A guest post by Wendy Wax, author of The House on Mermaid Point.
In the course of writing 12 novels, I’ve visited a lot of places and searched out a pretty eclectic mix of information including — but not limited to — the bra industry, cross dressing, financial fraud, beauty pageants and forensics (not necessarily in that order), talk radio, televangelism and speed cooking. I’ve taken ballroom dance and fly fishing lessons, though not simultaneously, and spoken to doctors, FBI agents, policemen and investigative reporters.
My book Ten Beach Road revolves around three strangers who lose everything to a Ponzi scheme then spend a long, sweat-soaked summer trying to bring their lone remaining asset, a derelict beachfront mansion, back to life. Its sequel Ocean Beach takes the same characters to South Beach, where the first season of their renovation-turned-reality-television show “Do Over,” is shot. As the series unfolded, I learned everything I could about interior design, architecture and construction. The last was especially challenging for someone who belongs to a family that can’t use tools without requiring medical attention. Everyone I knew who could use the right end of a hammer learned to run when they saw me coming. But I persevered and while I would never hire myself to renovate, well, anything, I have learned enough to make my characters and the work they perform in the “Ten Beach Road” novels feel real.
Books and the characters that inhabit them can be tricky. The same can be true of researching locations. Even after initial research and a great deal of thinking, which should not be confused with procrastination, you and your story can get hijacked. That’s what happened with The House on Mermaid Point, my third “Ten Beach Road” novel, which was released July 1. I started by reading Florida Keys history and guidebooks, then moved on to Keys-set mystery novels and blog posts, which led me to choose Key West as a setting. I planned a research trip there, invited my husband along (pictured with Wax) — a decision that deserves its own blog post — and booked a room at a restored B&B in Old Town Key West, where I planned to beg for renovation stories and explore the city where I’d decided my story would take place.
Everything might have worked out exactly as planned if we hadn’t stopped off in Islamorada to visit friends on our way down to Mile Marker Zero. One of them has lived there for more than 20 years and her father served as mayor for a lot of them. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when she and her husband set out to show us what felt like every gorgeous inch of the Sportfishing Capital of the World. We dined on small, torchlit beaches at the Lorelei and Lazy Days Restaurant, while we watched glorious sunsets and met some of the friendliest people in the universe. We sailed on their boat, walked the small neighborhood streets and were dragged out of bed (not always willingly) before dawn to watch the sun rise and see the backcountry skiffs and offshore boats head out for the day. We ate breakfast at their favorite table at their favorite breakfast spot, The Green Turtle Inn, and when I spied an intriguing tea-table shaped piece of land jutting out into the Atlantic during a tour of Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, which became an important location in my novel, our friend knew someone who knew someone, and I was walking on that island that same day.
I fell in love with Tea Table Key the moment I set foot on it. Despite all that I’d read and all that I’d thought, I knew as I stood there staring out at Alligator Light with the tradewinds rifling my hair, that this island needed to belong to William Hightower, the aging, down-on-his luck rock star whose personal paradise was about to be turned into a B&B against his will.
We did ultimately make it down to Key West, which is a very beautiful and very cool place in its own right. And I did set an important scene at the Conch House Inn where we stayed there and mentioned a number of famous Key West sites and locations that we visited. But I’d already left my heart and most of my imagination in Islamorada, and I knew better than to fight it.
That’s the thing about research. Sometimes it confirms and even exceeds your expectations. But sometimes it not only points you in a new and unexpected direction, it insists that you go there.
Photo credits, from top: Wax’s first sight of Tea Table Key, which becomes “Mermaid Point” in the book; Wax and her husband heading out for a sunset cruise in Key West; and the Nautilimo docked at the Lorelei, both mentioned in the book.