Category Archives: Aztec Midnight

Messages on missiles: Here is a Sugar Plum for You!

Sling bulletsAncient Greek sling bullets with engravings. One side depicts a winged thunderbolt, and the other, the Greek inscription “take that” in high relief.

Ancient Origins has a great introductory article on slings.

I’ve long been fascinated by primitive weapons, and I think every fantasy author should know the basics of the ones he writes about. Not only does such knowledge add authenticity to the story, but helps the author get a feel for the artistry and discipline involved in mastering such a weapon. You don’t just pick up a sling and start hitting your target. The video below of a slinging competition will give you an idea of the deadliness of this elegant and simple weapon:

In my novella Aztec Midnight, the protagonist, Jon Barrett, learned how to use the sling from an elderly Mescalero Apache in Texas. Alone and defenseless in Cuernavaca, he must track down the drug cartel members who have kidnapped his wife. Barrett constructs a sling on the run, and approaches the cartel’s hideout. It’s night, and he can hear a guard treading back and forth on the dark front porch. How can Barrett take the guard down without alerting the others inside?

Precious minutes slipped by. Nothing stirred. In the distance, another train approached Cuernavaca station. Its whistle barely rose above the subdued rumble.

A ghostly silhouette appeared at the end of the porch. I realized the guard had moved in front of a shaded window. Its glow barely formed an outline. I had to take my chance. After placing the roundest rock in the pouch, I stepped forward and swung the sling. The release felt perfect.

The outlined figure did not react. Then the speeding rock tore into bushes and trees on the other side of the yard, and the guard jerked his head toward the sound.

This was my last chance. I took another step forward, slipped a rock into the pouch, swung as smoothly as I could, and released the string.

That passage still makes my blood pump.

Okay, I’ve worked at the computer long enough. Time to change, grab my sling kit, and jog down to the park for some target practice.

The Power of Body Language


Are you frustrated with your characters? Are they slowing down what should be a gripping, page-turning story? Maybe it’s time you got them off their rear ends and put them to work.

In my re-writes, I search the text for characters who THINK rather than ACT. When I spot a cerebral, lackluster character, I start re-staging the scene like a director, deciding how the characters should approach and look at one another. When I’ve done my job, every character will be in motion. His tone of voice, eye movements, expressions, and stance will reflect and amplify his emotions and attitudes. THEN each character can tell a compelling story.

Body language is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. When we express our characters’ emotions and thoughts in concrete, physical terms, we pull the reader deeper into the story.

In my sci-fi short story Aquarius, the protag, Joni Lingg, leads a shadowy organization within NASA through intimidation and the power of her personality. But why TELL when it’s more fun and intriguing to SHOW:

I once saw her chew out an Air Force major. I was in the next room, and could hear nothing, but could see them clearly through a window. Joni, a short brunette with the face of a child, was enraged, jabbing her finger and thrusting her tiny chin at the major, her blue eyes blazing in fury. The major took it like a confused, whipped puppy.

In Aztec Midnight, I could have had the first-person narrator just say he hits his low point when he’s thrown into a Mexican jail and feels like giving up. But this is more emotionally engaging:

In the dark, drunks with slouching shoulders gave way to grim-faced men with dead eyes and scarred forearms. I found myself being swept along with the drunks. The lone bench in the back was filled with Cuernavaca’s meanest residents, and I didn’t feel like another fight. I leaned against the unyielding bars and shut my eyes. The pressure of the cold metal against my throbbing head and back barely registered. There was no fight left in me, no strength. I had no idea of the time or what I could do next.

Hazy minutes passed by while I propped myself up against the bars. There was no clock. I guessed I’d been in the hole at least two hours. My eyes burned when I shut them.

The reason body language is so evocative is because we are social beings. Long before the invention of language, our physical reactions communicated to others vital information about what we were experiencing. Facial expressions, gestures, and posture came long before the invention of language. The ability to “read” body language is more fundamental, and therefore more moving, than reading written language. So the more physical we can make the story, the more real it is to the reader.

