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

Recipe for becoming a writer: be an outsider

by Sandra Hutchison

I know there are writers who never leave the town they were born in (think Emily Dickinson), but that’s far from my own experience. We moved often as my father’s career in newspapers advanced; I consider myself a journalism brat. And I think displacement is often a spark for writers who aren’t already tortured enough by some other trauma.

Moving can be fun, it can be educational, and it can be wrenching. One benefit is the keen eye that comes with simply not being local to a place. You naturally notice more — you have to in order to find your way around. It’s a survival mechanism that probably predates human civilization, when everything new in the environment was potentially deadly, and being the outsider was particularly dangerous.

I grew up in Florida, moved to the Northeast, and have always set my novels there. This makes sense because I noticed the hell out of the Northeast. It was a strange place with people who seemed standoffish compared to Southerners. I was a bit shocked by all the quaint housing and pastoral scenery that I had previously assumed was some sort of American mythology that only showed up in textbooks and historical novels like Little Women. Actual red barns covered in snow freaked me out.

This week as I am visiting my parents in Florida, I find myself noticing the hell out of their sleepy little town in Citrus County. I suppose if I moved down here, I’d be able to write realistic novels set here in a few years, not that I’m eager to do that. Right now, I’m still just observing, and aware that although I’m Florida born and bred, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.

I’m a naturalized Yankee who does remember and appreciate certain Floridian delights,  however, including live oaks covered in moss, Southern magnolias, the rare May morning that hasn’t gotten hot yet, pecans with just about anything, guava turnovers, Cuban sandwiches, and the vernacular use of “Bless her heart!” in the grocery store (you REALLY don’t want someone to say that about you).

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

A Florida live oak draped in Spanish moss

And that’s all I have to say this week because I am busy with family obligations. As it is, I’m just glad I finally remembered my password to get onto my own blog.

Have you ever been an outsider? Did that end up being a good experience or a bad one, or — as is so often the case — a bit of both?


How Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings found her groove

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, failed romance writer?

One of the most pleasant days of my recent week-long visit with my parents in Florida (I’m from the Tampa Bay area originally), was a visit to the old farm house and orange grove where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote her classics The Yearling, Cross Creek, and more.

According to the excellent guide who took us through the house, Rawling and her husband, both would-be novelists, had decided to ditch their dead-end newspaper jobs up north and try their hand at oranges and fiction.

Their timing was terrible. They had a mortgage, and shortly after their arrival the Great Depression hit and devalued their investment immediately (and apparently also killed the market for romance novels — which I find hard to believe from today’s perspective).

Our guide suggested that Mr. Rawlings couldn’t stand the competition with his more talented wife and cleared out, leaving her stranded on a farm in the middle of the Florida scrub.

Rawlings set out to learn how to survive from her neighbors, and wrote a short piece about them that got her noticed by an editor up north. He pushed her to do more in that direction, and the eventual result was The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939.

When I was moved from Tampa’s Dunbar Sixth Grade Center to Clearwater’s Palmetto Elementary in the sixth grade, Mrs. Ellis was reading The Yearling aloud to my raptly attentive home room, which may be part of the reason I didn’t read it again until just last year.

When I finally took it up on my own I initially found it a bit stylistically flat, with a repetitive rhythm of simple declarative sentences — ideal for a children’s book, perhaps — but then I quickly got wrapped up in the tale of a small, emotionally fraught family trying to survive by their wits in the middle of the Florida wilderness. As a gardener and a cook, I was particularly fascinated by their plantings and preservation techniques (from today’s perspective it’s hard to believe they survived eating meat potted in fat and stored under the house without refrigeration).

I can understand how Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston became friends despite the formidable racial barriers of that era, because they clearly shared a similar interest in anthropology and a similar appetite for adventure. (Their Eyes Were Watching God is another novel of Florida that captures a way of life that has since disappeared.)

Both Rawlings and Hurston brought keen outsider’s eyes to their subject, which makes me wonder how often writers are born from — or at least shaped by — that essential injury of being transplanted to a strange new world.

This is certainly the case with me — so far I have always written about the Northeast, after having been moved there (kicking and screaming) at the age of sixteen. I suppose if I ever move back, I might be able to bring the same observer’s eye to my home state, but I am not in any hurry to do so. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

Anyway, it was interesting to see how a change of venue — and an open mind towards her new environs — led to astonishing success for Rawlings, especially when The Yearling was made into a popular movie. (Whoever designed that movie poster had clearly never been to Florida, which has no mountains.)

It was also interesting to hear that Rawlings’ pronounced her maiden name KinAWN. That was news to me.

We had to leave our tour without exploring the grounds because we were meeting friends of my parents at the nearby The Yearling Restaurant. It was a fitting end to the adventure, for we shared fried gator, frog legs, and green tomatoes as an appetizer, while Willie Green played blues in the background.

(For the record: Yes, gator tastes like chicken — chicken with the texture of lawn chair mesh. Frog legs also taste like chicken, but the texture is much better. Seems like quite a waste of frog, though.)

If you can’t make it there yourself, I hope you’ll enjoy this tour of the house: