Martha Bourke: Mysteries of the Mayans
July 9, 2012
This week’s featured guest blogger is Martha Bourke, author of Jaguar Sun.
I have always loved foreign languages and cultures. I was a Spanish teacher for fifteen years. I’ve also always loved to write. For many years I wanted to write a novel with a Hispanic theme and a strong Young Adult female protagonist. The catch was that I wanted it to be fantasy. Multicultural fantasy is an up and coming genre for sure, but that doesn’t mean combining those two elements is easily done.
Then in December 2011, I took a sabbatical from teaching. Over Christmas, I decided I wanted to write while I was out. Maya’s character popped into my head not long after. She started out as a normal teen living somewhere in the southwestern United States. I knew she was Hispanic, I knew she was abandoned by her mother, and I knew she was close to her grandmother.
But, where was the magic? Where was all the cool stuff? I’m a YA paranormal kind of girl. It’s what my friends and I read by the bucket. Thanks to all those years teaching Spanish, I hardly had time to stress about it before the whole 2012 Mayan Calendar idea hit me. From there I realized that Maya would be of Mayan ancestry and a shape-shifter. So there were really two cultures to write: the Mayan and the shape-shifter.
Shape-shifting lore can be found in most cultures around the world, so when I began to write Jaguar Sun, there certainly wasn’t a shortage to choose from. The biggest challenge for me was choosing something that would go well with the overarching Mayan theme of the first book in the series. From that perspective, it made sense to go with more of a Native American style shifter, like some form of skin walker. At the same time, I wanted to come up with a fresh angle on shape-shifting. That was easier said than done. Like werewolves, vampires, and other creatures, they have been written about a lot in YA. What I didn’t realize was that by focusing on the first, I would also accomplish the second.
As I did my research on the Mayan culture, I discovered that there is a Mayan belief that we all have a spirit companion or protector in the otherworld that’s in the form of an animal. This spirit, called a Nahual, can help its human solve problems, bring luck, etc. It reminded me a lot of the animal totems of Native cultures in the United States and Canada. Many Mayans believe that they’re tied into our personality traits based on the Mayan horoscope and the day that we’re born. As I dug a bit deeper, I found out that certain shamans in Mayan culture are believed to be able to actually take the form of their Nahual. Ha! Shape-shifters!
Another interesting tie-in was a second universal theme: the existence of life force or energy. As I researched, I found that the Mayans believe there is an energy field that originates in the divine and flows through all things. The easiest to pronounce word that I found for it was k’ul, so that’s what I used. The Mayan language looks very complex to the eye and can seem daunting to read. So I went with Mayan words that I thought would be most appealing to the eye. I added it to my shape-shifter culture, writing it so that the shifters had more of this energy than others and that is what allowed them to take on the animal forms of their spirit companions. Add even more k’ul to my protagonist, and poof – extra abilities!
As I wrote, I added other Mayan beliefs to my shape-shifters, as well as some of my own ideas. Over time they become more and more unique (I don’t want to give it all away here). I also decided that tying them to spirit magic rather than a scientific explanation would allow them to be more misunderstood by the people around them. That’s always handy for upping the teen angst factor in a Young Adult novel. That lack of acceptance in the general population also created an innate trust among the shifters in Jaguar Sun that was important to the plot.
As I wrote, the Mayan culture and shape-shifting merged and created a brand new culture that would become the world of Jaguar Sun. There is so much mythology surrounding the two subjects that working with it is like heaven, even as I write Book Two, Jaguar Moon. Since much of the first half of the series takes place in Mexico, I also get to add in lots of Hispanic culture as well. It’s a writer and Spanish teacher’s dream come true.