When a Florida Man Researches His Home State for a Book (Police Not Involved!)
John Brandon on the Origins of His New Novel
If anyone tells you they have Florida figured out, don’t believe them. With that said, my personal conception of the state, as one who grew up in it (but not in Miami, the only place on the peninsula with a coherent culture), is that its identity is wrapped up in the fact that it doesn’t really have an identity. It’s a semi-civilized place, and long has been, where no particular method of existence, no particular heritage or belief system, can gain enough of a foothold to stand out above the others.
New York City has that bustling energy and brusqueness. Colorado that outdoorsy healthfulness. Even the mannered hospitality the real South is famous for—Florida doesn’t have that; if you pay us money, you may sit on our beach, but we’re not especially happy to have you. What does it feel like in Florida, if you’re not on vacation and you don’t happen to be sitting right on the beach? Well, the area I roamed as a child would never be mistaken for urban, but it’s not suburban either, since not one person I knew of drove to Tampa for work, and we rarely even drove there for play. It’s not rural because nobody farms. It’s not wealthy, to be sure, but it’s not remarkably poor. There are no factories. There’s no art. I don’t guess it feels dangerous, exactly, but there’s absolutely nothing sinister that could happen of a regular weekday night that would feel shocking or out of place.
It’s a confused locale full of rich and poor retirees from all over the Northeast and Midwest, full of Long Islanders migrating to start businesses, full of folks proudly calling themselves natives despite the fact that their parents moved to Florida a couple hurricanes before they were born (this is my category, son of a Catholic New Jerseyite and a Protestant Tennessean), and it’s this fascinating confusion that causes me to use the Sunshine State as a setting over and over.
I tend to incorporate crime into my books, or at least my characters are often those on the fringes of society, crime-adjacent, and Florida, being a place where folks have traditionally come to hide, comes to blur the line between legal and illegal, to live—for better or worse—outside convention, always seems to make sense as a home for my invented lost souls. You can see why aspiring criminals would be attracted to the place, its underground economies being so disorganized that anyone with a mind for off-the-books business and low regard for their own safety can jump right in. You can see why a fiend like Ted Bundy would wind up inside state lines. You can see, even more clearly, why Walt Disney would enact his unimaginably grandiose schemes on our scorched flatlands. The fountain of youth was never found, but still the old people flock. Gold was never found, but the coastline has been monetized within an inch of its life and largely ruined. Crumbling strip malls, meth, youth bored to purposeless evil—it’s all easy to see.
Sometimes you just have to laugh at it, like we all do at the famous “Florida Man” stories, those sometimes very sad but often darkly funny reminders, daily reminders, of how easy it is to get off track when there’s really no track to get on. Guys outlandishly botching robberies. Guys naked where you’re not permitted to be naked. One I found while browsing the month of April—the month Lee surrendered, the month the Spanish landed on Florida, the month I’m writing this—about a man who bought an $8 million island and, the next week, was arrested for trying to scam Kmart out of 300 bucks, seems to me, with its inexplicability, with its inclusion of both disgusting wealth and pitiable petty crime, to say it all.
I knew all about contemporary Florida going in, but preparing to write Ivory Shoals, which is set at the close of the Civil War, was the first time I’d ever done significant research in support of a writing project, and certainly the deepest dive I’d ever taken into Florida’s checkered history, which I’ll ludicrously oversimplify this way: a long tussle for ownership between Spain and England and a little bit France and eventually the United States (the eventual victors), none of them ever having much success with actually governing the inhabitants (to this day, some would say), and all the while, the killing and driving out of Native American populations is happening, the last of which, the Seminoles—a blend of mostly Creek Indians along with other tribes who had migrated south from other states—were dealt a great blow when famed leader Osceola (who was half-white) was captured shamefully under a flag of truce. Oranges, old people, shuttle launches, hanging chads, etc.
