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Welcome to my Historical Fiction Blog

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Lennie at Palenque site, Chiapas, Mexico

As a lover of historical fiction, I started writing my own stories about 15 years ago.  Presently my focus is ancient Mayan culture.  My logo is a scribe depicted in a Maya codex as a rabbit; they also had monkey scribes.  As 13-Rabbit Scribe, “Ox Lahun Ub’aah,” my books tell stories of real and fictional ancient Mayans and relate information about their advanced civilization.  I’ve lived and traveled in Maya regions of southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala learning from indigenous teachers.  My blog will focus on ancient Maya sites (called ruins), archaeology and anthropology, current and past research, and their amazing culture.  I’ll post updates on my writings and other Maya related books/articles.  Research and writing about the ancient Maya are my main creative passions, though I have other interests including gardening, locavore eating, wine tasting, enjoying nature and of course my charming husband David and our two magnificent white cats.

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Guest Blogpost by Amanda Jayne

I’m delighted to host Amanda Jayne, intrepid author of Close Encounters of the Traveling Kind, stories of her near-death travel adventures in some of the world’s most exotic and unusual places. Jayne was inspired during her youth by a teacher, and always yearned for far-away places. She began these travels in the late teens-early twenties, and had much to learn about staying safe and well in foreign lands. In this humorous and gripping book, Jayne gives vivid descriptions of hair-raising escapades and provides wit and wisdom through “lessons learned” and”tips on how not to die” should other travelers be brave enough to follow her steps.

Below are Jayne’s thoughts about why she sought travel around the world and what traveling means to her. My review of her book follows. —Leonide Martin

Photo of Amanda Jayne

Amanda Jayne

 

I’ve been fascinated by other cultures and countries since I was young. I’m not sure what it is inside me that draws me to them but it’s some kind of magnetic power that pulls at me. I remember pouring over the atlas we had on the bookshelves in my home. It was bigger than I was at the time, at least that’s how I remember it. I would follow the lines and contours of the countries wondering what and who they held inside them. One Christmas I received a large book of mysterious places of the world. Inside were photos of places like Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines and Easter Island. I traveled the world in the pages of this book, from England to Australia, Peru, Mexico, China and beyond. I could feel the energy of each place as I pored over the pictures and read about the countries and I knew that one day I would travel and see them. At school, some of the kids laughed at my idea of traveling and told me I was going to be the first to marry, settle down with 2.4 kids and abandon my travel plans. “Anyway,” they said, “There’s no way you could do it, it’s too difficult.” Then I met Mrs. Joseph.

In my book I have written about Mrs. Joseph in the introduction. She was my English teacher, originally from Myanmar and had lived in several countries that seemed so exotic to me as a teenager. She taught me that travel was not only possible, but that experiencing other countries and cultures was an essential part of life. The stories she shared with me were of strange animals in India making impossible leaps across wide roads in the dead of night, or of her friend who was cursed by an Indian man and told he would die at 22 – and he did (“this was simply because he believed her, the man was not magic”, Mrs. Joseph would say, “your mind is strong, you can use it to help yourself or hurt yourself.”) She spoke casually of her countless miraculous escapes from death, mostly at the hands of cars that ran her over in different ways but also of other strange co-incidences in which her life was saved.

As I look back now, her strongest influence on me was her causing me to begin to see the world around me differently. She wasn’t sharing her strange stories for the drama or to provoke a reaction, she was genuinely concerned that I see that there was more to life than the school walls and learning facts. Mrs. Joseph was a strict teacher, not impressed by nonsense and prone to giving out detentions to those who used the words, nice and a lot in essays (“they are not real words; they don’t say anything to me. Use a word that means something!”). Outside the classroom though, she taught me there is more to life than meets the eye, that the things you need in life will turn up at the exact moment you need them (if they don’t, you didn’t need them) and that the magic and mystery is all around us, right here, in the natural world and in the way we can interact with it, if only we are willing to see. I say ‘she taught me’ but really she told me and encouraged me because these are things you can only learn from experience, and travel is one of the best ways to learn because it tends to put you in unusual places and situations that make you look more clearly and deeply into the world.

Armed with all I’d learned from my favourite teacher and all I’d dreamed of from my books (pre-Google days!) I started traveling. The first thing I noticed was that it is easier than it looks – like anything in life, the thoughts and fears about doing something are most often the toughest part. Once you commit and start, the way opens up for you. I didn’t intend for anything to be ‘adventurous’ travel, I simply wanted to see and explore the world. I’m not an adrenalin junkie and even refused to bungee jump when I was already in the queue at the famous bridge in New Zealand where it all began – I am afraid of heights, can’t swim and when I saw people returning with burst blood vessels in their eyes I felt ok with backing out. However, I am happy to take risks when there is an encounter I really want, a place I long to see or I know I will grow and learn from the experience.

Any travel outside of resorts and hotels is going to bring strange circumstances and adventure primarily because we are in an alien environment. I find that being in foreign cultures where I don’t have a clue what people are saying and I have no idea what is going on makes me feel alive. It stirs something within that wakes me up and causes me to look differently at the world and the people around me. I am more in the present moment during those times, I have the kind of wonder a child must feel when she sees a flower for the first time and is in awe of it. I love that, and I adore the feeling of expansion that comes over me when I am in the presence of a place or creation that has enormous energy.

