Genesis of a Novel: Place of Skulls
April 2, 2012
The story would be told from generation to generation, written down by the high priests for the learned to know, explaining in hushed, reverent tones how this man who was the son of a God had come among a lost and bewildered people to save them from the forces of evil.
It was nothing new.
I had heard it all before
The New Testament, I believe it was, chapter and verse, almost word for word.
He was born of a virgin, begotten by a ball of light, was different from those who listened to him, who followed him, who whispered softly among themselves that he was their savior, maybe their King, surely their conscience.
Same old story.
Nothing had been lost in the translation.
Miracles followed where he journeyed. The lame walked. The dead lived again. The blind could see once. Great crowds followed his every footstep.
They worshiped him.
They prayed to him.
It was much as they did in Matthew. Or was it Luke? Maybe Mark or John.
He preached of love.
He preached of peace.
He touched the hearts of some.
So many others wanted him dead.
I knew the beginning.
I had read it myself.
I would not be stunned by the ending.
He taught his disciples how to preach and how to pray. He heard the confession of sins. He fasted and kept his days holy. He was hunted down by the ones who feared him, by the ones who persecuted him.
And the scribes wrote of a man stretched on a cross with three women praying beside him. Their words described a man who had risen from the dead and left them, promising that he would return some day, gather up his followers, exact his revenge on the unbelievers, and restore his Kingdom.
I would have quit reading.
I had indeed heard it all before.
But the tales and the parables and the manuscripts had been left behind by the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico, and they talked of a man who would be God, a man who had walked among them fifteen hundred years after the Bible recorded the crucifixion of Christ on a hill at Golgotha.
The people of Mexico did not call him Christ.
They called him Quetzalcoatl.
And still they wait for his return.
I had not been looking for Quetzalcoatl when I found him.
Yet, for years, he would not leave me alone.
Time and again, I thought about the magic question that haunts all writers: “What if?”
What if Christ had already returned as he promised?
What if he had stepped down in Mexico instead of Israel or Pascagoula?
What would all of the fundamentalist preachers preach about come Sunday morning if their sermons on the Second Coming had been snatched out from beneath them, if the Good Lord had indeed come back and forgot to tell them about it?
Thus began the plot for my novel PLACE OF SKULLS.
I had no intention of writing a book suffocated with theology, and I didn’t.
I had no intention of writing a book about the pros and cons and squabbles among the religious, and I didn’t.
I simply turned some complex characters loose – a big city newspaper publisher with ties to the President, a DEA agent who, he says, finds undeniable and irrefutable proof that Christ had indeed returned again, a rogue CIA agent who is plotting a terrorist war against the drug lords who keep sending their own brand of smugglers across the border in Arizona, and a man who has no memory of his name or his past, a man who knows he probably wouldn’t like the man he had been. Yet the task has fallen on his shoulders to sort it all out, to find the unholy ones who murdered the DEA agent and recover the proof, whatever it is, that might forever change the face and teachings of Christianity.
Is it an artifact?
Some religious relic?
An ancient manuscript?
And, even if he finds it, what will it prove? Who will it convince? What mystery will it solve?
Novels are written by those who sit down at their keyboards with a notebook full and a mind full of questions. Whether a novel is good or not depends on how well or how poorly the writer answers those questions.
Sure, there may be a murder or two.
Sure, there may be a love affair or two.
Sure, there may be a little violence, maybe a lot of it.
Sure, the plot thickens and has more twists than turns and more turns than dead ends.
Sure, the hero wins. Even if the hero dies, he or she wins.
But it’s all for naught if the final period is placed at the end of the final sentence at the end of the final paragraph, and the questions remain as baffling and perplexing as they were when the novelist first raised them.
The Alpha of the book is easy.
The characters pretty much take care of the plot as they wander in and out of story. Just hang tight, follow along, and you’ll generally be more amazed than the reader at what they do or say. Just when you think you are bordering on writer’s block, some stranger wanders into town and kills somebody or falls in love with somebody, which forces somebody to kill somebody. And occasionally, the character you like the most gets washed away in the bloodshed.
In reality, it’s all about the Omega, the ending.
And the author never knows for sure whether he’s won or lost until somebody else reads it. By then, it’s often too late.
So what did I do about Quetzalcoatl? I wrote the ending so many times I thought I was condemned to spend my life in my own personal Ground Hog’s Day, which seemed more like purgatory.. And I found the answers I needed in a cemetery, a PLACE OF SKULLS, which, I believe, has always been the translation for Golgotha.