I’ll admit that even with all that complication, I probably didn’t need to spend a full year doing research, but research, it turns out, is a great excuse for putting off writing. Old cookbooks. Old maps. Old letters. Other people’s novels. I even started smoking a pipe, like my main character does. I wasn’t trying to memorize names and dates (this battle took place on so-and-so hill, with so many casualties), but really just trying to get familiar enough with the world of the 1860s that I could write scenes there without straining to see my own setting. How do they cook? What do they wear? Something I realized not far into my investigations was that writing a book set in the mid-1860s, whether you like it or not (with the exception of books that take place in big Eastern cities or primarily on a boat or something), is tantamount to writing a Western.
Florida’s not in the West, but once I started tailoring my research toward the details that would carry off particular scenes, I was mostly trying to learn about horses (what types were around, how you take care of them, how far they can travel in a day) and about guns (what types were around, how they worked back then), about houses of ill repute, about lawmen, bounty hunters… basically, you know, Western stuff.
One of the more interesting tangential currents I was pulled down relates to the provenances of the word “Cracker.” As a kid I knew this word, without knowing why it meant this, only as a way to describe a person born in Florida. (Actually, I remember thinking it had to do with being sunbaked, with being dried and crispy from the torrid summers). When I was a bit older, I became aware of the word as a negative term that a Black person, if ticked off, might call a white person. I had always assumed the inspiration for this meaning was wrapped up in the history of slavery, but apparently it’s much more complicated; poor Scotch-Irish were called Crackers by their more well-to-do and rule-following New World counterparts way back in the 1700s, and even before that the word shows up in Europe, its meaning always in the ballpark of a “white trash” sort of slur.
You can spend your own time going down the Cracker-origin rabbit hole, but let me bring this back to Florida: Back in the day, Florida’s main enterprise was cattle (these huge numbers of cattle were the progeny, I’ve read, of seven Andalusian cattle brought over by Ponce de Leon in 1521), and these cattle, as a result of Florida’s landscape being woods and jungle and swamp rather than prairie or desert, were always getting lost in the brush. Whole herds worth of them, out there hiding in the treacherous thickets if anyone were willing to go catch them. Well, the folks who were willing to slog through the mud, to trample the snake-infested palmetto savannahs, to gallop through low-hanging branches past hordes of alligators and into swarms of mosquitoes in order to claim the wayward cattle—they were called cow-catchers, or more snappily, Florida Crackers. Sometimes the cows they caught displayed obvious brands, and the catchers came up with various “overbrands” that would incorporate the original marking into a new, more complex symbol.
These fellows, these Crackers, had long and stringy hair, leathery skin, more teeth missing than remaining, and eyes swollen half-shut with insect bites. Their faces were cut up from braving the forest on horseback. They ate roasted rattlesnake and, in lieu of any normal dental hygiene, were said to use turpentine as mouthwash. They were fond of whisky, of course, and only slept in a bed when they passed out unconscious at the bordello. They were known to shoot eagles right out of the sky for the fish they carried in their talons, were known to ride their horses right into the saloon and order a drink in the saddle. They carried long-barreled rifles, mostly for skirmishes with other cow-catchers, and each always had a cur dog in tow, mangy and mean, trained to bite the cows on the nose and drag them out into the open.
And then, of course, their most distinctive accessory: the 18-foot bullwhip used to rouse cattle out of their hiding spots. The crack of their whips would break the sound barrier, and they were accurate enough with them to snap an alligator in the eye if one of the reptiles attempted to drag any beef down into the swamp water.
To what degree the sound of their whips earned them their nickname and to what degree the moniker owes to their low manners and rough-and-tumble appearance—this isn’t a mystery I can unravel. I’ll satisfy myself to merely point out that these figures, these Florida Crackers, hardly feel mythical, hardly even seem unlikely, when you think of the contemporary Florida Man, with all the gumption and lack of respect for authority his ancestors had, but with nothing as tangible as cattle to catch and no unclaimed wilderness to hide away in.
Ivory Shoals by John Brandon is published this month by McSweeney’s.