My coming of age novel Mountain Song will be free on Kindle October 15-17, proving that good things can happen in 2020.
David Ward lives in the Montana mountains where his life was impacted by his medicine woman grandmother and his utilitarian grandfather. Anne Hill suffered through childhood abuse and ultimately moved in with her aunt on the edge of a Florida swamp. Their summer romance at a mountain resort hotel surprises both of them. But can they make it last after the initial passion wears off and they return to their college studies far apart from each other especially after an attack on a college street changes Anne forever?
Vistors to Many Glacier Valley in Glacier National Park will recognize many of the settings, including the old hotel. Visitors to Florida’s Tate’s Hell Forest near Carrabelle on the Gulf Coast will recognize the ambiance of this spooky swamp.
Local color serves a variety of purposes in novels and short stories:
Paints a picture of the location and its history
Provides careers, hobbies, road trips for the characters
Resonates with readers who know the area
Helps move the plot forward
Adds depth to the story
My four Florida Folk Magic novels are set in the state’s panhandle near the Apalachicola River. This was once a land of cotton that is far different from the cities and tourist attractions of the peninsula that tourists flock to every year. It’s dominated by pine forests, small towns, small farms, commercial and sports fishing, and a relatively low profile nationally.
St. Joe Paper Company
The St. Joe Paper Company in the 1950s when my novels are set, had a massive influence in the panhandle: paper mill, landholdings, a railroad called the Apalachicola Northern that carried wood products from the coastal mill to Quincy, Florida for transfer to mainline railroads. The paper company, part of a trust established by the du Pont family, still exists but focuses on commercial and residential real estate. The railroad, named the Apalachicola Northern, was referred to as the Port St. Joe Route. (It still exists as part of a conglomerate.)
In my novels, I call my fictional the town Torreya (after a rare Florida tree) and place it near the town of Telogia as shown on this AN railroad map:
I mention the railroad a lot, fudging its route to include my fictional town because it, and the local sawmill, are important to the local economy; inasmuch as “crossings” is a vital word in conjure, railroad crossings also provide ambiance and figure into a plot which includes bulkhead flat cars carrying wood products:
Unfortunately, most of the online pictures of this railroad are copyrighted, including its old Electro-Motive (General Motors) SW9 switch engines.
If you’re a railfan, you can learn more about the railroad here:
What draws people to the location you’re writing about. If I’d set the novels in current times, I might have mentioned Apalachicola’s commercial oyster industry and/or the fight between Florida and Georgia for rights to the Apalachicola River’s water. If I’d set my novels in Tallahassee, the state government and two state universities there add plot opportunities. Of course, almost anywhere you go in the state provides fishing, kayaking, swimming, and other river/gulf/ocean recreation.
I chose pine forests and railroads because they fit the realities of the times in the Florida Panhandle of the 1950s. Needless to say, if you grow up or live in the area you’re writing about, you have an edge over authors from the far side of the country. You may not be a walking encyclopedia for the locale, but you know where to look.
My novels are set in the 1950s when the traditional KKK in Florida was strong and active. Years later, hatred is still alive and just as sick as ever, though it’s been dispersed into a variety of groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida has 67 hate groups currently tracked by the Center.
The Center notes that sixteen statewide groups are not shown on the map. Otherwise, you can place your cursor on the white circles on the map on the website to see the names of the groups.
We should be aware of these groups: otherwise, it’s hard to combat them. A word of caution, though. While some have websites, those sites are composed of the sickening kind of tripe (and pictures) one would expect of thugs, psychopaths, and other degenerates. Don’t go to these sites unless you have a strong stomach.
Florida has more hate groups than any other state except California with 88 groups. So, hate is not just a product of the South in spite of how our part of the country is often portrayed by others.
In A “superhighway of hate:” Extremism is flourishing in Florida from “Florida Phoenix,” Diane Rado writes, “From hate speech to hate groups to hate crimes, Florida faces a broad atmosphere of hatred that has been escalating for years, though residents and tourists may not have realized how much the extremist landscape has changed.”
