure that pornography itself is actually a good thing, but it doesn’t produce the odd sense of invasion.

On reflection, I believe that Auel’s sex writing fails because it is smut, and yet is embedded within a novel, thus forcing the same characters into two mutually exclusive literary styles–the strength of good fiction lies in the emotional realism of its characters, while the whole point of porn is often its lack of emotional realism. Christian Grey would be a horrible boyfriend in real life, but his fans enjoy pretending otherwise.

Jean M. Auel makes her characters deeply and humanly real, and then dehumanizes them by putting them in sex scenes where nobody needs to communicate or ever does anything awkward or wrong, and everybody always has Earth-shattering, simultaneous orgasms. And it’s painful to see characters I’ve come to care about being used in that way.

It is possible to write about sex in an emotionally realistic way that serves character development, theme advancement, and plot—that follows, in other words, the same rules that apply to all other kinds of scenes in good fiction writing. And just as all other scenes should be engaging and evocative, so should these.

Non-smut sex writing, in other words, should still be hot.

My book, To Give a Rose, does include sex scenes. I suppose they’re quite tame by general standards. Only in one scene is it even possible to tell what position the characters are using, but I’m not entirely comfortable writing about sex, so even admitting to the existence of this scene feels very risqué to me (and my mother has read that scene—Ack!). I wrote the scenes, despite feeling a little uncomfortable, because I wanted to use the portrayal of sex to say something about life outside of humanity.

As humans, we segregate different types of experience. Not only do we confine certain activities to certain designated circumstances, but to varying degrees we ignore the existence of these activities while we are in other circumstances. For example, not only would you not take a crap in the middle of the dining room, you wouldn’t even talk about feces at dinner (or, even if you would, you know it’s frowned upon). We divide our experience so thoroughly and so rigorously, that when a child or animal ignores the boundary it can seem almost miraculous, in a gross sort of way. Almost as if there is a physical law against, say, sex in the middle of a dirt road at noon.

To watch a pair of dogs flout that law is almost as odd as seeing them levitate.

My foot-ape characters lack this mental segregation, and in this way they are animals. For them, sex is an ordinary activity, no different from anything else they do. They do not hide it (unless they fear someone else might interfere), nor do they call attention to it. Each moment simply contains what it contains, and in that sense they experience life more directly than we do.

I wrote about their sex lives deliberately in order to evoke that directness—no decorous fading to black, no fascinated focus on throbbing detail, just a moment that happens to feel erotic to some of the people experiencing it.

My second book will have no sex at all, for the simple reason that the main characters (who are human) are not sexually active during the story. Or, at least the male protagonist is not—he’s monogamous, and his partner is elsewhere. The female protagonist might hook up with someone at some point, but if she does it’s irrelevant to the plot, so there’s no mention of it.

But I’m also working on a novella about that male protagonist and his wife. And they do have sex “on camera,” so to speak. Except that, in contrast to Rose, here I do “fade to black.” The scene proceeds only to the point where it is clear they are going to have sex—we see kissing, even some undressing, and at least once some naked cuddling afterwards, but the actual hanky-panky is out of view. Why?

At first I thought it was because I modeled this man on real people whose sex lives I don’t want to know about—but the same thing is true of two of the foot-apes who get sexy scenes in Rose. Using my sister’s comment as food for thought, I’ve realized that the real reason is that, were I to show these humans actually coupling, the result would be smut.

There was a reason for the sex in Rose. For the reader to watch Semana and Sevin copulate supports and furthers the themes and objectives of the book. Andy and Ale (her name is pronounced “Ally;” it’s short for Alejandra) bear no such burden because they are human and most readers already know how humans have sex, more or less. I include their initiation of sex in the novella because I want to establish that these people are flirty and passionate with each other despite their advanced age and their well-established marriage. I also wanted to show how sex can function in a marriage as a medium of communication and expression. None of that requires knowing what Andy’s favorite position is, or who puts whose body-parts where and when.

I’ve read books with sex scenes as graphic and intimate as Auel’s that didn’t seem disrespectful of the characters. But in every case I can think of, the sex served a purpose that would not be served as well by anything less. For example, in The Lightening Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie, there is a quite graphic scene between the protagonist, Laura, and her boyfriend. The way she communicates what she wants, how she responds to him, and how she feels and thinks during the sex act all show the reader something important about the relationship and about her. Had Magendie chosen to fade the scene to black after it became clear sex was immanent, we wouldn’t have seen any of that. The scene is uncomfortable to read, not because the characters are dehumanized, but because of their terrible and flawed humanity. Magendie was right to reveal them so. The sex scene works.

