Discovery Process on a Research Trip

Research Trip: Plan for No Plan

My day job is ghostwriting. My current project is a thriller. The culmination of the story takes place at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. 
Pictures, Google Maps, and other resources cannot replace the experience of being on site. 
The author had personal reasons for visiting over and above the story. She wanted to connect with relatives she had never met. I had several plot points I wanted to clarify.

  • a place to hide the story’s MacGuffin
  • the best place for the killer to attack the protagonist
  • the setting for the denouement where the evil mastermind is overcome by the protagonist

Discovery Process

We arrived in the evening with no set plans other than to walk all of the archeological site of Chichen Itza. Tired and hungry we met for dinner on the terrace of our hotel and spa. The evening air was warm, musicians played guitars, our dinner was delicious. The author went to the front desk to ask if they knew any tour guides who were in her related family. The host pointed to the musicians and said that one.
A few minutes later Jaime Uh Mar Rufo joined us at our table and the rest of the trip was filled with excursions.

The following morning we were up before sunrise to watch the sun come up over the Warrior Temple and the Chac-mool stone statue that held the head of the sacrificial ball team captain.

While Jaime explained the mathematics of the Kukulkan Pyramid I was searching for the spot where the MacGuffin could hide in plain sight.
We continued our walk around the main site, learned about the incredible competitive ball games between competing communities, learned to recognize repeated symbols like the serpent, the jaguar, the eagle, and the monkey. I found the place to hide the MacGuffin. And, as we were leaving we saw the guards for the archeological site clustered in one place, making it much easier for my characters to sneak in at night.
We returned to the hotel for breakfast and invited Jaime to join us. He was a non-stop source of Mayan lore. At home he and members of his family speak Mayan, not Spanish.
After breakfast we continued our tour to the old city. For the first hour, no one else was with us while we spent time at the oldest building, Akab Dzib, the house of mysterious writing. Exploring the plants and trees and the nearby sink hole I found the site where the protagonist confronts the evil antagonist and wins. Two down, one to go. 
Hot and tired, we walked back and encountered the thousands of tourists that arrive each day streaming in to the archeological site. Along the trail back to the hotel, among the trees, I found the right spot for the hired killer to attack the protagonist and her group of friends.

The Extra Added Bonus

PictureJaime teaching us to count with Mayan symbols. This piece of obsidian is either zero or twenty depending on whether the curved side is up or down.

You’ll learn more from your on site visits if you are friendly and happy. Ask questions and pay attention to answers so you can ask more questions. In another article on research I talk about the mind set for being open to learning from people you meet.
Being open to what people have to share leads to deepening your knwledge. It’s the biggest benefit to doing on-site research. Because of our interest in natural healing and local plants, Jaime invited us to his home the following day to meet with his mother-in-law who is a local healer. He translated for us since she spoke no Spanish or English, only Mayan.
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The neighbors were celebrating a Hesme (Mayan baby blessing) with a party afterward and we were invited. Everyone was friendly, open, and welcoming.  I met and talked with the community wise man (Jaime translating). 

Stay Open to Experience

Our research trip was a brief two days on site but I gathered so much material for the story. Things I never would have thought of without being there. Staying open and communicating clearly are two skills every author needs for the surprise discoveries an on site research trip provides.

  • Plan ahead for basics
  • Be prepared for anything
  • Stay open to offers from locals
  • Take notes
  • Take pictures

Once you are home write your scene descriptions using the material you gather on your on-site research adventure.

Zara Altair
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.

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