Posts Tagged ‘articles’

Food in Mesoamerica – The Four Staples (History)

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Mexican food is probably my favorite food there is; I love burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and chile rellenos, though I do find it difficult to handle the hotter sauces (I blame my having grown up eating a steady diet of bland American food). Much of the Mexican food eaten in the United States isn’t authentic Mexican food, but rather Tex-Mex, an Americanized cuisine heavy with cheeses and meats and uses non-Mexican spices such as cumin. Though even authentic Mexican food is different from the true authentic foods of the Americas. The diets of the Pre-Conquest native tribes were broad and flavorful, and while they greatly influenced modern Mexican cuisine, much has gone missing. Over the course of several blog posts, we’ll take a look at food in Mesoamerica, starting with the basic stables of the Mesoamerican diet: maize, beans, squash, and chile.

Food in Mesoamerica - Maize

Maize came in all manner of colors and shapes.

Maize – The Most Important Cereal

The maize plant was domesticated early in human history and practically every part of the plant is edible at one stage or another. The Aztecs made sweet drinks from it, or ground it and added it to water to make atole, a sort of watery-mash consumed daily at the noon hour. They had countless varieties of tlaxcala (tortillas), each made from a different type of maize, and they there were just as many varieties of tamales, made with various meats and maize dough wrapped in maize husks, for easy transportation. During times of famine, they even ate the tassels. There was no more important ingredient in all the Americas than maize, and this is reflected in how many tribes worshiped it in deity form; Centeotl to the Aztecs, “First Father” to the Maya, and Zaramama to the Inca.

Food in Mesoamerica - beans

Beans, beans, the magical fruit….

Beans – the Protein Powerhouse

The domestication of beans in the New World began around the time of Christ and the Aztecs used a wide variety in their food as a primary source of protein. They were mostly boiled and eaten in stews, though they were also baked and ground into powder for later reconstitution. Some of the common and most popular beans were string beans, Lamon, ayacotli (scarlet runner), and sieva beans. The Lamon bean in particular became a big hit with the Italians and stories speak of them being among the tribute sent to the Pope by Charles V after the conquering of the Americas.

Food in Mesoamerica - squash

Aztec nobility drank their chocolate in calabash cups.

Squash – the Earliest Dinnerware

Squash finishes out the traditional triad of Mesoamerican foodstuffs. Domestication of squash plants predates the invention of pottery in the Americas, for hollowed out calabash gourds were used as cups and bowls even as late as the Aztec period. Like maize, the Mesoamericans utilized practically all parts of the plant, eating them either cooked or raw, but the most important part of the squash was the seeds, which could be boiled, or baked then ground into powder to make sauces or added to water or juice.

Food in Mesoamerica - chile

If you were a naughty child, your mother might have held you over these while they roasted.

Chile – the Forgotten Staple

The final staple is the chile. Most historians only name maize, beans, and squash as the most important ingredients in Mesoamerican diet, but chile is just as pervasive. The native tribes cultivated three species of chile and they used them in practically every dishes. In fact, chile was so important that when one performed religious penance, one gave up both salt and chile for the duration of that time. They used the fumes from roasting them to not only fumigate their homes of bugs, but to also discipline unruly and defiant children; there’s even stories of it being used as a chemical weapon when stuffed along with smoldering ash into gourds and thrown over the walls of enemy fortresses. The natives ate chiles raw, cooked, dried and ground, mixed in stews, in sauces, and cooked onto meat; they even added chile powder to their cups of chocolate.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some other popular food items, some of them readily recognizable while others might make your stomach turn.

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Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: Three Tellings (Mythology)

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The Bone Flower Throne takes place in the mythical-historical world of 10th century Mexico, at the beginning of the Toltec Period. In the south, the mighty Maya Empire was in sharp decline, and the major civic and religious center in the Valley of Mexico–Teotihuacan–had been abandoned for at least a hundred years, leaving a handful of small city-states around the valley to vying for supremacy. Eventually, the city of Tollan (Tula) would emerge as the powerhouse, lead by her priest-king ruler named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl; a man shrouded in mystery and controversy.