To take a sex scene further than what serves the story is bad craft for a writer, since a major part of the discipline of writing is to remove anything from a draft that does not actually serve a purpose. In this sense, sex writing is no different than any other kind of writing—unless the sex itself is the point of the piece. And then you have smut.


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Thoughts on Clan of the Cave Bear

Yesterday, I overheard two strangers talking in a parking lot.

“….there’s this group of Neanderthals, and they take in a young Cro-Magnon girl, and….”

And right away I knew what they were talking about. Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel. Half my adolescence was wrapped up in that book and its sequels.

It’s a good book for an adolescent, and because it’s fiction about an extinct group of hominids, my book, To Give a Rose, is inevitably compared to it—a comparison I find both flattering and a little irritating, given that the two books also have important differences. And I’ve been meaning to talk about my old friend—this book about Neanderthals—for a while.

Maybe that overheard conversation in the parking lot was my signal that it’s time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what genre Rose might belong to, what group of readers might like it, and where those readers might be. I hadn’t thought about any of that while I was writing, which is probably better from a creative perspective, but I find I need to switch gears, now, and figure these things out. Rose isn’t a genre book—it’s not sci-fi, romance, mystery, or anything like that, nor does it fit squarely into any of the more respectable literary categories, like historical fiction or women’s literature. It’s not quite normal (neither am I).

But, again, like me, it’s not altogether without kin.

There is a small but growing body of fiction rooted firmly in the life sciences. Some of it is speculative, as Rose is, while some is not. All of it might logically be called science fiction or science literature, except that both names have already been taken by quite different beasts. As far as I know, the group has no name, and I have been finding its members quite by accident.

In no particular order, here are those I am currently aware of:

There are debatable titles, too–2002: A Space Odyssey, for its introductory section on human evolution; A Wild Life, which is about sasquatches, among other things; My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away to live in the woods; or Kira, a Golden Eagle, which is simply about an eagle…the list goes on, and we could argue about which might be included and which not and why.

My point is that my book is not alone. If I have time and energy, I’ll post about each of the others, by way of tribute and by way of supporting my fellow authors.

But I’m starting with Clan of the Cave Bear.

After all that, it turns out that my review of Cave Bear has to be somewhat mixed. I’m ok with that, as the book’s reputation has already been made. I won’t hurt it any with some mild and respectful criticism.

The story starts with an orphaned girl of our own species who is adopted by a group of Neanderthals, he Clan, as they call themselves. They raise her, and the conflicts and commonality between her type of humanity and theirs drive the plot (which I won’t give away). The descriptions of their world are rich and detailed, as are the descriptions of the Clan way of life—tool-making, cooking, hunting, medicine, parts of the book read almost like a manual. It’s hard to accept that the author has never actually been to Ice Age Europe. That the book was researched in incredible depth cannot be doubted.

In one scene they use a particular plant, elecampane, to treat some of the symptoms of tuberculosis. I’ve used the same plant to treat myself for both bronchitis and pneumonia. It works.

Obviously, some of Auel’s vision is guesswork. There are no living Neanderthals left to consult, among other challenges. Some of Auel’s guesses are appealing but doubtful, but some seem startlingly prescient. She writes about the two types of human hybridizing. At one point a Clan member, who is a gifted psychic, comments that such hybrids are the Clan’s “only children,” meaning that they would survive after his people went extinct. That some modern humans are, in fact, hybrids was a radical and dubious idea when Clan of the Cave Bear was published, but genetic analysis has since proven it beyond doubt.

The Neanderthal fraction is never large, but it is largest in Southern Europeans. As an Italian-American myself, I am proud to say I am part Clan.

That Neanderthals were human, simply a different kind of human, is the most important part of Jean M. Auel’s vision. Even if the specifics of her guesses about how their minds worked are wrong, she is not wrong about their overall humanity—there is some debate, but many researchers have designated Neanderthals Homo sapiens neandertalis, while we are Homo sapiens sapiens. That is, we’re actually members of the same species, just different subspecies. Taxonomy aside, Neanderthals existed as a group for a lot longer than we have so far, and their brains were larger than ours are. While they left behind much simpler tools and very little art, the remains of their cultural sites suggest some kind of religion. They cared for their ill and disabled members and they buried their dead with ceremony—and with flowers.

