Readers of the three books in my Florida Folk Magic Series heard a lot about the piney woods because pines (Sand, Slash, Spruce, Longleaf, Eastern White, Loblolly, and Japanese Black) own the Florida Panhandle. We had forty pines in our yard. I grew up with them, came to love them, so that’s what my characters see.
When the fourth book in the series, Fate’s Arrows, is released in the near future, you’ll find more pines, beginning with a quotation from Gloria Jahoda (The Other Florida) that sets the stage for the book:
“Everywhere. . . there were 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 rows of 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 pecking for scratch feed. Locusts whined from tall magnolias with the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly there were 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.”
Jahoda wrote this in 1967. Living in Florida between 1950 and 1968, I saw the evolution of the world she describes. The panhandle world seemed, even then, to be the complete opposite of what snowbirds found in the peninsula and what people outside the state expected to see anywhere. The appalling Jim Crow racism was hidden away by the exuberant beauty of the land.
Black titi (pronounced tie-tie), Cliftonia monophylla, sometimes called the Buckwheat Tree, is a perennial evergreen shrub/tree found in Florida’s wet flatwoods and bogs. Deer and bees like it a lot. Sometimes native plant nurseries can find it for your garden. The flowers are generally white and bloom in the spring.
I refer to it often in my Florida Folk Magic Series because it’s ubiquitous in the Florida Panhandle along with slash pines, longleaf pines, scrub oak, and saw palmetto. The word drives proofreaders crazy because they think it’s scandalously pronounced as titty.
In spite of this map, I see titi has more of a western Florida Panhandle plant with fewer occurrences in Peninsular part of the state.
I like the plant’s description in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s database: “Native from southeastern North America south through Central America and the West Indies to northeastern South America, this deciduous tree stays under 30 ft., and, though it looks shrubby for several years, eventually makes a slender tree with smooth, cinnamon-colored trunks; abundant, showy, whorled clusters of airy, white blooms; and dark-green leaves. In the northern part of its range, the leaves turn rust-red in fall, dropping in spring just as the new leaves unfurl. Farther south, plants are nearly evergreen. Summer fruits are yellow-brown.”
When an author’s novels are set in the world of his childhood, the nostalgia of those old days might come out of the woodwork and turn his writing into melodrama. That’s the last thing I want.
One of my favorite poets, St.-John Perse, wrote in “To Celebrate a Childhood,” (which most of today’s critics would consider overly dramatic), “Other than childhood, what is there in those days that is not here today?”
Depending on how you see the question, the answer can be either “everything” or “very little.” I have this paradoxical view of my own childhood in the Florida Panhandle. Every once in a while, somebody posts a photograph of an old appliance on Facebook and asks “who knows what this is?” My generation knows; younger people seldom know.
Pork Chop Gang
The same is true with the news that was common during my childhood years: themes and practices, and people that I often reference in my books such as “Wop Salad” and Florida’s notorious “Pork Chop Gang.” (I feel no nostalgia for these two things, by the way.)
My nostalgia arises when I think of Boy Scout camping trips, all the hours spent sailing, scuba diving, and water skiing down at the coast, delivering telegrams and newspapers, and exploring the panhandle’s backroads–many not paved–in my old car. And, too, I recall old friends, many of whom taught me how to love the panhandle–something I thought I would never do. (As a California native, I was always considered an outsider.)
If I learned anything scary in those days (except during the Cuban missile crisis), it was to fear the KKK because they were everywhere, and I wonder now–as I did then–how many family friends and acquaintances were members. I’m surprised we never had a cross burnt in our front yard because my folks were liberal, we went to a liberal church, and people we knew well had experienced the wrath of the Klan. (No nostalgia here, by the way.)
My novel Mountain Song and my trilogy of novels in the Florida Folk Magic series have scenes set in the Florida Panhandle. Since these novels overlap the world of my childhood, I worked hard to keep the melodrama out of them. It’s often a fight because memories ofter bring back times when one was hurt or frightened or disrespected.
Keeping melodramatic personal memories out of the stories is part of an author’s work. That’s not always easy to do because, as I think of them, I’m as pissed off now as I was then. (The Campbell motto is “Forget Not.”) But I think we have to draw a line between our personal histories and our stories when we write novels. If we don’t, the novels can easily turn into rants rather than compelling fiction.
If you write, and if you set your stories and novels into the past you experienced, do you have trouble keeping your personal feelings out of it?
In the early 1960s, Tallahassee, Florida where I grew up was the site of multiple lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater protests. Many of these were organized by CORE and drew a fair amount of participation from students at the primarily black Florida A&M University. I was attending high school and college (FSU) in Tallahassee during these protests, but I wasn’t there.
My excuses for not being there are many, including:
Tallahassee Police, who sided with the angry white on-lookers, we physically and verbally abusive.
Protesters’ eyes were damaged by the use of tear gas.
Protesters were fined and/or put in jail for violating a restraining order.
The KKK threatened not only the Blacks but the scattering of whites who joined the picketing and lunch counter sit-ins. Burning crosses appeared in people’s front yards.