Who was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl?

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

Legendary Priest-King Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

England had King Arthur, Mesoamerica had Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. He was a legendary ruler who united all the city-states under his rule in Tollan and infuriated the gods when he outlawed human sacrifice. There are numerous stories about his life, where he came from, and how he died (or in some cases became the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl), each one as different as the next, but his importance as a cultural hero is irrefutable; the Mexica emperors of Tenochtitlan claimed to be his blood descendents, holding his throne in anticipation of his promised return, and some sources even claim (erroneously) that the Emperor Moctezuma thought Cortes and his men were Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and his followers returning from exile.

Not much is known–historically-speaking–about the Toltecs and their famous king, for much of what we know was passed down orally by the Mexica, and like many before them, they likely twisted and changed the tellings to benefit their own interests. Tollan is an actual place though, with magnificient ruins that include Atlantean  warrior statues and numerous temples decorated with reliefs of eagles and coyotes. The word “Toltec” means “artisan” in Nahuatl, and all the archeological evidence found in pottery and sculpture supports that attribute. It’s unknown if Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was ever a real, historical figure but the Mexica and many other tribes treated him as such.

My favorite source for the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is the book Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs by H. B. Nicholson. It is the single most comprehensive collection of the stories about the legendary priest-king, drawn straight from the original Nahuatl sources. If you have an interest in Topiltzin, I highly recommend it, to get you started. Below are some of the myths that informed my own vision of the world portrayed in The Bone Flower Throne.

Juan Caños Relaciones

This source is a mixture of two known sources which were thought to derive from a third unknown source of some antiquity. It takes its name for Juan Cano, who petitioned a Franciscan monk to prepare the account, in an attempt to trace the true lineage of Doña Isabel, or Lady Tecuichpo, daughter of Emperor Moctezuma. Below are the parts that relate to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

After the gods created mankind at Teotihuacan, the Chichimeca group moved to a town called Teocolhuacan and elected their first ever leader, Lord Totepeuh, who has a son he named Topiltzin. Totepeuh though is soon after assassinated by his brother-in-law, who steals Teocolhuacan’s throne for himself.

To properly honor his departed father, Topiltzin buries his father’s bones and builds a temple atop them. This move angers his uncle, but when the man comes to kill him, Topiltzin shoves him down the temple steps, killing him. With his father avenged, Topiltzin takes back the throne of Teocolhuacan and rules there for a number of years.

Inspired by the gods, eventually Topiltzin gathers his followers and takes them on a fourteen year journey that ends when they finally reach Tollan, which is only then a small Chichimec settlement. Topiltzin and his men build it into a grand city, and he rules prosperously for twelve years.

But trouble is brewing; during those twelve years, he’s forbidden anyone to perform human sacrifices in Tollan, and the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca have taken note of this blasphemy. They demand he start offering human sacrifices again, or get out. Mysteriously, instead of dealing with them as he did with his uncle, he decides to abandon Tollan without any kind of fight. He goes to Tlapala and within two years, he’s dead and everyone mourns for him. Except Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, who are still angry and so don’t allow anyone to rule Tollan for almost a hundred years. Eventually, they permit a blood relative of Topiltzin, a man named Huemac, to take the throne, but his reign ends in disaster when a monster attacks and drives most people from the city.

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

The Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl

Histoyre du Mechique

This is a french copy of a famous lost manuscript once written by Fray Andrés de Olmos.

Topiltzin is born under the name Quetzalcoatl, to the god Camaxtli and the goddess Chimalma, but as the gods are prone to do, Chimalma dies giving birth and so Quetzalcoatl is raised by his grandparents. When he’s reunited with his father and brothers, the latter–in a fit of jealousy–plot to kill him, first by trying to set him on fire, then shooting arrows at him.

