Monday, March 3, 2014

North Florida Trilogy

The recent publication of Time Piece, the third book in The North Florida Trilogy, puts an end not only to the series, but to the 30-year story surrounding the books. Here is some of that story.

In the mid-1980s, I was editing vocational materials for the state of Florida. One of my co-workers was Anne Petty, a woman who was just beginning to dabble in creative writing after publishing a nonfiction book on J.R.R. Tolkien. I had published a couple of handfuls of poems as well as a book of short stories. I also had three full-length novels completed and stored away in a drawer.  It was natural, then, that Anne and I became friends and we often talked about what we were working on at the time. Sadly, I was in a severe and protracted writing slump and had produced very little over the preceding few years.

One morning, Anne came to my office and showed me a picture she had taken the weekend before. It was a snapshot of an old, abandoned country church near her property in Crawfordville. You could almost hear the creaky front door, smell the mold creeping along the damp walls, and feel the dusty bat dung on the bell rope. "This would make a great setting for a horror story," she told me.

I agreed; in fact, as the day wore on, I became more and more captivated by the idea. Here at last was something new that I could sink my fangs into.That night, I went home and wrote five pages of the first chapter along with a several-page synopsis, complete with events and a preliminary cast of characters. I don't think Anne actually thought that anything would come out of her little photograph, but when she saw how excited I was about the idea, she became as enthusiastic as I was.  Somehow, over the next six or eight months, we crafted a novel around that little church featuring a shrimpboat captain named Carla Conway and a menagerie of rural misfits. Although no longer a horror novel (we agreed that the description "literary suspense" was more accurate), the novel is a rich and exciting adventure that tells many stories,not only about the characters, but about North Florida itself. But this novel, like most novels written by anyone before 2010, went into a drawer.

For a while we were content with this single novel; its creation had gotten us both off  our creative tookuses. But then we got to talking about a bizarre museum near Panama City that we were both familiar with. It  dealt in the most esoteric junk--widgets and postcards and knives; even a mummy and a cigar store Indian. Outside, a giant statue of a gorilla could be seen for miles on State Road 20. So, yes, we had to write another novel about this. The scene had changed from near Apalachicola to Panama City and the characters changed, too. This one featured P.I. Vicky Rankin, her husband Rick (a failed Western writer), and son Rusty (a teenage weirdo who liked fire and knives). It also dealt with Snag Black, a hunchbacked homosexual whose father owned the odd museum. Snag turned out to be the person who offered Vicky her first detecting job, one that would cause her to solve a 500-year-old mystery. The novel was finished and it, too, went into the drawer.

It was more than a year after Museum Piece that we realized that it and Hell and High Water should be part of a loose trilogy. But for this third book, we had to change the scene yet again, setting the novel in Pensacola, a bit west of Panama City. The main character, Melanie Truslow, had appeared as a minor character in the first two novels and in fact is the only character to appear in all three. She had moved to Pensacola to get to know her father, who had divorced her mother before Melanie was born. But his mysterious death left her alone in a strange city and a large  house, rife with secrets. I  had visited a Vietnamese Tent City near Pensacola at the end of the Vietnam war and we used some of what I had experienced there in the book. Anne used her experiences of having to put her mother in a nursing  home because of an unusual type of dementia. And then there were the watches. We called the book Time Piece, and I have always considered it the most literary and the most important.

And there we had it. We finished the last book in the late 1980s. I left my state job to open a bookstore and concentrate on poetry, which seemed easier to publish than fiction. Anne, too, went in her own direction, becoming fairly well known for her dark fantasy novels and Tolkien criticism. The North Florida Trilogy languished. Every few years I would take one of them out of its drawer and begin to submit it to agents or publishers, but nothing ever came of those efforts. And every decade or so we wold undertake a revision of each one. And after every revision, the works got tighter and tighter.

In 2012 we did a final revision of the trilogy and began our independent publication of the series with Hell and High Water. In 2013 Museum Piece was published and finally, this week, Time Piece became available. All exist in both paperback and e-book form. An interesting sidelight is that the books--which we wrote as contemporary fiction--have become historical. Much that we wrote about is no longer there.

Unfortunately, Anne did not live to see the last book in the series published. Cancer took her just after Museum Piece came out last year. I think, though, that like me, she was always proud of the series, the work we both put into it, and the experience we gained from it.