Mostly, the experiences I write about in the book simply come from exploring places that were fascinating to me. I have worked in an orphanage and an English school in Bolivia, lived in Japan for five years and walked 1,200km alone around the 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku. In India I’ve been stalked by a man who shouted at me wherever I went for several days (“You are crap madam, crap!”) and given a bunch of grapes by a Sadhu (wandering holy man) when I had my pack stolen. It was his only possession in the world and his selfless compassion reached out to me as I cried over the loss of my backpack and helped me see clearly again. I’ve nearly come a cropper in Peru, Bolivia, Japan, Thailand, Nepal and South Africa. All of these experiences have taught me valuable lessons about who I am, how I want to be and how I can live more fully and peacefully in this wonderful world.

Now I understand that just living each day, no matter where you are, can be an adventure if you approach life with wonder and awe. It’s true I’m not being attacked by snakes in my bedroom in Kent or chased out of a makeshift drinking tavern by several angry tribesmen, but there is magic and adventure to be found in life wherever you are. And there are always more countries and cultures to explore… I’d better start packing. — Amanda Jayne

 

Close Encounters of the Traveling Kind  by Amanda Jayne

Review by Leonide Martin

Hair-raising travel adventures told with wit and brevity.

For those who love traveling, Close Encounters of the Traveling Kind will provide both uproarious amusement and cautionary tales. Inspired by a teacher, Jayne seeks out some of the world’s most exotic and unusual places for adventurous travels. She narrowly escapes death from altitude sickness on Mt. Fuji, getting lost in the Amazon, a vengeful snake in Thailand, freezing on the way to Machu Picchu, typhoid and salmonella in La Paz, and falling down a ravine bicycling the Death Road in Bolivia. From each near mishap, she culls wisdom and humor, leaving lessons learned for those daring enough to follow her steps.

Her mishaps in South Africa while taking local native buses to Lesotho to ride mountain ponies are downright terrifying. Only a naive 20-something would attempt such dangerous travel alone. A solo white woman in a sea of black faces during the upheaval following the fall of Apartheid, Jayne is nearly kidnapped, assaulted, and threatened with death. From these she learned to listen to her gut, mistrust local advice, take food and water, and watch for the “guardian angel,” a large native woman who took her under a wing to safety.

The last adventure proved to be truly numinous. Rafting the Bhote Kosi River in Nepal, Jayne is thrown from her raft into Class 5 rapids and sucked into a whirlpool. In the near-death experience, she entered a divine calm, her mind stilled and everything crystal clear. But the whirlpool released her to live for yet another adventure. Her lesson learned there perhaps sums up Jayne’s approach to travel close encounters: “Let go, life has got me.” Written with brevity, wit, and gripping description, any adventurous traveler will enjoy—though probably not emulate—these travel stories.

Machu Picchu photo

Machu Picchu

Amazon River photo

Amazon River

Enter this Giveaway for a chance to win a print copy (U.S. only) or ebook (worldwide) of Close Encounters of the Traveling Kind.

 

Teotihuacan – Empire of Enigma

Two pyramids at Teotihuacan,

Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan: Central Mexico Empire With Wide Influence into Maya Regions.

A huge city was built in the Basin of Mexico, not far northeast of modern Mexico City. It flourished in these highlands between 150 BCE-650 CE, and for much of that time it was the largest city in pre-Columbian Americas. Population at its height was estimated at 125,000, making it among the world’s top 10 cities at the time. The architecture and layout were unique. There were multi-family residential compounds, apartments of several stories, towering pyramids, streets laid out in a grid pattern, and a 1.3 mile-long central avenue bordered by splendid elite residences. Today Teotihuacan is the most visited archeological site in Mexico. Over 4 million people from around the world come each year. Visitors marvel at the immense Pyramid of the Sun, the elaborate Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), and the long straight avenue leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. They stroll into the past through chambers and patios of the partially reconstructed

Avenue of the Dead leading to Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan

Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, and ponder the vibrant murals and fine obsidian tools made by ancient artists and craftsmen. The site covers 32 square miles and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

 

 

Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, Teotihuacan

The original name of the city is unknown. The Aztecs who came nearly 1,000 years later named it the Nahuatl word Teotihuacan, “place where gods were born.” They believed the gods created the universe at that location. The Classic Maya wrote its name in hieroglyphic texts, calling it puh,”Place of Reeds.” Such places were considered the locus of creation, which took place in swampy, reedy, and watery locations. These creation locations are also referred to as Tollan or Tula. Rich soils from swamps supported agriculture, and early settlers constructed raised beds called chinampas.

Who Were the Teotihuacanos?

The advanced culture that created Teotihuacan did not leave any writings in the strict sense. They used signs or symbols; 229 have been cataloged but their meanings are mostly unknown.  Our understanding of their civilization comes from study of buildings and pottery, placed in context of what is known of regional settlements.

Photo of painted mural signs

Signs painted on mural at Teotihuacan

Map of major sites in central Mexico

Major Sites in Central Mexico

Around 500 BCE several urban centers arose in central Mexico. The most prominent was Cuicuilco, with a population of 20,000 located on the south shore of Lake Texcoco. A volcano called Xitle erupted around 400-200 BCE and covered this city in ashes, prompting mass emigration toward the north valley. Researchers think that other peoples joined this migration from 13 small regional villages. There was a huge eruption of the volcano Popocatepetl in 200-1 BCE, forcing survivors in the Amecameca-Chalco-Xochimilco regions to migrate. Maybe Teotihuacan leaders capitalized on the Volcano Gods’ sparing their area of the valley to entice more settlers. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacan date to around 200 BCE, and the Pyramid of the Sun was completed by 100 CE.

Teotihuacan expert George Cowgill reports that “the people who first built and occupied Teotihuacan were simply some of the people whose ancestors had already lived for millennia in Mesoamerica.” (Cowgill, Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico, 2015) He believes that asking who were the Teotihuacanos is a false issue; the better questions involve why and how the city and the state it ruled flourished so long, looking at its sociopolitical system, religion and ideology, environmental factors, and commercial enterprises. Teotihuacan built on the urban tradition already developed at Cuicuilco, stretching back to 500 BCE with Monte Alban in Oaxaca.