He escapes both murder attempts but refuses to burden his father with the knowledge that his own brothers are trying to kill him. However, when their father confronts the brothers about it, they kill him, and this time, Quetzalcoatl gathers his friends and together they kill his treacherous brothers. To celebrate their victory, they get intoxicated drinking liquor from cups made from his brothers’ skulls.

Once they recover from their revelry, they head for Tollan. Once there, Quetzalcoatl becomes a celibate priest and instructs them in the proper methods of ritual sacrifice, and, in turn, they worship him as a god for the next 160 years.

But then the god Tezcatlipoca arrives to liven things up. He can’t stand Quetzalcoatl (whom he’s adamant isn’t a god at all), so he steals Quetzalcoatl’s rain-making mirror and vandalizes the temple. He then torments the people by transforming into various monsters, showing off how much more powerful he is than Quetzalcoatl. But after he beats up the temple attendants, Quetzalcoatl flees Tollan.Tezcatlipoca follows him though, taunting and attacking him everywhere he tries to settle.

Eventually, Quetzalcoatl can’t take it anymore. He flees into the desert and commits suicide by shooting himself with an arrow. Beside themselves with grief, his followers cremate him, and the smoke gathers in the sky to create the planet Venus.


Atlantean warriors in Tollan.

Anales de Cuauhtitlan

This is a complication of various stories from different sources within the Basin of Mexico and Pueblo, with the details often conflicting with each other. Below are the aspects of these tellings that influenced the story in The Bone Flower throne.

The woman Chimalman becomes pregnant with Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl after swallowing a turquoise or jade stone. His uncle Ihuitimal rules Tollan while Topiltzin is young, but once he dies, Topiltzin takes the throne. He grew up a very religious young man and carries this over into his rule, building all kinds of temples and penance houses, and offering only sacrifices of butterflies, snakes, and birds. He keeps himself out of the public eye during his reign, remaining sequestered away to live the proper life of a celibate priest.

Angry about the lack of human sacrifices going on, Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl and Toltecatl plot to drive him from Tollan. Tezcatlipoca sneaks past the guards into Topiltzin’s private sanctuary and shows him his own reflection in an obsidian mirror. Topiltzin is shocked to see how old and ugly he’s become with the years. Claiming to help him feel better about himself, the gods dress him in feathers, to make him beautiful again, and they prepare a magnificent feast. After much effort, they convince him to sample the octli (pulque) and he finds it so delicious that he puts away four cups and insists all his attendants try it as well. With everyone drunk and having a good time, Topiltzin calls for his “sister”, the priestess Quetzalpetatl, and takes her away from her ritual fasting so she too can try the octli. They spend the night neglecting their religious duties, drinking and making merry (and possibly doing other things he’d sworn off as a celibate priest….).

Once dawn comes though, Topiltzin is beside himself with guilt and, having failed at his religious duties, he decides he can’t be ruler of Tollan anymore. Taking his attendants with him, he leaves, but he fails to find anywhere that gives him the joy and love he felt in Tollan. Grieving all he’s lost, he dresses himself in his finest clothes and jewelry, then he sets himself on fire. His burnt heart rises into the heavens as the Morning Star.

Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more of the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and the various gods.

Want to win a digital ARC of The Bone Flower Throne? Click here for details. Contest ends Tuesday September 3rd.

Starting New Novel Projects (Writing)

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Starting new novel projects can be the hardest thing to do. I’m the kind of writer that needs downtime between projects to recharge the batteries, and to find the time and energy to read for pleasure (though I’m going to try to do some of that every night if I can from now on, because my to-be-read pile is really starting to grow out of control.). I usually spend that time doing things like playing video games, or, as already mentioned, reading, or watching Buffy or SVU on DVD. I also spend a lot of time staring at Facebook and Twitter, perhaps hoping something interesting will pop up, or I take lots of naps. Often during this time, I’m working out things in my head and psyching myself up for the work ahead, so in a way I’m still writing, just in my head. But eventually, one must stop the procrastination and start doing some actual work of putting down words to paper…or in most cases these days, to the computer screen. For me, that time is quickly approaching again.