The idea of the stupid, grunting cave man is wrong, based on incomplete and outdated evidence and on the assumption, now known to be incorrect, that since Neanderthals had more prominent jaws and lower foreheads than we do, that they must be the “missing link.” They’re not. We didn’t evolve from them, our peoples both evolved from a common ancestor. But the old idea is persistent. Jean M. Auel offers a different, more accurate vision.

She champions the idea that there is more than one way to be intelligent, more than one way to be human.

So, why did I say that my review can’t be all-glowing? It’s because, frankly, Jean M. Auel is better at creating worlds and characters than at writing about them. Great books get better with each subsequent reading—hers get worse.

On the first go-through, especially if you’re an adolescent, what jumps out is the fullness and complexity of the world, the believability and relatability of the characters. You can almost smell the Pleistocene. You put the book down for a moment and expect to see a woolly mammoth walk by. It’s the sort of book you want to go back to, read again so you can re-experience that world.

But when you do, especially if you’ve become a writer in the meantime, you start to notice problems.

The same phrases get recycled over and over, and some of those phrases are hokey—a mammoth hunt invariably features “panicked pachyderms,” for example. There are weird lapses in language, such as when an apprentice medicine woman refers to sex as “a man putting his organ in the place where babies come from.” This girl is being trained to treat tuberculosis, among other ailments, but doesn’t know a word for “vagina”? And characters don’t always react to events in believable ways, as when one is raped repeatedly for months on end and never develops any sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Eventually, these lapses and others start to get distracting.

Some of these problems aren’t as obvious in this first book in the series (in the sequels there are more opportunities for the panicking of pachyderms), but they do seem to be endemic to Auel’s writing style.

But where she’s good, in world-building and in making characters from a very different world three-dimensional and relatable, there’s no one better.

When people suggest that Rose is like Cave Bear, my reflexive response is generally NO. Australopithecus afarensis was a very different species, Pliocene Africa was a very different place, my themes are totally different and I, as an author, am fully capable of using the word vagina where appropriate.

But in creating a plausible and vivid vision of a vanished world (honestly, all that alliteration is accidental), I can only hope I did as well as Jean M. Auel. She set the bar. And it was her work I had in mind when I decided what I wanted to do.

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Using Excel to Write

I use Excel to write fiction.

I don’t mean that I write fiction in Excel–it’s a spreadsheet program–not a writing program. But I use it to keep track of the details in my various projects so I can maintain internal consistency and organize my notes.

The practice evolved with my novel, To Give a Rose.

That novel is about a community of australopithecines–apish creatures who lived in societies of a few dozen individuals. I call them “foot-apes” in my book. Early on, I realized that a community that small would have no strangers in it. My characters would all know each other intimately, and then meant I couldn’t have any undefined bit-characters. There might be characters who had very little “screen time,” as it were, and little bearing on the plot, but my main characters would know who they were–to be believable, I had to know them, too.

I was looking at developing a lot of characters.

The other problem I faced was that the demographics of a foot-ape community would be very different from anything I’m used to. We know from fossil evidence that the average life expectation of A. afarensis was just 23 years old. That doesn’t mean they died of old age at 23, it means most of them didn’t live to grow old. Based on both wild chimpanzee communities and human communities without access to modern medicine, we can be sure infant mortality was very high, and balanced by a high birth-rate. What would a community like that look like?

I needed some way of creating a realistic demographic profile for a community that would definitely not match my intuitive sense of normal.

I solved both problems by creating a graph, initially on paper, that listed every member of the community in five-year increments from its founding until its dissolution seventy-some years later. On the first line, I marked each founding member of the group–each individual was coded with a letter and either a masculine or feminine symbol, plus an age. On the next line I copied all the codes down, minus one who had died, advanced all the ages five years, and added several babies–the babies had the same letters as their mothers, plus a number indicating birth order. I repeated the process, adding babies and new immigrants and subtracting the dead and the emigrants, for fourteen lines.

I followed some simple rules, based on the life histories of chimpanzees and humans and on the fossil record of real foot-apes. For example, each year I’d give a new baby to 80% of the adult females who didn’t have nursing age children already. I’d also kill off 33% of those babies before their third birthday. Although I made a few adjustments in favor of the plot, for the most part the graph was governed by arithmetic–it was a very simple version, therefore, of the simulations run on computers.

