One of my most vexing creative projects has been my currently unpublished novel, Faith of Dawn (looking for an agent right now, it’s ready to rock!). I started it almost five years ago, and it was the work in progress that hung over my head as Donald Trump was elected, as I transitioned from my career in energy efficiency to one in finance, necessitating a years long break from writing as I studied for and passed my Series 7 and Series 66 licenses, as I learned an entirely new language of stock trading and financial futures, from the one I’d grown up with.
In Faith of Dawn a disabled vet goes back to her hometown in the middle of the Ocala National Forest to solve the disappearance of two young women. She winds up tangled up with a suicide cult, and a strange creature known as the Skunk Ape. On a family trip to Florida, I was once told NOT to visit this national forest, because only drug dealers hang out there, and there had been a lot of disappearances. I was intrigued! Alas, my Googling didn’t confirm any of this, but the idea lingered in my head. Diversion: For more information on folks who have gone missing on public land, you can spend some time with David Paulides and his Missing 411 project. He’s got some wild theories, but what jumped out at me was the indisputable fact that these numbers are tracked distressingly loosely. I don’t subscribe to dimensional sink holes or murderous bigfoots (bigfeet? I never know!), but it does seem like a little more bureaucratic paperwork would be advantageous.
I like to write fast. My first drafts tend to be ragged skeletons of the books they eventually become. I like to puke out a first draft as fast as I possibly can, build an outline based on that of what the book ought to look like, and then man-handle the second draft into a cohesive story. Years passed between the first draft and the wrangling on Faith of Dawn, and yet it was still MY work in progress. It didn’t fade to black like many other unfinished projects do. So a year into my finance career, when I had some more brain space, and a little disposable income, I booked myself a trip to Florida. To Eustis, north of Orlando, with great access to the National Forest.
I found an Air B&B in the middle of nowhere. My flight was delayed, and I texted the hosts. It was fine, they said. The door was unlocked. They rented out the left wing of the house, my bedroom was all the way down on the left. They did have another couple staying, their room was on the right. I plugged the directions into the GPS on my rental car, and off I went. I was listening to The Good House by Tananarive Due (SO GOOD READ IT RIGHT NOW) but eventually I turned it off. I’d been to Florida before. I’d been to Miami, Orlando, Tampa, The Villages…I didn’t expect the nothingness I found myself in. It was perhaps 11pm, most of the houses were dark, or maybe one or two glowing windows. Many driveways had gates. I left paved roads. Deer crossed in front of my car. The GPS told me the house, and I paused as rabbits skittered out of the glow of my headlights. I could imagine myself walking into one of these remote houses, to be justifiably shot as a conservative Floridian defended their home.
I found the right house. My room was great. The hosts were lovely. In their yard I saw lizards, cranes, loads of rabbits and deer. They had wonderful dogs for me to pet. I’d said I was a writer and was coming to visit the forest and work on the project. The second day, after I’d deemed them cool, they asked me about my project, and instead of being evasive, I said it was a horror novel set here, and one of the main elements was the skunk ape. The husband got very excited. His brother was a lawyer. Well respected. Very smart guy. This brother did a lot of hunting, and found himself in some very remote areas. He told me of inexplicable lights in the sky. Of things moving through the forests and the swamps that should not be, nothing he could ever photograph or prove. He was always extra careful out there hunting in central Florida. “Tell her about the picture!” said the wife. The husband’s parents (their neighbors) had a framed painting for his whole life, one that scared the hell out of him when he was a kid. I went out for a day of exploring, and when I came back, he’d gone and brought it back for me to inspect. I did a reverse Google image search, looked for a signature anywhere, and came up with nothing. I’d love a print of this, something more than my photo of a painting.
Skunk Apes are the Florida Bigfoot, and lore has them mostly living in the Everglades, though my host’s brother’s tale makes me feel all right about putting them as far north as the National Forest. I can tell you all more about them in another post. Faith of Dawn wasn’t put to bed for another full year after my visit to Florida, but dang, were my edits and revisions more powerful after just a few days immersed in the settings. Side note: hiking in Florida it’s not the alligators you need to worry about, it’s the bears and the ticks. Didn’t see any bears, but someone I met in one of the recreation areas says I just missed them. I saw more ticks on that trip, more ticks ON MY PERSON than anywhere else. So, uh, enjoy!