Teotihuacan Empire Lasted 800 Years

The city reached its zenith in 250-550 CE. Its population leveled off, the main structures were in place, and the city’s southern section filled in with about 2,300 residential compounds that housed people from all around its realm of influence. There were enclaves with foreign connections and craft specialists, including styles from highland Oaxaca, the Gulf Lowlands, the Maya area, and Michoacan to the west. There were distinct quarters occupied by Mixtec, Maya, Otomi, Zapotec, and Nahua people. The city’s influence continued to expand with growing political complexity. Early political institutions may have been collective, but the sheer scale of civic-ceremonial structures suggest talented and charismatic leaders responsible for the largest pyramids and increased human

Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan

sacrifice. They reached beyond the Basin of Mexico seeking resources, with outposts 124 miles to the west, and by 200 CE Teotihuacan had presences as far away as Pacific coastal Guatemala. Their tendrils reached far south to Maya preclassic sites such as Kaminaljuyu and Abak Takalik. Around 250 CE a burial in Altun Ha, Belize held 243 pieces of green obsidian from Teotihuacan’s mines in Pachuca. Altun Ha was a large-scale center for jade carving, obtained from mines in the Motugua Valley in southeastern Guatemala. Teotihuacan coveted jade and such elite trade goods underlay the empire’s expansion. This spurred greater incursion into Maya regions.

The Maya “Entrada.”

Just over 100 years later, in 378 CE, a group from Teotihuacan changed Maya history in the Peten region. A warlord named Siyaj K’ak (Fire is Born, Smoking Frog) led his warriors to overcome Maya cities of Uaxactun and El Peru. From there his warriors entered Tikal, a venerable city and major power, and the death of Tikal’s ruler Chak Tok Ich’aak  on that same day was recorded. The next ruler was Yax Nuun Ayin, the son of a Teotihuacan lord or ruler called Spearthrower Owl (translated in Mayan as Jatz’om Kuh). It is thought Yax Nuun Ayin married into the local Tikal dynasty, perhaps a royal woman named Une Balam who may have been the Tikal ruler’s daughter. (Janice Van Cleve, “Who Was Queen Une Balam?”) Tikal Stela 31 records these events; shortly afterwards Teotihuacan imagery and building styles such as talud-tablero architecture appeared in Tikal.

Less than 50 years later Teotihuacan influence spread south to Copan, Honduras. Yax K’uk Mo’ (First Quetzal Macaw) was a warrior who spent his early years near Tikal, according to strontium isotope analysis of his bones. He became the “first” ruler of Copan in 426 CE, although there must have been a local dynasty since the city had existed for years. He is portrayed in typical

Photo of Yax K'uk Mo figure

Yax K’uk Mo figure with Tlaloc goggle-eye mask

Teotihuacan battle dress wearing the “goggle-eye” mask typical for the god Tlaloc. He was buried in a rich grave inside Temple 16, and his image has first position in the carvings on Altar Q showing 16 rulers of Copan. His descendants attributed Teotihuacano heritage to their founding ruler. Yax K’uk Mo’ possibly accompanied Siyaj K’ak in the earlier invasion of Tikal as a youth, and continued to spread Teotihuacan’s reach to important jade sources in the Motagua River region. He installed a vassal who had traveled with him, named Tok Casper, at nearby Quirigua. Both these settlements lie on the river network leading from the Motagua Valley to the Caribbean Sea. This gave links for Teotihuacan to control the jade trade.

Photo of structures in talud-tablero style

Talud-tablero architecture at Teotihuacan

Variants of the Teotihuacan talud-tablero building style are found in Tikal, Kaminaljuyu, Copan, Becan, and Oxkintok, especially in the Peten Basin and central Guatemala highlands.

Reasons for Teotihuacan’s success appear to be built into their sociopolitical and religious systems. Some experts think they offered a new, attractive world view that blended religion and government in a unique way. The extensive urban planning and awe-inspiring monuments still observable today provide testimony to this well formed civic-spiritual ideal. The Teotihuacano fusion of extreme religious rituals that included human sacrifice, formalized social structure, and astute political organization formed a powerful matrix that controlled the lives of all who lived within it, and many in distant locales. How closely the ruling elite administered outposts is debated; more likely their agents influenced trade arrangements and local dynastic politics. Cultural diffusion led to adoption of Teotihuacan styles and traits to emulate the powerful empire.

 

Collapse of an Empire

The enigmatic leaders of Teotihuacan appear by the mid-500s to hold sway over much of Mesoamerica. They mainly accomplished this through political alliances and vassal rulers. By controlling trade networks, they kept the Teotihucano people well fed and living in comparative luxury in an advanced city with running water, sewers, brick homes, neighborhood communities, and multi-level residences. Public rituals with human sacrifice that played out before thousands of viewers maintained priesthood and elite power. Eventually the system did fail by 650 CE. As with collapse of other major civilizations, a number of factors were involved. Perhaps most insidious was internal competition between priests, elites, and leaders. Resources were siphoned off from central government, weakening the discipline and social control systems. A series of long droughts occurred around 535-536 CE, with evidence of famine and malnutrition. It is possible the eruption of the Ilopango volcano in El Salvador in 535 CE created climate changes. There was increased warfare and internal unrest. Popular rebellion led to burning elite dwellings and major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Sculptures inside palaces were shattered. Population declined to 20,000 and Teotihuacan’s power diminished. Many of the elite may have fled the city, going on to create new cultural centers to the south. Other nearby centers such as Cholula, Xochicalco, and Cacaxtla competed to fill the power void. This led to rise of the Totonac, Toltec, and later Aztec peoples.