From that point on, not only did I have a demographically realistic community, I also had a ready source of new characters. Although in the beginning the graph listed only numbers and letters and ages, any time I needed a new character, all I had to do was to grab a code off the graph and give it a name–the graph meant it would already have all its major milestones all worked out. Did the new character play with the main character as a child? Were they related? Did they have shared tragedies or triumphs? It was all on the graph already. Any new details I came up with could then be added to the graph for safe-keeping.

Over time, as the graph grew more complex, I upgraded it, first to a set of index cards and then to the database feature of Microsoft Office. Working on the computer made the whole thing easier to read, easier to organize, and easier to check for errors and inconsistencies.

I later made a second database for all the plants and animals that shared foot-ape habitat, according to my research. Since I had decided foot-apes use multiple habitat types, and would encounter different species in different areas of their home, it helped to be able to call up, with just a couple of mouse clicks, the animals and plants that would be in any given scene.

Eventually, I had to get a new computer and I discovered that the old database program is no more. Reluctantly, I switched to Excel, a spreadsheet program with most of the same functionality as the old database.

By that time I had finished the first draft of Rose and no longer needed its spreadsheets very often, but I had other projects that also required keeping track of vast amounts of detail.

For example, the School with No Name, a long-running serialized novel I post to a blog, is also set in a small, tight-knit community and also plays out over many years (although the characters are human). I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all the students in the community–again, I start by filling out the spreadsheet according to simple rules and then I create characters based on the simulation after the fact. In the case, the issue is less that everybody knows everybody (they don’t, except on a very superficial level) and more than I want to make sure the school community actually has the demographic characteristics the narrator says it does–how many people are in each major and that sort of thing. I can also use the Sort command to look at, say, everyone in the graduating class in a given year who belongs to the same dorm as the narrator. Then he can say “wow, half my dorm is graduating this year!” Or, whatever else.

I also have a spreadsheet listing course schedules and another one listing the careers of all the faculty and staff–if I want to see how old Charlie was when Joy was hired, I can simply look that up.

But spreadsheets can do something that databases and paper graphs cannot–they can do arithmetic for me. This feature has proven very important in my latest project, a book set in the aftermath of a global pandemic.

Again, I created a simulation, but this one charts not the development of a community but the progression of a pandemic over time–given simple rules about infection rates, mortality rates, and so forth, how long does it take for so many people to be either sick, dead, or caring for the ill that the social and economic infrastructure collapses?

Epidemiologists actually use simulations to study pandemics, but they don’t use Excel to do it–and they don’t use arithmetic. They use calculus. That level of modeling is far beyond my expertise and it’s probably beyond my laptop as well. But my simple version can hopefully give me at least some understanding of how the scenario I have constructed would play out. Using a simulation rather than my unaided imagination also allows me to discus my vision for the situation with others because I can share the spreadsheet in a way I cannot share the inside of my mind.

So, I’m at the point where all of my various fiction projects has at least one associated spreadsheet–and most have several. I use Excel far more often, and with far more success, than I do for any other kind of project. I don’t mean to advertise for Microsoft (whose products I use largely out of convenience), only to say that sometimes tools become unexpectedly important for tasks they were never designed for.

I’d say that, for writing, Excel is now my second-most important creative tool, right behind the program I actually write in.


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Finding Australopithecines: Then I Saw Her Face

What did members of the species Australopithecus afarensis (or, as I call them in my novel, foot-apes) look like? How did their bodies function and move?

The short answers to those questions are readily available online, and artists, such as the excellent Mauricio Anton and John Gurche, have produced wonderfully life-like depictions based on available evidence. But as a novelist I needed somewhat more and couldn’t always find it, either because nobody knows or because nobody had bothered to put the information where I could find it. After all, I ask unusual questions.

For example, what were foot-ape feet like? The pictures all give them feet like ours, but is that based on fossil evidence or not? I was unable to discover whether a reasonably complete foot of A. afarensis has ever actually been examined by human scientists. The individual known as the Dikika Baby does have feet, but at least at the time I was doing my research the feet were still embedded in the rock matrix in which she’d been found.

That foot-apes had humanlike feet would not be a bad guess, given that we know they were obligate bipeds, like us, from the shapes of their hips and knees and the angle at which their spines met their heads. There are also the footprints at Laetoli, which are generally attributed to A. afarensis, since that’s the only hominid we know was alive at the time, and those prints were made by feet like ours. But the very fact that scientists sound unsure about the attribution suggests they don’t have foot-ape feet to compare to the prints. And there could have been another australopithecine in the area we don’t know about yet.

