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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Palenque Goes International: Stephens & Catherwood

Catherwood Drawing of Palenque

Catherwood Drawing of Palenque

 

Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque

 

Incidents of Travel Vol-1_

The Travel Writers of Their Time

Thanks to the remarkable four-volume books Incidents of Travel, by John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, we are given much insight into the hardships of travel and the impact of this splendid and high civilization on these explorers.

 

John Lloyd Stephens

John Lloyd Stephens

John Lloyd Stephens is a masterful storyteller and Frederick Catherwood a fine artist.  Their first two-volume book, featuring Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, was published in 1841.  It became an instant success, with publisher Harper and Brothers in New York making 11

Frederick Catherwood

Frederick Catherwood

printings of 20,000 copies each in only three months.  I keep a copy with me to enjoy comparing their impressions with present-day Palenque.  Although his prose is typical for that period, it’s richly descriptive and amusing.  Stephens weaves details of their harrowing adventures, gives astute character profiles, evocative descriptions and levelheaded reasoning, spiced with wry humor.  Catherwood provides distinctive drawings and quality architectural designs with floor plans, elevations and outside views of Palenque’s major structures.  Thirty-one of his Palenque drawings were converted to engravings and published in the two Central American volumes.

You get a real sense of travel in the mid-1800s in the back-country of Mexico and Central America. 

Stephens and Catherwood came from Guatemala to Ocosingo and followed the same route Dupaix took thirty years earlier, an ancient Indian path over mountains giving “one of the grandest, wildest, and most sublime scenes I ever beheld.” They made the trip in five days to reduce nights in the wild during the rainy season.  Clambering along steep paths hovering over thousand-foot precipices, they mostly walked leading mules and occasionally risked being carried in a chair by an Indian using a tumpline across his forehead.  The chair-bearer’s heavy breathing,

Trek over mountains Catherwood carried in "silla" by Maya bearer

Trek over mountains
Catherwood carried in “silla” by Maya bearer

dripping sweat and trembling limbs failed to inspire confidence and made them feel guilty, so they used the chair very little.  The descent was even more terrible than the ascent, and the sun was sinking.  Dark clouds and thunder gave way to a violent rainstorm, men and mules slipping and sliding.  Stephens admits “. . . it was the worst mountain I ever encountered in that or any other country, and, under our apprehension of the storm, I will venture to say that no travelers ever descended in less time.”

Once on the plains below and camped for the night, they suffered an onslaught of “moschetoes as we had not before experienced.”  Even fire and cigars could not keep the vicious insects at bay.  After a sleepless and much-bitten night, Stephens went before daylight to the nearby shallow river “and stretched myself out on the gravelly bottom, where the water was barely deep enough to run over my body.  It was the first comfortable moment I had had.”

“Moschetoes” and rainstorms continued to plague the explorers after they arrived at the ruins of Palenque.  They no sooner got their wood frame beds and stone slab dining table set up, with a meal of chicken, beans, rice and cold tortillas prepared proudly by their mozo Juan, than a loud thunderclap

Catherwood Drawing Palenque Palace Interior

Catherwood Drawing
Palenque Palace Interior

heralded the afternoon storm.  Though located on the upper terrace of the palace and covered by a roof, the fierce wind blasted through open doors followed instantly by a deluge that soaked everything.  They moved to an inside corridor but still could not escape the rain, and slept with clothes and bedding thoroughly wet.

Rather, they tried to sleep but “suffered terribly from moschetoes, the noise and stings of which drove away sleep. In the middle of the night I took up my mat to escape from these murderers of rest.”  Finding a low damp passage near the foot of the palace tower, Stephens crawled inside and spread his mat as bats whizzed through the passage.  However, the bats drove away the mosquitoes, the damp passage was cooling and refreshing, and “with some twinging apprehensions of the snakes and reptiles, lizards and scorpions, which infest the ruins, I fell asleep.”

They solved the mosquito problem by bending sticks over their wood beds and sewing their sheets together, draping them over the sticks to form a mosquito net.  Not all insects were odious.  At night the darkness of the palace was lighted by huge fireflies of “extraordinary size and brilliance” that flew through corridors or clung to walls.  Called locuyos, they were half an inch long and had luminescent spots by their eyes and under their wings.  “Four of them together threw a brilliant light for several yards around” and one alone gave enough light to read a newspaper.

Exploring the Ruins

To explore the heavily forested ruins they hired a guide, the same man employed by Waldeck, Walker and Caddy.  It’s hard now to imagine how dense the jungle was then, trees growing on top of every structure and filling plazas.  Without the guide, they had no idea where other structures lay and “might have gone within a hundred feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them.”  The palace was most visible and could be seen from the northeast path leading to the ruins.  Stephens described its many rooms, stuccos, tablets, and ornaments while Catherwood rendered detailed floor plans and copied images.  Stephens hoped their work would give an idea of the “profusion of its ornaments, of their unique and striking character, and of their mournful effect, shrouded by trees.”  Perhaps readers could imagine the palace as it once was “perfect in its amplitude and rich decorations, and occupied by the strange people whose portraits and figures now adorn its walls.”