Chart of timeline, Mesoamerican cultures

Timeline of Mesoamerican Cultures

 

In October 2018 I visited Teotihuacan for the first time–it was on my bucket list! I went with archeologist Edwin Barnhart on his Maya Exploration Center tour of Basin of Mexico sites. No better way to experience and learn about ancient Mesoamerican cultures. Visit Maya Exploration Center for more information. Dr. Barnhart also made a video lecture series for Great Courses on Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed.

Photo of author at Teotihuacan

Leonide Martin at Teotihuacan, October
2018

 

Resources

George Cowgill.  Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Edwin Barnhart.  Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed. The Great Courses, 2017.

Simon Martin & Nikolai Grube.  Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens. Thames & Hudson, 2000.

David Stuart.  “The Arrival of Strangers.” Teotihuacan and Tollan in Classic Maya History. PARI Online Publications, Newsletter #25, July 1998.

Janice Van Cleve.  “Who Was Queen Une Balam?” Research Paper published online, 2003.  http://www.mayas.doodlekit.com

Leonide Martin.  Facebook Page Photo Album, November 2018.  https://www.facebook.com/leonide.martin

 

 

 

The Devil is in the Detail

MayaShamanXC

Mayan Shaman or Brujo

“The Devil is in the Detail” implies that although something might look simple at first, there is a catch hidden in the details.

Often an idea seems wonderful, but turns out impossible to implement. We may be able to agree on generalities, but come to blows on specifics. A project may appear straightforward and easy, but takes more time and effort to carry out than we expected. “The Devil”—our difficulties and challenges—hides in the details.

This is the contemporary understanding of the idiom. But, it was not always interpreted this way. Use of the phrase goes back at least to the early 1800s when French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) said “Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.” By saying “The good God is in the detail” Flaubert was emphasizing that details were sacred and significant.

Photo of Gustave Flaubert, French Novelist

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French Novelist

Whatever one was doing, it should be done thoroughly and with full attention. Details are important.

The actual source of the idiom is unknown. It’s generally accepted that German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) used it, but almost certainly did not invent the phrase. It was a favorite of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) although his biographer could not be certain it originated with him. Some have attributed it to Michelangelo (1475-1564). Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations lists it as an anonymous saying.

Whether “The Devil” or “The Good God” is in the detail, we are led to conclude that details are very important, even possibly sacred. Writers of historical fiction know this all too well. Get the details or facts wrong, and you’ll never stop hearing about it from readers and critics. Put in too many details, in hopes of giving readers a rich and full experience of a culture and time period, and you’re criticized for unnecessary information that slows down the plot. Put in too few details, and readers complain they cannot get a good sense of the setting, culture, character, time period, geography, and so forth. The historical fiction author has then failed in the all-important task of “world-building.”

Books about well-known societies and cultures have fewer challenges in world-building. Most readers already know the Regency or Victorian era, the Tudor or Plantagenet dynasty, Renaissance Italy, medieval times, and popular ancient cultures such as Rome, Greece, or Egypt. Historical fiction authors writing about less known cultures have more need for thorough world-building. In particular, I have in mind ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Even indigenous groups in North America lived in worlds generally less understood by most readers. In these cases, putting in sufficient details is important.

Photo of three Egyptian pyramids

Great Pyramid Complex in Egypt

Photo of Mayan Three Temple Complex, Palenque, Mexico

Mayan Three Temple Complex in Palenque, Mexico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My HF novels are set in ancient Mayan civilization. There is a dearth of literature focused on this culture; even the Aztecs and Incas get more press. Because of this, my books include details of everyday life, technology, arts, and cosmology to provide a fuller picture of this advanced culture. I weave this information into the story with several writers’ caveats in mind: whenever possible “show rather than tell,” make expositional dialogue seem natural, make the details serve the plot or character development. Most importantly, keep it interesting.

Ah, there’s the rub. How much is enough and not too much? Reviewers have called my books “well-detailed,” “no light read,” full of detailed descriptions,” “complex world-building.” They also say the books “provide a realistic feel,” give “depth and meaning to overall events,” and make “the Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive.” But one review from a pricey and well-respected source felt there were just too many details. While the information was captivating, there was far too much for an enjoyable novel. Besides, they complained that readers really didn’t need to know about the “trapezoidal linear truss using high strength timber crossbeams” that made Lakam Ha’s architecture innovative.

Who would want to know? Anyone interested in ancient Mayan civilization.

One often pondered question is how the Mayas built their soaring pyramids of huge stones in a jungle environment

Photo of Maya Corbel Arch

Maya Corbel Arch

without metal tools. Ancient Lakam Ha (Palenque) is widely known as the most graceful and architecturally unique Mayan city. A good deal of literature examines how they built and what innovative technologies allowed Lakam Ha to create its harmonious structures. Mayas traditionally used a corbel arch technique to form ceilings of chambers and passageways. Not a true arch, this technique lacked support strength. At Lakam Ha, ceilings were higher and rooms wider than at other Mayan cities. The trapezoidal linear truss was the technology that made this possible.

