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

How authors can have fun with Pinterest

Like most Pinterest users, I tend to poke around in there for home decor, garden ideas, and recipes, as well as art and photography. But authors can get a lot of other use out of it, too.

I’m sure the number one way authors ought to use Pinterest is to market their books, but I haven’t added that to my regular duties yet. But I do find it ideal for seeking inspiration (or providing it) in three other areas: setting, characters, and cover design.

Pinterest is just great for exploring settings. I usually have an actual place in mind when I am writing, and when I need to ground my recollections in some details I can go looking for pictures of that place, or places like it, and easily “pin” what I find in one collection.

I actually started doing this the first time mostly so I could communicate with a cover designer. (If I’d checked earlier, I would have discovered that my memories of Peterborough — Lawson in the novel – did not match reality nearly as well as I thought they had.)

I have pictures from Greenfield, Massachusetts and environs for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, along with some of the art that plays a role in the book.

Bardwell’s Folly already has a page, too, but the tricky part is finding a slightly decrepit, entirely out-of-place Southern plantation-style house that could actually be sitting in a small town in Massachusetts. Feel free to suggest pins to me!

Pinterest is also fun for playing with characters. I’ll be honest and confess I don’t care that much how my characters look. I think readers fill in the details themselves. I only fill in enough to show that someone else has noticed them — for what is a better indicator of love than paying close attention?

So Mary did have to notice details about Winslow to be convincingly smitten.And for that I was inspired by a lovely painting I saw once in the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine of a young Jamie Wyeth. I don’t have the painting, nor can I find it online, but I do have a photograph of the actual young Jamie Wyeth on my Pinterest page for The Awful Mess.

Jamie Wyeth and a pig, from somewhere on the Internet. (I’ll update the source if I can ever find it!)

All I know about Mary’s looks is that she has brown hair she hasn’t cropped short yet, she’s underfed, she isn’t impressed by her own breast size, and Bert could describe her as horsy. My parents informed me that she should obviously be played by Sandra Bullock, which just shows you how long this manuscript had been kicking around. That got me thinking about how I would cast Mary, though, and I would probably go more along the lines of Hilary Swank.

I never got around to thinking of actors or paintings for Molly and David. It’s probably even worse for Dori and Joe in my current manuscript, because now I know what a pain in the ass it is to be limited by hair color when looking for good cover images. Seriously, I’m ready to search and replace hair color until I have a cover design I like.

Which brings me to my other favorite use for Pinterest: Whenever I see a cover I really admire, I pin it.This makes it easy to let my cover designer know what my taste is like. One of these days I’d like to use it to keep track of the books I read, but I have a hard enough time just keeping up with Goodreads.


You can set your Pinterest pages to public or private. I have a friend who keeps Pinterest pages as a kind of scrapbook for a book she is writing, pinning pictures and other sources of inspiration to it as she goes along. (Scrivener has a similar function, I believe, although I’ve never mastered it.) I know this because she invited me to join a secret page. So this means you can use Pinterest to share inspiration privately with friends, co-authors, a writing group, or a street team.

Last tip: If you do decide to use Pinterest, accept any time-saving plug-in or app it suggests. You definitely want pinning to be as effortless as possible.

I’m sure there are some real Pinterest power users out there. Feel free to weigh in with good advice. And if you want to ‘cast’ any of my characters, feel free. If you’re on Pinterest, suggest a pin for those pages!