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 about 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.
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
a 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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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)
Mayan Queens were powerful leaders in ancient Maya culture. Women rulers are well-documented during the mid to late Classic Period, 300-900 CE. Called K’uhul Ixik, Holy Lady in classic Mayan language, their role included entering shamanic states to access spirit domains and drawn upon the powers of deities and ancestors. The rituals rulers performed, and the sacred architecture of pyramids and temples in which rituals took place, were symbols of creation in the cosmos.
“They are all instruments for accessing spiritual power from the creative act . . . they are signposts on the Maya road to reality stretching across the landscape of history.” ̶ Maya Cosmos
Accessing powers of Otherworld Gods and Ancestors was not easily achieved. Mayan queens or kings had to make appropriate offerings and know how to call the deities’ names properly. The most common sacrifice was self-bloodletting, because blood was ultimately sacred as itz, sticky fluid that was ch’ulul, the life force energy, life-essence and creative substance. The shaman-ruler let blood from tongue, earlobes or genitals to concentrate and channel this life force from the Otherworld.
“In a sense, the shamans were like modern engineers. But instead of nuclear power plants and electrical grids they used pyramids and Vision Serpent portals. Instead of electron flows they used itz. The spilling of blood, like the throwing of a giant breaker switch, brought life giving energy pouring into the universe from the underlying force fields of the Otherworld.” ̶ The Shaman’s Secret
Rituals for accessing spiritual powers propelled the shaman-ruler into altered states of consciousness, both by the act of self-bloodletting and use of mind-altering substances. The objective was to receive a tangible vision and an overwhelming experience of the deities; essentially a state of Divine Union or Communion. It is sympathetic magic through conjuring Divine beings, often intentional calling of a certain deity. Since all things mirror each other, in Mayan cosmology, when rituals re-enacted events from Creation Mythology, or conjured a warrior ancestor to guide a king through battle, these supernatural events were reactivated and manifested on earth.
Lady Kab’al Xoc, first wife of Itzamnaaj Bahlam of Yaxchilan, was a famous Mayan queen. She is shown on carved lintels doing a bloodletting ritual, drawing a rope embedded with thorns through her tongue. As her blood fell on bark paper in a censer, it was set on fire and the rising smoke turned into the Vision Serpent. An ancestor warrior emerges from the snake’s open jaws, brandishing a shield and spear with Teotihuacan imagery (Tlaloc face mask, mosaic war helmet, double pointed spear). The ancestor brought important messages to guide the king during the upcoming battle.
An important responsibility of Mayan queens and kings was to perform rituals at key times according to their calendars. The Mayas had numerous calendars and many rituals were needed. Solar calendar events were especially potent: equinoxes, solstices, zenith, and eclipses. Each mid-fall and mid-spring, the sun reaches a point in its ecliptic when day and night come into balance. The concept of balance was critical to the Mayas; rulers were charged to keep the three worlds—Underworld, Middleworld, and Upperworld—in harmonious relationship. Only when the needs of deities of each realm were satisfied, and communion with deities was performed correctly, would humans enjoy lives of peace and abundance on earth.
Mayan solar priests, K’inob, used techniques to track the sun’s movement and predict accurately when the day of perfect balance arrived. On the equinoxes, rulers would undertake the prescribed rituals, making offerings to the Gods of the calendar periods and drawing their blessings into the world. Rulers conjured the Vision Serpent and sought prophesy for the coming calendar period.
There were dire consequences if balance was not maintained between the worlds. When balance was lost, the natural world was in danger. If this world, the Middleworld of earth , remained out of balance with the other two worlds long enough, it could bring destruction to a city, a region, or perhaps the entire Maya lands. Many experts believe that losing balance in the natural world is what led to the collapse of Maya civilization. The “Maya Collapse” is a complex phenomenon, not readily explained by any single factor, following different courses and timelines in various parts of the Maya lands. Beyond doubt environmental changes played a major role.
The collapse of El Mirador is reasonably well explained. It was a thriving Pre-Classic city of about 100,000, surrounded by satellite cities in northern Guatemala that flourished between 300 BCE and 150 CE. Perhaps the largest Maya city, its main pyramid sat on plazas covering 45 acres, on a platform 980×2000 feet, rising 230 feet tall. Toward the end of its occupation, extravagant building programs using inordinate amounts of plaster were carried out; some of the thickest plaster coatings ever found. To create lime plaster and cement, the Mayas burned massive amounts of wood, causing deforestation in surrounding areas. The swampy regions that supplied water and rich mud for agriculture were destroyed by clay runoff from damaged forest floors. With no close-by rivers, and perhaps a time of relative drought, the once great city faced declining water, food, and wood for fire. Between 100-200 CE, El Mirador and other cities of Mirador Basin were abandoned. Archeologist Richard Hanson, prime investigator of El Mirador, says the underlying reason for its decline was a loss of balance with the natural environment. The rulers and elite became immersed in “conspicuous consumption” through over-building using excessive resources, trying to sustain an image of wealth and progress. This lack of foresight and judgment—an imbalance between the worlds—led to the collapse of civilization in the region.