Starting new novel projects

Very soon, I’ll start up work on The Bone Flower Queen, book 2 of the Bone Flower Trilogy. Probably seems pretty late, huh? Well, I have no contract holding me to a deadline under penalty of quartering and “you’ll never work in this town again!”; one of the advantages of working with a small, newer press. But again I’ve already written about half of the book, so the urgency isn’t quite so bad as it would be if I had nothing done. I originally wrote one huge book, and I took the first half and that became The Bone Flower Throne. So what about the second half? Why isn’t it just two books?

Well, there are several big chunks of story missing out of it–important chunks that I skipped over in my newbie eagerness to “get to the good stuff” I’d been building towards the whole time. Further plotting and outlining revealed that I had in fact committed trilogy, despite my efforts to keep it to two books; there’s just too much to fit into a duology.  So there it is. I have two middle sections that need to be written before I can call draft one of book 2 finished, so really, not too bad, but not really like starting a completely new project.

So how do I go about starting new novel projects?

Starting New Novel Projects

The White Page of Doom!

At one time, I was a pantser; I just started writing and let the story take me where it wanted; that’s still how I write short fiction, when I write it. It’s quite easy to keep the full plot arc focused and clear in my head at such short lengths. But when it came to novels, I found myself constantly writing myself into corners, or in some cases off of cliffs. It’s not much hassle to have to back up 500 to 1k words if you make a misstep in a short story, but making that same mistake in a novel could mean having to cut 50k and have to restart where you went wrong. I had to face the fact that when starting new novel projects, planning ahead was the most efficient way to go about it for me. Not that I don’t ever make a wrong turn when plotting out before hand; sometimes I take the easy choice rather then the best one and end up having to go back and rework, but at the early stage I don’t worry about that.

What should you worry about?

Everyone’s got their own way, and I’m not a prescriptivist, so I can only relay my own experience. Typically, I’ll have some specific scenes in mind, and of course characters–I’m not starting anything at all unless I have some characters at least somewhat fleshed out in my mind. But mostly I need an ending before I can start; a theme, characters, a setting, none of that is any good to me without an ending. I have novels that I’d like to write that have nifty ideas and the inklings of characters, but unless I know what I’m aiming for, I won’t even contemplate starting. I have to have something to work towards. Some people can write without a goal in mind; I’ve even heard some say that knowing what happens ahead of time makes them lose interest, but when I hear that, I suspect they’ve never gotten beyond the first draft stage of writing a novel, for how do they maintain interest in the work long enough to do the necessary rewriting and the numerous edits an editor will ask for if they “already know what’s going to happen”?

Once I have an ending in mind, I take the parts I’ve put together and write a rough outline. My friend Janice Hardy recommends writing your query letter at this stage, and having done this with the alternate history romance novel, I think it’s a good idea. It’s much easier to write without a ton of story and side-plots getting in the way of what’s important: the core of the story. The query I wrote during the outlining stage is pretty close to the one I decided to use once I started querying agents, with just some slight rewording. The query also serves to keep me focused on my theme and making sure that everything within the story serves it in some way.

I like a road map, but I don’t need–nor want–turn by turn directions to my ending. There are some things I like to discover along the way, things I like to be surprised about, but I feel most comfortable when I have some intermediate goals to aim for, little inns along the road where I can rest and reassess the road ahead if necessary. I leave the scene by scene for the actual writing stage.

Setting off on the journey.

