This is a book that packs a lot into its 166 pages. Despite this bleak subject matter the book is beautifully written, allowing this Brit a vision of a place which the author knows well and clearly loves. The contrast of the natural beauty highlights the ugliness of human behaviour. – Zoe Brooks review of “Conjure Woman’s Cat”
One of the greatest compliments a writer can receive from a reader or a reviewer is an acknowledgment of his or her love for the novel or short story’s place setting. To love a place unconditionally means accepting its beauty along with its flaws. When I think of a place, I think first about the land whether it’s swamps and marshes or glacier-carved mountains and pristine blue lakes.
Experience helps supplement an author’s research. I lived in the Florida panhandle from the first grade through college. Family day trips, Scout camping trips, and recreation in various places shows an author what the guide books and maps miss: your perspective through first-hand research.
Quite often, this first-hand experience teaches you about the land’s history, myths, ghost stories, and folklore, all of which become a part of you and your view of life in that place which is much more real than picking a place on the map and then looking up its myths and folklore on Wikipedia or Amazon.
As people say, a map is not the territory. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said that riding through the countryside and seeing it through your car windows was pretty much like watching TV. You’re in your car, maybe on an Interstate racing toward your destination at 75 mph. Suffice it to say, you’re not really at any of the locations alongside the road. To know the location, you have to live there or explore it on one or more extended vacations. This way, you come to know and love the land–or you decide it’s not your kind of place.
If you love the land, it takes part in shaping you just as surely as a spouse. If you don’t love the land, then you’re either unhappy in that place or you try to ruin the land to suit your needs. If the land has, in part, made you who you are, this fact will be obvious to the readers of your work and–like you–the characters in your work who live there.
Good fiction, I believe, depends on recognizing the importance of the land on your plot, characters, and theme.
Florida has many habitats. One of my favorites–one featured in my Florida Folk Magic Series–is the Longleaf Pine forest. This “Florida Memory” photo was taken in the Apalachicola National Forest near Bristol in West Florida:
Wikipedia Description: The river is formed on the state line between Florida and Georgia, near the town of Chattahoochee, Florida, approximately 60 miles (97 km) northeast of Panama City, by the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. The actual confluence is contained within the Lake Seminole reservoir formed by the Jim Woodruff Dam. It flows generally south through the forests of the Florida Panhandle, past Bristol. In northern Gulf County, it receives the Chipola River from the west. It flows into Apalachicola Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, at Apalachicola. The lower 30 mi (48 km) of the river is surrounded by extensive swamps and wetlands, except at the coast.
This “Florida Memory” photo shows the kind scene visible from the bluffs near Torreya State Park”
Torreya State Park
This park, on the Apalachicola River, is named for the rare and endangered Torreya Tree, found only in Florida. This “Florida Memory” photo shows hikers on a trail near Rock Bluff:
Here’s a stone bridge at Torreya State Park built by the CCC in the 193os:
I was drawn to Liberty County as a setting for my four folk magic novels because I saw it often while growing up on family day trips and Scouting expeditions. As of the most recent census, it was the least populous county in Florida.
It was a wonderful setting for my fictional town of Torreya and my folk magic series.
With the release of Fate’s Arrows, my publisher Thomas-Jacob has updated the so-called boxed set that features all four novels in the Florida Folk Magic Series in one large e-book. If you’re interested in the entire series, buying the novels this way will save money.
I’m also happy to announce that the hardcover edition of Fate’s Arrows is now available. Moving the hardcover into print was one of the things the pandemic slowed down.
We’ve started initial work on the audiobook, but down hold your breath. Audiobooks that are complete and ready to go are waiting a long time for Audible’s approval. (Another pandemic slowdown.)
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.”
Within a couple of weeks, more or less, Thomas-Jacob Publishing will release the fourth novel in my Florida Folk Magic Series, Fate’s Arrows.
This will be the first book in the series that isn’t narrated by the cat Lena. Instead, Pollyanna–introduced in book three–is the protagonist. Set in North Florida in 1955, this book focuses on Pollyanna’s fight against the Klan. Those of you who’ve read some of the previous books in the series will already know most of the characters.
Here’s a look at the cover:
Once we get to the cover art, formatting, and final proofreading, the book begins to seem to a reality to me.
The Florida Panhandle, an informal, unofficial term for the northwestern part of the U.S. state of Florida, is a strip of land roughly 200 miles long and 50 to 100 miles wide (320 km by 80 to 160 km), lying between Alabama on the north and the west, Georgia also on the north, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. Its eastern boundary is arbitrarily defined. – Wikipedia
My books are set in the Florida Panhandle because that’s where I grew up, learned the lay of the land, and heard the old stories. I lived in Tallahassee which is sometimes considered part of the panhandle and sometimes considered part of the “Big Bend.”
The panhandle is often viewed as more like Georgia than the peninsula part of the state. Panhandle residents often think the peninsula with its tourist attractions has been ruined by overdevelopment and destinations that either don’t belong there or are caricatures of the once wild land they displaced.
The Panhandle features white sandy beaches, often called The Redneck Riviera, but now generally in advertising and promotion are referenced as “The Emerald Coast.”
If you sample the beaches of the Emerald Coast and the Atlantic Coast, you’ll notice that most of the Emerald Coast isn’t covered with the kind of excessive development such as that found around Daytona Beach and other cities. (Gosh, I hope I don’t sound biased.) You’ll also notice the sand, is pure white, in fact blindingly white making sunglasses highly desirable. This sand is much different than the coarser sand of the Atlantic Coast.