Mayan queens and kings were successful at keeping the worlds in balance for over a millennium. Thousands of large cities thrived in a difficult tropical jungle climate. The Mayas learned to adapt agriculture and conserve natural resources, and created the most brilliant, artistically and technologically advanced civilization in the Americas. While they upheld their expansive cosmology and properly honored the Gods and Ancestors, their culture succeeded. They lived an ongoing re-creation of their worlds by mutual Divine-human interaction; in essence, shaman-rulers became “mothers” of the Gods even as the Gods gave birth to humanity and the worlds.
Around 900-1000 CE that creative partnership dissolved. Not only environmental factors, but an internal spiritual dissonance led to abandonment of Maya cities. The Holy Lords and Ladies lost ability to fulfill their mandate, the deities were no longer satisfied, and the common people left for better livelihoods elsewhere. But this is yet another story.
Chip Brown. El Mirador, the Lost City of the Maya. Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
John Clark and Richard Hansen. The Architecture of Early Kingship. In Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. 2 (Eds. Takeshi Inomata and Stephen Houston. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 2001.
David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos. Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Co., New York, 1995.
Douglas Gillette. The Shaman’s Secret. Bantam Books, New York, 1997.
This phenomenon was depicted in the Dresden Codex as a serpent with huge open jaws about to devour the solar eclipse glyph. Although modern experts believe eclipses were a cause of distress for ancient peoples, terrifying because they did not understand the science behind such phenomena, this was not true for the Mayas. With their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, the Mayas understood the movements of celestial bodies and how the moon moving between the sun and earth caused a brief blacking out of sunlight. To the Mayas, this held profound symbolic meaning, signaling a major shift of cosmic influences upon earth. Such potent occasions were prime time for ceremonies and invoking celestial powers into human actions.
In the story of K’inich Janaab Pakal, most famous Maya ruler who reigned in Palenque from 615-683 CE, the power of a solar eclipse was used to increase potency of a most important ritual. His prophesied mission was to restore the spiritual charter of his city, and resurrect the Jeweled Sky Tree that formed a portal to communicate with the Gods and ancestors. This version of a World Tree, called Wakah Chan Te by the Mayas, had its roots in the Underworld, its trunk rose through the Middleworld of earth, and its
branches soared into the Upperworld of the cosmos. In Palenque, Pakal built a new temple in which to raise the Jeweled Sky Tree, since the original shrine was destroyed and desecrated in an enemy attack by Kalakmul during his childhood.
Although the history of Palenque’s defeat by Kalakmul is well known (Stuart & Stuart), and Pakal’s mandate to restore the damaged portal to the Upperworld has been described (Aldana), the actual process of resurrecting the Tree is a mystery. My task as an author of historical fiction was to use informed imagination to envision this process. This I did through the character of Pakal’s wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau (Lalak in my story, called The Red Queen), whose training in sexual alchemy brought the immense power of life creation to join with Pakal in “conceiving and birthing” a new Wakah Chan Te. (Martin) To further enhance the potency of this event, the ceremony was enacted during a solar eclipse.
Historical records show there was a solar eclipse that crossed over Guatemala and southern Chiapas on February 2, 650 CE. Palenque, located in Chiapas, would have experienced at least partial solar eclipse between 1:00-4:00 pm that day, which worked perfectly for the ceremony done by Pakal and Lalak and resulted in the climactic moment of their story.
Read the historical fiction story of Pakal, his wife Lalak–The Red Queen, and the solar eclipse ritual to resurrect the Wakah Chan Te:
Predicting lunar and solar eclipses is more complex than determining sunrise, sunset, solstice, and equinox. Movements of the earth, the sun, and the moon all must be taken in to account because this involves correlating the synodic lunations with the solar calendar. Because the orbital plane of the moon is inclined by 5 degrees to the plane of earth’s orbit, eclipses do not happen at every full and new moon. Rather, they take place only when the moon enters the ecliptic plane at the same time that it is in correct position between the sun and earth.
Maya astronomer priests were able to determine the nodes when the paths of moon and sun cross, which occurs every 173.31 days. In this time period, eclipses may occur within 18 days of the node. Most would result in lunar eclipses; the Dresden Codex contains eclipse tables made of columns and rows based on the numbers 177 (6 lunations), and 148 (5 lunations). The Codex is a
folding bark-paper book with pages coated in thin stucco, with glyphs painted in red and black and many symbolic figures. There are tables containing predictions of the phases of Venus over a 104-year interval, and predictions of lunar phases for 33 years. The Mayas used these to calculate solar eclipses.
