… Or the genesis of Ghosts of Prosper Key.
Stories are strange things. They grow from tiny seeds—characters, actions, imagined events. Often for me, a story really takes off only when two or more completely unrelated ideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”
My newest novella, Ghosts of Prosper Key, evolved in this way. It is the fourth of a series, the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries, so I already knew the back story. Abby is a teenage “true magician,” student of a tradition founded by her ancestors in the town of Harmony Springs in rural Florida.
At the end of the preceding novel, Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby has succeeded in overcoming magical challenges and dangers spawned by the occult. She is living with her grandmother and starting college. She has relationships with elders in the magical circle, as well as two guys she is interested in romantically.
Idea 1: Molly is Haunted
Abby also has a best friend, an aspiring journalist named Molly Quick. All of my readers seem to love Molly, due to her bravery, insatiable curiosity, and no-nonsense approach to things. In Lock Tower, it was also revealed that Molly has native talent as a spiritual medium.
So I wanted this story to focus on Molly.
What’s her situation? She’s in her last year of high school, applying to colleges. Like many sensitive and intelligent kids, she is scared of the coming changes, scared of growing up. These fears haunt her. Because of the subject-matter of the series as a whole, these fears manifest as paranormal events.
Molly is haunted. But by what?
Idea 2: The Setting
One thing I love about this series is that it lets me write about out-of-the-way places in Florida. A location I had visited and wanted to use as a setting was Cedar Key.
This island lies off the northwest coast of the state. The area is known as the Nature Coast, as it has little population but lots of swamps, ranches, and nature preserves. Today, Cedar Key is a remote, “old Florida” tourist destination.
But the past has a different story to tell.
In the late 1800s, the Cedar Keys (as they were then called) were one of the most populous areas in Florida. The island then known as Way Key was the end point of the east-west railroad and the major port on Florida’s west coast. Fishing, oyster farms, and especially timber were major industries. Because of over logging, the economy began to decline in the 1890s. Then, in 1896, the area was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States.
So, I thought: if Molly is haunted and if our heroes visit Cedar Key, the ghosts must originate there. And if there are unhappy spirits roaming the place, they most-likely lived during that great hurricane.
Idea 3: The Tempest
So now I had the main character, her conflicts, and the setting. But something was still missing. Who were these ghosts? Why were they restless?
It had something to do with that hurricane.
For research, I read the book The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn by Alvin F. Oickle. The events were both frightening and amazing. The island that is now Cedar Key was leveled, while nearby Atsena Otie Key (then known as Depot Key) was inundated by a ten-foot storm surge.
Their whole world washed away in a night and a day.
Pondering that, I suddenly thought of a famous song that the spirit Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them. Ding-dong, bell.
(Act I, Scene 2)
Sea change. The sea rising up and changing everything. That idea resonated strongly. My story had some relationship to The Tempest. But what?
As you might recall, the play concerns Prospero, a powerful magician who has lost his Dukedom by betrayal and now lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda (and spirits that he conjures).
Prospero raises a storm to wreck a passing ship which, he happens to know, contains the party of Alonso the King of Naples and Prospero’s own brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan. Ferdinand, the son of the king, swims to shore and is found by Prospero. Put into service by the magician, he falls in love with Miranda, and she with him.
So: Molly haunted by ghosts, a powerful father and his daughter, a tempest and disaster, a love story.
My completely unrelated ideas had come together.
The story had taken off.
Throughout the action of Shakespeare’s play winds roar; confusion reigns and disappears; love is found; moral order is restored; and all the lost characters reunite in the end.
As Gonzalo, the loquacious king’s counselor, summarizes:
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
(Act V, Scene 1)
These days, of course, our own world is facing dangers and changes of every kind. Will we all drown in wreckage, or will we emerge on some better shore having found ourselves in unlikely ways?
We can hope for the best. That’s what stories are for.
You can find Ghosts of Prosper Key on Amazon.