I hadn’t been sure that I would keep writing young adult novels after I revised, rewrote and published the first three (Sorceress, Sleeping Angel, and Sara) I didn’t know if it was a direction I wanted to keep going in. I knew I wanted to do stand-alones–always have wanted to do stand-alones–and I also like writing about teenagers and young adults.
If you remember, a few entries back I talked about a horror novel I started writing in the 1980’s called The Enchantress that only got about three or four chapters into before abandoning (because I didn’t know where to go next with it; and the first chapter I specifically remember rereading at some point in the decades since and shuddering in horror at how badly it was written), but one of the places in the book really stuck in my head–an old family owned hotel called Mermaid Inn, which sat on the shores of Tuscadega Bay (which was my stand-in for Choctawhatchee Bay–my grandparents retired to a house on that bay and I’ve always wanted to write about that area). After shelving The Enchantress (which I do think about from time to time, and wonder if I should revisit the idea) I kept thinking, you should write a book and call it Mermaid Inn.
I made a folder for it, wrote a few sketchy notes, and it sat in my files for a very long time.
If you will remember, I had originally planned to write an entire series of interconnected young adult novels, a la the Fear Street series by R. L. Stine, and one of the varied locations they would be spread out over would be Tuscadega, Florida, in the panhandle on a fictional bay. That was part of the note I scribbled for the folder–set this in the panhandle of Florida, and connect it to the fictional Alabama county you’re going to write about somehow.
I decided to write Mermaid Inn sometime after Hurricane Katrina, when I discovered yet again my own ignorance of geography. I’d just never really given it much thought, to be honest; I knew Mobile was on a bay, I knew when you drove on I-10 through Mobile you have to take a tunnel below the Mobile River. I just had always assumed there was nothing south of Mobile in Alabama–I mean, it’s ON water–and figured that those lower prongs of Alabama that reach down along the sides of the bay were uninhabitable wetlands. I discovered this to not be the case when visiting friends for the first time who lived in Alabama south of Mobile. They told me to take an exit off I-10 and drive south, which I didn’t think was possible.
I don’t remember precisely when or how or why I decided to write Mermaid Inn and set in a small town on the prongs, south of Mobile; I just know now that at some point I decided to do this–and my friend Carolyn Haines might have been involved; I know she told me some stories about closeted society men in Mobile and their hijinks and I thought, I could use this for the book and I think that may have been the impetus? And then I created my character, Ricky Hackworth, from Corinth, Alabama–po’ white trash who needs a swimming scholarship to attend the University of Alabama. (Sidebar: alert readers will recognize that Beau’s last name in Bury Me in Shadows–and at one point in the story he mentions he’s only the second Hackworth to go to college; “besides my cousin who got a swimming scholarship.”)
The engine of my pickup truck made a weird coughing noise just as I came around a curve in the highway on the Alabama Gulf Coast and I saw Mermaid Inn for the first time.
My heart sank.
That’s not good, I thought, gritting my teeth. I looked down at the control panel. None of the dummy lights had come on. I still had about a half tank of gas. I switched off the air conditioning and the stereo. I turned into the long sloping parking lot of the Inn, pulling into the first parking spot. I listened to the engine. Nothing odd. It was now running smooth like it had the entire drive down. I shut the car off and kept listening. There was nothing but the tick of the engine as it started cooling.
Maybe I just imagined it.
Hope springs eternal.
The last thing I needed was to spend money on getting the stupid old truck fixed. Maybe it just needed a tune-up. I couldn’t remember the last time it had one.
Dad gave me the truck when I turned sixteen. It had been his work truck since before i was born–it was two years older than I was. He’d finally broken down and bought himself a new one. This old one was dependable and had almost two hundred thousand miles on it. Dad had taken good care of it. He’d babied it, gotten an oil change every three thousand miles without fail, and I could count on one hand the number of times it had been in the shop to be repaired.
It still had the original transmission.
It might not have been the nicest or prettiest car in my high school parking lot, but it got me where I needed to go and got good gas mileage. Since I was saving every cent I could for college, that was a lot more important than horsepower and cosmetics and a loud stereo that rattled your back teeth. The swimming scholarship I’d accepted from the University of Alabama wasn’t going to remotely cover anything close to the lowest estimate of what my expenses might be, but it was the best offer I’d gotten.
And I was grateful to have it. If they hadn’t offered, I wouldn’t be going at all.
Swimming was my ticket out of Corinth, Alabama.
That opening scene!