I went with giving my characters human-like feet, but it bothers me that I don’t actually know.

Such questions arise, in part, because we really have very little material on most long-extinct species. Some are described only from a single partial skull or, in the case of the Denisovans, from DNA recovered from a single fragment of one finger. Australopithecus afarensis debuted with a comparative wealth of material–bits and pieces of 13 individuals (a few more have been found since)–but that still leaves a lot unclear.

For example, what is normal? Small sample sizes are vulnerable to random variation. If you only have a handful of examples of a species, there is a chance you could have a handful of weird individuals that aren’t representatives of their species.

Don Johanson and Tim White, who discovered A. afarensis, were initially confused by the size disparity among their finds and debated among themselves as to whether they had one new animal or two. Because the sizes formed a smooth continuum, rather than two distinct clumps, they settled on one species in which males were much bigger than females. Given the available evidence, that was a good guess, and you’ll notice I followed their lead for my book. But it’s important to notice that the evidence they had was thin.

For example, they couldn’t sex the skeletons. I have been unable to confirm whether there are skeletal differences between the australopithecine sexes besides size, but by Johanson’s account he didn’t know of any when they described the species. Possibly the bones were too fragmented, without enough copies of the same bone for meaningful comparison of shape. So we don’t actually know that foot-ape men were much bigger than foot-ape women. Maybe both sexes varied a lot in size? Maybe females were bigger? Maybe the sample really was two species mixed? We can only guess.

I don’t want this post to get too awful long, so I’ll just go through some of the other details I learned and guesses I made quickly.


Besides being bipedal, how did foot-apes move? We know their shoulder joints angled slightly upward and that their hands, though basically human in shape, had slightly curved fingers. The carpal tunnel, where tendons pass through the wrist, was very large. The proportions of their arms and legs were similar to ours (something not true of all australopithecine species), although their forearms were somewhat longer. Overall, they were very strong, rather like chimpanzees are–and chimpanzees can bicep-curl more than their own weight without apparent effort. The femoral neck, however, was much thinner, suggesting weaker hip joints. I’ve read some suggestion that their stride may have been less efficient. Their rib-cages were conical, with plenty of room for a large gut at the bottom (they ate their vegetables raw, something that requires more digestion), but I wonder whether there was as much room for lungs at the top. It’s possible they had less aerobic capacity.

All of this suggest to me a small but very strong humanoid, well able to handle objects, walk, and climb roughly the same way we do (lots of humans do climb trees!), but with some important differences. They were more comfortable hanging by the arms and had a much stronger, more secure grip. They didn’t often walk long distances–an able-bodied human in good shape generally gets bored of walking before getting tired, but that might not have been true of them. They were powerful sprinters (an anaerobic exercise–it’s possible to sprint while holding your breath) but not distance runners.


Artists tend to assume that australopithecines were hairy, the same way living apes are. Of course, we don’t know for sure. Obviously, our lineage lost its hair at some point, but when? We can actually put some boundaries on the timeline; presumably the last common ancestor between us and chimpanzees and bonobos was hairy, and genetic evidence suggests that split occurred between six and 13 million years ago. So, at the earliest, we could have lost our hair then.

We can use the same technique to estimate the time of divergence between the human body louse and its nearest relative, the gorilla body louse (no, that does not mean a human had sex with a gorilla and got crabs, though that’s possible. Another possibility is that a human hunter picked up lice from a gorilla corpse). Human body lice are not closely related to human head lice, presumably because when we lost our body hair our lice got marooned on our heads. Gorilla lice then moved into the empty niche of our pubic hair. So we lost our hair sometime before we got body lice. I don’t feel like looking up the number, but that was something like one or two million years ago. Meaning foot-apes could have been either hairy or not.

Narrowing it down further depends on knowing why are so nearly hairless, and much ink has been spilled on the subject. Ultimately, I find all of the popular explanations untenable, because they all depend on selective pressures that also operate on other species that are still hairy. So I developed my own.

My guess is that we lost most of our hair when we started using fire on a regular basis. After all, a hairy person seems more likely to catch on fire and therefore to be unwilling to risk approaching it. Perhaps a chance mutation produced hairlesses at exactly the right time among a small population willing to experiment–and using fire ended up offering a huge evolutionary advantage.