Photo of Maya trapezoidal truss

Maya Trapezoidal Linear Truss

In any case, this is mentioned only once in a short passage of three paragraphs. The description is set in dialogue between ruler Pakal and his chief architect. To my thinking, it is such tidbits of detail that give readers a good sense of this remarkable culture’s immense creativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But perhaps I get carried away . . . in my most recent book about Mayan queens, publishing in October 2018, one major character is a brilliant astronomer and numerologist. Kan Bahlam II, who becomes ruler of Lakam Ha when Pakal dies, invented the 819-day calendar and a secret code language based on astronumerology called “Zuyua.” He conceived and had built The Cross Group, a three pyramid complex considered the ultimate statement of Palenque creation mythology. Panels in these pyramids are carved with hieroglyphs and figures that embed the secret codes and calendar, and weave them with Kan Bahlam’s personal history. It is pure creative genius.

Photo of stone carving of Kan Bahlam II, Temple XVII Tablet

Kan Bahlam II – Temple XVII Tablet

Drawing of Cross Group as reconstruction

Cross Group Panorama View
Artists Reconstruction

 

 

Therefore, I wanted to share this knowledge with readers. After sending the manuscript to my beta readers, however, their feedback made me realize that although captivating, this really was too much information. Several pages of explanations and examples of astronumerology were cut from the book. After all, it had taken me several years of study to understand it and I couldn’t expect readers to grasp it on first exposure.

Because the Devil is in the Detail.      

Photo of decorated skull

Dia de los Muertos Skull

 

 

BUY:  The Mayan Queens Series

The Prophetic Mayan Queen: K’inuuw Mat of Palenque

Book Cover The Prophetic Mayan Queen

Coming soon! Publication date October 2018 (paperback and ebook). Watch for pre-order page on Amazon or ask your local bookstore.

Speak the Speech

Hamlet-3

Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark says:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” (Act 3, Scene 2)

Language is a powerful expression of culture.

Writing systems, words, and phonetics convey meanings that reveal beliefs and cosmologic views of the people using them. The ancient Mayan language, with roots preceding Old English, is present as both oral and visible literature written on ceramic vessels, painted on murals and wall friezes, carved on stone monuments and wooden

Mayan hieroglyph carved on monument.

Mayan hieroglyph carved on monument.

lintels, and in the few books (codices) that survived burning by Spaniards. Over 2000 years of Mayan literature tells stories with two overlapping strands—one following events on the surface of the earth, the other following events in the sky or underworld. This reveals the inter-dimensional cosmology of the ancient Mayas, where worlds of people, Gods, ancestors, and demons intersect regularly.

Shakespeare’s language is far from modern English, but few would suggest paraphrasing his great works. The cadence, style, and choice of words create a period feel and bring readers into those places and times. Mayan language can also invoke their culture and environment, but is difficult to express in English. There could hardly be a more “foreign” type of writing and language to English-speakers.

Classic Mayan hieroglyphic writing.

In use for 2000 years beginning around 300 BC, Classic Mayan was a single “prestige” language, highly formalized throughout the Maya regions. Phonetic decipherments in the

Page from Dresden Codex with figures and hieroglyphs.

Page from Dresden Codex. Wikipedia.

late 1980s and 1990s showed it related to the Cholan subgroup of Mayan languages, with Ch’orti and its ancestral language Cholti the closest relatives. Maya hieroglyphs represent word signs (logograms) or syllables (syllabograms), combined into glyph blocks. Every part of the glyph block contains meaning, some markings signaling qualities of speech such as

glottalization, aspiration, or vowel length. Single blocks often contain multiple words, with considerable artistic license in visual design and format. There were multiple ways to express words, and repeated images for emphasis. Over 100 years were necessary for Western epigraphers to decipher Mayan writing, due to its complexity. About 80% of hieroglyphs can now be read, giving us direct entry into ancient Mayan literature.

The basic word order for Mayan clauses was verb-object-subject (VSO). English follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Many Mesoamerican languages follow VSO, along with Celtic, Afroasiatic, Austronesian, and Salishan languages.

Examples of these differences:

SVO     “She loves him.”          “Tutuum Yohl K’inich plants the stone.”

VSO     “Loves she him.”         “Plants the stone Tutuum Yohl K’inich.”

Language was infused with sacred itz, life essence, to the Mayas.

They valued poetic and courtly uses of language, believing the Gods were both honored and pleased when words were well spoken. This was especially important in the high culture of Maya courts, a central institution in their hierarchical society. Mayan poems typically used the device of couplets, the repeating of key words and phrases in consecutive lines, also called parallel verse. While many consider it heresy to paraphrase a finished English poem, the Mayas used paraphrase to construct poems in the first place. For them, this was a process taking place inside a language, viewing poetry itself as translation. It gives a lilting quality to Mayan language.

“Kajuljutik, kachupchutik, pa ri q’ekum, pa ri aq’ab’.”                                                           

“It shines, it shimmers, in the blackness, in the night.” – 2000 Years of Mayan Literature

 

Mah Kinah Ahau – Underworld Sun, Waterlily Jaguar

“So then they began their songs, their dances.

So then all of Xibalba arrived,

the spectators crowded the floor.

And they danced everything:

they danced the Weasel,

they danced the Poorwill,

they danced the Armadillo.” – Popol Vuh

Speak the Speech in Mayan

Speech scroll leaving mouth of ancient Mayan figure.

Speech scroll leaving mouth.

Writing historical fiction about Classic Period Mayas, I grappled with making the language reflect their unique, lyrical speech patterns. I wanted readers to immediately experience a different, courtly culture so I avoided use of contractions and created some flowery speeches for characters. From time to time, I constructed sentences following the VSO order but this didn’t always sit well with readers. An example from the first book in the series about Yohl Ik’nal drew criticism:  “Just because characters talk like Yoda doesn’t make them wise.”

“Concerned I am about your daughter,” the priestess said.

