On Location: Longleaf Pine along the Florida coast

97% of this forest is gone, leaving only isolated pockets of longleaf pines
97% of this forest is gone, leaving only isolated pockets of longleaf pines

“The average American’s view of the natural communities of the Southeastern U.S. is that it is comprised mainly of swamps, alligators and big, old moss-hung cypress trees. On the contrary to this view, when early explorers visited the southeastern region they saw “a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined, planted by nature at a moderate distance. . . enameled with a variety of flowering shrubs.” Fire defined where the longleaf pine forest was found and fostered an ecosystem diverse in plants and animals.” – Longleaf Alliance

I have been working on another short story for my evolving “Land Between the Rivers” collection about the animals who lived along the Florida Gulf Coast before man showed up and who are now endangered species.

These stories are set in what is now called “Tate’s Hell Forest,” a diverse habitat along the gulf coast near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. This mix of swamps and wet prairies and mixed forests used to flow into the continuous longleaf pine forests as shown on the map.

Why I Like the Setting

When men came, the found a forest they could drive their wagons through. - Longleaf Alliance Photo
When men came, the found a forest they could drive their wagons through. – Longleaf Alliance Photo

The endangered gopher tortoise, the main character in my current story, loves sandy areas for creating its underground burrows and depends on the grasses and other plants the grow on the floor of a well-maintained longlreaf pine forest. Unlike hardwood and mixed forests, longleaf forests feature widely spaced trees with minimal brambles, mid-level trees and shrubs. These forests are maintained by natural fires that roar through and clean away the clutter that would eventually destroy the forest.

The den of a gopher tortoise is great protection against such fires, fires that often run through quickly without burning as hot as summer fires in hardwood forests, especially where brush has built up.

In addition to logging off most of the longleafs and replanting with slash pines and loblolly pines, many don’t understand the need for fires and tend to put them out before they do what nature intended.

Fortunately, enlightened forest management specalists are showing show landowners, as well as active forest companies, the value of these trees, not only commercially as tree farms, but for the environment as well. Click here if you live in the Southeastern United states and would like to visit a longleaf pine forest park or recreation area near you.

Realism and Magic Together

gophortortoiseAccording to Seminole legends, the Earth’s animals emerged from the Creator’s birthing shell in a specific order long before man arrived. My stories about the animals of this time focus on their learning what their living place is all about—what to eat, how to find shelter, how to raise their young. I mix my talking animals out of myth with settings as realistic as I can make them. So now I’m studying the tortoise’s habitat.

Every time I pick a new animal and a somewhat new habitat, I have a good excuse for learning more about the Florida world where I grew up. I started writing these stories when several sequences in my upcoming novel The Seeker were set here and I fell in love with the place all over again.

Malcolm

Coming March 2013
Coming March 2013

Great Fiction: Location, Location, Location

These days, most people say they like character-driven novels. As Barbra Streisand sang years ago, “People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.” We want to read about people, pretend to be them, laugh at them, hate them, learn from them and, if nothing else, see what they’ll do next.

nixNonetheless, location can make or break a novel. Picture this:

  • The Night Circus set in the day time or, worse yet, Dubuque.
  • The Prince of Tides without the tides or, worse yet, without the the lush bays and swamps an estuaries of the South Carolina coast. (“It was growing dark on this long southern evening, and suddenly, at the exact point her finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils.”)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in modern times or, worse yet, within the 1950s neighborhood of Happy Days or the early 1960s city ambiance of American Graffiti. (“Where does the wind come from that blows upon your face, that fans the pages of your book? Where the harum-scarum magic of small wild creatures meets the magic of Man, where the language of the wind and the rain and the trees can be understood, there we will find the Raven King.”)
  • All the Pretty Horses moved from Texas onto a Star Wars planet or, worse yet,  the Catskill Mountains.