According to Wikipedia, “The Apalachicola River /æpəlætʃɪˈkoʊlə/ is a river, approximately 112 mi (180 km) long in the State of Florida. The river’s large watershed, known as the ACF River Basin, drains an area of approximately 19,500 square miles (50,505 km2) into the Gulf of Mexico. The distance to its farthest head waters in northeast Georgia is approximately 500 miles (800 km). Its name comes from the Apalachicola people, who used to live along the river.”
The river is not only a recreation spot, but highly important in the watershed’s environment as well as the oyster industry in the Gulf Coast town of Apalachicoa. Water usage of the river between Georgia and Florida has been under dispute for years, with Florida saying that Atlanta draws off too much water at Florida’s expense.
According to the Florida Forest Service, “The natural resources found on Tate’s Hell State Forest are very diverse due to the unique and various natural community types. At one time Tate’s Hell State Forest supported at least 12 major community types, which included wet flatwoods, wet prairie, seepage slope, baygall, floodplain forest, floodplain swamp, basin swamp, upland hardwood forest, sandhill, pine ridges, dense titi thickets and scrub. Currently, the forest contains approximately 107,300 acres of hydric communities such as wet prairie (contains a vast diversity of plant species), wet flatwoods, strand swamp, bottomland forest, baygall and floodplain swamp.”
The area is under restoration to repair damages from the forest’s long-time usage by the a timber industry that logged out many of the older trees, disrupted natural waterflows throughout the region by constructing roads that served as dykes, and a rape the land style of forest management.
The logging industry also had very poor stewardship over the Panhandle’s once ubiquitous wiregrass and longleaf pine forsts, cutting out the old trees and either not replacing them or replacing cut areas with slash pines. Many native species have been threatened by this policy. The forest service was very slow to understand what Native Americans and early residents understood: longleaf pine forests need fire to survive. For years, fires were extinguished before natural processes could be completed.
These boats still exist, but I see the 1950s as the heyday of the cabin cruiser. Most of us knew somebody who owned one, and fortunately those people liked to cruise the rivers, head to obscure beaches, and visit the barrier islands (St. George Island and Dog Island).
The Garden of Eden was once a tourist attraction near the small town of Bristol with signs pointing to places where Biblical events purportedly occurred. A local minister worked out a rather complex theory that sought to prove this spot along the Apalachicola River was the real garden of Eden. The signs are gone now, though a Garden of Eden trail still exists. The unique habitat is managed by the Nature Conservancy as the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.
The St. Joe Paper Company was a major economic player in the economy of the Florida Panhandle and probably the area’s largest landowner. Like the Florida East Coast Railway (the old Flagler system route to Key West), the company was owned by Dupont. The tracks that remain are now used by a shortline railroad (Apalachicola Northern) between Port St. Joe on the Gulf coast the town of Chattahoochee near the Georgia Border.
This is where I grew up. You can see the barrier islands just south of Carrabelle and Apalachicola. My friends and I sailed boats between beaches near the junction of highways 319 and 98 to those islands, and my scout troop camped there and in many spots in the Apalachicoa National Forest. The wildlife refuge near St. Marks was a favorite family day trip. My Florida Folk Magic Novels are set near the towns of Hosford and Telogia. The area is rich in history, myths, habitats, recreation, and experiences perfect for a kid growing up who loved being out doors more than indoors.
The sandy beaches of the Florida Panhandle are usually white and flanked by sand dunes covered with sea oats and sand spurs. Sand spurs are annoying because they, like spurs, grab on to your legs or your clothes. Sea Oats are graceful and protected. Pick one, and you might go to jail. Our panhandle beaches look quite a bit different than the multi-colored sand you might see south of Jacksonville. The sea oats add to the ambiance.
Wikipedia’s definition is accurate, I think:Uniola paniculata or sea oats, also known as seaside oats, araña, and arroz de costa, is a tall subtropical grass that is an important component of coastal sand dune and beach plant communities in the southeastern United States, eastern Mexico and some Caribbean islands. Its large seed heads that turn golden brown in late summer give the plant its common name. Its tall leaves trap wind-blown sand and promote sand dune growth, while its deep roots and extensive rhizomes act to stabilize them, so the plant helps protect beaches and property from damage due to high winds, storm surges and tides. It also provides food and habitat for birds, small animals and insects.
You can buy sea oats from nurseries but you can’t steal them from the beach. Frankly, when I was growing up here, it never occurred to me to pick the sea oats, much less buy them. They do stabilize the dunes and are an important part of the ecosystem. However, if you were to buy your own for your yard, you can use them to make bread.
As for the sand spurs, I think the devil made them.
The covers of all three books in my Florida Folk Magic Series feature a railroad crossing usually with bulkhead flatcars on it. First, the Apalachicola Northern Railway operated in the Florida Panhandle county where my stories are set. It still exists today as a shortline called AN Railway, operating between Chattachochee, Florida and Port St. Joe, Florida on the gulf coast. In the 1950s, as now, the line carried wood products, frequently in bulkhead flatcars.
The second reason for the cover picture refers to the age-old belief–which became part of hoodoo–that crossroads and crossings were dangerous places over and above the possibility for wrecks. Either bandits were there or spirits were there. So, great care had to be taken.
Some of my railroad references in the books come from the fact that I was a volunteer at a Georgia railway museum that had operating trains as well as many historic examples of older operating equipment, including a bulkhead flat. As you can see from the photo, the bulkheads at each end of the flatcar helped contain the logs or other materials being hauled. In a part of the country where lumber and other wood products were important, these cars were a natural to mention in the books.