By Marcia Talley
My friend, mystery novelist Elaine Viets who lives there, says that Ft. Lauderdale is the farthest south you can live and still get meaningful work done.
I’ve checked the maps, and my present location — 26° 35.51 N, 77° 00.36 W to be precise — is exactly 28 minutes of latitude (approximately 32 miles) north of Elaine’s condo in Lauderdale, so as a novelist, I figure I’m safe, but it’s not always easy writing while living in paradise.
We’re in a rented house on Dickie’s Cay, a tiny strip of land that forms the harbor that protects Man-o-War Cay, a settlement of boat-builders and church-going people with a year-round population of approximately 150. There’s a hardware store —“if we don’t have it, you don’t need it” — where items that went on the shelf 20 years ago are still for sale with their original price tags. There’s one sit-down restaurant — best bacon cheeseburgers in the world at the Dock-n-Dine, my husband says — a couple of gift shops, a sailmaker’s shop where four ladies sit at ancient sewing machines turning out the most beautiful and practical canvas bags, and two groceries that don’t sell cigarettes or booze. No law against it, they simply don’t.
Albury’s Harbour Market, where I shop, is the size of your average two-car garage, but I can’t think of anything that Phyllis doesn’t have — even half-and-half! — in that tiny, neat-as-a-pin store. Yesterday, just as I was leaving with my purchases, her husband, Jeff, came in with some fish he’d just caught; an immediate change in dinner plans! I shop, Phyllis puts it on our tab, and we pay up at the end of the month. With a tab, I feel like I really belong.
No TV, no daily newspaper. There are no ATMs. The bank is open on Tuesdays from 10 to 2. And few cars; rush hour is two golf carts meeting on The Queen’s Highway, an eight-foot-wide strip of concrete that bisects the narrow island.
There are no roads where we are on Dickie’s Cay, and our family “car” is an Avon dinghy. To go shopping or to eat out, we walk out to the end of the pier, climb down a wooden ladder, fire up the outboard and putt-putt across to Man-o-War.
I couldn’t resist setting my eighth Hannah Ives novel, Without a Grave, in these islands, although I took the very great liberty of sandwiching my fictional islands between Scotland Cay to the north and Man-o-War Cay to the south while pushing Fowl Cay a bit further out into the Atlantic Ocean. I must apologize in advance for an inconvenience this will cause to cruising sailors.
My office is in “Lookout,” a cottage that’s cantilevered out over the Sea of Abaco. Across the water you can see Sandy Cay (occupied) and Garden Cay (unoccupied, but with a neat little cove and a house abandoned, Mary Celeste-like, as if the owners simply walked away leaving pots on the stove, beach towels draped over chairs, and dirty laundry in the corner). I feel a novel coming on!
On the screen of my laptop right now are the page proofs for A Quiet Grave, Hannah’s 10th adventure. My last chance to make changes!
Counter-clockwise from my ‘return’ key is a yellow pad with the opening pages of a fourth “Marjorie Ann” short story, my iPad (including eight Edgar-nominated novels downloaded to my Kindle app), a folder bought at the Bodleian Museum Shop in Oxford following the St Hilda’s Crime and Mystery weekend last summer that holds important papers like my upcoming flight information for SleuthFest, a Roget’s thesaurus (the only true edition, IMHO, the one with numbered categories), a notepad where I’ve scribbled my grocery list and a Bahamian school notebook with a picture of Sir Milo Boughton Butler, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., first Governor-General of the Bahamas on the cover. Inside this notebook are some disjointed ideas that may or may not turn out to be Book 11.
There’s a nice selection of paperback books, too, left at “Lookout” by visiting friends. The conch shell resting in the window is blown every day — with varying degrees of success, depending on how far we are into cocktail hour — at sunset. Hey, it’s always five o’clock somewhere!
A sudden rainstorm followed by a rainbow, a sunset that sets the horizon ablaze, a mysterious motor yacht anchored off the island (excuse me while I grab my binoculars), a hummingbird checking you out. Yes, there are distractions while working in paradise, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Top photo: Lookout Cottage hovering over the Sea of Abaco.
Middle photo: Marcia Talley at Hope Town Harbor, Elbow Cay.
Bottom photo: A writer's desk in paradise.
A longer version of this essay, “Hannah’s Excellent Vacation,” appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, Island Mysteries, Vol. 26, no.3, Fall 2010. http://www.mysteryreaders.org/Issues/island.html
Marcia Talley is the Agatha and Anthony award-winning author of All Things Undying and eight previous Hannah Ives mysteries. The 10th book in the series, A Quiet Death, will be published this summer. Marcia's short stories appear in more than a dozen collections. She is the immediate past president of Sisters in Crime.