Recent research in neuroscience tells us that when we think about an action, we activate the motor area of the mind that controls that action. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners show that when a subject reads about kicking, for example, the area of the brain that controls kicking “lights up.” There’s an exciting new theory of language called “Embodied Cognition,” which can be summed up as, “We understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”

That’s why other researchers have found that the brains of those who read powerful stories are changed by those stories. Indeed, reading vivid stories actually creates “muscle memory” in the brain as if the reader had actually lived the events in the story.

No wonder my feet hurt after reading Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. That was quite a trek.

Psychology Today offers a useful introduction to body language. If you want to rev up your stories, learn the basics of body language and, like a stage director, guide your characters’ movements so they reinforce what your characters feel and think.

Cuernavaca: a tourist destination in hell?

Aztec Midnight Church

I’ve long been fascinated with American Indian culture, and have quite a collection of artifacts. My interest inspired my short story Gooseberry (now free on the publisher’s web site) and Aztec Midnight. So it was especially gratifying to see this generous review on Amazon (and from a “Book Goddess” with a PhD!):

As a professor of American Indian Studies, I’m always wary about misrepresentation of of diverse Indian peoples and cultures. I have no qualms about Tuggle’s research for his novella, Aztec Midnight.It’s packed with action, starting ominously. We discover that Dr. Jon Barrett and his university librarian wife Susanna, are in Cuernavaca for two reasons; she to take a Spanish immersion class and he to find and identify a mysterious Aztec knife. An archaeologist, he specializes in the history of pre-Columbian weapons at the University of Texas in Austin. What Susanna does not know is that he is working for the US Department of State on a mission to help stop drug cartels.

Further plot description would be a spoiler, so it suffices to say that Susanna is kidnapped by a powerful drug cartel. It wants the knife, used far in the past for a sacred ritual in which the hearts are ripped out of those to be sacrificed. It has deadly magical powers, and the leader of the cartel wants to use it to destroy the Mexican government. Jon must choose between rescuing his wife or losing her if he does not deliver. His narrative speeds up as he has only five hours to find Susanna. He is chased, jailed, and then abducted by the cartel.I won’t reveal the astonishing ending.

Tuggle also excels in description. Although Cuernavaca sounds like a tourist destination in hell, his rendering of the population is sympathetic and colorful. The author may not realize he has created a power couple worthy of more adventures. The seemingly nerdy professor and his wife are courageous and smart; they deserve a series of their own. I’m looking forward to a sequel!

Cristian Mihai Reviews Aztec Midnight


From Cristian Mihai: “This novella is one hell of a roller coaster ride. It’s got just the right amount of suspense, well delivered, to make me want to get to the end as soon as possible. The dialogue is excellent, the plot flows in a natural manner. The story works. It just does.”

Read the rest of Aztec Midnight: a novella by M.C. Tuggle at Cristian Mihai’s blog.

The real drug chief from Aztec Midnight

Aztec Midnight

This in-depth report from Bloomberg Business examines the aftermath of the arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. “El Chapo” was not only the real-life figure I modeled my character Hermanito on for Aztec Midnight, he also inspired the name of the book’s Mexican drug cartel that Hermanito led, the Chapos. Guzman combined peasant shrewdness with naked savagery to run his empire:

U.S. and Mexican authorities hailed the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in the Pacific coast town of Mazatlan as a major victory in their war on drugs. A year later the power vacuum caused by his absence is fueling chaos on the streets of Chicago and Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. …

Guzman secured his near-mythic status by escaping from prison in a laundry cart in 2001 and later unleashing an assassination spree of rival drug lords. Afterward he controlled much of the narcotics entering the U.S. His nickname—“Shorty” in English—belied his outsize reputation. A grade-school dropout, he transformed the drug trade by centralizing everything from warehousing and distribution to collection and transport of money back to Mexico. Five months before his arrest, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s top official in Chicago at the time, Jack Riley, called Guzman “a logistical genius.” Guzman instilled such fear that he could enforce his rule in northern U.S. cities far from his heavily guarded compound in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains.