The average interval between solar eclipses is 153.79 days. They had calculated a synodic lunar period as 29.533 days (modern value 29.530 days). Since the Mayas did not use decimals, they varied between 28 and 29 days for lunations. A grid of dates in the Codex linked Venus phenomena with lunar nodes to predict solar eclipses. Using the derived multipliers they were able to determine solar eclipse intervals that varied by +7 and +8 days. Combining an inferior conjunction of Venus with the predicted solar eclipse gave better accuracy.
The Dresden Codex is one of only four Mayan manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Spaniards when they invaded Mexico in the 16th century. The surviving codices are 11-12th century copies of older Mayan books. When researchers recently compared dates of Mayan calendars with our current one, then used modern data on planetary orbits and cycles, they found the Maya’s data was surprisingly accurate. The Maya astronomical calendar correctly predicted a solar eclipse to within one day in 1991, centuries after Classic ancient Mayan civilization ended. (Bricker & Bricker)
Had the Classic Mayan civilization continued, undoubtedly they would have predicted our current eclipse occurring on August 21, 2017.
Aldana, Gerardo. The Apotheosis of Janaab’ Pakal. University of Colorado Press, 2007.
Bricker, Harvey & Bricker, Victoria. Astronomy in the Maya Codices. American Philosophical Society, 2011.
Martin, Leonide. The Mayan Red Queen: Tz’aakb’u Ahau of Palenque. Made for Success Pub., 2015.
Stuart, David & Stuart, George. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson, 2008.
Sak K’uk, the strong-willed daughter of Yohl Ik’nal—first Mayan woman ruler—faces rebellious nobles and spiritual crisis in her city following a devastating enemy attack. The sacred portal to the Gods is desecrated, temples and crops destroyed, the ruler killed and the royal family humiliated. With her city in chaos and leaderless, Sak K’uk undertakes a perilous Underworld journey to seek help and encounters the Primordial Mother Goddess, Muwaan Mat.
Invoking the powers of the Goddess to overcome opposition, Sak K’uk accedes and holds the throne for her young son, Pakal. She knows that a Mayan prophecy foretold Pakal’s destiny to become ruler, restore the collapsed portal, and bring Lakam Ha to greatness. The intense trials of mother and son forge a special bond that proves both a blessing and a curse.
Enter the ancient Mayan world of jungle-draped stone cities with soaring pyramids and broad plazas gleaming in the tropical sun. Experience cunning plots and intrigue, shamanic curses, dazzling rituals, and the bizarre Maya Underworld.
Brimming with vibrant detail and extraordinary characters that are seamlessly woven into the historical tapestry, The Controversial Mayan Queen is a rich and captivating treasure told by an astute storyteller.
In a short parallel story, modern archeologist Francesca pursues the identity of a crimson female skeleton found by her team at Palenque, seeking links with the ancient dynasty. Her grandmother gives her a cryptic message to listen to the lightning in her blood and discover her own real identity.
“It was before the Fourth Creation, in times long ago
Ix Muwaan Mat was born.
Of her birth it is said, she entered the sky
On the Day of Lord (Ahau), Month of Conjuring (Tzek),
For she was to bring the new creation.
Seven tuns after her birth came the new Creation,
When all counts of the long calendar returned to zero.
The Gods of the sky, of the earth, of the underworld
Knew what they must do.
They did three stone-bindings in the sky:
The Jaguar Throne Stone at the 5 Sky House;
The Water Lily Throne Stone at the Heart of the Sky;
The Serpent Throne Stone at the 13 Sky Earth-Cave.
These three stones formed the First Hearth Place,
Patterned the stars so homes on earth would have hearthstones.