We don’t have proof of fire use until much later, but Richard Wrangham has argued that the use of fire for cooking triggered the divergence of our genus, Homo, from that of the australopithecines. By definition, we have small guts, small, weak jaws, and large brains, all exactly what you’d expect of an ape eating cooked food regularly and managing fire (a complex, dangerous task, after all!). Combining Wrangham’s logic and mine, we can say that foot-apes were definitely hairy because as soon as some of them stopped being hairy they stopped being foot-apes and became humans.

I have made two further guesses, largely for artistic reasons:

My foot-apes, as adults, have pubic hair that is darker than their body hair and adult men have a mane or crest of longer hair.

My thinking is that head hair, facial hair, and the hair of the groin and armpits all had to become genetically distinct before our general hairlessness happened, or the mutation would have made us bald all over. A contrasting color at the groin would be a useful visual marker of adulthood and might make either an open vulva or an erect penis easier to see–the sexual signal would have a nice frame, so to speak. Longer hair on the head and/or face could exaggerate the physical size of adult men, an advantage for several reasons. I am supposing that australopithecines as a group had males with either manes or beards or both, and that we descend from a species in which both sexes had manes but only males had beards. The foot-apes of the book simply show a different variation of that pattern and are not our immediate ancestor (a point being debated by scientists).


Humans differ from apes in several ways, including our genitals and breasts. Female apes are flat-chested except when nursing. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, have obvious genital swellings among sexually active females. Chimpanzee (and, I assume, bonobo) males have proportionately smaller penises than our males do, and their penises retract entirely into their bodies when not erect.

Again, guessing whether foot-apes resembled us or the pannids in these respects involves asking why–and largely guessing at answers.

My guess is that permanent breasts signal adulthood. Chimpanzees, like humans, sometimes engage in inter-community violence. Both species often treat young women differently than other victims, kidnapping them rather than killing them. It might therefore be very important to be able to identify yourself as a young woman–and not an adolescent boy–very quickly. Genitals alone won’t do it, they aren’t obvious enough and might be obscured by tall grass anyway. A chimpanzee can show a genital swelling, if has one at the time, but the last common ancestor didn’t likely swell–it’s hard to imagine how such a trait would be lost, given that any female who didn’t sport her species’ sexual signal would have a hard time attracting mates. Rather than evolving swollen vulvas on our own–a bad idea for a biped–our lineage developed swollen breasts as a way to clearly identify women in war.

From an evolutionary perspective, rape is not a fate worse than death.

As to male anatomy, again it likely comes down to signaling. The penis of a chimpanzee is usually hard to see anyway, because he’s a quadruped. If he wants to show off his penis–and sometimes he does–he can sit up or stand bipedally, but at such times he’ll have an erection. When he doesn’t have an erection, it doesn’t matter what his penis looks like because nobody is looking. So he keeps it safely tucked up inside his body.

A bipedal foot-ape, on the other hand, has his penis on display all the time. He doesn’t wear clothing, we can assume. Potential lovers can size him up, as can anyone else who thinks the size of his “equipment” says anything important about him as a man (as Donald Trump recently demonstrated, perceived genital size can bear on subjects that have nothing whatever to do with sexual prowess). He has to look good naked all the time. Therefore, a penis that is visible even when flaccid, and relatively large.


Artists tend to assume australopithecines had dark brown skin, hair, and eyes. That is a good guess. The skin and eyes would have to be dark for protection from the tropical sun, just as in African apes and humans today (pale-skinned chimpazees are children–their skin darkens with age, but only children are used in entertainment and advertizing). The other African apes are all dark-haired, as are most populations of humans, too. But orangutans are famously orange, so there’s nothing about being a tropical ape that precludes other colors. And there’s nothing about being either simian or human that precludes variety–some chimpanzees have brown or grey hair, rather than the typical black. Humans vary, too. Some monkey species are very variable.

A variety of colors is neither required nor precluded by the evidence–and it’s more interesting artistically. What I settled on was a variable species, usually with hair some shade of brown, but more rarely blonde. Occasional mutations result in some families being red, black, or grey. My foot-apes use a variety of habitats and depend on group defense for safety, so they didn’t depend on camouflage. There would be no strong selective pressure against the persistence of such odd coloring.

