The Old King’s Highway chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution recently invited me to speak at their meeting. I always enjoy visiting with members of the D.A.R. Not only are they nice people, they’re one of the few organizations that focus on history. Because the Old King’s Highway chapter is in Florida, they asked me to talk about Light a Distant Fire, my novel about Osceola and the Second Seminole War, 1835 to 1842.
When mulling over what aspect of a novel about Florida history to focus on I was reminded of something that sage, Bette Midler, once said: “I never know how much of what I say is true.” Here’s a more-or-less version of my talk on the confluence of truth and fiction.
I started by telling about the time I was speaking to a high school class and told the students I write historical fiction. I went on to say that since fiction means something untrue, I basically tell lies for a living. I was describing in some detail the need for accuracy when writing about historical events when a kid raised his hand. I made the mistake of calling on him.
“What difference does it make if you’re accurate,” he asked, “if you’re only lying anyway?”
I hemmed, hawed, and said that the whole point of lying is not to get caught, which means one has to make the lies consistent and plausible.
Here’s the secret to knowing what’s true and what’s not in Light a Distant Fire and all my other novels: The preposterous and unbelievable is probably true. The mundane, I make up.
Tampa, Florida, may also embellish the truth when it comes to their piratical past, but the painting pictured above is in the “Art of Piracy” exhibit in Tampa’s History Center. Pirates and other riff-raff are important in one scene in FIRE.
In 1820, Florida’s Gulf Coast was a hive of scum and villainy. The high stakes gambling game for the smugglers, slavers, U.S. army deserters, pirates, privateers, and fugitives from justice was Keno. Cardboard for the Keno cards, by the way, was developed © 1817. Nickels as ante were non-existent, but dimes had been around since 1790.
I couldn’t help but have Osceola, (in the photo above) his friend Alligator, and an African ally named Aurey’s Black stop by to watch. The irony of Keno’s resemblance to the game much later played in Seminole bingo halls was too much to resist.
Juan Caballo, aka John Horse.
Seminole attire reminds me of another event too preposterous to make up. The war leader Wild Cat, his Black lieutenant John Horse, and a raiding party ambushed a troupe of Shakespearean players near St. Augustine. They killed the unfortunate actors and made off with eighteen trunks of Elizabethan costumes. I imagined them trying to put on the tight trunk hose and showing up at subsequent treaty talks dressed as Hamlet and entourage.
The Second Seminole War, to my knowledge, was the only conflict with Indians in which the U.S. Navy and Marines participated. And… the Navy was integrated, “like the keys on a piano-forte,” as they were described. I found an Army manual from the 1830’s in the U.S. Naval Academy’s wonderful Nimitz Library. It was about building pontoon bridges for Florida’s swamp warfare, a technology made possible by Charles Goodyear’s development of the vulcanization process for rubber in 1831.
Speaking of the Marines, meet Colonel Ichabod Crane of the U.S. Marine Corps. I expected objections to the literary indulgence of naming a character that, and I got them. However, Col. Ichabod Bennett Crane did participate in the Seminole War and is another example of the stuff-I-wouldn’t-think-to-make-up. He lived in Tarrytown, NY, and was a contemporary of Washington Irving. There’s no proof that Irving named his famous character after him, but what are the odds?.
One example of preposterousness that I forgot to mention to the D.A.R. is Chief Micanopy. By all accounts, Micanopy carried a lot of extra pounds. He also believed he had the power of invisibility in battle; but there was a catch. He was invisible, but his clothes weren’t, so he had to go into battle naked. That was an interesting scene to describe.
Here’s what John Randolph of Roanoke said about Florida in the early part of the 19th century: “It is a land of swamps, of quagmires, of frogs, and alligators and mosquitoes! A man, sir, would not immigrate into Florida. No sir! A man would not immigrate into Florida… not from hell itself!”
I, however, still think of south Florida as home, even though I’ve lived in Yankee country for the past 40 years. Osceola has been my hero since we studied Florida state history in fourth grade (yes, they taught history in grade school in the good old days). I’ve always been proud of the fact that Florida’s Indians never surrendered or signed a peace treaty. It only just now occurs to me that writing Light a Distant Fire was an homage to Osceola. It was a way to thank him for giving me a role model of courage in the face of over-whelming odds and extreme adversity.