Actually, the ancient Mayas spoke this way centuries before Yoda came onto the Star Wars scene. To make Yoda wise and exotic, Lucas borrowed Mesoamerican sentence structure. But I relented and switched to SVO—“I am concerned about your daughter”—because it was the first sentence of dialogue in the book. Whenever it worked, however, I continued to have characters “Speak the speech” in their native pattern. The VSO speech pattern has persisted into contemporary times, at least among traditional Mayas. Hunbatz Men, Itzá Maya elder and daykeeper was my main teacher while I lived in Yucatan, Mexico. When he wanted to make a point and get our attention, he often used this passive voice phrase:

VSO:    “Now comes something important.”

SVO:    “Something important now comes.”

Mayan scribe writing in codex with reed brush. He has a conch shell in left hand, cut in half to hold paints.

Mayan scribe writing in codex with reed brush. He has a conch shell in left hand, cut in half to hold paints.

Ancient Mayas often used passive tense, which adds to the poetic quality of their narratives. The Popol Vuh, a 16th century book based on ancient sources, was written in alphabetic script using phonetic interpretation of K’iche’ Mayan. The beginning relates how the Gods first created the world:

“It takes a long performance and account

to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth

the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,   

measuring, fourfold staking,   

halving the cord, stretching the cord,    

in the sky, on the earth,   

the four sides, the four corners, as it is said  

by the Maker, Modeler,     

Mother, Father  

of life, of humankind.”                                                      – Popol Vuh,  Sam Colop version

 

Animals speaking on roll-out vase.

Animals speaking on roll-out vase.

Read culturally authentic Mayan stories in my novels about ancient Mayan queens.

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Mists of Palenque Series Four Great Mayan Queens

Resources

Dennis Tedlock.  2000 Years of Mayan Literature.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.

Sam Colop & Luis Enrique. Popol Wuj: Versión poética k’iche’. Cholsamaj, Guatemala City, 1999.

John Curl.  Inca, Maya & Aztec Poetry: Translations and Biographies of the Poets.  Bilingual Press, Arizona State University.

Wikipedia.  “Classic Maya language and Verb-subject-object.” Accessed 3/31/18.

Danny Law & David Stuart.  “Classic Mayan: An overview of language in ancient hieroglyphic script.”  In Judith Aissen, Nora England & Roberto Zavola Maldonado (eds). The Mayan Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. New York, 2017.

 

What’s In A Name?

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

In Shakespeare’s play about the eternal love story Romeo and Juliet she asks:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet was referring to their last names, for she was a Capulet and Romeo was a Montague, two feuding families of medieval Verona. As we know, things did not end well for the star-crossed lovers. It appears there is more to a name than Juliet imagined.

Names are important when writing historical fiction. They conjure personalities, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses, traits and inclinations. Can you imagine King Melvin of the Round Table instead of King Arthur? Mildred instead of Joan of Arc? Consider how much mystery would be lost if we mourned over the travails of Sam and Sally rather than Heloise and Abelard.

In historical fiction, names convey a sense of time and place. Names are part of creating the “imagined world” in which the story takes place. When the characters’ names are discordant with the period and culture, it creates a jarring dissonance for readers. How characters are named adds to mood and theme, as well as signaling qualities that shape their personalities.

That said, what if you’re writing about a culture and time that is far removed from the experience of most Western-educated people? How do names then figure into the construction of world and characters? Herein lies a difficulty for writers of ancient worlds fiction, set in cultures that are vastly different than those of historic Europe. Consider the complexity of names from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia, Polynesia, and my area:  the ancient Mayas of Mesoamerica.

Picture of hanging gardens of Babylon

Babylon in Mesopotamia

 

 

Picture of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque in Mesoamerica
National Geographic

Names in ancient languages vs names translated into English.

My approach to naming characters has been to use actual ancient Mayan names as phonetically spelled by researchers and epigraphers. Since conventions for these spellings have changed over the years, I had to choose which to use and selected those that seemed friendliest to English-speakers. Not all writers of ancient Mayan historical fiction do this; several use English translations of Mayan names, or a combination of translated and phonetically spelled names. I feel it’s important to use historic characters’ actual names phonetically spelled in Arabic letters. This preserves the cadence and qualities of ancient Mayan speech and helps create the feeling tone of their “imagined world.” To me, saying their names creates a vibration that resonates with their personality and attitudes. If I used English translations of their names, an essential quality would be lost, a sense of different place and culture that puts the reader into the aura of ancient Mayan civilization.

For example, these are the actual Mayan names of the four queens in my “Mists of Palenque” series, with the English translations. The Mayan names are pronounced using romance language vowel sounds: a = ah, e = eh, i = ee, o = oh, u = ooh.

Mayan name                           English translation

Yohl Ik’nal                               Her Heart/Center of North Wind

Sak K’uk                                   White Resplendent Quetzal

Tz’aakb’u Ahau                       Accumulator/Producer of Lords

K’inuuw Mat                           Sun-Possessed Cormorant

To me, a great deal is lost when these Mayan names are not used. I’ve read other books where the Maya characters have names such as Jeweled Skirt, Red Flint, Snake Jaguar, Tree Orchid, Iguana Wind, and Big Deer. These are easier for English-speakers to remember and pronounce, but lack cultural ambiance that sets mood and tone.

What’s In a Name is a Great Deal.