Brilliant, daring, ruthless, and ambitious — what more could you ask for in a fantasy/thriller villain?

An Aztec Midnight Reader in Mexico

I received the following email and pics from a reader of Aztec Midnight currently vacationing in Mexico. I thought I’d share them:

Finished reading your book while down here in Mexico, Mike. You did your homework. Great story! And the street scenes are right out of your book.

Mexican Street Scene

In Puerto Vallarta for three weeks. Be back in Iceland, I mean Ohio next week. Going out on my friend’s boat Friday for a two day fishing trip.


Since you mentioned pulque in the book I thought you might like to know we’ve been drinking our own private stock we got up in Guadalajara.


Keep up the good work! John

Thanks, John! I appreciate your comments. Enjoy your trip! (And careful with the pulque.)

On Location: “Aztec Midnight”

Want to see pictures of the various sites where much of the action in Aztec Midnight takes place? Then you need to check out Pinterest.

Calle Revolución in Cuernavaca, the U.S. State Department headquarters in D.C., the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, the Tepozteco archaeological site in Tepoztlan — there’s even a picture of the magical lair where it all came together (aka, my humble little office). Check it out.


We Are Not The World


Sarah Hoyt reminds us how presumptuous and simply wrong-headed it is to imagine the rest of the world is just like us, only dressed differently. As she puts it, “I don’t think anyone realizes just how different the texture of life is elsewhere.”

She’s right. My wife and I spent three weeks in a village in central Mexico where I researched Aztec Midnight. Though I’d been in the country before, I was not prepared for what I encountered.

The locals we met were extremely hospitable, generous, and eager to talk to us. I admired how social they are — we attended a birthday party for a 75-year-old man we’d just met, and our hosts kept offering us homemade rum and beer, pastries, and enchiladas. They love to fiesta.

But Mexicans are indeed different. There’s a certain Mexican attitude that encompasses both cheerfulness and fatalism, and it’s expressed with a grin and a shrug of the shoulders. Their national character is a striking contrast to American triumphalism.

The more we learn about others, the more we can appreciate who we are.

Beauty and the Ideal Man


Far from making him appear “sissy,” an appreciation of beauty is essential to channeling a man’s natural inclinations into supporting vital social goals and making him a better man, says Jared Silvey:

This stronger inclination to fighting is not, in itself, automatically directed to either good or evil. It has the potential to go either way. It can be directed to good, as in the case of fighting to defend one’s country against unjust aggression, or to evil, as in the cases of murder, rape, and other acts of unjust violence.

Beauty here enters the picture by helping to direct this male inclination to aggression and fighting to a worthy end. This is because real beauty is always found wherever there is truth and goodness, and it strengthens the attraction these other two values exert on the human person. It moves a man to defend whatever is good and true. The beautiful maiden is a potent spell which carries the knight into the field of battle. It can be said that there is no one the enemy should fear more than a man who enters into battle with his lady in his heart. Beauty makes men fighters because it first makes them lovers.

Silvey observes that even the caveman found time to make cave paintings, whereas “today’s tech-savvy, fast-food fed, materialistic West places more emphasis on money, things, efficiency, and instant gratification.” Modern consumerism transforms everything into a commodity, even sex. To salvage the humanity within us, we need to slow down, stop envying what we’re told we’re supposed to have, and rediscover the joy of simple, direct living.

Jon Barrett, the hero of my novella Aztec Midnight, feels a mystical connection to the beauty of ancient weapons when he enters the vault at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Cuernavaca:

I stepped into a long, darkened room full of rows of tables. The only illumination came from ultraviolet lamps. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relic-friendly lighting. I slowly recognized piles of Aztec, Mayan, Toltec, and Spanish colonial artifacts on each table. As I gazed at the long rows of deadly and finely crafted weapons from four heroic cultures, my heart beat just a bit faster than normal. It felt like Christmas morning.

I think Jon Barrett would agree with Dostoevsky’s observation that “Beauty will save the world.” Appreciating beauty, like striving for a sound mind in a healthy body, is a vital part of being a whole man.