For me, the hardest part of starting is…well, actually starting to write. Every time I sit down to write the first sentence of a new project, the anxiety mounts and the desire to procrastinate sets in; the doubts creep in, telling me that I suck and I can’t possibly do this, there’s so much work ahead, but the only thing that will quiet this is to actually just start writing. Once I’ve got that first sentence down, no matter how terrible it is, the rest comes easily. Like the old saying goes, it’s like riding a bicycle and next thing I know, I’m 3k deep into the new novel and the juices are flowing and I’m riding the wave of joy that writing gives me.

So how do you get started? Are you a pantser, or maybe you outline that sucker until all you got to do is fill in a few details and you’ve got a first draft? Or maybe you have some alien technology that strips the words directly from your brain while you sleep and transcribes it for you into Word (in which case, why haven’t you patented this tech yet? You could make lots of money selling it to writers like me.). Share what works–and doesn’t work–for you in comments.

Want to win a digital ARC of my forthcoming novel The Bone Flower Throne? Click here for details. Contest ends September 3rd.

Working with Artists

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I recently read an interesting blog post by Jim Hines talking about the process of the cover art design for his novel Snow Queen, and I was struck by how similar it seemed to be to the process I went through to get my website art, so I thought a post about that might be of interest to readers.

I started thinking about trying to get some cool website art when I saw the art my friend Juliette Wade got for her site. Since I’d started having a website, I’d relied mostly on creative commons artwork and photography to decorate it and make it look pretty, but I was never quite satisfied with it. After asking Juliette how much she’s spent for her artwork, I spent some time browsing artist over at Deviant Art (which was where she’d found her artist). I did find quite a few artists that I thought probably could have produced beautiful artwork, but I was stymied by the fact that many of them were overseas and some of them had no English on their DA pages. Some of the artists I seriously considered though were Mauricio Herrera, Carolina Eade, Terese Nielsen, and Rudolph Herczog.

But what I was really looking for though was artwork that reminded me of the illustration that Kurt Huggins and Zelda Devon had done for my Realms of Fantasy story. Eventually I got the crazy idea that maybe they would be interested in doing it, so I sent Zelda an email. I didn’t think they’d actually have the time to take on the project, for they looked very busy with client work on their website, posting up new illustrations almost every other day, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. Besides, I’d exchanged some emails with Zelda a year earlier when I was getting a print of my story’s illustration and so knew I’d at least get a polite note back.

So I was actually quite surprised when Zelda wrote back to tell me that they could take on the project. We exchanged a couple emails discussing pricing and what exactly I was looking for, and though I won’t go into detail about this part, I do want to give a suggestion to anyone looking to commission art, particularly from professional artists: ask them up front how much they would charge for what you have in mind. It’s embarrassing to drastically underbid something. Instead, tell them your idea and get their pricing, and if it’s too much, ask them what they can do for you in the price point you’re looking to spend. And be realistic about what an artist’s time and effort is worth. Also, avoid commissioning from artists that insist on paying the full amount upfront. You should get final say on the final product before you completely pay for it (I commissioned a sculpture from an artist that I paid in full upfront and I ended up not getting to see the final product before she shipped it to me. I was all right with what she’d done, but I could have been out of luck if the artwork hadn’t been up to my satisfaction. Paying half up front and the rest on delivery protects both artist and client.)

Once we’d settled on the scope of the project, Zelda then had me send her detailed descriptions of the characters and a few well-chosen paragraphs from the novel. For the character descriptions, I didn’t go very much into physical characteristics but rather talked about their personalities and background, but for a couple characters I did lay out some stuff that I didn’t want to see done with them; like with Topiltzin, I wanted him to have darker complexion, to avoid the whole Quetzalcoatl as bearded-white-guy interpretation of the myths. I also wanted go with strictly human portrayals of Mayahuel and Topiltzin while I wanted animal characteristics integrated into Smoking Mirror and Mextli. I also really wanted to avoid over-sexualizing Mayahuel, since every piece of art I’ve seen of her has her partially naked, if not fully. I wanted sensuality, not porn, and I passed over considering some really good artists I saw on Deviant Art because their women were ultra-sexualized. I also provided Zelda with some scans of Aztec clothing, which they made really good use of, and I specified that I’d really like a pyramid in the header. I had an image in my head of what I wanted all of this to look like, but decided not give too many specific directions to try to get it to match that. I have some art background, but I haven’t drawn or painted in 15 years now, so I didn’t want to get in their way very much. They’re professional artists and everything I’ve seen of their work shows that they know what they’re doing. And one of the reasons I chose them was that they seem to “get” my work.