Palenque Creation Myth was unique among the Mayas. All the Maya regions in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras shared a common creation myth about the Hero Twins and how they outsmarted the Death Lords of Xibalba and resurrected their father, securing life on earth for their people. This legend is recorded in the Popol Vuh, an 18th century copy of the original codex rendition that has been lost. Palenque’s unique myth incorporates deities widely known in their region, but nowhere else honored in the same way. The Triad deities were the patron gods of ancient Lakam Ha, bringing the blessings of abundance and prosperity when properly attended and worshiped. The ruling dynasty was believed to be descended from these gods and their mother, Lady Cormorant (Muwaan Mat in the Mayan language). Read more ›
Encoding astronomical knowledge in Mayan architecture was a common practice in Maya buildings. The sun god, represented as the K’in glyph in Classic times, had a Roman nose, central notched tooth, and crossed eyes with square pupils. Considered a male deity and addressed as Father Sun, he was ruler of time and space, and oversaw the seasonal agricultural cycles. K’inich Ahau—Sun-Faced Lord—was identified with ruling lineages and connected with the Maize God, bringer of fertility and renewal. In the late Classic many Maya rulers added K’inich to their names, signifying their oneness with the sun deity. To demonstrate this unity, rulers needed astronomical knowledge to predict exact timing of the sun’s annual cycle. Through this they directed farmers when planting and harvesting should take place. The sun’s arrival at important stations during the year was celebrated with rituals, and correct timing was essential. The ruler’s sacred duty required properly performing these rituals, offering the deities suitable gifts, and thus maintaining beneficent relations between Gods and humans. Read more ›
What we know about her is limited. Archeologists discovered her tomb at Palenque in 1994, her skeleton completely permeated by cinnabar, a form of mercuric oxide that leaves a red residue. The Mayas used cinnabar as a preservative, but only for bodies of elite nobles and rulers. Her burial was richly adorned with jade, shells, beads, and artifacts of bone or ceramic, and her face covered by a jadeite mask. They determined that she lived in the mid-seventh century CE, died around age 60, and must have been highly regarded because of her interment inside a large stone sarcophagus.
Later research determined that she came from a nearby city and was unrelated to the ruling family of Palenque. When hieroglyphs were deciphered at Palenque, we learned that she was married to the famous ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal in 626 CE, bore him three or four sons, and died in 672 CE. Her memorial pyramid adjoined the soaring Temple of the Inscriptions in which Pakal was buried. Because of her red skeleton, she was called “The Red Queen” by archeologists. Her Mayan name was Tz’aakb’u Ahau, “Maker of a Progression of Lords.” And she certainly did produce a succession of lords, as two of her sons became rulers after Pakal’s death, and a third son fathered the next ruler, Pakal’s grandson.
These scant facts underlie my story about Tz’aakb’u Ahau, whom I give the birth name Lalak. Fleshing out her personality, her hopes and fears, her emotions, and choices she made through her life was my challenge as a writer of historical fiction.
Lalak in my story lived over thirteen centuries ago, but her yearnings and challenges would sound familiar to modern women. She wanted to fit into her new city, find acceptance by her new family, fulfill her obligations in life, and most of all, win the heart of her new husband. What makes Lalak’s situation different is that she faced an arranged marriage with the most powerful young ruler in that Maya region, who just happened to be in love with someone else. Lalak was immediately attracted to him and loved him deeply, but he remained distant. She learned that her mother-in-law had banished the woman he wanted; choosing Lalak as his wife in the hope he would never love her – a homely, shy, and naive girl. Lalak came from a small outlying city, and although she had pristine blood lines making her eligible for such a match, her childhood was chaotic due to family enmities and she lacked preparation for high court protocols and intrigues.
Poorly equipped to meet such challenges, Lalak struggled to find her place and understand the dynamics of Palenque’s ruling family. She suffered under her mother-in-law’s criticism and faced repeated losses through miscarriages. She must grow from a naive and innocent girl into a strong woman capable of fulfilling a queen’s role. Her quest to find a way into Pakal’s heart required developing her feminine powers and expanding her wisdom, assuming her rightful status by facing down her mother-in-law and gaining respect from the sophisticated nobles of her city.
As Lalak‘s story unfolds against the rich backdrop of the Maya Classic Period, you will be immersed in fascinating aspects of Maya culture. There are frightening Underworld journeys where Death Lords hover, calendar rituals requiring the ultimate offering of one’s own blood, and use of sexual alchemy to resurrect lost portals to the Gods and Ancestors. Details of daily life contrast with the dazzling opulence of high court rituals, herbal and healing lore mixes with the sensuous dance and gastronomic delights of feasts, and the amazing advanced knowledge the Mayas had about building construction and astronomy is revealed.
Book awards mean a lot to authors. They validate our efforts and help bring our books to the attention of readers and booksellers. The Mayan Red Queen has been given favorable reviews in The Midwest Book Review (2016) and by Writer’s Digest (2016), but this is her first award. So, I am very happy and invite you to share the moment by recalling the story if you’ve read it, or reading the book if not.
“The Mayan world and its underlying influences come alive, making for a thriller highly recommended for readers who also enjoy stories of archaeological wonders.” The Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan, Editor and Senior Reviewer.
“The quality of this novel is top notch . . . beautifully written. The plot was interesting and very unique. The author’s best skill is in crafting believable yet mythical characters that carry the story almost effortlessly. . . fans of complex world building will be absorbed by this one–with pleasure!” Writer’s Digest 3rd Annual Self-Published e-Book Awards