On Location: Florida’s Tate’s Hell Swamp
“Now then, infinity passed while they bled toward death in Tate’s Hell where limpkins and panthers scream, snakes tempt lovers with stories of good and evil, and dark silences are invitations to dream into oneself the all of the swamp.” — from “The Seeker” (Coming in March 2013)
“Who was Tate, you wonder? In Sumatra they still tell his story: how he left the frontier village at dusk a century ago with his two hunting dogs and his puppy Spark, to kill a panther that had been raiding Sumatra livestock. He carried a Long Tom shotgun and a Barlow knife, and he thought he knew where the darkening waters ran.” –Gloria Jahoda, “The Other Florida”
Why I Used The Setting
Tate’s Hell State Forest, often called Tate’s Hell Swamp, is a diverse tract of pine forests, swamps and wet prairies on the Florida Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Now a state preserve, the land was excessively logged years ago to its great detriment, but now in recent years, the state and conservation groups are working to repair the damage.
It was named after old man Tate who, years ago, was bit by a rattlesnake while chasing a Florida Panther. Days later when he was found, he supposedly said in his last breath, “My name’s Tate and I’ve been through hell.” The name stuck and it came to symbolize the impression of Floridians that the swamps and wet flatwoods there were nature in it’s raw, pristine and untamed extravagance.
In my short story in Quail Bell Magazine, “How the Snake Bird Learned to Dry Its Feathers,” I chose the location as the way the world was before man arrived. For my upcoming fantasy adventure novel The Seeker, I chose the location for a steamy sex scene because the primal ambiance of the swamp at night when the cries of wild things are like erotic music fit the intent of my female character.
Excerpt from The Seeker
In the following snippet, the “stuff in the mayonnaise jar” is a home-made insect repellant that smells terrible. “Coowahchobee” is the rare Florida panther. Panthers could be found in Tate’s Hell at the time my story was set, but now their range has shrunk to the Everglades region of South Florida.
“It is a smaller cat. Coowahchobee”—she looked up at him and smiled—“is her Seminole name. There are so few panthers left, but we may hear her voice this evening.”
“Far away, I hope; unless the stuff in the mayonnaise jar repels them as well.”
She glanced up at him with an odd expression on her face, somewhat pained, half way between a questioning look and a frown.
“Of course,” she snapped, “I’ll be close. You’ll be hearing my voice and experiencing my wonderful ministrations until you scream ‘Sweet Angel.’”
Out of The Character’s Comfort Zone
In fantasy, crime novels, thrillers and other genres, authors can ramp up the tension my placing their protagonists in locations that are outside their comfort zones. David Ward knows what to expect from the grizzly bears, snow-filled valleys and narrow mountain ledges in the high country of Montana where he grew up. But put him in a Florida swamp, and he’ll be in an otherworldly place even though he respects its beauty. In my novel, David goes from a world of Golden Eagles and Ospreys to a world of Limpkins, Snake Birds, alligators, and rattlesnakes.
When he gets there, he also discovers that the sweet girl he met in a mountain valley called The Garden of Heaven is suddenly wildly different in Tate’s Hell Swamp. My location setting had to be alien to both David and my readers to make the scene work.
The Tate’s Hell photographs in this post come from the Florida Forest Service