The Power of Obscure Events in Fiction

“Claude Neal was an African American farmhand living in Jackson County, Florida who was accused of raping and murdering Lola Cannady, a nineteen year old white female, just outside the town of Greenwood on October 18, 1934.” — Wikipedia

Outside of Jackson County in the Florida Panhandle, I doubt many current Florida residents are aware of the lynching of Claude Neal by a mob after he was accused of raping and killing Lola Cannady.

Find a local historian, and you're well on your way to uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly about the location where you're setting your short story or novel.

Find a local historian, and you’re on your way to finding the good, the bad and the ugly of the place where your short story or novel is set.

It was a brutal incident and became a yet another notorious example of why the country needed anti-lynching laws.

I grew up in Florida during a time when local history was taught in the schools, so I’m aware of many of the panhandle’s legends, crimes, folklore, things to do and places to see.

The old story came to light again in 2011 when the FBI said it couldn’t close the case. (There’s a link in the graphic below.) So people knew or  re-remembered the case for a while. But time passes and that knowledge fades quickly.

Needless to say, I hope my recently published novella Conjure Woman’s Cat will have a wider appeal than readers who live between Tallahassee and Pensacola. So why did I mention–just in passing–an obscure event when I could have just as easily made something up?

For better or worse, here’s how a writer’s mind works when it comes to creating a fictional town in the real world:

  1. The description of historian Dale Cox’s book notes that this event has been called the “last public spectacle” lynching in U.S. history.  Consequently, the African American characters in my 1950s-era story set in a town a few miles from where the lynching occurred would certainly know about it even though it happened 20 years earlier. To my characters, there’s not only a precedent for such violence but a chance it could happen again since the “climate” and the attitudes haven’t changed much.*
  2. Picture and cutline from Explore Southern History.

    Picture and cutline from Explore Southern History.

    Places are understood by many as not only their geography but as defined in part by what has happened there. It’s hard to mention Gettysburg without thinking about the Civil War battle there. Gettysburg is shaped partly by that battle, the intervening response to that battle, and–if you like magical realism and/or the paranormal–by the psychic strength of that event. Jackson County and nearby Liberty County, Florida were what they were in the Jim Crow 1950s partly because of the violence created an nurtured by a lot of KKK activity.

  3. Sometimes those obscure events come back into our consciousness again.

    Sometimes those obscure events come back into our consciousness again.

    When the characters in my fictional town fear mob violence after the rape of a local black girl by whites, it’s natural for them to think of what’s happened before. I strongly believe that authors who write about places should try to preserve the real stories–myths, legends, real events–of those places in their fiction. Even the casual mention of a real event, as opposed to a fictional event I could have easily made up, not only keeps history alive, but offers stories stronger foundations than one can get out of fabricated folklore and history.

  4. Mention a real event–or an existing myth–and you can enlarge your story’s impact by keying off of things readers believe–as they read your fiction–they might have heard about before; or perhaps they’ll wonder about it and Google it or otherwise read further. If you dumped all this history into your story, your research “would show,” as people say. In my case, I wasn’t writing historical fiction, much less a dramatization of the Claude Neal lynching. But, if I can tempt you to consider the very real environment in which my story was set, then the story potentially has a larger meaning than its fictional plot, theme and characters can convey.

Basically, the power of obscure events in fiction is context. The story doesn’t unfold in a vacuum but in a real place with real rivers (the Apalachicola), real foods (catfish and hush puppies), real forests (longleaf pines), real industries (turpentine) and real history.

All of those things fit hand-in-glove with the stuff the author is making up. As far as I know, the town I created (Torreya) never existed. Neither did a hoodoo woman (Eulalie), her cat (Lena) or her good friend (Willie Tate). But they are who they are in the story because of the kinds of things that happen in the place where they live.

Storytelling advice often focuses on plots and characters, and that’s not a bad part of the craft from which to begin. Writers have learned over time than modern readers won’t tolerate pages and pages of description. But readers find resonance in fully developed context: that is to say, the real in the story makes the fictional in the story seem real.

