Today, I’m welcoming Sarah Bewley, a mystery writer with her debut novel recently launched from Level Best Books. She’s written a harrowing story that’s part mystery, part police procedural, and she’s created a fascinating place: Eden County. Here’s what she has to say about the creation of this place and time.
Creating Eden County by Sarah Bewley
When I wrote BURNING EDEN, I wanted to set it in a fictional North Central Florida County. There were multiple reason did this, and why a writer might decide to create a fictional “place” to set their book.
In Florida, Sheriffs are elected officials, which is generally true throughout the United States. Because these individuals are elected, I wanted to be very careful that no one would think Jim Sheppard was based on anyone who had or currently served as a Sheriff in Florida. This would create headaches that I didn’t need.
I also wanted a place that I could create a history for that would be something you might have in a rural county, but would not be true to any specific place. Eden County has had four generations of Sheriffs from the same family. This was important to the personality of the current Sheriff I wanted to write about.
So how do you create a place that is real enough to exist, that is geographically accurate, and has a history that wouldn’t be out of place, but yet at the same time is not true outside of my books?
For me I began by studying the counties that exist in North Central Florida. I live in Alachua County, which has a major university (the University of Florida) and a larger city than you normally find in these rural counties. Gainesville, Florida has a population of 140,398 people. For example, Old Town in Dixie County has a population just over 10,000. The population of Dixie County is 17,102. That’s a population of less than 20,000 in a County that covers 864 square miles. Alachua County is 969 square miles and has a population of 279,238.
So rural counties have very small towns and are sparsely populated. The primary occupations are farming, forestry, and cattle/dairy farms. It gives them a very particular look and personality.
Unlike South Florida which is densely populated and oriented towards the beaches, the beaches along the Gulf Coast of North Central Florida rarely have water deep enough to support fishing or anything bigger than john boats.
I wanted to anchor Eden County in reality. So I gave it one town that is very small, made it 804 square miles, and gave it a population of 18,000. The primary industry is a large dairy farm. The one major highway that runs through it is US 27, which used to be one of the major roads into Florida. But it is still two lanes and has been outmoded by the Interstate System which was started under President Eisenhower. I-75 and I-95 are the two main North/South road. I-75 runs through Alachua County, so it is west of Eden County.
Eden County is too poor to have its own forensics department or crime lab, so it has an agreement with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to provide forensics support and crime lab work to the county. There is no facility for a Medical Examiner, so all bodies are transported to Gainesville to use the ME and the lab that exist there.
This also helps anchor my fictional county to the real places that exist, and how small counties like Eden get their forensics, lab, and autopsy and forensic pathology services.
If you want to write about a real place, but you don’t want it to be identified, you can “create” your town or your county, and anchor them to a specific place that exists. This will give people reference points, and an understanding of the geography, the climate and other things that can be important to your story.
I wanted to set my novel during the wildfires of 1998 in Florida. I knew what it was like in Alachua County, because I had lived through it. It enabled me to write about a very similar geographic/climate setting of that time and make it real to my reader.
Eden actually has characteristics of several North Central Florida counties. There are dairy farms in some. Some have a lot of forestry. Others actually have state prisons and the primary employer. They can be very alike in landscape, but very different in personality. I didn’t want to have a prison in Eden County, so I used a dairy farm and farming.
If you are creating a world that doesn’t exist, that’s different. You can go wild and make it have the population, the climate, the history, the people that you want.
But if you want to create a fictional place in a known area, you do need to study that area and find a way to anchor your fiction to the reality. It helps your story not have someone write to you and say, “I live in this region, and we don’t have palm trees!”
By the way, there are palm trees in North Central Florida, but we also have scrub oaks, Live Oaks, Water Oaks, and a wide variety of pine trees and magnolia trees. Additionally cedars once grew wild throughout this area, but many of the cedars are gone because they were cut down and used to make pencils!
And here’s a peek at Sarah’s book, Burning Eden
It’s 1998. Wildfires are sweeping through North Florida, burning even the peat in the drought-stricken swamps. Sheriff Jim Sheppard has his deputies covering the county, watching for fires and trying to limit the threats to residents. When a Pentecostal preacher disappears during the night from his home, Jim takes the case himself to prevent stretching his department any further. Dr. Ryan Edwards, formerly a well-respected physician in the George Washington University Hospital’s emergency room, has been hired by the only doctor in Eden County. Suffering from aphasia from an attack in a parking garage in Washington, D.C., he’s no longer able to be an ER physician, but he is able to provide medical care in a rural practice, where his skills are valuable and his halting speech is not an issue. Jim and Ryan continue to work as the fires burn closer, but dangers neither expected threaten them both.
You can buy Sarah’s book online in paperback here. or in ebook here.
Here are the places Sarah hangs out on social media: