Writing Prehistoric Fiction with Bonnye Matthews

 

Glacier Bay Alaska

Glacier Bay Alaska

Today I’m happy to have Bonnye Matthews as my guest.  Bonnye is an award-winning author of prehistoric fiction concerning early man. Ki’ti’s Story, 75,000 BC received Alaska Professional Communicators’ first place for fiction,  and second place for fiction from the National Federation for Press Women in 2013.  Manak-na’s Story, 75000 BC also received Alaska Professional Communicators’ first place for fiction in 2014.  Bonnye lives in Alaska, and can be found at http://www.booksbybonnye.com, on Facebook and Twitter @Bonnye Matthews. She is also a member of the Goodreads group Prehistoric Fiction Writers and Readers Campfire.

What is the general premise of your books, Bonnye?
There are three: the first, people inhabited the Americas long before Clovis; the second, various attributes of the human

Bonnye Matthews

Bonnye Matthews

may have evolved, but human intelligence has remained at the same level, just applied to different environmental situations and growing upon the foundation each group has managed to build and keep; the third, since I carry 2.9% Neanderthal DNA and 4% Denisovan their “viable young” continue on in me. These humans don’t meet the definition for separate species because their mating produced viable young—so, then, are we not all the same species? I don’t see a we—they, I see an us.
Why are you interested in the time period of 50,000 BC to 75,000 BC?
Well, it’s not that specific time frame as much as it seemed a convenient starting place. I began with Mt. Toba’s eruption, and I wanted to show an interaction among Neanderthals, Cro-magnons, and Homo erectus. Denisovans enter in Book Two. I’m stretching it, but it’s remotely possible. Certainly, it can’t be disproved. There is, also, a lot of data on the area I chose for the first book (southern China). My first three books fall into the 50,000-75,000 BC timeframe, but currently

Ki'ti's Story

Ki’ti’s Story

I’m working at the 35,000 BC level. Some day I may go backwards in time from that, because I think it would be a fascinating exploration. Book Five, however, will be an Atlantic crossing in the 20,000+ BC timeframe.
My interest developed because of my reaction to a History professor’s telling me that “the powers that be” would disapprove of my comments regarding the Clovis Barrier. Did those powers research? Do they reason? What power do they have that they can force study into a narrow groove? Well, that did it. I decided to continue my research. I pursued it for five years. Eventually, I decided to write, but I wasn’t credentialed for non-fiction. It had been done by experts. I could, however, write novels and reach an entirely different set of readers. The “powers that be” have no power over a novelist. The niche at that time for a systematic series on the pre-Clovis peopling of the Americas was vacant. I dived in.
If you met a Neanderthal in your imagination today, what would you ask her?
I’d want to know: what her name is and what it means; what her greatest hope/fear is; living in her world, what’s the most important thing to know; what does she most enjoy/dislike in life; how does she survive life’s tough times; what’s the funniest thing she’s seen in life; how did they keep sinew flexible once they used it for sewing. That last one’s driving me crazy. I haven’t found anyone here who knows. I have visions of a grease strip along seams.
How did you research early humans?
I did a research paper in a history class. My pursuit was “Who Were the First Alaskans?” That should have led me to the

Manak-nas' Story

Manak-nas’ Story

first Americans, because people in the USA are taught that the first Alaskans are the first Americans. Well, my research quickly showed that to be highly doubtful. I kept going. I enjoy prehistoric fiction, because it’s fiction. In my research I kept running into fantasy that academics called fact. I got angry sometimes—well, maybe more frequently than sometimes. For example, Tim Flannery wrote a book called The Eternal Frontier. When I got to the part about Berelekh in northeastern Siberia, I pulled out a map. He says, “People settled on the shore of the Arctic Ocean at Berelekh.” Huh? Berelekh is more than 50 miles from the Arctic Ocean. How does he define shore? He says, “There they hunted mammoth; more than 7,000 bones from these great beasts have been found near their campsite.” I researched. I sought and found the material on the campsite. The bones are UPRIVER from the campsite. Prehistoric people are not going to foul their water supply! Flannery calls it a “kill site” assuming people did the killing. There is no consideration that the prehistoric people might have been gathering bone for tools and fires and ivory for art carving. Reading the translated Russian, the campsite and the flood kill were not concurrent in time. I threw the book across the room. In my opinion the book was trash. It was pretending that fiction was fact. People would buy it and believe it, and it was pure trash. That’s how I research.

Zamimolo's Story

Zamimolo’s Story

I also had a run in with the “ice-free corridor.” The ice-free corridor was not derived from evidence but rather from a conjecture of W. A. Johnson at the Geological Survey of Canada in 1933. The term “ice-free corridor” was coined by Ernst Antevs in 1935. Dr. Lionel E. Jackson, Jr. of the Geological Survey of Canada, along with Canadian archaeologists, searched carefully to establish the presence of the ice-free corridor in Canada in the 1990s. They went there. They concluded, after the application of science, that there had been no ice-free passage from 21,000 to 12,000 years before the present. With science out there, people today are still writing about the “ice-free corridor.” To turn fantasy to fact is frightening. What kind of academic foundation do we have when we do that?
Another example of how I research is first I do a subject search. That leads to journals. Eventually, I do a journal search by taking a journal, such as Quaternary International or The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, or The Journal of Human Genetics, or American Antiquity, and I read the contents page of the first issue. Then on to the next issue. Anything interesting, I’d read. (A couple of times I had to sit there with my French dictionary to get through an article in French.) If an article had any contribution, I’d add it to my Bibliography. You can see why my initial research took five years. Don’t get me wrong. I love to learn. I don’t like being a student, but I will pursue a subject until I’m satisfied I have gained what I can.

Bear with salmon

Bear with salmon

What are you working on next?
My current project is Tuksook’s Story, 35,000 BC. It’s the first time in my series that the People come to Alaska. I have fallen in love with this book. The People come to the Cook Inlet area of Alaska. When they arrived in Alaska, Cook Inlet didn’t exist. This book has a fully fleshed out Introduction. I didn’t start off writing Ki’ti’s Story, 75,000 BC knowing what it was to write a novel. With each book, I learn. One thing I hesitated to do in the first three books is to bring to life the spiritual part of the lives of the individual People. Oh, it’s there. They have Wisdom and they have their stories. The reader can sense it, but I didn’t feel comfortable making it part of the story. In doing that, I cut my People short. Tuksook’s Story, 35,000 BC fills out the picture. I have finally let them come into themselves. And, I’m finding it’s fun! Why it took me so long, I don’t know. Maybe lack of courage.
What do you like best about living in Alaska?
I moved to Alaska in 2005 after wanting to be here since 1974. I stood outside my new home and looked into the clear night sky. The northern lights formed a brilliant humming and crackling white ribbon and headed directly toward me. Right before me in the sky, the ribbon split into two parts and formed an ellipse around me overhead, returning to the single ribbon as it continued on its journey. It was like a hug from the lights. Another night when the lights were out, they formed what looked like vivid green netting across the entire visible sky. That green netting pulsated like a beating heart. I’m way more than a little spiritually open. In both experiences with the lights, I lived the moments spiritually. Incomparable!
Alaska brings out my spirit and makes it dance! I’ve flown over the Harding Icefield and seen glaciers float in the Pacific once spring unleashes them. Sometimes you can see them roll over. From the sight of a sleeping whale in Prince William

Iceberg in Alaska

Iceberg in Alaska

Sound to the humpback that surfaced beside my ferry just three feet lower than my feet (fantastic, but they really stink), to the braiding rivers that make me think of land being created, to Denali—the tallest mountain in the USA, to the wealth of information on the Native culture, to our famous earthquake, to the water tours available to tourists and residents, to the little squirrel that steals my insulation to stuff in the birdhouse, to walking on a couple of glaciers and rafting a river with 4-sized holes in it—all of it makes me feel more alive than in any other place on earth.
I love the cool summers with their crystal clarity and vivid color and adore the snow’s gently smoothing out sharp shapes to curves in black and white in winter. I love moose and bald eagles in my yard. I carry on conversations with ravens in my trees, even though we speak two different languages. They are birds like no other! The downside: a bear out on the point on my creek eating a salmon—that was pushing it. I’d rather not have to carry a gun just to walk the yard.

Thanks so much for being with us today, Bonnye!

 

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Author Gary McCarthy Revisits Mesa Verde Thunder

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

I’m pleased to welcome award-winning Western author Gary McCarthy to the blog today. Gary has written over 50 books about the American West, with over 3 million books in print. His work is available in trade paperbacks as well as ebooks. Learn more about him at http://www.canyoncountrybooks.com or Amazon.

Gary McCarthy

Gary McCarthy

  Your book Mesa Verde Thunder is set in the famous prehistoric cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado while most of your other novels are either westerns or classic historical novels. Why did you write MESA VERDE THUNDER, a prehistoric novel? I’ve often traveled over to the Four Corners area while visiting Lake Powell and the beautiful and rugged country all around there. I’ve been in Canyon de Chelly and have seen their ancient ruins as well as in many other national monuments. But of all these cliff dwellings and ancient ruins, none can compare to Mesa Verde National Park which is the largest archeological preserve in the United States with over 4,700 sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde Thunder

Mesa Verde Thunder

Who were those ancient peoples and what were they really like? Hunters and gatherers, sure, but if you look at the petroglyphs and pictographs in those deep canyons, you have to believe that they were also a very SPIRITUAL people. They were called the Anasazi which I believe loosely means “ancient enemies” by the Navajo. Today they are generally called “Ancestral Puebloans” which reflects their modern descendants, the Hopi and the Zuni. When I first witnessed Mesa Verde as a small boy, I was awestruck…not only by the cliff dwellings, but by a perfectly preserved body of one of the cliff dwellers. The small mummy rested in a glass coffin out in front of a government building and I couldn’t help but stare and wonder what that man or woman’s life had been like. Of course their lives were much shorter and harder than ours today, but were their hopes and dreams so very different? Even as a boy I thought not.

