The Origins of Iktalan

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Here are two short pieces about my creation of the world of Iktalan, one about the culture and one about the geography.


The Culture of Iktalan and Tierra Ermosa

The stories I call the Iktalan stories (though they don’t all take place in Iktalan itself) are set in an imaginary world.  The setting initially in my mind for The New Fire was vague, simply a medieval-European-fairytale-sword-and-sorcery setting (as in many of Andre Norton’s books and so many others fantasies). When I started writing the story down I was influenced by the adobe villages, ancient town layouts, and dry-tropical vegetation of the area of Mexico I was living in at the time.  Putting a Hispanic twist on the medieval setting appealed to me.

Tierra Ermosa (a slight corruption of the Spanish “beautiful land”) became the name of the larger territory of the story.  The eastern land of Nueva Hispania (“New Hispania”) was named out of some buried memory, I suppose, since I learned from subsequent reading that Hispania was the Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula.  ‘Hispani’ was the corruption of ‘Hispanic’ I finally settled on to label the people.

The smaller area where Sakela lived needed a non-European name to underline the blending of Hispani and indigenous blood in that area.  I looked at place names in Mexico that were based on indigenous languages.  Those names are difficult for an English speaker to pronounce, so ‘Ixtlan del Rio’ (a town in Nayarit state) metamorphosed into ‘Iktalan’.

The lack of magic or supernatural elements in the story argued for an Earth-bound setting, but the real history of the New World, cursed as it was with Christianity, smallpox, and other disasters, was far too difficult for my simple story.  My story was never intended to be scholarly or literary – merely entertaining.  The first draft was written with only the bare framework of an alternate history and geography in mind.  I thought it would be easier that way, not being bound by facts of history.

However, it is important to me that the setting of the story feel real and hang together as a plausible human development without obvious anachronisms, so I read about life in ancient Rome, the history of Spain, and life in medieval Europe.  The more I read, the more I realized how unlikely my alternate history was, even given an alternate geography.  If you take away Christianity, you take away Islam as well.  If you take away Christianity and Islam, then Spain would not have developed with the flavor it did.  As an example, take the habit of bathing.  The Moslems in Spain bathed, and so, to distinguish themselves, the Christians in Spain associated bathing with the enemy and made the avoidance of bathing a sign of faithfulness to Christianity.  I preferred to imagine that the Hispani of my story kept the Roman habit of bathing.

My world is a pale imitation of the vicious, violent, extravagantly rich and stultifyingly poor world of medieval Europe and the post-Columbian New World.  It is a simple cartoon-like setting against which to enjoy the interplay of human emotions and human interactions which, at their core, do not vary from age to age.


Finding library books to provide background detail and ideas was easier than I expected.  Here are some from which I made notes.  I picked the details I wanted to use and left out the details I wanted to ignore. Although the technology of my world reflects 14th-century Europe, it is not historically accurate, in detail, to any real place or time.

 Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Oxford University Press 1994

A Traveller’s History of Spain, Juan Lalaguna, Interlink Books 1996

Spain: The Root and the Flower, John A. Crow, University of California Press 1985

Life in a Medieval City, Joseph and Frances Gies, Harper Colophon 1981

Daily Life In Medieval Europe, Jeffrey L. Singman 1999

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The Geography of Iktalan and Tierra Ermosa

You won’t find the names Iktalan or Tierra Ermosa on any map. Neither will you find any place that has exactly the geography of my invented land. It is unlikely that the range of terrain and climate I describe would be found within the radius of a few days’ journey on horseback anywhere in the real world – the setting is a patchwork of real places, sewn together by imagination.

Do you remember the 1960’s TV series High Chaparral? Something of the romance of such westerns made the climate and Hispanic-influenced architecture of the south-western U.S.A.  appeal to me for a setting, even though I know the reality of ranch and hacienda life was far less idyllic than I cared to imagine. From many trips to and through the western states, particularly California, remembered glimpses of landscapes made their way into my stories.

The original setting for the hacienda in The New Fire was vaguely based on the countryside of La Purisima Mission (near Lompoc, California) and on Lake Cachuma east of there. The hacienda itself was influenced by one of the restored casas in Old San Diego. However, as the story passed through its first drafts, the land and climate migrated north to a latitude approximating that of Monterrey or Santa Cruz.

On one trip, driving east on Hwy 20 from near Ukiah, California, I wondered if Clear Lake would resemble the lake of Iktalan, but it turned out that the surrounding countryside was too flat and dry. Farther east, though, the land going down into the Sacramento Valley influenced my description of Sakela’s journey from Iktalan to the Rio Pantano.

My Rio Pantano, its swampy estuary, and the bay where the city of Puerto Rey is located bear a resemblance to the Sacramento River and the San Francisco Bay area, albeit on a much smaller scale. The scale poses a problem of logic – a smaller valley would feed a smaller river which wouldn’t carry enough sediment to create a swampy delta… Yet not all my invention is unlikely. I read somewhere (the reference is regrettably lost) that one of the reasons for building the first fort on Alcatraz Island was to make it more difficult for enemy ships to enter the bay undetected in fog. Coming across facts of history that echo incidents in my stories is such fun, and so reassuring!

The real San Jacinto Mountains are higher and wider than I depict the mountains in Tierra Ermosa. Could my mountains have created the desert climate I describe in the Las Fuentes area of my story? Palm Springs in the rain shadow of the San Jacintos was in my mind when I wrote of Las Fuentes. I don’t know if the beavertail cactus with its showy purple flowers, which Sakela sees near Las Fuentes, actually grows near Palm Springs. I first saw those cacti in Buckskin Mountain State Park on the Arizona side of the Colorado River.

For the flavor of the towns in my stories, inspiration came from farther afield than California. Many small towns in Mexico have a plaza (town square) surrounded by a church, a town hall, and low adobe buildings such as I describe for Iktalan town. The larger town of Las Fuentes is colored by recollections from Spain, including the town of Alhama de Granada (not to be confused with the Alhambra Palace in the city of Granada). The town of Aigues-Mortes in the Camargue region of southern France was the model for the walled city of Puerto Rey, although Aigues-Mortes would not have had the Roman-style luxury of piped-in water.

Does it matter that the geography of Iktalan and Tierra Ermosa is probably not theoretically possible? For me, the suspension of disbelief is not difficult – we take the cartoonish simplification of setting for granted in theater, so why not in fiction?

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