I’m doing a series on stories I started but never finished. In most cases there are good reasons why I didn’t finish them, but these lost stories also hide some gems of potential, some things I’d like to share–and it’s an interesting lens through which to see my development as a writer. In many cases, you can see the seeds of things I have published embedded in these stories that didn’t make it.
The Meso-American Project
This story never had even a working title, so far as I can remember, which is odd given how seriously I pursued it–I did a great deal of research, wrote copious notes and partial drafts on scenes and narration, and spent several years developing characters. I fully intended to complete the story and publish it. I was 12 to 15 years old.
The premise of the book was that there was once a technologically advanced culture in the Americas that eventually destroyed itself, leaving only hints of its existence in the folklore of those societies that came afterwards, such as the Maya. My story was set a generation or more before that destruction. Its protagonist was the “historical” basis of the god variously called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs or Kukulkan by the Maya.
If this premise sounds familiar, there is good reason–it’s not original. The idea that Meso-American culture hides hints of some wondrous past keeps turning up. I suspect that the ultimate root of the trope is racist, reflecting the assumption that the people of the Americas couldn’t possibly develop monumental architecture, writing, astronomy, and mathematics on their own. But I was ignorant of such considerations as a preteen.
I was aware of several versions of the trope, but was specifically inspired by the TV series, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which is worth a whole discussion in its own right. I do not think that my story would have had enough recognizable similarity to the series to cause legal problems–as I said, the premise is a common one, and I used none of the series’ characters, settings, or plot elements. My story was set thousands of years earlier. But the historical fact of the matter is that’s where I got the idea.
Curiously, although my intention was to base my story on actual historical and anthropological material (which is why I read up on Meso-American culture and history), I also treated Cities of Gold as if it were an accurate historical resource. I’m not sure why I did that–I knew the series was fiction, and I never assumed it was well-researched. Maybe I just had no practice thinking logically yet.
In any case,according to my reading, Quetzelcoatl (his Aztec name), was, according to legend, a divine king who gave his people many of their cultural practices (including the recipe for guacamole). Eventually, his downfall was engineered by a rival divine figure, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzelcoatl abandoned his kingdom, sailing away on a boat made of snakes. Before he left, he promised to return when his people needed him. Please don’t quote any of this, as I haven’t read anything on the subject in 30 years.
In my story, Feathered Serpent (a common translation of the name Quetzelcoatl), was an entirely human person who was born with birth defects that made him look vaguely feathered. The people of his culture take this as a sign that he is an incarnate god. Although in this society the new monarch is elected by the nobles, not appointed by the previous monarchy (think how the succession of the Pope works), this funny-looking boy is declared the heir to the throne because of his supposed divine status.
The boy grows up insisting that he is not divine, but few believe him. He is orphaned as a baby and raised largely by palace servants, so he is chronically lonely. He’s also brilliant, with rather startling gifts in science, engineering, and public speaking. He’s somewhat melancholy, but an unquestionably good person. From childhood, his best friends are a commoner girl who calls him on his self-pity and self-involvement, and his science tutor, Oeli, who is not that much older than he is (I forget the girl’s name). Both treat him as an ordinary person, which he very much needs.
He grows up to be a fantastic monarch, and also invents a lot of useful things, working in partnership with Oeli–all scientific stuff, though, no guacamole.
Eventually, the two of them invent a nuclear reactor. Shortly thereafter, Feathered Serpent realizes that his discovery could also be used to make a nuclear bomb. Full of remorse, and terrified that he might next invent something even worse, he destroys his research notes and goes into exile, sailing away alone on a boat.
After he leaves, a political rival attempts to discredit him, arguing that Feathered Serpent must have left because he raped his own daughter. The daughter, by then a young woman, denies this and she and Oeli, with difficulty, launch a successful political campaign to save Feathered Serpent’s reputation. The End.
Ok, the plot is a little thin and, in places, unbelievable. I never put very much effort into it, being much more interested in character development and world-building. I ultimately abandoned the project because I got distracted by other parts of my life. But, even in retrospect, there are aspects of the project that I see as genuinely good.
Looking back, I’m pleased by how different from our world my setting was. I set out to create a fictional society that could believably belong to the American, not the European cultural lineage–I don’t think I ever understood pre-Columbian America well enough to succeed, but at least I was approaching that part of the project with an open mind. The juxtaposition of advanced scientific knowledge with the assumption that a funny-looking kid should be made emperor because he’s obviously a god–that wasn’t sloppiness on my part. It was a deliberate exploration of the idea that different societies develop in different ways. Frankly, I think that’s pretty good for a 12-year-old.
Feathered Serpent was the first character I put together by allowing him to grow through inspiration from multiple layers of existing characters–that’s still the primary technique I use today, although now my inspirations are usually real people (the finished character doesn’t resemble the model except by coincidence). He was deep, multifaceted, and relate-able, as were several of the other characters, notably Oeli. I still believe that, given a stronger plot, these characters could have carried a successful novel.
And they may yet do so. I have not intentionally “mined” characters from my creative past, but once developed, these people tend to find their own way back into print. Most haven’t been published yet, but they are on their way.
The Meso-American project was the first appearance of many patterns that have recurred in my fiction.
- My rather abortive attempt at research reflected a feeling that fiction ought to be based closely on fact–except for those places where the author takes leave of reality deliberately. I still have that conviction, which is why I spent almost ten years researching my first novel, To Give a Rose.
- Feathered Serpent and Oeli are both extraordinarily intelligent people and they are also both particularly gifted in science. Obviously, I like writing about science–To Give a Rose is deeply rooted in science, as are a lot of my other projects (although the Meso-American project wasn’t). But just as much, I like writing about scientists. I also like writing about geniuses. Not all geniuses are scientists, and not all scientists are geniuses, but I’ve always been fascinated by, drawn to, both groups. I like writing about geniuses, scientists, or genius scientists. To Give a Rose follows that pattern, as does The School with No Name, as does my novel-in-progress, Ecological Memory. I never noticed this pattern until recently, but looking back, the Meso-American project started it.
- Oeli enters the story specifically as a science teacher, although his friendship with Feathered Serpent quickly becomes one of equals. School with No Name and the novel in progress, Ecological Memory, also have relationships with science teachers at their centers. I like teachers, both personally (most of my friends are teachers, and some were even once my teachers) and creatively. Other people write about lovers or parents or best friends, but I tend to write about teachers and students. That kind of relationship is very fertile ground for me.
- The whole story was set in a society that I made up. So is almost everything I’ve written since, to one degree or another. I don’t like writing about the “normal” world, although until recently I wasn’t aware of that preference.
- I envisioned the book as the first of a series of inter-related novels and short stories, a form of organization I’m not sure I’d actually encountered at that point (though of course I’ve found other authors using it since–I wasn’t the first one to get the idea). The idea of placing multiple novels and short stories in the same world but not uniting them with a continuing plot or shared group of characters, still fascinates me. Ecological Memory may end up following this pattern.
The Meso-American project was the most fully-developed story that I never finished, a novel-length work for which I did all the pre-writing, as well as first drafts for most of the major scenes. Nothing else I’ve ever done was that long and got so far. The main reasons that it didn’t progress to a complete first draft were 1) that my notes and partial drafts were all hand-written and my hand-writing was illegible at the time and 2) my mind was fairly disorganized at that point in my life and not really up to writing down scenes in the order of their appearance.
Adolescence is a beast, ya know?