Making It Personal

All of this is vague, species-wide information. Let’s make it more personal by supposing a single individual, a woman–a woman with dark brown hair, a somewhat thin, oval face, light-brown, almost hazel eyes, and a flock of freckles sprinkled, ebony on sienna, across the flat bridge of her nose: Semana, my main character.


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What’s in a Name?

While a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet, when words are the only way you can show others your character, names can matter a lot. Who would read “Igglesworth and Juliet,” for example?

(Ok, I might, but you get the point)

With human characters, you have a number of standard considerations–you have to choose names that are plausible for the place and time of your setting (even though some writers ignore this rule), for example. But most of my characters in To Give a Rose are not human. That changes things.

When your characters are members of species that doesn’t use names (and aren’t pets named by their masters), you don’t have to worry about cultural and historical plausibility, of course–but everything else gets a lot harder.

The first question is whether to name your characters at all. If your protagonist is the only member of his or her species in the story, you can get away without a personal name. Just say “the bobcat,” or whatever. I have never actually encountered this in a novel, though, in part because it’s hard to imagine an interesting novel-length story about an animal that never has any interaction with its own kind. There won’t be any sex, for one thing.

Having decided to use names, you then have to choose or invent a naming convention that isn’t too distracting. The problem is that names are cultural indicators, so if you choose names that already exist, you’ll be implying that your characters belong to a culture that they obviously don’t and the paradox will bother some readers.

There are also issues with race, culture, and gender. For example, if you’re a white American and you give your characters names from your own culture, you’ll be implying that white American culture is the universal norm. On the other hand, deliberately using names from cultures other than yours for animals could be obviously problematic, too. Or, say you’re writing a story about a family of spotted hyenas. In this species, females are larger and much more aggressive than males, so does it really make sense to give them feminine-sounding names with connotations of daintiness? There’s a lot to think about.

The idea of inventing a naming convention that fits your characters’ species better has promise, but what does it mean to fit a species? One beta-reader for Rose tried very hard to get me to abandon the multi-syllabic names I’d chosen in favor of more primitive-sounding forms like Zag and Dag. In his view, phonetically complex names didn’t fit a primitive species. I disagreed, maintaining that a simple name is no better than a complex name for a species that doesn’t use names at all. It would be like describing Pennsylvania as “out West,” which is technically true if you live in New Jersey, but still misleading.

Though I did re-name a bit character Zag as a kind of tribute to my friend–I don’t know if he noticed.

For a name to fit means that its associations fit the character, but I ended up deciding that no set of names could have associations that fit australopithecines–that meant I had to invent new names. And yet, I’ve noticed that alien-sounding names are hard to remember. When I’ve read books whose characters are named too far outside the conventions I’m used to, I simply mix them up. So, I wanted names that followed the same phonetic rules as those of my own culture, yet were rigorously original.

Easier said than done.

Associations crept in by accident. One character actually bore the name “Steven” for a while, because I was simply trying variations on a phonetic theme (Starlin, Stavin, Staren?) and didn’t notice I’d re-invented an existing name. My editor caught the mistake and I fixed it. Then “Sevin,” the name of one of the main characters, turned out to also be the name of an aggricultural pesticide. There just aren’t enough utterly unique combinations of sounds.

Then there was the difficulty of coming up with a huge number of names, since for various reasons I had to name many more characters than actually appear in the story–well over a hundred.

Some names ended up growing out of the number-letter codes I used when I was creating the genealogies of the community, before I developed characters. Gethrie, for example, was originally the third child of the female coded “G.” G3 became Geethree, which became Gethrie–I later changed the birth order, making Gethrie actually fifth in his family, but I kept the name. Lemno, the male originally coded “L,” got his name from the alphabet sequence LMNO. Other names were variations on adjectives that fit the character, like the sassy Sassa or the sisterly Sistra, or unusual nicknames used by people I knew, such as Nathi and Jayd, or simply variations on phonetic themes, like Sassa’s sister, Sapha. Like Jane Goodall, I gave all characters in the same maternal line names that shared the same initial, with the obvious exception of Semana, who insisted on naming herself.

Curious patterns arose. For example, the vast majority of male characters ended up with names ending in “i” or “ie,” while the names of females never do–usually they end in consonants or in “a.” That’s slightly different from mainstream American human names, a divergence I never intended to make.

I do not claim that the system I invented is necessarily the best one I could have used, but it does work. If the book someday gets popular, perhaps these names will become familiar and grow their own new associations.

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