The “Sunshine State” is not always sunny

Florida is not all Disney World and beaches. It’s not all tropical, either. It can get cold — and even freeze — in a good part of the state. And it’s bigger than you realize. I re-learned that old lesson again during a visit to my parents this January, when I decided I wanted to take a field trip to abandoned Ellaville as well as the Haile Homestead, a former plantation.

That was a very long drive from my parents’ home in Citrus County on a chilly winter’s day. Mom and I really needed our polyester fleece and jackets.

I wanted to see Ellaville, because I needed a Florida locale within fairly easy reach of Georgia, as well as a river in which someone could drown. And if it could be the Suwannee River, all the better. When we were kids my family always sang our state song when we crossed the Suwannee during our long-distance travels. Ironically, I hadn’t realized that this was actually a minstrel song until I looked it up for this post — the lyrics I grew up with didn’t speak of plantations and didn’t use an offensive pseudo-black dialect. Blackface and minstrel shows are going to play a small but key role in “Bardwell’s Folly.”

Ellaville was better for my purposes than I could have dreamed. The highway bridge I saw on Google is nothing special, but there’s a parking area close to it for abandoned Ellaville … complete with an abandoned bridge that’s much better for throwing someone off of than the highway bridge. My mother and I were both pretty spooked by how isolated it was. Mom wasn’t thrilled that I insisted on getting out of the car.

(If a photo interests you, click on it for a larger image.)

It took a long time to drive up there, longer than I had imagined (stopping to eat lunch didn’t help). We ran out of time to go any further along Florida 90 if we still wanted to see any of the Haile Homestead in Gainesville before it closed. So we turned back, and just managed to get to that old “Kanapaha Plantation” site in time for a quick tour before it closed (it’s only open on the weekends).

The Haile Homestead may look fairly modest from the outside — it’s no Tara — but inside it has tremendously high ceilings and gigantic rooms with lots of glass windows. In other words, the Hailes had money, at least until the cotton crop failed a couple of years in a row. They also owned over 60 “enslaved laborers,” as the guides and literature insist on putting it. I’m sure there’s a reason for this terminology, but I can’t find it. I should have asked.

The family never painted or wallpapered. They DID write all over the walls, no doubt a lot more in the later years when it became a bit of a party hang-out for later generations. Thus, the house is referred to as having “talking walls.” It’s an interesting place to visit, and I’d like to have more time (and less chilly weather — it’s not heated) the next time I go.

Now, none of this was strictly necessary. I don’t have to hew too religiously to actual geography — fiction is fiction, and I make up my place names and any details I need. And I could, if I were patient enough, virtually click my way up and down state highways using Google Maps. But I wanted to get a better feel for the area and how my characters might perceive it.

Cover concept for BARDWELL'S FOLLY

Cover concept for BARDWELL’S FOLLY

As many of you know, I gave myself an unpaid sabbatical from teaching this spring, and used the time to finish my first draft of “Bardwell’s Folly: A Love Story” (cover concept at left). This is a temporary version of “going pro” that I can’t recommend to anybody who doesn’t have other sources of income, but I’m enjoying it.

If you’re a writer and you travel to do any of your research, I’d love to hear your own experiences, and whether you find you use a lot of it when you actually sit down to write.

#Florida is not all Disney World and beaches. Check out spooky Ellaville! Click To Tweet

3 thoughts on “The “Sunshine State” is not always sunny

  1. I’ve been to Gainseville!

    While we live today on the same quiet rural road in upstate NY where I grew up, my Accomplice is from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We met at Moqui Lodge, which used to stand a mile outside the gates of Grand Canyon National Park. I had just arrived to work there; he’d been there 12 years.

    We spent a winter working and living in Flamingo, FL, at the bottom edge of the Everglades. We acquired our first dog at Robert is Here in Homestead. When we left to return to Yellowstone, we spent a couple of days scuba diving at Ginnie Springs.

    Our son was born in Livingston, Montana, about midway between Yellowstone’s North Entrance and Bozeman. Our daughter, much to her chagrin, was born in Troy, NY. I try to console her with the fact that I was born in Cohoes, practically next door, but that doesn’t help much.

    We had a family vacation to Oregon last winter, and decided that we’d like to relocate there within the next couple of years.

    I’ve used travel experiences extensively in my writing. Sometimes, it’s a setting I transfer, such as the old-growth forest around my father-in-law’s home in Oregon, where the ferns grow knee-high, and everything is amazingly green and dripping -perfect for my hunting cultures in my Trueborn fantasy series-in-the-making. Other times, it’s in poetry, or a story set in an actual place (Trip and T’Pol in the Everglades was fun).

    I participated in the Blogging From A-Z Challenge with a travel theme last year. I wasn’t sure I could manage a month’s worth of posts, but I did – and I learned a lot about myself along the way.

    All that said, I love this paragraph:

    “I wanted to see Ellaville, because I needed a Florida locale within fairly easy reach of Georgia, as well as a river in which someone could drown. And if it could be the Suwannee River, all the better. ”

    I’ve had some great thoughts about tossing someone into a Yellowstone hot pool – there’d be very little forensic evidence left, if the deed was done under cover of darkness…

    Best of luck with the drafting. My creative surge will come from April -July, when I have drafting projects lined up every month.

    Above all else – enjoy the sabbatical! =D

    • Someone was just telling me that people are always accidentally falling into those hot pools and dying. You’ve certainly seen a lot of the country! In fact, I think you may have seen more of Florida than I have and I grew up there. I’ve lived up here (very near you, it sounds like) for 13 years now and I feel as if I’m just beginning to scratch the potential of things to do and places to go here. I do enjoy traveling, but honestly just a new way to get downtown is enough to make me happy. I go the same friends in Maine every summer and my goal is simply to visit a new place not too far off the path on my way up each year. I’m either lacking in ambition or easily pleased. Happy travels!

      • Here’s some potential reading material, for when you finish your draft: Death in Yellowstone:Accidents and Foolhardiness in America’s First National Park.

        NOT recommended reading if you happen to be a newlywed newly arrived in the park, and your new spouse is several hours late returning from work….

        I do love this part of the country, and that the kids have had the chance to get to know the Northeast (we’re unschoolers, and our friends are scattered across several states. My Accomplice is a chef, and works weekends, so the kids and I got good at traveling when they were still quite young.

        I think local travel can be just as amazing as far roving. It’s all about the spirit the traveler brings to the journey.

        We haven’t gotten to Maine yet, but as my daughter has two friends there…it may be on the list for this coming summer. We go to Plymouth every summer, for an unschooling campout, so we’ve seen most of the sights there. The NY State Museum in Albany is a favorite place for us (so long as schools are in session and it’s a weekday, because then we tend to have the place to ourselves.

        Happy travels to you – literary and otherwise. =)