Where the Ideas Live

People sometimes ask me how I get ideas for my books. The short answer is: I don’t. I think people sometimes envision authors sitting at their elaborately carved Renaissance desk, complete with quill pen, and an exclamation point appears with a brand-new, amazing idea for a story! Eureka!

Maybe that’s how it works for some authors, I don’t know. The way it works for me is that I decide what part of the world I want a story to take place in, and then I go to that place. I let the place tell me the story. If that sounds mystical or authorish, it isn’t. It’s just how it works for me.

The first book of my trilogy, “The Obsidian Mirror,” took place mostly in Silicon Valley because that’s where I was living and working at the time. I understood the high tech industries, so my protagonist, Sierra, was a high tech public relations person (as I had been, many moons ago). The idea for the basis of the story came from my familiarity with the semiconductor industry and the ubiquity of integrated circuits around the world.

The second novel, “Fire in the Ocean,” had its origins in a Hawai‘ian vacation on the island of Oahu. I decided I wanted to set a novel in Hawai’i. Once home, I began planning a research trip the way I thought an author ought to—I contacted the Bishop Museum, the leading museum of Polynesian culture in the world. I contacted the University of Hawaii Dept. of Hawaiian Studies (or some such). I made reservations to go to Oahu to meet with these knowledgeable people.

Crickets. No one ever responded to my requests. So I decided that the story would be set on Moloka‘i, because that is the island of sorcery, according to the ancient Hawai’ians, which made it extremely attractive to a fantasy writer (that would be me). I also wanted to visit my friend in Captain Cook on the Big Island, because I hoped he would introduce me to some local people who could tell me about myths and legends. I changed all the reservations, abandoning the idea of speaking to the academic experts in Oahu.

At this point in my journey, I didn’t have a story. I knew i would be using my protagonist Sierra, and probably her friend, Coyotl the Trickster, but there were several other characters involved, and I wasn’t sure how I would be using them: Clancy, Rose, Mama Labadie—and especially Fred.

So my husband Tom and I jetted off to the Big Island. My friend was not available to meet for a few days, so Tom and I found ways to entertain ourselves—snorkeling, sampling the local goods like honey and macadamia nuts and coffee. We tried the local Captain Cook grocery store for wine, but the selection was unappealing, so we made a trip to Costco in Kona. While standing in line, I noticed an enormous refrigerator nearby, full of leis. I have always wanted a maile leaf lei. They are made as garlands rather than necklaces, and they often use only the pleasantly vanilla-scented leaves, not flowers. Sure enough Costco had them, and I took my prize back to Captain Cook. 

I wore the lei the next day on a visit to Volcano National Park. Kilawea, Pele’s home volcano, was erupting, so I decided to sacrifice my lei to Pele, Goddess of Fire, and ask for her blessing on my work (which I hadn’t started because no story yet). To my disappointment, they wouldn’t let us anywhere near the actual flowing lava, but we were able to approach the rim of the caldera. It was clear this was the right place because there were other offering leis hanging in a tiny tree next to the railing, as well as on the railing itself. I held up my lei, asked for Pele’s blessing and whanged it right into the little tree, where it was securely caught in the branches. Then we turned around and started to walk away, but I wanted a photo of my lei hanging in the tree, so we went back after only a few steps. 

Flinging my maile lei into the tree at the rim of the Kilawea cauldera.

My lei had vanished. All the other leis were still there. It was absolutely still without a breath of wind. We looked all around the ground under the tree. No maile leaf lei to be seen. With that incident, the story began to take shape in my head, with Pele taking an important role. 

When I started thinking about “Lords of the Night” (I didn’t have a title at this point, by the way), I decided to write a historical fantasy—even though my characters were 21st century people. Why? I think it was the challenge. And I wanted to learn more about the ancient Maya. My mother helped to excavate several Mayan ruins in Yucatan and Guatemala, back when most of those great cities were still covered in jungle, and there were no roads to the excavation sites. So in addition to reading intensively about the Maya, their history, arts, mathematics, science, and culture, I set up a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. (Actually, Tom does all the actual trip planning, based on what I want to see. He is wonderful that way!)

The ruins of a palace at Calakmul

I was blissfully untroubled by the problem of getting my 21st century characters back to the 5th century. This is fantasy! I can just make it up! As a writer, I adore that freedom. Why do you think I don’t write science fiction?

I also cleverly invited a couple to go along with us. Clod, the male half of the couple, was born and lived as a young person in Mexico City, with vacations in the Yucatan, which is where his father was raised. Linda studied Spanish in school. I speak Spanish like a first-year student with a strangely good accent (thanks to my Spanish-speaking mother). Tom has never studied Spanish. See how I did that?

The story began to take shape for me when we visited the ruins of Calakmul, which lie within the borders of a large biological reserve on the Guatemalan border. Calakmul had been my primary destination, though we did visit Tulum, Uxmal, and a few other archeological sites. I don’t know why Calakmul drew me so strongly. My mother didn’t excavate there, and I had never heard of it before beginning research for this trip. I had seen photos, and the city has a temple that rivals Egypt’s Great Pyramid for size. Plus, it is located in the middle of a jungle, far from the well-trod tourist trails. Intriguing, no?

There is only one hotel within the borders of the biological reserve. If you want to visit Calakmul, you more or less have to stay at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, because the hotel, deep in the jungle, is still 60 kilometers or so from the ruins, along an unpaved road. When you get to the drop-off place for the ruins, you still have to walk a kilometer to arrive at the actual city. 

At the base of one of the temples in Calakmul.

All of which made my visit to Calakmul everything I could have hoped for. As we walked along, I picked our guide’s brain about Mayan folk tales and we saw peacock-gorgeous oscillated turkeys, and monkeys, and javelinas. The ruins themselves were pleasantly shaded, with very few other people around. It was nothing like the wait-in-line-in-the-tropical-sun-with-a-million-other-tourists experience of the more popular sites. The temples, all of which have not yet been excavated, are impressive. In its time, Calakmul was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient Mayan world, and its name was Ox Té Tuun. Ox Té Tuun is central to “Lords of the Night,” and as I strolled along its broad avenues I developed the character of Ix Mol, a young Mayan girl from Ox Té Tuun with a very big problem who enlivens the pages of “Lords of the Night.”

More Calakmul.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that place is central to my process as a writer. I have no idea why, but there’s nothing like a good trip to someplace far, far away to stimulate my creative juices.

That’s what I tell my husband, anyway.

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