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.
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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.
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