Winter has me thinking about getting away to somewhere warm. Since I can’t do that right away, I thought I’d revisit a previous trip that yielded both warmth and a research bonanza. I wrote a bit about this in an earlier blog post, but I’m expanding on the direct research today.
When the characters and the heroine’s quest for my 2015 release On Deadly Ground came to me, I knew I had to go to Mexico and experience the jungle and Maya ruins up close. Yes, it’s Maya for the people but Mayan for their language, but typically only archeologists make the distinction.
The book is my tribute to a favorite older movie, Romancing the Stone, but instead of seeking a valuable artifact, Max and Kate must return theirs to its temple. They spend days trekking through the jungle of my fictional Central American country, facing many dangers—bad guys, wild animals, earthquake tremors—and the emotional hazards of a dangerously inappropriate romance.
My husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan, soaking up the sun and ancient history. Along with beach time on the Mayan Riviera, we toured two of the ancient cities. Chichen-Itza offers the most famous Mayan pyramid and is mostly restored. Fascinating but not inspiring. I needed an undeveloped site for my characters’ destination. Another tour led by a Mayan guide to flooded me with ideas and questions.
Cobá is a ruin deep in the jungle, still being excavated and restored by archeologists. I had created in my mind and in my notes my protagonists and their quest, I pictured archaeologists working alongside nearby Mayan villagers. But I hadn’t firmed up the roadblocks and dangers that would confront them, the plot twists, you see. When the guide said some of the buildings’ destruction was from earthquakes, I thought: what if the people believed an artifact with a curse caused quakes. When further research on Maya gods yielded Kizin, the god of earthquakes, “eureka!” popped into my head and didn’t resist the urge to shout. So the artifact Kate was returning became a carved and bejeweled figure of this earthquake god.
Cobá, so primitive and wild, provided exactly the right feel and images. Three settlements there contain 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 Cobá, dedicated to the god of commerce. It’s shaped like a beehive because one of their big trading commodities was honey. Of course, when Max and Kate find theirs, it’s covered with vines and untouched.
The Yucatan sits on a limestone shelf, and beneath it lie rivers and deep water-filled caverns called cenotes. The ancient Maya believed these caverns were the doors to the Underworld and deposited tributes to the gods and sacrifices—mostly animals, not humans—in them. For Max and Kate, cenotes are water sources, and an underground river plays a big role in the story.
Many contemporary Maya are integrated into the larger society, but some live in the jungle year round the way their ancestors did, in thatched huts with sapling walls. They cook over charcoal fires and raise animals and crops. The women weave beautiful blankets and sew and embroider cotton clothing by hand. A shop in the village sells their embroidered clothing and colorful blankets. I wonder how long we Norteamericanos would last living that way.
On Deadly Ground is the first book in my Devlin Security series. It’s available in both print and ebook forms on Amazon. An excerpt and more research photos are on my website, susanvaughan.com. And exciting news! A different series, the four books of Task Force Eagle, is on sale starting today on Amazon, through Jan. 21. Always a Suspect, the first in the series, is free, and the other books are 99 cents.