Picketers were assaulted around town and once a person was identified, picketers were likely to have their yards filled with angry people.
I wasn’t ready to take on the backlash that I’d be subjected to from high school and college students who had been my friends.
I was sure I’d be fired from my jobs and that my participation would cause trouble for my father who was an FSU professor.
As FAMU student and CORE organizer Patricia Stephens Due–who was tear-gassed and ended up with permanent eye damage–said in her book Freedom in the Family–most Blacks weren’t there either even though the common perception is that they were a united front. Not so.
When I was working for Western Union across the street from the Florida Theater, it would have been easy to walk over there and join the pickets or sit at that lunch Woolworth’s lunch counter while on break. There’s an empty seat in the foreground of that lunch counter photo. Logically, it would have been easy to sit there, but when fear of the consequences takes over, it becomes emotionally impossible to sit there.
Looking back today, I’m embarrassed by my excuses and lack of courage.
Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel The Sun Singer is currently free on Kindle.
In some parts of the county, searching for autumn-leaves color is not only a regional pastime but a tourist experience. Spring wildflowers are another large attraction, though I don’t hear as much about timing and destinations as I do for fall color.
In the Florida Panhandle, we have a scenic byway (State Route 65) that runs north and south through Liberty County (where I’ve set my conjure and crime Florida Folk Magic Series) that’s a beautiful road that becomes a bit congested in the spring as the cameras come out to “capture” wildflowers. Florida’s carnivorous pitchers, when found en masse, are referred to as “pitcher plant prairies.”
According to Missouri Botanical Garden, “Sarracenia leucophylla, commonly called white-topped pitcher plant or white trumpet, is native to mucky soils of sandy bogs and pine savannas in coastal plain areas from south western Georgia, southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle. This is a stemless herbaceous perennial that grows in full sun.”
It’s also a carnivorous plant. When I lived in Florida, I used to tell out-of-state visitors that these flowers were worse than alligators and could strike like a snake and consume a 200-pound man in a nanosecond. They normally eat insects, considering people off limits most of the time. Goodness knows how many of my exaggerations got ferried back to the rest of the country!
You can see pitchers during April and May, and to a lesser extent in the fall. Don’t pick any of them: you might end up in jail. In addition to pitchers, you’ll find a spectacular display of color from the False foxglove, Rayless goldenrod, Hairy chaffhead, Bristleleaf chaffhead, Flattop goldenrod, Narrowleaf Sunflower, Blazing star, and White rosegentian.
If you live in Florida or are traveling to West Florida during the blooming season, you’ll find this tour guide to be a handy reference.
The 1952 murder trial of Ruby McCollum in Live Oak, Florida had a very strong impact across the state, even catching the attention of those of us who were in grade school at the time. The story was in the newspapers. Adults talked about it. The consensus among many of us was that she didn’t get a fair trial in part because she wasn’t allowed to speak, to tell her story about being continually raped by a prominent white doctor over a six-year time frame.
I mention this trial in Eulalie and Washerwoman because it’s the kind of thing Eulalie, the conjure woman, would have things to say about. I’ve mentioned the case previously on this blog. Today, I decided it was time (probably far past time) to update my website’s In the Spotlight page which I use for announcing new books and commenting about places and events mentioned in the books. So as of today, the spotlight is now “The Case of Ruby McCollum.”
Florida residents and others interested in civil rights history should find this subject fascinating, angering, and sad.
Eulalie and Washerwoman is the second book in my “Florida Folk Magic Series”
University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle will be back at the former Dozier School for Boys on Monday, the same place where she spent four years researching and unearthing the remains of boys buried on the massive 1,400-acre site in Marianna, located about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Tallahassee.
I was struck by the synchronicity of events about Dozier school as researchers return to investigate more prospective graves at the time Colson Whitehead’s new novel, based on that school, The Nickel Boysis released.
That school hung like a spectre over our high school in Tallahassee because it was touted as the ultimate punishment for disobeying school rules. I think I knew people who were sent there, but I’ve never been able to verify it. The reason the school scared people had nothing to do with the later revelations about it, but by the fact it was an overkill solution for seemingly minor infractions.
Years ago, parents and other authorities used various folklore stories about goblins and gremlins to keep kids in line. We were threatened with, “If you’re bad, they’ll send to Marianna.” That threat was worse than saying we’d go to hell.
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Interstate highways accentuate the problem. They take you past the real territory whether it’s small towns with local character or countryside made up of differing ecosystems that all blend together outside the car window with the same unreality as the background in cheaply made theater/tv cartoons. Even the exits look alike, featuring the same chain gas stations, fast food restaurants, and hotels as the exits one saw five hundred miles ago.
I remember my first trip through the peninsula part of Florida. Looking back, the homespun roadside attractions all seem rather tacky and low grade when compared to the destinations everyone’s racing to see in and around Orlando or Tampa or Miami. All that homespun was real and very different from town to town when compared with today’s tourist destinations. Even now, I prefer the numbered U.S./State/County roads where one can experience the local cultures and local environments. I’d rather eat at Mom’s Diner than another Applebee’s or another Cracker Barrel.
