Why Florida is the Perfect Setting for a Novel

Claire Matturro

March 29, 2021

I’ve been in love with Florida ever since I tumbled out of my parent’s car as a toddler and ran barefoot into a patch of sandspurs on the banks of Wares Creek near the Gulf of Mexico.

Like most folks in Florida, we moved to the state from someplace else. In the intervening decades, I moved away a few times, but I always come back. Something about the warm, white sand between my toes, the bright, hot sun on my back, the salty, cooling Gulf breeze in my face—not to mention the frequent insanity of the place—yanks me back to Florida every time.

Hence, it shouldn’t be any surprise that all of my books are set—where else? Florida!

With seven published book, including The Smuggler’s Daughter, and a new one, Wayward Girls, on the way, all set in Florida, one might ask why is Florida such a rich source and perfect setting for crime fiction, mysteries, Florida noir, cozies, and other genres? Here’s my take on that.

First, Florida, being a lush tropical and sub-tropical land, is hot. Something about all that heat is oddly sexy. Exciting. Primal. Forbidden. Jungle. Or the heat just makes people crazy. It’s Tarzan and Heart of Darkness all mixed up, but with slightly better roads. Remember that scene in Body Heat (a 1981 classic Florida noir movie) where sultry Kathleen Turner wipes sweat off her face and says that she runs a bit of a temperature and is always hot. Well, yeah, she was hot, so hot William Hurt kills her husband and goes to jail for her. That’s what I mean when I say Florida’s heat is sexy. Or crazy. Or just both at the same time.

It isn’t just the heat, it’s the hurricanes. Yes, I know, with Climate Change and Global Warming everybody can have their own hurricane now, but historically Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean were Hurricane Grand Central. And, sooner or later, most Florida writers tackle a hurricane in our books—Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Mary Anna Evans, Mary Kay Anderson, and others have all done terrific jobs with hurricanes that act like a dangerous main character. And let’s not forget the grandmother of all hurricane novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Most of those folks drowning in heat and humidity and waiting for hurricanes came from someplace else. Like me too. That is, Florida has this immense cultural diversity because the state is a hub for migration, immigration, refugees and snowbirds from Up North. We have Haitians, Cubans, Georgia and Texas Crackers, Mexicans, Michiganders, Indians, Pakistanis, Persians, New Agers, and Aliens from Outer Space. You name it—there’s a community of them living somewhere in Florida. We have all the beauty and talents of these different cultures merging and meshing to form a complex whole, which makes Florida a great state. Yet, and I say this with respect, sometimes the melting pot boils over and creates a mess. Our folks don’t get their folks. Turf wars. Competition for jobs and housing. Finger pointing. Language barriers. All the negatives that come when diverse peoples swarm into crowded cities.

Florida is also, sadly, a crime ridden state. Trayvon, Ted Bundy, Shoot-First, home of what was once deemed the official eighth most dangerous city in the USA (not, strangely enough Miami, but Tallahassee, home of the Florida legislature). But none of that is new.

Here’s an ugly truth: Florida’s written history is one of plunder and crime. The first Europeans came to steal gold and, with their superior weapons and vicious germs, killed off many natives along the way. When the natives, the bugs and the sheer thickness of the landscape overwhelmed them, and when it turned out Florida did not have gold or even that Fountain of Youth, European conquest hit a kind of lag-time. But during the War Between the States, Southerners who didn’t want to die to save some rich plantation guy’s “way of life” ran to Florida. That’s right, draft dodgers. And after the Civil War, they stayed on, joined by refugees from the so-called Reconstruction and these folks, with their independent ways and tough hides, helped settle the state.

While the draft dodgers and refugees cleared the scrub, outlaws raced into Florida too. After all, Florida was closer than Texas for a lot of folks. Many of these outlaws, like the serial killer Ed Watson of Peter Mattiessen’s Killing Mr. Watson trilogy, kept running until they hit the Everglades.

The Everglades made a perfect last resort holdout for outlaws. What federal or state official was going to go there, into a river of grass with flocks of mosquitoes the size of birds and alligators the size of dinosaurs. After these outlaws had plundered the plumed birds and hunted the gators to near extinction and the Feds made gator and plume hunting illegal, these men turned to rum running during the failed experiment called Prohibition. When pretty much everybody admitted Prohibition wasn’t that good an idea and rum became legal again, the rum runners had good boats and fished for a while—till marijuana became the new rum and the new Prohibition. Soon, this bled over into cocaine and as I’m pretty sure anybody reading this has seen Scarface and at least one episode of Miami Vice, I don’t need to say more.

Except this: Cocaine was ugly, it led to extreme violence and took all the fun out of the rum running and pot smuggling. But it also created another ripe sourcebook for Florida Crime and Mystery novels.

A sourcebook I’m not quite done plundering myself.

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