Just why Florida has so many groups is unclear, but some suggest the Intenet has helped thread the hate around, allowing groups to become interlinked–among other things, groups that once operated out of a basement are easier to find via search engines today and those whom they attract help them do their work.
Groups of various stripes have been more vocal of late. The media gives them exposure. Peaceful and legitimate protests often give hate groups a foot in the door to gather on the same streets and give the protesters a black eye when the news shows buildings on fire and police cars turned over.
The times have become ripe for the radicalization of people who are easily led by news accounts of violence and social media information. Hatred is one virus no vaccine is able to defeat; no doubt it will still be around when COVID is long gone.
We have a lot of work to do to clean the scum out of this country.
Actually, we have more to do with Fate’s Arrows. We’re still working on the hardcover edition, we’re contacting review sites, and we’re waiting for the printer to finish the edition that will be sold in bookstores.
Asking me what I’m going to do next is like asking a new mom what she’s going to do next 24 hours after she delivered a baby.
Or, it’s like those commercials where a major sport’s figure has just finished a big game. The announcer says, “Hey Bob, you just won the super bowl. What are you going to do now.” The answer was, “I’m going to Disneyland.”
My answer to that question right now, is “I don’t have a clue.” Even if I wanted to go to Disney World, I couldn’t because travel and venues are still restricted. My feet still hurt from our last trip several years ago.
I keep threatening my publisher with another sequel to The Sun Singer. I wrote the first version of that novel in 1980. It’s gone through multiple editions as has its sequel Sarabande. So much time has gone by, I’m not sure I can face returning to that hero’s journey and heroine’s journey world in Glacier National Park and pick up the story again. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote those books, or even the same person I was when I limped back to the car after our last trip to Disney World.
So maybe I’ll just sit here and wait for Viola Davis to call and say that JuVee Productions wants an option on Fate’s Arrows. Davis can play the conjure woman, Cynthia Erivo can play Julia, and Jennifer Lawrence can play Pollyanna. If you know Viola, send her a copy of all four books in the Florida Florida Folk Magic Series.
Meanwhile, I’m watching the grass grow, mowing the grass, and then watching it grow again.
The burning cross shown here in 1956 to protest singer and activist Paul Robeson is typical of Klan activity from my childhood years in the Florida Panhandle.
Paul Robeson had a great voice. We had a few of his recordings. But the KKK didn’t care about his voice or his records. They cared about his activism–as the sign says: “We protest Paul Robeson and all other communists.”
These are the memories of growing up that brought me to write the Florida Folk Magic Series of novels and to hate the Klan with a passion. It saddens me greatly to see Klan-like groups openly screaming out their hatred during these chaotic times.
We don’t hear this much any more since most people see “whitewash” as a metaphor for covering stuff up, usually for unsavory reasons.
To be flip about lack of money these days, one might say, “I’m too poor to pay attention.” Or, if you really mean you can’t paint your house, more people would understand “I’m as poor as a church mouse,” though that line has gotten a bit out of date because fewer and fewer people are going to church and those that do, don’t expect to see any mice there.
Organizations that are frugal often say they spend both sides of a penny. I’m not necessarily frugal, though I’ve spent a lot of years trying to spend both sides of a penny. I’m not sure what I’ll say when the government finally gets its way and stops making pennies.
I could start saying, I’m so broke I don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. That probably won’t scan too well since few people answer the call of nature that way anymore–which is just as well.
Perhaps it’s more modern to say my income has often been below the poverty line. Most people don’t know what the poverty line is (it’s $12,760 for a single person) other than it’s not enough for providing the better things of life. (A digression: when Obamacare first came along, my wife and I weren’t allowed to sign up because our income was below the poverty line. What a shock. I would have thought that that group would have been given first priority. )
My friends always thought I was probably raking in the big bucks because for most of my working life, I worked for computer companies. The trouble is, technical writers were always the first to go when the company needed to cut costs. After we were shown the door, the companies forced their programmers to write the documentation, and I think THAT is the main reason for the saying, “Nobody reads the documentation.”
