On location: Carrabelle, Florida

Carrabelle waterfront as it looked in the 1960s. - Photo from the Florida Memory Project.
Carrabelle waterfront as it looked in the 1960s. – Photo from the Florida Memory Project.

Carrabelle sits on the gulf coast in the Florida Panhandle and has three rivers running through it. I lived an hour away in Tallahassee from the first grade through college and loved those rivers,  Carrabelle River, Crooked River and Ochlockonee River. I also liked the unspoiled coast–still called the Forgotten Coast–and the nearby Tate’s Hell State Forest. Except for the unfortunate logging in Tate’s Hell, which is currently in recovery, the beaches, swamps and rivers were more pristine than those in the crowded peninsula section of the state.

Across the bay from Carrabelle is Dog Island. In the 1950s and 1960s, my Scout Troop often went camping there. My best friend and I went there by speed boat and sail boat to explore the dunes along its coast. The island remains sparsely developed while the nearby St. George Island has more traffic since it’s connected to the mainland by a bridge. I was against the bridge when it was being built, but they the state department of transportation didn’t ask me.

Carrabelle as it looks today.
Carrabelle as it looks today.

In addition to the great seafood and the well-publicized “world’s smallest police station,” visitors will enjoy Alligator Point, Carrabelle Beach, St. George Island State Park, Ochlockonee State Park, and the Ft. Gadsden Historic Site. Highway 98 is a scenic coastal road and highway 67 is a scenic route through state and national forests. With 1300 residents, Carrabelle is not crowded except on warm summer days when people drive down from Tallahassee to enjoy the beaches.

I figuratively traveled to Carrabelle last week while working on a new short story set there in the late 1960s. I wish it weren’t seven hours away from my home in northwest Georgia. I would have taken a fresh look at a place out of my childhood for hushpuppies and mullet–along with the ambiance. Called “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” my short story will be released on Kindle by Thomas-Jacob Publishing February 12 as part of our Stories from Tate’s Hell series.

carrabellemapquestIf you live closer to the gulf coast and haven’t been to Carrabelle, go take a look, and while you’re there, climb to the top of the Crooked River Lighthouse and explore the World War II museum at Camp Gordon Johnston.  If you dare to hike into Tate’s Hell and end up getting lost, don’t call me on your cell phone (if it even works there) and ask me how to get the hell out.

“The history of Dog Island and Carrabelle, Florida, includes a wonderful mix of Indians, shipping, bootlegging, logging and battles. This charming town was a fishing village prior to the Civil War, isolated from the rest of Franklin County by the lack of bridges and paved roads. After the war, it became an internationally known lumber town, shipping wood from the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding virgin forest. Turpentine, distilled from pine sap, was shipped via schooners from the natural deep water port on the Carrabelle River. ” – Get Hooked on Carrabelle

— Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era novella set in the Florida Panhandle. It features a conjure woman who claims to be older than dirt, but not too old to fight the KKK when her town’s police force refuses to investigate the murder of a Black girl.

Free Kindle Short Story: “Dream of Crows”

My Kindle short “Dream of Crows” will be free on Amazon between January 21 and January 23. (The story is always free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.)

crowssmallcoverDescription: After going on a business trip to north Florida, you have strange dreams about something lurid and/or dangerous that happened in a cemetery next to Tate’s Hell Swamp. You try to remember and when you do, that’s all she wrote.

Picture This: When a person has too much to drink and gets mixed up with a stunning conjure woman, exciting things can turn into dangerous things. That’s why folks need to be careful when walking into a bluesy bar where a temptress is serving drinks–and more.

Tate’s Hell Stories: This story is one of a series of books that are connected by one thing only: a forbidding swamp. The swamp, which is real, is on Florida’s Gulf Coast near the town of Carrabelle. You probably haven’t heard of the swamp or the town because they’re in what’s often called “the forgotten coast.” Those of us who grew up there hope it stays forgotten.

Obviously, this short story leans a bit into the paranormal side of things. You might also say it’s a bit experimental since you are the main character.

Have fun reading the story–if you dare.







Saving the Florida Panther – I hope it’s not too late

“The Florida Panther is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet. Less than 160 cats remain in the wild. Most live around Okaloacoochee Slough, including the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, near Naples.” – The Nature Conservancy

floridapantherI grew up in North Florida during the 1950s and 1960s before the state became as overdeveloped as it is now. At the time, there was a captive Florida Panther at a local animal museum that had been injured either by guns or automobiles and was there to recover. It was my favorite animal in the place, one that still lived in the wild in the Florida Panhandle.

In my contemporary fantasy novel The Seeker, (2022 update – now out of print) some of the action takes place at a wild, wonderful and somewhat forbidding tract of piney woods, swamps and wet prairies near the mouth of the Apalachicola River called “Tate’s Hell.” That name comes from the legendary man named Cebe Tate who chased a panther through the swamp because he thought it was killing his stock. He disappeared.

He was bitten by a rattlesnake. When searchers found him, his last words were, “My name’s Tate and I’ve been through hell.”

I grew up with that legend–one that included a folk song about Tate by Florida singer Will McLean–and knew the area well. So naturally, I mentioned the legend in my novel which is set at a time when Panthers were still there.

Catching up on the status of the Panther as I wrote the novel was a sad experience. While I was pleased to hear that in addition to the Nature Conservancy, organizations like Panther Net and Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge were working hard to protect the panther and its vanishing habitat, I was saddened to see how much ground and how many panthers had been lost since the says when I hiked in Tate’s Hell.

One conservation push in many areas of the country is wildlife corridors, protected strips or chunks of land that link up with vital habitats, creating a way for animals to travel between them. In some places, you will see green-space overpasses and underpasses routing animals past Interstate highways. Last year, the Nature Conservancy was able to protect a 1,278 acre tract in Glades County, Florida that Panthers in protected areas can use to increase the size of their range near Naples, FL.

According to the Nature Conservancy, “This acquisition will encourage the natural recovery of the Florida panther population by providing habitat where animals can den and stalk prey, and migrate from southern Florida to areas north of the river. Other species will benefit as well.” The range for a male panther is 200 square miles. The range for a female panther is a 75-mile block within the male’s territory.

I hope the efforts of hard-working people to save the Florida Panther will succeed. In a tourist and development-minded state, playgrounds often trump wild places and vital habitats in the eyes of the government, Chambers of Commerce, and the public. Too bad. It’s a short-sighted view of one’s world.



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.