Eva Marie Everson is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Her Potluck Club series, written with Linda Evans Shepherd, became a best-selling hit and favorite among fans. Eva Marie is the premier Southern fiction author for Baker/Revell. In this line, Things Left Unspoken was followed by This Fine Life. Both received acclaim from reviewers and readers. The first of the Cedar Key novels, Chasing Sunsets, released in June 2011. Eva Marie is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She lives in a lake house where she enjoys early morning coffee, fishing off the pier, and watching the sunset and bald eagles roost. Readers can "visit" Cedar Key by going to the book's Facebook page: http://tinyurl.com/43p9yda. I have videos, photos, and readers' comments.
Real in Fiction: Real Locations in the Imaginary Tale
After the 2004 hurricane season devastated a good deal of Florida, and especially my favorite getaway spots along its east coast, I was in search of a new hideaway for writing. I lamented to everyone I spoke with but pretty much received the same words: “Everything is just a mess along the beaches.”
My hairdresser, however, said two words that changed things. “Cedar Key. It’s like an artist’s haven.”
Well, I thought, I’m an artist. I should check this out. I called a friend and asked if she wanted to check out the west coast island with me. She said yes. We packed up and headed out.
Something inside me stirred as soon as I crossed the first of four bridges leading into Cedar Key. The landscape was flat, the salt marshes full of dark water, the rushes rustled in the tropical breeze. We breathed the sea air as a fishing village seemingly forgotten by time came into view. So magical was this place, even my cell phone service shut off. Over the next two days, the location, the people, and the history of Cedar Key beckoned me to return.
And so I would time and again.
During one such trip, I flipped through a magazine and came across an advertisement. The kind that tells a story, if you can figure it out. As with any fiction writer, the story came in bites. There was only one thing to do: write it and set it in Cedar Key. A three-novel series was born with one flip of a page.
Why Not Fictionalize?
My previous novels had been set in fictitious locations: Brooksboro, Georgia (The Shadows Trilogy, Barbour); Summit View, Colorado (The Potluck Club books, Baker/Revell); Cottonwood, Georgia (Things Left Unspoken, Baker/Revell); and Logan’s Creek, Georgia (This Fine Life, Baker/Revell). Within those places born out of my imagination, however, were real settings: New York City, Savannah, Denver, and Atlanta to name a few. I learned that using what readers may be familiar with—whether experientially or having “been there” via movies or television—with what was only in my mind, gave readers a sense of knowing. Many have told me that they looked up my locations on a map but they “couldn’t find it.”
But with that came a caveat: get it wrong, and I was in deep trouble.
For the Cedar Key trilogy, I chose to keep the locations—Orlando’s suburb of Windemere, Otter Creek, Rosewood, Cedar Key—true to life. This led to the fear and trepidation I just mentioned. I had to get the details right. Kimberly’s (my protag) home had to be architecturally in line with what one would find in Windemere’s golf and country club community. Her family’s beach house in Cedar Key had to be just as true to life. A restaurant that served a certain kind of pizza had to really have it on the menu.
But the work didn’t stop at house plans and pizza pie. For Cedar Key, there was the layout of the city streets, the shape of the buildings—some dilapidated by storm and time—and the cracks in the sidewalks. There was the jasmine hanging sweet on the vine in the spring and summer; the cold, gray clouds of a harbor town in the winter; the tropical difference of autumn. There were the birds and their calls and the landscape around the town; the barrier keys, the look and feel of the island as the sun rises along its eastern horizon and then as it dips and drops toward the western side. More still, it’s the way the people move, the way they speak to one another, the way they come out in the evening just to watch that explosive sunset, and the music playing on Dock Street—different during the day than at night—that leads to the overall atmosphere.
And then, as with any community, there’s the history.
The Importance of History
I had to consider Cedar Key’s rich history. Archeological evidences shows civilizations date back 6,000 years to Shell Mound, located just nine miles north of the island. The original Cedar Key was what is now known as Atsena Otie (Muscogean, meaning “cedar island”), mapped in 1542 by a Spanish cartographer, but not settled until 1839. The new community thrived until the hurricane of 1896 destroyed nearly everything on the island. Civilization then moved to modern Cedar Key; homes not annihilated were floated to what is now 1st Street off Dock Street. Today, many are used as vacation cottages, businesses, and homes.
This was not the first or last hurricane to attempt to stop the growth of the community. But the land and the people continue to pull themselves up and start again. What nature removes, they rebuild.
To write honestly about Cedar Key, I needed to understand what drives a people and a place to even want to survive under these circumstances. This, in turn, became a clear directive in the characters I created. One easily gave way to the other.
Using Real People and Real Businesses
On my first trip to Cedar Key, my friend and I took a three-hour boat tour. While the theme song from Gilligan’s Island played over and over in my mind, I found myself inspired by Captain Doug, the owner of Tidewater Tours. He shared with us that he’d retired from law enforcement and “retired” to lead others to what he’d discovered to be paradise. This inspired a character and a character’s decision to return to Cedar Key to operate his father’s tour boat operation. While my character is not Captain Doug, I was inspired by him.
There were other characters and businesses, however, that I wanted to be a part of the book. Folks who live or vacation regularly in Cedar Key will recognize them as a part of the landscape. To do this, I wanted to make certain I was shedding positive light on them and their businesses. There was never any intent to cause harm, nor did I, in my humble opinion, do so.
Getting the Details Right
My first novel, Shadow of Dreams, begins in New York City in the 1970s. Specifically, in Hell’s Kitchen, a place I’d never been to. I interviewed people who had lived there then, who live there now, and asked questions not just about buildings and streets but about how it looked, felt, smelled. “What can you hear? What can you taste?” It was a difficult way to write, but it was doable. After the book was released in 2001, I received a plethora of e-mails and letters asking me where I lived during those less than savory days before Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned it up. “We may have been neighbors,” they said.
However, for The Potluck Club books (written with Linda Evans Shepherd), I flew to Colorado (several times) and spent time in Frisco, after which we patterned Summit View. I took a lot of photographs, videos, and relied heavily on Google Earth and Google Images after I returned home.
Even though I grew up just outside of Savannah, the same was true of the romantic Coastal Empire city. Towns I’ve used to base fictitious locations from, I’ve driven to, photographed, videotaped, and spent time in their libraries, researching history, and sitting in coffee shops or standing on sidewalks talking to the townspeople.
Mostly, I’ve listened.
I have spent a lot of time in Cedar Key, but not nearly as much as I’d like. Just as important to what I see and hear is what I feel while being there. My heart beats a little stronger as I cross Bridge No. 4 (the first bridge). My eyes dance at the sight of the marshlands and dolphin playing in its waters. My skin warms at the thought of tropical sunshine. Somehow, I must get those senses from my head, through my fingertips, and into a manuscript. This allows my readers to trust my work and, in turn, to believe in me as a writer. This is the job for any novelist writing out of location, whether real or imagined.
But especially when it’s real.