Catherwood Sketch of Palace

Catherwood Sketch of Palace

Catherwood Drawing Principle Court of Palace

Catherwood Drawing
Principle Court of Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the guide, there were five other buildings that Stephens numbered, but none could be seen from the palace.  The closest was Casa 1, a ruined pyramid that apparently had steps on all sides, now thrown down by trees that required them to “clamber over stones, aiding the feet by clinging to the branches.”  From descriptions and drawings, this structure is the Pyramid of the Inscriptions Bas-relief stuccos on the four piers of the upper temple were reasonably well preserved, depicting four standing figures holding infants.  The famous hieroglyphic tablets covering the interior wall were also in good condition.

Catherwood Sketch and Architectural Floor Plan Temple of Inscriptions

Catherwood Sketch and Architectural Floor Plan
Temple of Inscriptions

Casas 2, 3 and 5 are part of the Cross Group.  Stephens and Catherwood were deeply impressed by the stuccos and tablets that we now know belong to the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross.  The fantastic tablets from the first temple were incomplete and only the left tablet containing glyphs was in place.  The middle tablet with two figures facing a cross had been removed and carried down the side of the pyramid, but deposited near the stream bank below.  A villager intended to take it home, but was stopped by government orders forbidding further removal from the ruins.  The right tablet was broken and fragmented, but from remnants they saw it contained more glyphs.

The second temple contained another tablet in near-perfect condition.  It had a central panel with two figures facing a large mask over two crossed batons, flanked on each side by panels of glyphs.  The four piers of the temple’s entrance once contained sculptures; the outer two adorned with large medallions were still in place.  The other two panels had been removed by villagers and set into the wall of a house.  Copied earlier by Catherwood, these panels depicted two men facing each other.  One was richly dressed and regal, the other an old man in jaguar pelt smoking a pipe.  Later these famous sculptures were moved to the village church, and again later to the Palenque museum.

Temple of Foliated Cross L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Temple of Foliated Cross
L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Smoking Lord, Temple of the Cross L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Smoking Lord, Temple of the Cross – L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casa 4 was farthest away, southwest of the palace.  It sat on a pyramid 100 feet above the bank of the river with the front wall entirely collapsed.  The large stucco tablet inside showed the bottom half of a figure sitting on a double-headed jaguar throne, the lovely Beau Relief partially destroyed by Waldeck.  Stephens regretted this loss greatly (as do I) because it appeared to be “superior in execution to any other stucco relief in Palenque.”  This small structure is now called Temple of the Jaguar.

The Beau Relief drawn by Jean-Frederic Waldeck

The Beau Relief

 

This story is told in my post:

The Palenque Beau Relief: A Maya Beauty Vanishes.

 

 

 

Difficult Working Conditions

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1985 Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1895
Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Stephens complains that artists of former expeditions failed to reproduce the detailed glyphs in Casas 1 and 3, and omitted drawings of Casa 2 altogether.  He believes these artists were “incapable of the labour, and the steady, determined perseverance required for drawing such complicated, unintelligible, and anomalous characters.”  Catherwood used a camera lucida to project a light image of the glyphs and sculptures onto paper, and then drew the images to accurate scale and detail.  He divided his paper into squares for copying glyphs to give accurate placement, reducing these large images and hand correcting the later engravings himself.

One must admire these two men, working under terrible conditions with limited equipment, yet providing such a thorough account of the Palenque structures they saw.  They needed to scrape off green moss, dig out roots, clean away layers of dissolved limestone, use candles to light dark inner chambers, build scaffolds to access high places, and endure a plethora of climate and insect assaults.  They paid the price of multiple mosquito bites, for both men contracted malaria and suffered repeated episodes of illness.

They left us a few astute conclusions.  Stephens proved more insightful than later Mayanists by writing, “The hieroglyphics doubtless tell its history” and “The hieroglyphics are the same as were found at Copan and Quirigua . . . there is room for belief that the whole of this country was once occupied by the same race, speaking the same language . . .”

Itzamna Painted on Vase Performing Ritual

Itzamna Painted on Vase Performing Ritual

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown . . . wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power.”  John Lloyd Stephens

 

 

 

 

Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque

These excerpts from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque. I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.

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Rabbit scribe

 

The Palenque Beau Relief: A Maya Beauty Vanishes

Palace at Palenque Jean-Frederic Waldeck

Palace at Palenque
Jean-Frederic Waldeck

Among the most beautiful artwork of the ancient Mayas are the carved stone and stucco panels of Palenque.

This city flourished from 400-900 CE in the mountain rain forests of southern Chiapas, Mexico. It became the regional vortex of creativity and the dominant ritual-political center during the reigns of K’inich Janaab Pakal and his sons. Rediscovered in the 16th Century by Spanish explorers and brought to international attention in the mid-1800s by John Lloyd Stephens’ travel books (1,2), Palenque enthralled visitors with its graceful, realistic figures on numerous panels and pillars, its harmonious architecture and copious glyphic writing.

