This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the location settings I’m using in my fantasy adventure novels. I hope the settings are interesting and that my rationale for selecting each place will help provide ideas to other writers who want to set their novels in settings that sit their stories.
Terms like “the other Florida” and “the forgotten coast” are often used to describe the swamps and beaches in the Florida Panhandle. The glitz, glitter and crowds of Orlando, Daytona and Miami are missing from these settings only thirty to forty miles from the state capital where I grew up.
In this post: The former Oaks motel and restaurant in Panacea at the end of the long bridge across the Ochlockonee River. This bridge is often crowded with fishermen. And, about ten miles away, the former Wilson’s Beach Cottages near St. Teresa. Author Julie S. Bettinger tells me those cottages began as efficiency rentals for soldiers. Both the restaurant and the cottages have been closed for ten years or so. Author Rhett DeVane and Florida big bend poet laureate Mary Jane Ryals have told me how The Oaks fells on hard times. What a pity. Since I couldn’t find my own photographs, I’ll be using some images here from old postcards to show what my protagonist David Ward sees in my upcoming novel The Seeker.
Why I Used The Settings
David Ward, (“Mountain Song”) who grew up on a Montana ranch, travels to north Florida to see his prospective fiance Anne Hill. Since she is at home on Florida’s blackwater rivers and coastal swamps, I wanted their meeting to occur in a part of the state that remains natural and relatively unspoiled and, most especially, without the usual sterility of Florida’s crowded and over-developed tourist locations.
The Oaks Restaurant and Wilson’s Beach Cottages were known to locals and to in-state tourists and were also very typical of the more-utilitarian motels and restaurants in the Florida Panhandle during the 1960s when the novel is set.
While I haven’t been to Panacea or St. Teresa in over thirty years, I grew up a few miles away. I enjoyed seafood and hushpuppies at The Oaks dozens of times and stayed at friends’ cottages a short stroll down the beach from Wilson’s. My memories, then, allowed me to put David and Anne in an old Jeep and drive south out of Tallahassee to the Gulf Coast.
This short excerpt from The Seeker shows how I used The Oaks setting:
At Panacea, where one could still see the remnants of a spa where the mineral waters were once thought miraculous, Anne turned in at a relatively non-descript bait, tackle, gift shop and restaurant called The Oaks.
Business was booming.
“Nothing fancy here,” she said. “Just good food.”
“You better do the ordering,” he said, glancing over the menu.
“Anne chose mullet, French fries, hush puppies (with onion), a wedge of lettuce with thousand island dressing, and sweet tea. The waitress brought several small boat-shaped bowls containing garlic butter in the prow and crackers in the stern to munch on while they waited for their entrées.
The setting here is also a device in “Mountain Song”to show David the kind of world where Anne feels comfortable. Since he’s a mountain climber and she’s a “swap lady,” she wonders if they are truly compatible. As a writer, I wanted to give the reader a down-home, close-to-the-land setting that would feel much different than, say, a beach setting at either Daytona or Pompano Beach. Writers can enhance moods and themes via the location settings where their stories unfold. In “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” the folk magic of the panhandle in the 1950s is as real as I can make it, so the setting is of prime importance.
Wilson’s Beach Cottages
Like The Oaks, these cottages were not only non-glamorous, they were also very typical of the 1940s and 1950s detached cabin style of motels. In later years, such beaches would have highrise hotels, bars, fresh water and salt water swimming pools and multiple other attractions that—as you see in Daytona Beach—pretty much block the view of the water from drivers on the highway. At present, the location where these cottages were sits vacant with, so I hear, with a remaining cabin or two rotting away back into the earth. That’s too bad: it’s a wonderful beach along a bay sheltered by the Nearby Alligator point.
Here’s an excerpt from “Mountain Song” set at the cottages:
Now—as that blind poet once said—“when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared,” they went into the sea and he heard women’s voices singing a far-off hymn while Anne walked close through the incoming tide. They walked in the company of gulls and sandpipers, and a playful cocker spaniel puppy that stayed with them until they reached the end of Wilson’s long pier. Anne was saying, as the wind blew her hair toward the high water outside the confines of the sheltering bay, “we were good last night.” David kissed her and said “yes.” Last night in this place she had worn a sheer cloak of starlight in the diamond spray, her face no longer in shadow, and they had seen fire howling between their legs until the waves drove them down with murder in their eyes and all was claws and blood.
Notice the trees across the highway from the cottages. This is typical of north Florida then and now, and provides a much different kind of ambiance than a south Florida motel that would have endless city-scape on all sides.
Writers are often advised not to use their familiarity with a setting as a primary reason for making it part of their characters’ world in a short story or a novel. I can understand the reason for that advice: using a place close to home might be taking the easy way out. It might kill the story because it doesn’t have a realistic connection to the theme, characters and plot. One has to be sure that writing about a setting they know well isn’t like a beautiful shoe that just doesn’t fit.
I see stories as being, to some extent, organic to a place in the same way that legends, tall tales, many ghost stories and folk tales arose out of certain places and never would have happened anywhere else. Perhaps I look at places first and ask “What kind of story would happen here.”
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” novellas about folk magic and the KKK set in the Florida Panhandle. “Mountain Song” is partly set in the panhandle.”