–Malcolm

* The reality of a lynching in Florida in the early 1950s was punctuated by the fact that when Ruby McCollum was accused of killing a white doctor in Live Oak, Florida in 1952, she was held in a state prison to protect her from a potential lynching had she been confined prior to trial in a local jail.

The “Conjure Woman’s Cat” giveaway continues on GoodReads until April 15th. Enter for a chance to win one of three paperback copies.

Briefly Noted: ‘The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge,’ by Dale Cox

BellamyCover-247x363The Florida Panhandle is often called “the other Florida” or the “forgotten coast” since it’s far away from the attractions and other developments in the peninsula. This is a land of piney woods, Karst region sink holes and limestone caves, spring-fed rivers, deep swamps, and ghost stories.

Growing up in Tallahassee, I heard many of these, but seldom went out to investigate—except for a brief side trip over one of the state’s oldest bridges over the Chipola River north of Marianna. I last saw the bridge in 1962; it was ancient then. (I didn’t see the ghost!) The bridge was abandoned soon after that when a new road and a new bridge were built. While the bridge still stands, it has only been visible via paddle trips since the road leading to it was closed and reverted to private ownership.

Historian and author Dale Cox recently presented a plan to Jackson County for a heritage trail to the bridge via public lands to the west of the river. That project was approved and the trail is now open for use. You can learn more about the project on its Facebook page.

Cox has just released The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge to help support the trail project. The legend about this haunted bridge has been around for about 150 years, and is among Florida’s oldest ghost stories. In this new book, Cox tells the story as the old timers always heard it, Then he tells the story behind the story.

From the publisherCox opens his investigation with the much loved legend of young Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, the 18-year-old bride of a wealthy doctor. She supposedly died in a wedding night tragedy and now haunts the environs of a nearly century old bridge that spans the Chipola River north of Marianna, Florida.

For dedicated ghost hunters, Cox also features nine other stories, including “The Two Egg Stump Jumper” and “The Wild Man of Ocheesee Pond.”

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande,” and the paranormal Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts”

The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge

I last drove my decrepit 1954 Chevy over the historic Pratt-truss bridge on Bellamy Bridge Road in Jackson County, Florida in 1962. I grew up in Tallahassee about 85 miles away via U.S. Highway 90 and the Florida Caverns State Park on the Chipola River in nearby Marianna was a favorite day trip of mine. While researching another story for my evolving series of Florida short stories, I focused on the old bridge because ever since the mid-1830s, it has supposedly been haunted.

Fortunately, information about the legend can be found in on several websites, the best being one maintained by Florida author and historian Dale Cox. Cox included the Bellamy Bridge story in Two Egg, Florida: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts.

The bridge, which can be viewed by those on Chipola River paddle trips, has otherwise been inaccessible for years ever since traffic over the river shifted to a new bridge and the portion of the road leading to the old one was abandoned. As a preservationist, I hated seeing this historic old bridge not being conserved and maintained or made accessible to those who want to look at one of the few remaining iron bridges of its type in the State of Florida. For me, the bridge is a wonderful location setting for a short story as well as a memory from childhood years.

While I was working on this short story, Dale Cox happened to make a proposal to Jackson County that a privately funded walking trail through public land be created with appropriate signs and markers that would allow people to hike into the fabulous floodplain swamp and river environment and see the bridge. The project appears to have the support of the county and, with a little luck and a lot of hard work from Dale Cox and other volunteers, the trail may soon become a reality.

I don’t think anyone is claiming that hikers will see any ghosts. In fact, insofar as the legend is concerned, it may not match the historical record of one Elizabeth Jane Bellamy who has purportedly been haunting the area for 178 years. My short story is named Cora because that just might be the name of the actual ghost. But leaving behind stories and storytelling for now, I’m happy to see that the bridge may become accessible and that many others will enjoy a historic structure that I took for granted when I drove my old car over its wood planks (long gone now) when I was in high school.

If you live in the Florida Panhandle and/or like old bridges and floodplain swamps filled with chinkapin and cypress, you can follow the Historic Bellamy Bridge project here on Facebook.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell, who grew up in the Florida Panhandle, is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasies “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande.”

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