Friday, May 22, 2015

Details Do Double Duty

A few weeks ago, I went to the California central coast. A friend and I walked around Carmel at night after all the stores had closed. Strings of white lights hung from trees in the center, making it a perfect place for a stroll after dark. Numerous art galleries lined the side streets, their windows showcasing paintings of the ocean rimmed in ornate frames. 

I took pictures of the art, the buildings and the alleyways that led to bars and small
wine shops. Sounds of music filled the night as we walked up and down the streets. I soaked it all in with special relish.

Sensory details like these are important to help me find my way into a story. And while details enrich a story and entertain readers, writers must be conscious as to why they are including those specific details and not some others. How are they used bring the story to life? What are they telling us underneath? Everything a writer includes should have relevance or it doesn’t need to be there—especially if it pulls the reader out of the story.

Using excerpts of my novel as in Parts 1-3, Tessa has entered the courtyard of the hotel to have breakfast. The details of the moment, touch on her past and foreshadow that something deeper is about to happen:

     As I sat in the empty courtyard, I watched Koi fish move slowly beneath the rippling water of the pool and traced the bougainvillea vines with my eyes, from their gnarled old trucks heavy with magenta-colored blossoms, to the top of the weathered, cracked garden wall. Mexico was working its magic. I could feel my built-up tension beginning to ease.
     There was something about the oldness, the weight of time on the solid stone walls, the cracks and mold—the presence of the past. It made me keenly aware that my own past eluded me. If only I could feel complete again.

And so begins the descent into the story beneath the story. On the surface, Tessa is seeking relief from her repetitive nightmare, but here we get a hint that there is something from the past about to intrude into her present day life. She thinks what she is feeling is about her own childhood, only it goes farther back; to something much older.

Later on, when Tessa is at a dinner party, the atmosphere presages that something mystical is about to commence:

    We entered the large dining room a little early so he could show me the old, massive, finely carved wooden furniture. The amber glow from the wall-mounted sconces created an atmosphere of elegance from another century.

The two candelabras sitting on the lace-covered dining table were carefully polished, old silver. The fine bone china and heavy cut crystal gleamed in the light of the beeswax candles.

Tessa meets the host of the dinner party she is attending, Senor Martinez. She’s been troubled by a curandera – medicine woman of Mexico – she’s met, and knows he is an expert on the subject of curanderas and shamans. She feels comfortable enough with him to ask about the woman.

    “Know her?”
    “Ah, si. A student of Isabella Sabina, la curandera mas famosa, here and around the world.”
    Impressed, I shifted Marta out of the slot marked weird that I had stored her in, into very credible. “Sounds fascinating. Tell me more.”
    “Isabella Sabina was what is known as a master walker in the spirit worlds,” Eduardo began. “She communicated with beings that helped her know about healing of the mind and body. She could do things, powerful things. Magic, some would say.”
    “This is documented? I asked.
    A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “She is well known here. It is accepted,” he said with finality. He told how she was able to tap into powerful energies and wield those energies for healing both the mental and physical. “She passed away quite a few years ago.”
    The flickering light of the candles flared through the multi-faceted crystal goblets like thousands of tiny lighthouse beacons swinging briefly into view. Someone who overheard Eduardo said that maybe she wasn’t as dead as we thought. Everyone laughed but I couldn’t help feeling that vulnerability I’d experienced at the cave when the apparition of Cimi had swooped against me. It was a sense of helplessness against an unfamiliar power.

So, for economy and crisp writing, use words that do double duty; details that go deeper into the story behind the story—the underlying themes that readers identify with. Even though they might not know why they are engaged, you need to.


So, writers, leave a few lines of your story in the comments—an example of how you use details to enhance meaning. We all benefit from sharing.

Dance the Dream Awake—on sale now, ready for download or paperback at these outlets: 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Mesoamerican Biggies

Or, Maya, Aztec and Olmec civilizations - Part 3 in the series of the trip (Part 1) that led to the inspiration (Part 2) for my first novel.

The Maya first settled around 2600 B.C. in early Mesoamerica (what is now Mexico and Guatemala). They became more sophisticated in the latter years (A.D. 250 through A.D. 900) from the influence of the Olmecs who came on the scene later (1400 B.C.—lasting about 1000 years).

The Olmecs built no major cities or pyramids as the Maya did, but were good farmers, artists, mathematicians, and astronomers. They wrote in hieroglyphics, as did most of the cultures that followed them. The giant round Olmec heads (3-meters or 9 ft. tall) resemble African warriors. The name “Olmec” was derived from Aztec writings. We don’t know what they called themselves.

Only after the Maya adopted much of their culture from the Olmecs, did they go on to create their impressive legacy that today extends through Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras. They were ruled by powerful war lord kings and priests. What happened to the Maya as a great civilization is still a mystery with many theories (though their descents are still alive today).