To disagree with Juliet, I believe names matter a lot in stories. My choice to use Mayan names for characters and places has led to bad reviews by some readers, who give low ratings with complaints that they couldn’t get past the difficult names. I wonder if they feel the same way about fiction set in ancient Egypt or Biblical times, with long and complex names but more familiar to

Picture of Toltec king on throne

Toltec City in Mesoamerica
Iztaccaltzin on Throne

European-based cultures. Moving beyond one’s comfort zone is essential to appreciate cultures that are very different from your own. Indigenous Mesoamerican cultures have some of the most complex names I’ve found, yet are rich in history and accomplishments. Recently I read a book about the pre-Aztec cultures around Lake Meztliapan, the Toltecs and Chichimecs. Many actual names were used—Ihuitimal, Eloxochitl, Topiltzin, Citlallotoc, Tlazolteotl—and I preferred these to translated names that were also used, such as Black Otter, Spear Fish, and Jade Flower.

 

One Concession to Difficult Names.

Of the four queens in my series, the third has the most difficult name:  Tz’aakb’u Ahau. This name does not roll easily off the tongue. To make reading (and writing) go more smoothly, I gave this queen the childhood name Lalak. There was no information about what her actual childhood name might have been, for she only appears in hieroglyphs after being granted her royal name. Since the love story between her and the ruler of Palenque is a dominant theme in the book, I found nice parallelism in the pairing of their names:  Lalak and Pakal—eternal Mayan lovers but with a happier ending than Romeo and Juliet.

 

Newly released print version–March 1, 2018!

The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque

The Mayan Red Queen

 

Join me for book release events:

March 8, 7-8 pm         Another Read Through in Portland, OR

March 23, 7-8 pm       The Book Bin in Salem, OR

April 7, 4-6 pm           Silverton Grange in Silverton, OR

Photo of Leonide Martin at El Mirador, Guatemala

Leonide Martin at El Mirador, Guatemala

An Author’s Appreciation

Leonide MartinIn the writing process, an author comes to realize that readers are an invaluable part. We may write due to internal compulsions, and our books are fulfillment of the creative process, but without people to read those books, something very critical is missing. As we move into 2018, I’m reminded of how blessed I am to have your support and friendship as readers.

 

 

 

In appreciation, I’m giving you a gift. This is a nonfiction booklet I wrote bringing together material about Mayan Queens and women rulers in several cities in Mexico and Guatemala.

Magnificent Mayan Queens:

Native women of Power and Vision, Maya Preclassic to Late Classic Periods.

Magnificent Mayan Queens_V2Booklet on Mayan Queens

 

Why do we read?

Storytelling has been part of  human society as long as anyone can remember. Before writing, primitive people gathered around a campfire to listen in rapt attention to the local storyteller weave tales of adventure or mystery. Now we sit down with a good book, e-reader, tablet, smart phone, even the TV or DVD for the same experience. Why is reading or listening to stories so compelling for humans? Psychologists who study the “Theory of Mind” say we’re always trying to guess what other people are thinking and feeling, even though we do this unconsciously. Why is this

Group of young people reading.

something people universally do? Because this helps us learn which people we can trust and which we cannot. It also provides basic foundations for social interaction; without this we would be in a quandary about how to respond to others.

Not much has changed in this quintessentially human trait in thousands of years, except the way we engage with stories. Researchers at the University of Liverpool found that social topics make up two thirds of people’s conversation through public media, regardless of age or gender. We continue to be fascinated by other people’s stories, one reason why gossip columns and celebrity cults stay popular.  There’s no doubt a voyeur element here, but researchers believe the key value underlying this is empathy. A University of North Carolina psychologist reported that people with high empathy characteristics more easily engage in stories. However, this characteristic varies greatly among people. Some are easily touched emotionally while others seem unaffected by even the saddest or most miraculous stories.

 

Empathy is “the ability to identify oneself mentally with a person or thing and so understand the other’s feelings or meaning.”  Native Americans described this ability as being able to walk in another person’s moccasins; the proverbial “walk a mile in my shoes.”An interesting research finding is that people who read more have an 83% chance of forming excellent relationships, while those who seldom read have only a 14% chance.  It seems that when you can see the world through another’s eyes, you have more ability to form good relationships. Research suggests that this drive to seek understanding about the experiences and perspectives of other people is deeply ingrained, perhaps even instinctive.

Woman reading from tablet.

Man reading book.

 

 

 

 

So keep on reading! 

Reading fiction is good for you. It opens a world onto other people and places, where you learn and have vicarious experiences. It goes beyond providing entertainment and diversion, and helps you develop social skills that enhance your relationships. Of course, I’ve got a few good books I can recommend:

Mists of Palenque Series
Four Great Mayan Queens

The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque

The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque

The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writing Process: Inspiration for The Mayan Red Queen Story

Writing Process

Leonide Martin engrossed in The Writing Process

Exploring The Writing Process With Leonide Martin.

In this new series of posts, I’ll be taking a look at The Writing Process. Whenever I’ve done an author interview, one question always asked is how I navigate the process of writing. Every author follows a personal writing process, so no single formula fits for all. There are common steps we all go through in conceptualizing, developing, planning, researching, writing routine, revising, editing, and publishing. This series will explore each step in the writing process, using my own experiences as examples.

The book I most recently completed is The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. This is the third book in the Mists of Palenque series Book Cover for The Mayan Red Queenabout four remarkable ancient Mayan women. Released in 2017 as an ebook, it’s now in the process of getting into print with publication date March 1, 2018. The Mayan Red Queen is the example through which I’ll dissect my journey through The Writing Process.