Before I began to think of a storyline for Mesa Verde Thunder, I revisited the national park many times and

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

talked to the park ranges, anthropologists and archaeologists. I asked endless questions of them….what do the writings in stone really tell us today? Why did the “ancient ones” come to Mesa Verde and why did they suddenly leave around 1300 AD? I found myself on fire with curiosity about these little known people. What did their names sound like and what or  who were their gods? Every people have a creation story…what was theirs? The experts differed on almost all their answers…but in the end they said that if I studied the Hopi and Zuni, their traditions and beliefs, I’d get a better understanding of those long ago cliff dwelling peoples. And so that is exactly what I did and out of it slowly begin to emerge a story, with the RAVEN CLAN and its many characters some of whom I liked and disliked with names like ECHATA, LI-TIA and STORYTELLER.

How did you come up with a plot for the novel when so little is actually known of the people? I wanted to tell not only the story of the “ancient ones” but also how Mesa Verde was discovered and then, sadly plundered. So I began to write TWO stories, one in recorded time beginning around 1888 that set up a clash between those early preservationists who fought to save the ruins for posterity and by careful excavation and study what those cliff dwellers were like…as opposed to those who were simply interested in profit. And this is a clash between opposites that continues to this very day not only in America, but all over the world. I enjoyed the more modern characters, but honestly not as much as the wonderful characters that I created who lived, loved and hunted, lusted and dreamed inside the deep, stony silence of Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde in Winter

Mesa Verde in Winter

And as for why did they arrive in Mesa Verde around 1AD and why did they leave around 1300 AD, what I heard most often was that these small, tough little suvivalists of the ancient Southwest behaved like all prehistoric peoples…they went where they had the best chance to survive. Where there was game, good soil to plant in, plenty of wood burn for warmth and protection and most certainly most important of all, where there was water. And so, that is why the Anasazi left Mesa Verde…because dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) shows without a doubt that the Southwest was gripped in a terrible drought.

Try if you will to imagine those peoples as year after year of drought drained their hope and their strength which also meant their ability to fight of wandering peoples who would surely kill and plunder a weaker clan or village. What I think happened is that, as the drought around the Southwest intensified over many decades, the Anasazi grew weaker while they had to work ever harder. Deer and other game would have left the area in search of grass and water. Nearby trees that had long provided fuel on the mesa tops would have been harvested making wood gathering ever more difficult year after desperate year. Less food and less fuel for the hard winters costing much more precious energy. And here is the great and most interesting

Climbing Ladders at Mesa Verde

Climbing Ladders at Mesa Verde

question…did they one day sit down with the starving remnants of their people and have a meeting and decide to leave Mesa Verde all together for protection against what they might face in unknown places? Or, as I think more likely, did families in small groups seeing their old and young starving and even their people in the prime of their lives growing increasingly weak…did they just quietly leave those magnificent stone dwellings and walk away into the unknown? Some would no doubt have been killed off by peoples stronger and more numerous than themselves, others would likely have been welcomed and integrated into new cultures. What fascinating stories they could tell us about their long ago exodus!

What is your latest novel? I just finished one set in the period 1972-1977; a big time difference from the

Elvis and Cowboy Charlie

Elvis and Cowboy Charlie

Anasazi but not so far in terms of physical distance. It’s called Elvis & Cowboy Charlie and I loved writing the novel because so many Elvis fans just wished Elvis had met a man like Cowboy Charlie and would have turned his life around. It was a “what if” novel and something I’ve wanted to write for years because I was a big fan. I sure can’t change history, but it’s fun to play with it as long as the reader knows the real story.

Why does the American West hold such a fascination for you? I grew up when cowboy westerns were popular and we watched great shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke and the great movies where silver screen heroes like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Gregory Peck brought the struggles of the West to life. I still love westerns, although they have fallen out of favor…but Russell Crowe and especially Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall have brought a new slant to the American West and with Dances with Wolves and other great movies, people have a chance to better understand what we did to Native Americans and how they still managed to remain strong and vital with their cultures and traditions intact.

With 50 books, you’re a master. Do you have any tips for beginning writers? I believe they should write what they love and not try to copy other writers and jump onto whatever is currently popular. I have always thought that it is the CHARACTERS that we create that are most important…not the plot or the setting. Create complex, deeply developed characters in your novels and it doesn’t matter if they are flying around in space…or sitting in a New York apartment or hunting deer with an atlatl as the Anasazi did long ago. Readers love great characters above all and they are the hardest thing for any writer to create. I wish I could tell you how to create them…but my only advice is just to love and hate and enjoy them and if you are true to your craft, the characters will magically just take on their own lives and even change your plots as their personalities become as real as our own.

Thanks, Gary. I appreciate you sharing with us on the blog.