SPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM  BY DAVID MARTINDALE  10/01/2011
        
        When writing historical fiction, painstaking research alone won't cut it.

        John Coe Robbins of Fort Worth discovered this while crafting his debut novel, Maya Lord, which explores the
    lives of two extraordinary men during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.

      Robbins' main characters, Gonzalo Guerrero and Jeronimo Aguilar, were shipwreck survivors of the first known
    Spanish landing on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511.

        They were taken captive by the Maya, lived as slaves for a time and then played key roles on opposite sides
    of the bloody conflict when Spanish Conquistadors swept through the New World.

        Robbins found out everything there was to know about Guerrero and Aguilar. But he ultimately had to rely on
    his imagination to tell the rest of the story.

        "If you were to 'Google' these two men, you can find two or three pages of interesting facts that are known
    about them. That's pretty much it," Robbins says.

        "We know they were captured, we know they went in different directions, and then they pop up periodically in
    the historical narrative.

        "There's enough to write a pretty good article about them. But it would be a very thin book."

        Given that Maya Lord ($17.95, Whiskey Creek Press) is a robust 325 pages, it's clear that Robbins wasn't shy
    about filling in the blanks.

        The result is a work that moves like an epic adventure story, yet simultaneously and subtly asks a deep
    question: How much does our culture determine who we are?

        "I did a lot of vacationing in Yucatan, and I was always interested in the history," Robbins says. "I stayed in
    Akumal, where there's a statue of Gonzalo Guerrero, who earned his freedom and became a Maya warrior and is
    considered in Mexico to be the father of the Mestizo people.

        "Then I woke up one night from a dream about being a warrior and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to
    examine the life of somebody like that, somebody who underwent this radical cultural shift and actually went
    native?'"

        Aguilar, meanwhile, was a priest who became a translator and adviser to the brutal Conquistador Hernán
    Cortés. "It's fascinating how these two men's lives took such different paths," Robbins says.

        Robbins, 65, and his wife, Sarah, moved to Fort Worth 21/2 years ago.

    He is semi-retired after a career as a TV journalist and freelance writer of marketing and training documentaries.
    He also recently produced a documentary about organ transplants.

        "Mayan history and organ transplants," Robbins says. "Two completely different things. No common thread
    there at all."

        He wrote his original draft of Maya Lord, a much shorter version, more than 20 years ago. When he hooked
    up with an agent who also represented John Grisham, he thought he had hit the jackpot. "I thought, 'I'm going to
    be rich!'" he says. But the manuscript didn't sell.

        Years later, Robbins fleshed out the book and found a small publisher on his own.

        The book was published in July, and Robbins is still trying to spread the word.

        "The response has been very positive so far," he says. "I've gotten some good   reviews, and people seem to
    think it's an engaging story. Some people have told me they stayed up half the night reading it, because they
    couldn't put it down. So I've been very pleased."