One of the first mysteries I wrote set in rural Florida was a short story that won me the Sleuthfest 2009 short story contest sponsored by MWA FL Chapter. In it, alligators loom large. You could say one even rescued my protagonist. Of course I entitled it “Gator Aid”. I gave a copy of it to a close friend who commented that I seemed to be hung up on alligators. Well, duh. They’re all over the place here. We often comment in this county that there are more cattle here than there are people. I’m convinced there are more alligators than people too.
It seemed perfectly normal to me to use the alligator as a source of inspiration because what drives my creativity when I’m in cowboy country is the setting. My protagonists are usually women who are winter visitors, otherwise known as snowbirds. If one is a snowbird on the two coasts or in the Keys, the setting is all about the beautiful people, the sand, the sun, the waves, the color of the water, the perfect waving palm trees. It takes some kind of crazy juxtaposition to make murder out of that, but there are plenty of writers who manage it and manage it well.
Here on the range, set foot beyond your manicured lawn and you may be in for trouble. You could step on any manner of awful thing: horse poop, cow pies, reptiles without legs, sticky, prickly stuff like palmetto, or into swampy water inhabited by animals you don’t want to know about, and some of them are alligators. Of course, on the good side you could walk into the arms of a handsome cowboy who might pull you onto his horse and the two of you would ride off and…. Well, you understand what I’m saying. It’s quite simple here. The gators make for danger, the cowboys for romance. It was the perfect blend of dark and light, murder and passion.
The place is so imposing that it’s hard to imagine writing here without writing the rural Florida setting. If I want to work on a manuscript set in upstate New York while I’m here, I have to consciously transport myself to that other world. I find it’s not done easily, and that’s where the muse comes in, because, really, I was fortunate to have two muses: one for up north and the alligator for down here.
My northern muse? He was just a boring old ghost named Fred who liked to play tricks on me. His humor inspired my own, and his knowledge of my home on the trout stream inspired stories of tornados, drought, floods, hardwood forests, pine topped mountains, microbreweries housed in old dairy barns, a few curious bears, deep snow, craggy-faced hunters and farmers, and, of course, the occasional murder.
Think alligator, and I wrestled with humidity, hurricanes, burning cane fields, the citrus aroma from orange trucks, a pink and magenta sunset across the western side of the big lake, the neon sign in the form of a cross proclaiming “Jesus Saves”, the yelping of coyotes when the train rumbled through, air boats howling down the canals, and anhingas grunting to one another across the canal. How could all of that not make me write setting, beautiful and possibly deadly?
So why was I not inspired by something less, well, ugly than an alligator? I do write murder mysteries, not romance, you know. An alligator was never the villain. I reserved that for humans. I still do. Usually when my reptilian muse was personified in my writing doing gatorish things like death rolls and snapping arms off, these unfortunate happenings are to bad people who deserve every toothy bite delivered.
Yeah, I was hung up on gators because I love where I live, and I write what I love.
Lately, however, I’m thinking an alligator muse is limiting. Consider the size of the alligator brain—like a walnut and made up of almost no cortical connections, mostly nothing other than “old brain” functions, musingly good for killer stuff, but not so much for romance or the thinking it takes to solve the case.
So here’s my dilemma: I’d like another muse for my Southern work, and who better to help me than my readers. Make a suggestion for a new muse in the comment section of this blog and, if I choose your recommendation, you win a free book, a copy of one of my newly revised and released books featuring Emily Rhodes, preschool teacher turned bartender. You can choose either Dumpster Dying or Grilled, Chilled and Killed.