The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “location settings”

Tick off a writer and s/he will kill you in the next book

Or so they say.

Okay, it could happen, perhaps it has happened, and–if so–it might happen again.

Truth is, authors are influenced by everything that happens to them, the people they know, the offices where they work, the regions where their families came from and where they grew up, and by all the places they’ve visited. The rely strongly on these even though their fiction may well be a long way from autobiographical.

I’ve written novels and short stories set in the Florida Panhandle because I grew up there. I’ve used Montana because I worked there and have been back for numerous vacation visits. Decatur, Illinois, has figured in my stories because my mother grew up there, we visited my grandparents there while I was growing up, and one of my brothers was born there. So, it’s fun using my knowledge of these places–and, the little known legends from these places–in my stories.

None of my friends, family or enemies has been killed off in any of my books.

Like many people who have visited Paris, London, and Berlin, I have often thought about getting a story in one of those places–or, maybe a scene. I set a couple of scenes in the Netherlands because I worked there one summer while in college. As for the other places, I think I would be behind the eight ball trying to catch up with the common knowledge about those places that’s firmly known by those who did live there and/or who have spent a considerable amount of time there. It’s very difficult–if not impossible–for an author to write a credible story set in a known place if he doesn’t really know that place.

There are a lot of reasons why my Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman novels are set in the 1950s. Primarily, it’s because the racist situations my characters fight against were common then. But there’s also another reason: that’s when I lived there, and I haven’t been there since 1986.  My knowledge of the Florida Panhandle as it is now isn’t strong enough for me to write a book set there in 2017.

One can get around this to some extent if one gets a grant that includes travel, if one has a bestselling author’s budget and can travel there or pay a staff to travel there. You’ve probably heard the expression many times that “the map is not the territory.” Likewise, I think that–for a writer needing facts that are only apparent when s/he lives in a place or can afford extensive visits to a place–the Internet is also not the territory. One cannot Google his or her way into knowing what a native knows.

I’ve never felt limited by restricting my self to places I’ve lived or worked or seen extensively during trips. The joy for me is having a wealth of information that can become part of the stories in such an organic way that no reviewer can say “my research shows.” That usually happens when a writer doesn’t really know a place, does a lot of expensive research, and tries to jam it all into a novel whether it naturally fits or not.

One of my characters in the 1954-era novel in progress just took some photographs on a Florida road with a Brownie Hawkeye Camera. I’ve seen that road and I took pictures in that area with a Brownie Hawkeye when was a kid. I still have the camera. Using such details–things that relate to my life and experiences–is a lot more satisfying than writing down the names of people who tick me off so that they can be “taken care of” in my next novel or short story.

At least, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.




On Location: Florida’s Tate’s Hell Swamp

tateshell“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

tateshell2In 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

You may also like: My location Setting post for: Morning Eagle Falls in Glacier National Park and Tallahassee’s College Avenue


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