My wife and I both grew up in families that had to spend both sides of a penny. My wife always told people that one reason people in the south eat a lot of biscuits and gravy is because a meal built around that is cheap and filling. My mother grew up in the midwest, so we didn’t have biscuits all that often; what we did have was meatloaf padded out with a lot of breadcrumbs or oatmeal. We had salmon croquettes so often that I can no longer tolerate them; my wife had them often, too, and still likes them. She won’t eat meatloaf and I won’t eat croquettes.
My parents were happy that I liked seafood, so living in Florida was a good thing. I also loved (and still do) hushpuppies. They taste great, are filling, and inexpensive to make. My parents would never eat mullet, a fish most Floridians considered a baitfish. I loved it. Still do. I suppose in the old days, people might have said, “Too poor to eat pompano, too proud to eat mullet.”
I was blessed by the Gods who knew my financial future to love a lot of cheap food. Except salmon croquettes–or crab cakes either, for the same reason (we could catch all the crabs we wanted, but then we ruined them with breadcrumbs.)
I’m not whitewashing this because being broke isn’t as much fun as it sounds even though southerners have a lot of humorous ways of describing it—like, “I was so poor I couldn’t jump over a nickel to save a dime.”
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.
I no longer list Berkeley, California as the place where I’m from on Facebook because in “debates,” people say, “well, of course, Malcolm would say that, look where he’s from. We don’t need him telling people in Georgia what to think.”
My family is basically from California, with my late relatives living in Berkeley, Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto. I think I was in high school (in Florida) when my father told me he could never go back because the farms and orchards had all been ploughed up and turned into developments, the places Pete Seeger said were houses like little boxes all made of ticky tacky and just the same.
I can’t go back either. For one thing, I can’t afford it. For another, I think the state has lost its connection to reality, a connection that always was fairly tenous on a good day. Sorry, folks, but I really can’t support a state that says illegal immigrants should have a right to vote.
So, in these Facebook “debates,” I suppose people thought I support all the lunacy associated with California these days. During the Vietnam War protest era, I was part of that lunacy because (a) I hated the war, and (b) had an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District while my ship was in port across the Bay and had trouble anywhere I went in a Navy uniform.
When I was told on Facebook that “they” (the people in the thread) didn’t need a person from a crazy state telling people in the South that he (meaning me) thought the state and federal governments had no right to legislate or otherwise mess up women’s health care, including the right to an abortion, I said, “ladies, I’ve lived in the South longer than anyone else commenting on this thread.”
Huh? I said that I grew up in Florida from the first grade to college and now live in Georgia where my wife was born. We live on a farm that’s been in her family for five generations. They were surprised. They were happy to see that I had changed the town where I’m from to Tallahassee, Florida, and appreciated the fact that I like boiled peanuts, collard greens, mullet, grits, and cathead biscuits.
However, according to their assessment, a California birth certificate meant that even if you left the state at an early age, you were more or less the devil’s spawn and couldn’t possibly go to enough church services to get even with the Lord. If not that, then I was probably dropped on my head in the hospital.
So there it was. Clearly, my identification with California was an albatross around my neck. In the old days (whatever that means) people said Florida really wasn’t truly Southern. My response was that North Florida was/is about as Southern as you can get and that unlike other states in the Confederacy, “we” weren’t conquered by the North during the Civil War. Okay, so we’re overrun by snowbirds every year and from Live Oak to Miami, the state’s been pretty much ruined by developers who’ve paved over everything there that used to be good and created endless sprawl.
But, I digress.
On the minus side, now that I’ve changed my Facebook hometown to Tallahassee, everyone thinks I’m a racist. When they push that view too hard, I mention that the biggest race riots in the country all happened outside the South.
Is there a safe place out there I can claim as my hometown?
This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.
Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.
Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.
Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.
The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.
The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.
Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.