“Everywhere that July in 1963 there were the pines, their long needles shimmering in a faint wind under the hot subtropical sun. In the country there were empty dirt roads, rutted by mule carts. In the towns, sprawled unpainted shacks without windows. Ancient Negro women sat fanning themselves with palm leaves as they stared drowsily from rickety porches at their zinnias and coral vines and heavy-scented honeysuckle bushes. Moss-draped oaks and lacy chinaberry trees shaded sandy dooryards. Scrawny dogs, the flies buzzing at their noses, slept among ragged-feathered chickens poking for scratch feed. Locusts whine from tall magnolias and the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly it was those pines and the tang of their resiny branches and the dark straightness of their trunks. All of it looked like the south of the novelists and the poets, heavy with antiquity, romance and misery.” – Gloria Johoda in “The Other Florida.”
I was in college in 1963 when my friend Gloria Jahoda wrote those words. Like me, she wasn’t born in Florida, but in her now-classic book about the state’s panhandle she observed and wrote about what many long-time residents no longer noticed or took for granted. “The Other Florida” was other because it wasn’t filled with tourist attractions, widely known beaches and movie stars.
Other than a few childhood poems, I wouldn’t write about the other Florida until recently. My family moved there from Oregon just in time for me to enter the first grade. Out of the culture shock of the move, I also saw the place I would live for 18 years through the eyes of an outsider.
Yes, my family went to St. Augustine, Tampa, Daytona Beach and Key West, stopping at many gaudy tourist attractions in between. But all that was crowded and nearly fake with an overlay of commercial glitz and I was always happy to be home even though much of the panhandle was considered backward and impoverished in spite of having the state capital in the middle of it.
I haven’t been back to north Florida since the mid-1980s when my parents died and my brothers and I closed up and sold the house the family had lived (by then) for some 35 years.
In my childhood days, I learned the territory like most kids did…swimming in clear, cold sinkholes, camping with the Boy Scout Troop in the piney woods, hanging out with friends at our pristine and uncommercialized beaches, exploring the Florida Caverns at Marianna, deep sea fishing in boats that went out from St. Marks, learning the voices of Snake Birds and Limpkins at Wakulla Springs, delivering newspapers throughout my neighborhood, marching in parades downtown with the high school band. . .
I saw what Jahoda saw, partly because I was new, partly because the outdoors was our playground in days before the Internet, and partly because my folks arranged day trips to may special places within the confines of this map. In the days before high gasoline prices, my best thinking place was my 1954 Chevy on a dark country road at night. I don’t know what I solved anything, but I saw a lot on the hundreds of miles of roads I saw every week.
If you’re a writer, I urge you to look back to your childhood places and ponder what it was like, what there was to do, what the people were like, and what kinds of stories and legends you heard. Whether you were happy, sad, or borderline average during those days, the memories are potentially very potent.
In looking back, I’ve written (or am in the process of writing) stories on that map set in Carrabelle and nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp, Marianna and the nearby Bellamy Bridge and Chipola River, Tallahassee, St. Marks, Wakulla County, and the barrier islands. My novella in progress is set at a fictional town not too far from Weewahitchka. You can probably find a similar handful of towns near your childhood home. Each has its unusual traditions, the stories people hope everyone has forgotten, legends, ghostly tales, and plenty of Mother Nature.
Florida seems strange to those who did not live there. The same can be said for other places I’ve lived, worked or visited: Northern Illinois, Minnesota, San Francisco, Montana, North Carolina, and North Eastern Georgia. For a writer, a lot of the appeal of going home (literally or figuratively) for stories is the differentness of the place. That adds a lot of appeal to a story. Take a Florida tradition, add in the weather and the pines, toss in a ghost story, and pretty soon you are telling something fresh and knew and page-turning.
You can ramp up your stories with old memories, smiling again with the the joys, possibly even finding closure for the sorrows; your issues, your cares, your friends, your slings and arrows, your memories can be puzzled and camouflaged into your story. They bring strength and depth because you lived them and know what they were all about.
I’ve about wrapped up my Weewahitchka-area story. It gets a potent childhood issue off my plate of memories. More about that later if the publisher likes the story. I think I’ve written some of my best stuff about the places where I grew up because there is so much “material” there I can turn into fiction. That’s why I often urge other writers to look at the towns where they grew up with fresh eyes and see if they can find some stories there.
My stories with Florida settings include “The Seeker” (Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell), “Emily’s Stories” (Tallahassee and St. Marks), “Cora’s Crossing” (Marianna), “The Land Between the Rivers” (Tate’s Hell) and “Moonlight and Ghosts” (Tallahassee).