Susan Vaughan here.
When the characters and the plot for my new release On Deadly Ground came to me, I knew I needed to go to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and experience the jungle and Maya ruins up close. Yes, it’s Maya for the people but Mayan for their language, but only archeologists make the distinction—and me. My husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan, soaking up the sun and ancient history. The book is my tribute to a favorite movie, Romancing the Stone, but in reverse.
Here’s a short plot summary. Desperate to save her brother, museum director Kate Fontaine must work with Max Rivera, the ex-military guide she doesn’t trust, to carry out the kidnapper’s demands and return a precious Maya artifact to its temple, deep in the jungle. They must outrun black-market smugglers and a predicted earthquake.
Max and Kate spend days trekking through the jungle of my fictional Central American country, facing many dangers—bad guys, wild animals, earthquake tremors—and the hazards of a dangerously inappropriate romance. Coba, a largely unexcavated archeological site deep in the jungle, provided the feel and images I needed. Three settlements there display the architecture of this once large city—including two ball courts and the highest Maya pyramid in the Yucatan. I modeled the temple Max and Kate find in the jungle after this smaller one at Coba, but the one in the story is vine covered and not restored.
For part of their trek, Max and Kate follow a limestone road called a sacbé. These were created for ceremonial purposes leading to the temple and for trade with other cities. Walking on one, I felt I was stepping back centuries. Why did the Maya build their roads of this limestone? Unlike silly gringos who walk around in the hot sun, the Maya traveled by moonlight, and what would show up better than a white road? The sacbé Max and Kate find is nearly overgrown and much narrower than this one.
The Yucatan sits on a limestone shelf, and beneath it lie rivers and deep water-filled caverns called cenotes. For Max and Kate, cenotes are a necessary water source, and an underground river plays a big role in the story.
Finally, we visited a nearby village where contemporary Maya live year round in thatched huts with sapling walls. In these primitive conditions, flowers and plants we consider houseplants are everywhere in their yards. These Maya raise animals and crops, and the women weave beautiful blankets and sew and embroider gorgeous cotton clothing.
Inside this hut we visited, this woman was baking tortillas on a charcoal fire. In the corner was her hammock for sleeping, the usual bed for the Maya and others trekking through the jungle.
The only evidence of modern intrusion seemed to be the school for ages five through twelve and a cinderblock store. Yes, this experience provided me with many ideas for On Deadly Ground, but it also caused me to wonder who was deprived, these people living simply in the jungle? Or was it these Norteamericanos in our shorts and sneakers from so-called advanced civilization where our lives are full of stress, and wars, disease, and atrocities fill the news?