Setting is more than a generic backdrop for the action

In his essay, “Setting as Character,” Crawford Kilian wrote, “Whether it’s Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s Long Island or Tolkien’s Shire, the setting really is a kind of character in the story. Geographically and socially, the setting shapes the other characters, making some actions inevitable and others impossible.” The novels I listed above not only didn’t happen somewhere else, they couldn’t.

ozmapOn a similar note, a recent post on ProActive Writer, explored the importance of settings with the idea that “ignoring setting, or even giving it only a passing consideration, will lead to an unconvincing story.” The post views setting as the framework or the skeleton that holds up your plot and characters. Some authors build worlds for their novels before writing the novels; others let the worlds evolve while they write their stories. Either way, the worlds—real or imagined—must be convincing, they must fit the story like a warm mitten on a winter evening.

My Location Settings

I say all this as a way of introducing a series of posts on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog about the location settings in my novels. These easy-to-read posts explain each setting, show or describe what happened there in the novel, and explain why I chose the setting.

My approach to settings is organic and intuitive. By that I mean that I don’t make fiction-class lists of the attributes of the settings I want to use. No literary theory here; just places and reasons why I liked them. So far, the series has three installments:

Future posts will look at the world of a city in the Midwest, an aircraft carrier, a bridge over a wild river, and a sailor town. Stop by and see what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with my rationale, perhaps these posts will help you choose the best possible settings for your short stories and novels.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels.

Read it now on your Kindle
Read it now on your Kindle

Take a few notes: you might write about this place some day

In fiction writing, we have the freedom to create settings of our choice. But readers will pick up on phony settings pretty quickly. The more realistic and more interesting your setting, the more likely the characters who inhabit it will be believable and interesting to the reader. — Robert Hays (“The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris”)

Liberty Port in the Philippines
When I was in high school, I tried multiple times to keep a log or journal. But that required more extended discipline than I had. While I began each attempt with the best of intentions, the entries quickly morphed from wordy and detailed into sketchy and infrequent.

A little discipline then could have saved me a lot of trouble when I began writing my novel “Garden of Heaven.” It uses settings I should know well: Glacier National Park, Montana; Tate’s Hell Forest and Tallahassee, Florida; Olongapo, Philippines; the aircraft carrier USS Ranger; Decatur, Illinois; Gronigen, Netherlands.

Each of these places holds memories for me that fit the plot and themes of the novel. Yet, when it comes to nitty-gritty details, memory can be tricky. When exactly did the USS Ranger leave Alameda for Vietnam in 1968 and what stores existed on Tallahassee’s College Avenue a few years before that? What year did the Decatur transfer house get moved and how far was the Galaxy Bar from the main gate?

Fortunately, books, magazines and online research helped fill in the gaps. So did e-mail correspondence with people at Glacier, Tate’s Hell, and Decatur. Frankly, a good journal would have taken me a lot less time. Not that I would have recorded everything I might have needed in a novel written decades later. But recording my observations would have given me a good start.

USS Ranger (CVA-61)
Since it’s quite likely that a writer will end up using places he has a passion for or where defining moments occurred–whether it’s the town where he grew up, the theater where his military service unfolded or the destination for his favorite vacation–I’m thinking it just makes good sense to become a bit more of a packrat.

In addition to photographs, a few notes, brochures, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs, itineraries, and other materials will not only reinforce the writer’s observations when he’s there; they’ll support his memory years later when he puts his protagonist into the deep swamp he saw when he was a kid or the sailor’s liberty town he saw when he was in the Navy.

Such details don’t need to turn into the pages and pages of description readers of today’s novels often skip over. They do bring a place to life. They’re the difference between a setting with depth and one that appears plastic and ill-formed.

And if you have the discipline, keep a diary, log, journal or notebook: your readers will thank you and your writing will be all the stronger for it whether you’re writing about stealing cookies on the mess-decks of an aircraft carrier or the sound a panther makes in a notorious Florida Swamp.