Some years ago, in the middle of reading a loosely researched novel about New Orleans where “cable cars” zoomed down the “median” on St. Charles Avenue, I decided I would never write about a place I had not, at the very least, visited for an extended time. In New Orleans we had streetcars, and we had “the neutral ground.” These well-intentioned mistakes pulled me right out of the story, a sin an author hopes never to commit–although sadly, we all do at one time or another.
For the most part I’ve followed my own guidelines. I’ve only written about one country I’ve yet to visit, and since I really couldn’t go back in time to Morocco during World War II, I felt somewhat justified for doing it. I did, though, write about a woman named Elisa Martinez, who was escaping criminal prosecution in Guatemala. And although Endless Chain wasn’t set there, Guatemala and the country’s recent internal struggles, were a large part of the background. As I wrote the novel, I was sorry I hadn’t traveled there first.
When the chance came to go to Guatemala with a human rights delegation from my church and see the country first hand, I knew from my research that this would not be an easy trip. We would see the aftermath of a civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people, and left at least another 40,000 missing. Many of the dead were innocent Mayan villagers whose families are still struggling to put their lives back together. We would meet with them, and with the courageous people who are attempting to help, despite death threats and a bureaucracy determined to keep this “silent holocaust” a secret.
A trip like this one can be daunting and depressing, or it can be filled with tributes to the human spirit. This trip was both. Years will pass before I know exactly what I took away from Guatemala besides lovely handwoven fabric and an upset stomach. But I know the images of men and women trying to find justice for the thousands who are gone, despite danger to their own lives, will never leave me.
As I made my way into one of the very places where Elisa’s husband might have met his death, did I find that I should have been there before I wrote the novel? I’m really not sure. As we rounded the corner on one very treacherous mountain road, I looked ahead of me and the entire scene was clear, as if it were really happening, just the way I had written it.
I know I was blessed to imagine Endless Chain, to imagine Sam Kinkade and Elisa Martinez and the events that brought them together. My story brought me to this little church in the Mayan Highlands and, I hope, to a new understanding.
There were so many other and lighter moments on the trip, and I will share them next time.