sketch_123010With everything turned in, we settled on a deadline of December 31st for completion. (Make sure you do this. Don’t leave the completion date open-ended, for then you might be waiting way too long for your piece. I didn’t set a deadline for the sculpture and so the artist just forgot about it until I poked her about four months later to ask for a status report on it. Yeah, this is the same person who I’d already paid in full….) Kurt and Zelda started some sketching right away (I assume this was the very first sketch they made right after taking the job) but it wasn’t until a couple months later that I received the initial sketch for approval:

I loved it immediately and was really amazed by how well they captured all the characters. I’m not kidding when I say it looked to me like they’d plucked them directly from my brain and drew them on paper; they all look exactly how I picture them. I had some doubts about the lack of pupils in Mextli’s eyes, but decided at that point to let that slide, to see how they’d deal with that in the final painting.

About a week later, Zelda sent me the finish painting for my approval. There was a ton to love about it, but there was also a major color issue. I hemmed and hawed about this for a couple hours, wondering if I should mention it or just accept it as is, because it would be a significant change requiring repainting of three of the characters. And I’m naturally a non-confrontational person, so approaching people to talk about problems is sometimes difficult for me. I think too my previous experience with the sculptor made me hesitate. I’d asked for a change on the piece after seeing the initial pictures and though she agreed to do it, she didn’t send me any follow up pictures to make sure she’d done it right. There was a whole attitude of “I’m done with you now” to the whole thing. But eventually I put on my big-girl panties and decided I had to ask Kurt and Zelda for the change because I just couldn’t live with the flaw. I also took that opportunity to ask them to add pupils to Mextli’s eyes because he just looked vacant without them.

entire illustrationKurt and Zelda were very professional about doing the changes, asking for extra time to get them done and sending follow up scans once they’d finished, and this time everything was spot-on. The final piece has a bit more on it than what you see on the blog.

I put the seal of approval on this one without hesitation and I’m immensely happy with what I got.

And so that’s pretty much it. It was an interesting learning experience for me. If you’re looking to commission some artwork, some tips to consider:

  • Make sure you’re not paying in full upfront, and make sure you get to sign off on the final project before you pay the balance.
  • Set a deadline for delivery, but be reasonably flexible as it approaches.
  • Be specific about things you do and don’t want to see in the art, but also give the artists room to breathe.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for changes.
  • Professionals will keep you informed of progress and delays.

Find More on Facebook

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After an hour of tinkering with Wordbooker, I finally have the blog posts cross-posting to my fan page over at Facebook, so now you can follow me not only here and at LiveJournal, but at FB as well. There’s more reasons to visit the fan page though. There are convention pictures in the photo albums and I will be sharing links related to writing, publishing, agents, and my favorite topic, Aztec mythology and history, of course. Right now you can find links to writing posts by Nancy Fulda and Gareth D. Jones, and this morning I posted a link to a fascinating article about Meso-American food, specifically produce, which includes lovely photographs and a plethora of links to references for further study. Tecpaocelotl’s blog is an interesting read all around, with lots of fascinating articles about Mexican history. I’m going to post more links as I find interesting things that I think would be of interest to readers, hopefully on a daily basis, so it’s worth coming by at least once a day.

So if you’re on Facebook and haven’t yet visited the fan page yet, now’s a good time to start following.