The relief panels were carved of high quality limestone and coated with layers of stucco, creating smooth surfaces. Originally these were painted vibrant red, green, yellow and blue but the colors faded over the centuries. Many buildings had panels set into the walls of chambers and figures adorning pillars, including the Palace, Temple of the Inscriptions, and Cross Group. Panels set inside the interior chambers of buildings were best preserved; many pillar carvings deteriorated over time due to the humid tropical climate and encroaching vegetation.

 The Most Beautiful Panel

In a small temple just west of the Otolum River, not far from the Cross Group, once resided “the most

The Beau Relief Jean-Frederic Waldeck

The Beau Relief
Jean-Frederic Waldeck

beautiful piece of art of the aboriginal Indians,” said Paul Caras in his 1899 article published in The Open Court journal, Volume 13. It was a panel depicting a single male figure dressed simply, seated on a double-headed jaguar throne. This panel is known as the Beau Relief for its beauty. The elegant position of the figure’s arms and legs evoked a languorous dance. Rows of hieroglyphs bordered the upper sides and the throne was set upon two powerful claw-like legs. The panel was set on the inner chamber’s rear wall in the small, nearly square temple that sat on top of a hill. Steep stairs climbed to the entry chamber where a single front doorway gave access; its rear door led to the inner chamber. An opening in the floor of the inner chamber led to stairs that descended into a basement chamber.

The first European to depict the Beau Relief panel in this jungle-shrouded temple was Ignacio Armendáriz, an artist who accompanied Antonio del Río, artillery captain serving in the Spanish outpost in what is now Guatemala. By order of King Charles III of Spain, the ruined cities in the jungles of his new territories were to be explored and documented. In 1787 the Spaniards climbed the steep, treacherous trail following river cascades up to the ruins of Palenque, led by local Ch’ol Maya guides. After a month of clearing off trees and shrubs, the group exposed several impressive stone buildings. Del Río dug for artifacts and collected some art objects, while writing descriptions of Palenque’s buildings. Armendáriz drew pictures of 30 subjects, including tablets of the Temples of the Sun, the Cross and Foliated Cross, hieroglyphic tablets from the Palace subterranean passageways, and the Beau Relief tablet in the Temple of the Jaguar.

Considering the adverse conditions Armendáriz faced, his work is remarkable. He suffered debilitating

The Beau Relief Ignacio Armendariz

The Beau Relief
Ignacio Armendariz

heat of tropical spring, working in half-lit interiors of sweltering chambers, drawing on damp paper soaked with humidity and perspiration, trying to capture complex details of images completely alien to him. In comparison to modern renditions, his drawings seem stilted and inaccurate in many details. But, they captured the essence of a strange and unknown culture. His is one of only two original drawings of the Beau Relief and is historically very significant. It was copied by José Castañeda two decades later and appeared in books published in early-mid 1800s. (3, 4, 5)

The second artist to draw the Beau Relief was the flamboyant Jean-Frederic Waldeck, a self-proclaimed count with a colorful and controversial history. Waldeck resided at Palenque for about one year in 1832, and carefully drew the panel on a grid, adding embellishments such as fine-line suggestions of musculature and costume details that gave a classic Roman look. Waldeck intended his work for popular consumption and believed the amazing ruined cities were created by ancient Asian or European cultures, or reflected cross-cultural stimulation. Shortly after Waldeck completed this drawing, the upper portion of the Beau Relief was destroyed, leaving only the throne and its legs. It is not clear how this occurred; some Mayanists believe Waldeck caused the figure’s destruction for unknown reasons. (6) During this time period, looting artifacts from ruins was common, including removal of portions from wall panels and pillars.

Temple of the Jaguar Ruins in Palenque Jungle

Temple of the Jaguar
Ruins in Palenque Jungle

Temple of the Jaguar Drawing shows Beau Relief panel in rear chamber

Temple of the Jaguar
Drawing shows Beau Relief panel in rear chamber

Now the Temple of the Jaguar is a partially collapsed ruin sitting on top a high hill, infrequently visited because of the steep path through dense jungles leading to it. We can only imagine what this magnificent sculpture in stone and stucco – the Beau Relief – must have looked like when freshly created, possibly portraying Pakal in his glory as the greatest ruler of Palenque.

 

  1. Stephens, John Lloyd (1841) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
  2. Stephens, John Lloyd (1843) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
  3. Humboldt, Alexander de (1810) Vues des cordilléres en monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique. Chez F. Schoell, Paris.
  4. Del Río, Antonio, and Paul Felix Cabrera (1822) Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City… Henry Berthoud, London.
  5. Kingsborough, Lord (1829-1848) Antiquities of Mexico… Nine Volumes, London.
  6. Stuart, David and George Stuart (2008) Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

 

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