 

 

Inspiration for The Mayan Red Queen Story

My husband and I bought a house in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico in 2005 and lived there for five years. Our main purpose was for me to become immersed in Mayan culture and history to better write historical fiction about this great civilization. Yucatan was a perfect location, peppered with Maya ruins and infused with a vibrant modern Mayan culture. I had already written my first historical fiction about the Mayas before we moved to Mérida, and now had a new book in mind. The first book, Dreaming the Maya Fifth Sun: A Novel of Maya Wisdom and the 2012 Shift in Consciousness, is a story of two women separated by centuries yet connected by

Writing Processa web of history, whose destinies intertwine as the end of the Maya Calendar on December 21, 2012 approaches. Of course, the Mayas never predicted the calendar—much less the world—would end in 2012. For them, one great cycle rolled over into the next. This perspective is dramatized in the story.

While visiting Mexico during the years before we moved there, I’d been captivated by the ancient city Palenque located in southern Chiapas. I’d already done considerable research to write the first book, but was spurred to delve more deeply into the archeology and history of Palenque. Several famous archeological things happened there:  John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood wrote their Incidents of Travel books that became international best-sellers in the mid-1800s and put Palenque on the map.  Alberto Ruz Lhuillier excavated the tomb of famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal in 1952; it compares in riches to King Tut’s of Egypt. The series of Mesa Redondas conducted by Linda Schele and Merle Green Robertson during the 1970s brought together Mayanists from several disciplines; their combined skills deciphered the “king list” of Palenque rulers. Excavations by Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz and Fanny Lopez Jimenez uncovered the tomb of a royal woman in 1994, her skeleton permeated with red cinnabar; it was the first queen’s burial ever found among the ancient Mayas.

Enter The Red Queen

Here is where the inspiration for my next book about the Mayas began. As I stood in the narrow passageway and peered into the chamber holding her empty sarcophagus, I wondered who this woman was. Her bones had been removed to Mexico City in a museum for preservation and study. Her burial adornments were in the Palenque museum; a jadeite mask, jade diadem, jade and stone jewelry, ceramics, tools, symbols of status. The partially restored pyramid housing her tomb (Temple XIII) adjoined the huge burial monument for Pakal (Temple of the Inscriptions); this made researchers think there was a relationship. By pure luck, I was browsing through Dante Books in Mérida and came upon a book about her:  La Reina Roja by Adriana Malvido.  I’d never have found this book unless I was in Mexico; I’d never been able to read it unless I had continued studying Spanish while there.

Red Queen sarcophagus Temple XIII

Sarcophagus of The Red Queen, Temple XIII

Jadeite Burial Mast of the Red Queen

Jadeite Burial Mask of The Mayan Red Queen

 

 

 

Temples of Inscriptions, XIII, XII at Palenque

Temple of the Inscriptions, Temple XIII, Temple XII at Palenque

 

La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque was written in 2006 by a journalist from Mexico City, working in consultation with INAH, Mexico’s institute for preserving national culture and history. It read like a novel yet contained extensive factual information about the archeological excavation and historical background. I learned that the woman whose red bones were interred might be Pakal’s grandmother, mother, wife, or daughter-in-law. At that time, good techniques for analysis of teeth and bones were not available. It took over ten years for scientists to determine that the Red Queen’s skeleton and Pakal’s skeleton did not share DNA, and their teeth had different strontium isotope signatures. This eliminated his grandmother and mother; making his wife

Bust of K'inich Janaab Pakal, Palenque ruler

K’inich Janaab Pakal
Ruler of Palenque 615-683 CE
Portrait carved in limestone

most likely to receive such an honored and richly adorned burial.

Reading Malvido’s book, I learned about the other candidates for the burial and became fascinated by this lineage of royal women. Pakal’s grandmother Yohl Ik’nal was the first Mayan women to rule independently, causing a shift in dynastic succession. His mother assumed the throne after her brother was killed in Palenque’s worst defeat. She weathered opposition and chaos to keep the throne until her son Pakal came of age. His wife was from another city, lived many years in Palenque and bore him four sons. His daughter-in-law kept the dynasty going although she married his youngest son; the older sons had no surviving heirs.

 

The Nucleus of a Story Emerges

It was simply evident that I had to tell the stories of these four great Mayan queens. At first I conceptualized a single book in four parts, did lots more research and made an outline. While in Mérida I began writing about Yohl Ik’nal, but the writing process was difficult. Anyone who has lived the ex-pat life knows how many distractions abound. Eating out at fine restaurants was inexpensive;  there was abundant good wine; too many parties and musical performances; endless excursions to interesting sites around Yucatan; discussion groups and teas and local fiestas and carnivals. Serious writing had to wait until we returned to the States and then I discovered there was too much material for one book. The result: The Mists of Palenque series of four books, each dedicated to a queen.

Writing Process

Leonide Martin doing research in The Writing Process

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gift to you:

Sign up for my blog and receive PDF of my white paper “Why the World Didn’t End in 2012.”Pyramid at Chichen Itza 2012

Already signed up? Email me and request the white paper at lenniem07@yahoo.com

 

 

 

Resources

Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. Palenque Round Tables 1-8. (Mesas Redondas). 1973-1993.  http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/round_table.html

Precolumbian Art Research Institute. PARI Online Publication. The First Mesa Redonda of Palenque. 1973. http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/RT01/RT01_00.html

Adriana Malvido.  La Reina Roja: El secreto de los mayas en Palenque. Conaculta/INAH, Mexico City, Mexico, 2006.

John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Volume I.  With illustrations by Frederick Catherwood. Dover Pub., Inc., New York, 1969. Originally published in 1841 by Harper & Brothers, New York.

David Stuart & George Stuart.  Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2008.

Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz.  The Red Queen. Mesoweb Online Publications, 1994 excavations of Temple XIII, Palenque.  http://www.mesoweb.com/palenque/features/red_queen/text.html

Arnoldo Gonzalez Cruz.  La Reina Roja, una tumba real en Palenque, 2011. (Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

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