Chain restaurants offer a bit of security, I guess. When you walk into an Applebee’s or a Cracker Barrel, you already know what you’re getting. With Mom’s Diner, you don’t. When a see chain restaurants, I think of the old Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes,” a slam against suburbia, and I think, yes, all these buildings are made of ticky tacky and look just the same.
When you race through Florida on I-4, I-10, I-75, and I-95, you’re really out of alignment with the territory and can no longer say (obviously) that the journey is more important than the destination. Using the contents page of one of my favorite books about Florida’s wetlands, when you travel an Interstate you don’t see, much less differentiate, between seepage wetlands, interior marshes, interior swamps, coastal intertidal zones, and mangrove swamps. Likewise, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods, and savannahs fly past your car window (like TV) at a mile a minute.
I see that Disney World and other theme parks are raising prices again. So, there goes a hell of a lot of money, long lines, crowds of people bumping into each other, submerged within Orlando’s ticky-tacky sprawl, and then home again via Delta Airlines or the Interstate. Missing from this experience is, of course, the real Florida. You missed the whole thing except for the so-called Magic Kingdom that features everything but real magic.
I’ll admit that when my daughter was little, we took her to see Seaworld and Disney World. And we recently went back again with her family so that my granddaughters could see the best of the best at Universal and Disney. Yes, we had fun. Probably, the kids had even more fun. I hope the kids will grow up and discover the real Florida someday, that is to say, a beach other than Daytona with its crowds and condos and hotels, the real magic of grasses, wildflowers and trees in one of the state’s diverse environments.
One Interstate is pretty much like another, but the stuff outside the car window isn’t the same from state to state. It’s too bad the good stuff gets passed by. It’s even worse when you realize most people don’t think anything’s outside the car window.
Now that I’ve finally promised my publisher a new novel and floated the general premise past her (she liked it), it’s time to do some research.
Like the Florida Folk Magic Stories, this novel will be set in the Florida Panhandle, so I already know the area. This is one of the benefits of writing a series, or doing a standalone novel that uses the series as a starting point: you have a lot of location information on file that wasn’t used in the previous novels.
Since my main character is a bag lady in 1955, I’ve been looking at clothing manufactured during the 1940s. Needless to say, a bag lady isn’t going to be wearing the latest thing from Paris or even from Sears Roebuck. There’s a lot of material available about 1940s women’s clothing inasmuch as it was greatly influenced by rationing and shortages. A lot of people were mending old clothes, making do with fewer fabric selections, and knitting socks for the troops (and themselves). So, I think I know what my bag lady’s going to wear.
While the novel isn’t historical, I want the cultural references to be right. So, what was happening in Florida in 1955? I already know that the KKK was strong in those years. And I know that educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955 in Daytona Beach. My bag lady would know that because even though 1955 is part of the Jim Crow era, the story would be covered by the press.
My bag lady is–for reasons I won’t divulge now–an expert bow hunter. This means checking on the kinds of bows and arrows used by hunters in those days. I had good luck with this. I found information about the most widely known brand of bow at the time along with a selection of arrows.
Now, since this novel starts where the series ends, I have to make sure that I don’t contradict anything that happened in the series. So, I’m researching my own stuff to make sure there aren’t any continuity problems. For example, if a bad guy was killed in the series, I don’t want him showing up in the new book fit as a fiddle. By the way, “fit as a fiddle” is the kind of thing my bag lady would say–checking the slang of an era is part of the process. I’m surprised at the number of TV series that have characters from years ago using modern slang such as “whoa!” (meaning “wow!”) and other phrases that nobody said twenty or thirty years ago.
When Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and I were both in an ancient CompuServe literary forum, we found that we had one thing in common that a lot of writers weren’t understanding. The research has an impact on the story the writer is about to tell because it tips him/her off to things s/he didn’t know and is responsible for altering the plot of a novel in ways the writer wouldn’t have considered before the research phase began.
I didn’t care for research projects in school–often for the purpose of writing “themes” as they were called in those days–but I enjoy them now. I once read that writers like Nora Roberts have a staff that includes researchers. While there are times when I wish I could pick up the phone and ask an assistant a question and get an immediate answer, I feel much more in touch with my characters and my story when I have to look up all the stuff myself.
“Along Florida’s coasts, oysters play a vitally-important role in supporting healthy estuaries. Oyster reefs provide multiple benefits, from providing habitat and food for wildlife, to filtering water, removing nitrogen, and stabilizing eroding coastlines. Oysters are also a favorite cuisine for people and Florida once had robust oyster fisheries in many areas throughout the state.
“’Oysters are the quiet, unsung heroes of our estuaries, working hard every day to protect our coasts, clean our waters, feed and shelter fish, birds, crabs, shrimp and other wildlife,’” said Anne Birch, marine program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “When we help to restore and conserve oyster habitat and support the fishery we’re also helping our estuaries and our coastal communities flourish.”
Storms, reduced river water flows, and pollution are taking their toll on oysters, including those along the Florida Panhandle’s gulf coast where I grew up and where I’ve set many of my books. I’m happy to see that the Nature Conservancy chose to study and solve this problem–one that’s worldwide, actually.