The Aztecs followed about 400 years after the Mayan civilization began to shrink. In the early 1300s, so the story goes, the wandering tribe of Mexica people were looking for a home. Persecuted and cast out from other nations, they believed that their god, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, the sun and human sacrifice, would show them a sign to guide them to their new settlement. Huitzilopochtli is said to have directed the wandering tribe to look for “the prickly pear cactus upon which they would see an eagle perched,” and that's where they would build their new city (the symbol used on the
Mexican flag).

They found such a place on a small, swampy island in the middle of (what is now known as) Lake Texcoco and founded Tenochtitlan, in A.D. 1325. Later, the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and they built Mexico City over Tenochtitlan.

There is evidence of a connection between the Aztecs and Native Americans. Obsidian and macaw feathers from further south in Mexico have been in found in the Southwest United States—so there were obviously trade routes between the two areas. Southwest Native Americans built ball courts and doorways in styles similar to their counterparts farther South in Maya territory. The ancient world was definitely connected.

The setting for my novel, Dance the Dream Awake, is on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula near Tulum—Maya country. Both present day and past life take place around the Cobá pyramid complex (a large metropolis composed of many cities within the eastern Yucatan).

Although only a few of the estimated 6,500 structures have been uncovered on Coba’s quiet and peaceful grounds, it may have once had the largest population (an estimated 100,000 people) living in its domain of all the ancient Mayan cities (600-900 A.D.).

My novel about to be released this week (May 9) is a romantic suspense, so today I’ll share a snippet of the romance that begins to brew on the plane to Mexico City when Tessa first meets Nick, an archaeologist with a dig at Coba, close to where she will be staying.
The final boarding call was being announced when I reached the half-empty plane late that night. I felt stressed and wanted a last cigarette. Quitting was the pits.
As soon as the plane was in the air, I ordered a gin and tonic and buried myself in a magazine until the flight attendant returned. After downing half my drink in one gulp, I sat back, took a deep breath and closed my eyes, trying not to want that cigarette.
“Can I buy you another drink? You’ll be through that one pretty quick.”
I looked into the palest green eyes I’d ever seen. I hadn’t noticed the man who’d slipped into the seat across the aisle.
He smiled. “You look super stressed,” he said. “If it’s the flying, another drink will take the edge off.”
I sat a little straighter. He was tall, I could tell by the way his tanned legs spilled out of his khaki shorts and straddled the seat in front of him. The rolled-up sleeves of his blue, cotton shirt revealed muscular arms.
“Maybe one more. Thanks.” His manner soothed me.
“Vacationing in Mexico City?” he asked.
“I’ll be staying in the Yucatan.”
His face brightened. “What a coincidence. I’m headed for the Yucatan, too. I’m meeting up with some of my colleagues down there, on the peninsula in Coba. Anthropological research on the Maya.” He lowered his voice and leaned close. “We have a new archeological dig in the jungle near one of the older pyramids.”
“The Maya?”
“Yeah, there have been some exciting new discoveries recently and we’re right in the thick of it.”
His enthusiasm reminded me of a boy opening a packet of gum, hoping to find his first Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron baseball card, or whoever it was that young boys looked for these days. He rattled off some technical details to impress me. I half-paid attention to what he was saying, wondering at this uncanny coincidence. I observed the lock of sandy colored hair that danced above one eye as he talked. Occasionally he’d brush it back, but it belligerently worked itself loose as he continued talking. I took another sip of my drink and tried not to stare.
As if he’d picked up on my thoughts, he suddenly cocked his head and studied me a moment. I caught a twinkle in his eye, “Maybe we’ll bump into each other there.”
The thought had already crossed my mind. “Can I ask you a question? Did the Maya have sacrificial rituals like the Aztecs?” I looked interested, like I didn’t already know.
“Did they! They were obsessed with sacrifice. They had some masochistic practices—” He hesitated, glancing at my white linen suit and the hair I’d done in a long, conservative braid. He must have decided what he had to tell me would either shock me, disgust me, or some such thing. “Let me just say they were very religious and serious about their sacrifices,” he continued with that pleased look a man gets when he feels he’s been gallant about shielding a woman from locker-room language too distasteful for her tender ears. Old school—polite and respectful, I liked that. He ordered another round of drinks and extended his hand. It was warm, firm, with calluses from working in the earth. “My name is Nick Richardson.”
“I’m Teresa Harper. Just call me Tessa.”

If my novel and the Maya interest you, I will be sharing more on my Facebook Author Page and here on my blog in future posts. 

Questions? Comments? -- leave them here or on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

#Synchronicity Surfeit

. . . . or, a Mayan Date, a Bird and a Dying Tree.  Post II – The journey and the story continues (see Post I)

 “Synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of two or more meaningful but not causally connected events.”

We flew out of Mexico City and on to Oaxaca. It was our plan to visit the famed El Tule Tree, situated in the courtyard of a 17th Century church. (El Tule has the largest biomass of all the trees in the world and is 2000 to 3000 years old.)
Before dawn the next morning, we took a cab to Santa Maria del Tule. The little village was just waking up, with small set-ups in front of houses for coffee and breakfast breads. We sat at an oilcloth table, amidst the smell of meats and breads being prepared for morning breakfast, and sipped our coffees while waiting for dawn and the day’s gathering around the El Tule. It was one of the designated power places for people to congregate during the two days of the Harmonic Convergence.
We were drawn to join the strangers that were gathering around the huge tree, mostly Americans and Europeans.  As these things often happen when the energy is high, we organically fell into an easy communion, eventually holding hands while trying to surround the tree with our shared energy. There were not enough people to completely circle the tree while holding hands, and I remembered being profoundly saddened by that.
As I focused on sending loving energy, I opened my eyes to see a bird hovering in a crevice at the roots of this huge tree. No one else seemed to notice. I suddenly sensed the bird was dying, and had the thought that the tree was dying as well. Was this a metaphor for a dying world? The world as we know it in the last chapter of its existence? (Three years later, in 1990 it was announced that the tree was indeed dying)
The original hippie movement was founded on the belief that the ‘age of Aquarius’ was dawning and the Picean age was dying out--based on astrology and the indigenous beliefs from around the world. The Maya marked this through their time/cycle keeping skills—a bookmark in history. Their baktun of 5000+ years was ending while the new cycle was about to begin. Going forward, nothing seemed to happen, but looking back we see how many changes there have been since 2012.
So much hype surrounded the end date of the Maya’s end cycle of Dec. 21, 2012, confusing the world. The Maya never predicted catastrophe (no matter how many self-styled prophets said they did), it was simply the ending of a very long age, and on the following day, the start of a new one.
At some point it became too sad for me to stay and focus on this dying energy of the bird and the tree, so we walked to another part of the courtyard where we found a man and woman kneeling and planting a new seedling tree. Were they shamans, I wondered?
No one was standing around them holding hands, feeding this positive action. Only my husband and I stood and watched them plant and bless this new tree that would grow to shelter and shade those who would come much later.
Here was the hope that even though our world might be dying, a new one was being born—hopefully one of inspired creation. The Maya marked this time for us to know it was an important event—but we lost the Maya writings and the secrets they held that might have revealed more. Or did we? 

We wandered over to the church. Outside, an old blind man, and young boy we assumed was his grandson, stood at the doorway. The man was singing Las Mañanitas (a song often sung to women on their birthdays), his veneration ritual performed daily to the Virgin Mary we were told.  And a synchronistic happy-birth-day for the new cycle?
Here is an excerpt from the past life in Dance the Dream Awake—the Old One speaks to young Ixchel about the changes that are coming to the Maya….

The fire flared and I closed my eyes. I saw through Ixchel’s eyes. . . .
Ixchel sat in front of the Old Itza. He carefully reached into the folds of his garment and pulled out a pouch of softened hide.
“Here,” he said, while pouring out three stones onto the earth before them, “are the powerful gifts from the Nine Lords of Xibalba. Long ago, they left the earth to guard the Nine Hells. They gave these to the sacred priesthood of the Feathered Serpent. The other priests have all gone. I am the last priest of both the Feathered Serpent and the Were-Jaguar.”
Ixchel fidgeted, hearing the familiar story. He closed his eyes. Ixchel quickly sat up straight and placed her hands back on her knees in respect.
He continued, “Now, the priests of Ah Puch rule. There is blood and death everywhere. The exalted gods no longer heed the prayers of our people. The end is coming soon.”
He paused and looked at her. She knew that look. He was about to tell her something important. She tried to sit straighter. . . .
When I opened my eyes, I lay on my side watching the embers give off their last few spurts of flame before sinking into a dying glow. The fine sand of the cave floor felt cool beneath my cheek. Louisa’s shawl was still around my shoulders. The morning light had squeezed through cracks high in the ceiling and shone into my eyes. How could it be morning? It felt like I’d only just closed my eyes.
I pushed myself up on my elbows and looked around. Louisa and Marta were gone. Juana lay sleeping nearby. I lifted my hand to brush away the sand on my face and found the beads entwined around my fingers. So it had been Marta and Louisa who took the beads. But why? And even more strange, why had they now returned them?

Next week, I'll share a little bit of history of the Maya, and since the novel is a romantic suspense, I'll have an excerpt of the budding romance between Tessa and Nick, an archaeologist working a dig at one of the ruins in Coba.