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.

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.