Last week, Splickety published my most recent flash fiction story “Returning Home” in their Heirs and Spares issue. If you haven’t read it yet, you can get a print or digital copy or check it out on Kindle. And as is my new tradition, this week I wanted to write a little behind-the-scenes post about writing it.
The moment I learned about this month’s theme (royal intrigue), I knew I wanted to put a unique spin on it. Also, based on feedback to my Splickety submission from a few months ago, I wanted to make sure I highlighted the main characters as teenagers (which seems to be a driving force of this year’s themes).
One thing that tripped me up early in the process was wondering whether I was supposed to invent royalty or take inspiration from historical figures. I thought it might be easy to see through something totally made up, so I opted to base it on real royalty. Since I expected many submissions would take place in white European settings (or at least be inspired by them), I wanted to set my story apart from the majority by staying away from that setting.
I’ve held a mild interest in Maya history/culture since visiting Guatemala with my family in high school. We lived with a host family on two separate occasions, and visited Tikal during both trips. And since I received good feedback on a story set in Maya culture last year, I thought it would be a good fit for this prompt. But that meant research.
In that vein, one of the first tidbits I learned while researching is the fact that “Maya”—rather than “Mayan”—is the right adjective to use. “Maya” is used when describing elements of their culture (Maya people, Maya history, etc.), while “Mayan” specifically refers to the language family. The more you know!
I started researching by trolling through Wikipedia for names of Maya rulers. (Don’t worry—real research does come into play later.) I figured I could get a feel for the royal dynamic in different Maya city-states and develop a short story about brothers conniving for the throne, or perhaps a forbidden love between members of rival kingdoms. This is where serendipity comes in.
While reading through articles, I learned about Dos Pilas and its relationship with Tikal. It was … complicated. Dos Pilas was a smaller settlement than Tikal, which was one of the powerhouses of its time. Its king claimed to be part of Tikal’s royal line, but its allegiance bounced between them and Calakmul (another major power) over the years.
If that doesn’t set the stage for royal drama, I don’t know what does.
The relevant information was scattered through a few different articles, but I pieced together the gist of Dos Pilas and Tikal’s relationship, the main players, and an inkling of what a short story could look like. At this point, I used Wikipedia’s references to track down Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin. It helped flesh out a few more details, gave more credibility to certain name translations, and generally bolstered my confidence that this story could work.
Not that “Returning Home” is 100% historically accurate. I definitely took liberties with Bajlaj Chan’s and Nuun Ujol’s ages to better fit with the teenage element, and there aren’t many details about why the two were at odds. Nevertheless, the broad strokes about the two of them being brothers and the contentious relationship between the sites do have a basis in history.
Speaking of the kingdoms, you’ll notice that neither Tikal, Dos Pilas, nor Calakmul get name-dropped in “Returning Home.” That’s because those are our modern names for the settlements. In the Mayan language, Tikal was likely called “Mutal” … at least until Dos Pilas was founded and began using the same name/emblem glyph. At this point, Tikal started being known as “Yax Mutal”—the first Mutal. Dos Pilas is a Spanish name meaning “Two Wells,” though it was probably known as Mutal in its heyday. To avoid the confusion of two locations named “Yax Mutal” and “Mutal,” I used this Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary website to create a name based on the Mayan words for two wells (“Kach’en”). Similarly, Ox Te’Tuun was the Mayan name for Calakmul. It was unfortunate that all these place names took twice the word count, so I tried to limit using them as much as possible! (That’s also why Nuun Ujol only calls his younger brother “Bajlaj” instead of his full name, Bajlaj Chan.)
The only other name in the story is Coyopa, which is taken from the Maya god of thunder. It seemed like an appropriate name for a loyal war general. Yajaw, which is mentioned a couple of times in the story, is the Mayan word for “vassal lord,” which I thought gave the story the right amount of additional flavor.
Once I had the setting and premise of the story, it came together quickly. Like “The Journal of Wonders,” I wanted dialogue to drive most of the story. I thought focusing on a time before the kingdoms officially turned on one another would allow the brothers to have the type of conversation that could reliably drive a story. Nuun Ujol needed to already be convinced that Bajlaj Chan wanted to usurp him, so I wanted this scene to focus on the younger brother’s realization that he was no longer welcome in Yax Mutal. I was pleasantly surprised with the way it came together allowing me to contrast Bajlaj’s definitions of “home” at the beginning and end of the story, giving the title a nice double-meaning.
There you have it! You can see from this post that a big chunk of this story was research and prep work, and it came together … comparatively quickly after those. You probably know more about Maya history now than you ever expected to learn, but I hope you still enjoyed reading about the process and maybe even had a few questions answered. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask them below!