Designing from Bones – Swamp Visions

Life is not easy in the swamp but can still be an improvement

Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we search through a vast swamp to find communities and the stories they are sure to hold.

The misty portal parts today, but it is hard to tell in the morning gloom of a the vast swamp. Cool fog floating just above the surface of the water masks the heads of alligators and other things best left undisturbed. Stay close, friends, the swamp is no place to wander alone.

The Great Dismal Swamp

Yes, this is a real name and place. For those of you not familiar, The Great Dismal Swamp covers part of Southeast Virginia and Northeast North Carolina. During the 1600’s to late 1800’s this was a favorite hiding location for escaped slaves and fugitives and saw a major canal expansion requiring an army of forced labor to live in the swamp. During the slave era law enforcement and other entities regularly raided the depths of the swamp in their attempts to reclaim slaves and capture criminals.

Each of these activities required a community and settlement of one form or another. Let’s explore three of these communities and see what story potential each holds.

On the swamps shores

Two primary reasons to live along the borders of any swamp are to act as support for those living deeper in the interior of this beautifully dismal land or to avoid the influence of a government by living in a remote or undesirable location. Both can act as backdrops for compelling drama.

A child, spouse or someone important to the hero could become lost in the swamp and require finding; a basic lost and found story that will fit any genre.

Several genres, such as fantasy and adventure can use this setting to launch a quest seeking an object or person deep within the swamp. Perhaps a predator stalks the inhabitants of the community making it necessary to for our hero to hunt and save the village. What if that same predator was a tax collector from the government? Or a bounty hunter? Story is often defined by the players we choose to use.

Romantic urges? How about a swamp maiden or man, a vision appearing as a will-o-wisp that calls out to yearning hearts, for good or ill or perhaps to solve a mystery that will release it from an ancient or magical bondage?

Add alien creatures on Earth or another world and we have the basis for a fun science fiction story. Remember the Creature from the Black Lagoon?

While swamp communities tend to maintain contact with civilization they are not generally supported by it, leading to hardy villagers and unprepared visitors. Few understand the dangers and harsh realities of the wilderness which immediately raises the stakes and thrill for a reader. How long to you think you could survive in an unknown swamp?

Will my next take-out be wearing armor or wool or a space suit?

Canal Life and the Dismal Swamp Hotel

The Great Dismal Swamp Canal is 22 miles long and constructed over a 12 year period from 1793 to 1805. During this time small support communities were built for the workers, a mixture of slave labor (some working to buy their freedom), free African-Americans and European outcasts (i.e. criminals). Imagine this mixture and the vast array of ideas, philosophies, motivations and plans floating about. What would stories the view of a “outsider” unfamiliar with these communities or one experiencing the hardships of the work force be like?.

Another interesting location along the canal was called the Dismal Swamp Hotel. This building was set directly on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Love trysts occurred here regularly as did duels where shooting someone across the state line made it difficult to prosecute.

Imagine a small border village based on the one surrounding the Dismal Swamp Hotel and psychological thrillers, spy-type stories and romances fraught with danger leap to mind. This location can also be added into the ideas above, making it a colorful set piece for one segment or act of the story.

Whether our hero travels or lives along the canal and its communities by choice or need or necessity, opens a large selection of story arcs, allowing the writer to move the story in any direction they see fit.

Deep swamp sanctuary

During the 1700’s to around 1860 the swamp became the home of thousands of “maroons”, escaped slaves that combined with the indigenous peoples of the swamp to form hidden communities throughout this mist enshrouded fortress (200 square miles at the time). These communities necessitated a degree of isolation from the outside for protection and often played host to paranoia and xenophobia, both of which lend themselves well to story.

Our hero could be a slave, trying to find one of these communities in the depths of the swamp or a new arrival adjusting to the harsh conditions.

This is a prime location for the start of a Dystopia; isolated, insulated, with danger penning in the community from exterior contact. Could this be a lost tribe? How about a society cut off and unaware that the rest of society died in a war (futuristic) or that the rest of society has advanced without their notice (any era, past to modern but always out of touch with the greater reality).

Are the people living here human or magical (science fiction and fantasy)? Why have they sought isolation? By choice? To hide a dark secret power? To safeguard a relic that entraps a great evil?

The swamp holds many secrets that cry out for the adventurous writer to breathe into life. Ready to do some gator hunting?

What interesting locations have you found in your research or travels that would make great story settings? If you used one, how? See anything in the swamp that sparks an idea, share it in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

Interested in more on the Great Dismal Swamp? Science Daily has an excellent story on its history and current exploration efforts.

If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on the side bar.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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15 Responses to Designing from Bones – Swamp Visions

  1. catwoods says:

    I love these ideas. What a great setting for an intriguing and unique novel. I’m a bit scared of swamps in that they evoke images of alligators and those inherently make me want to wet my pants. However, I love bogs–similar, yes. And bog bodies.

    I’ve got a story begging to be written about these amazing finds.

  2. Fantastic! Of course, knowing me, I’ve just got to put the swamp on a distant planet. Or add vampires. Or both. 😉

  3. Fascinating as always, Gene. I so love this series. I’m hooked, you can’t ever stop now, Wednesday wouldn’t be the same anymore. 🙂

  4. L.S. Engler says:

    Oh, man. I’ve always loved swamps and stories about swamps. There’s a fantastic short story by Poppy Z. Brite that still haunts me about a swamp culture, and ever since then, I’ve been hooked. Actually, I would say my fondness for swamps started even earlier than that, thanks to Quest for Glory IV. Beautiful game, with a lot of creepy, atmospheric, and dangerous swamps!

    What a great post; definitely charged with some ideas, which is great, because I was just thinking of how I needed to develop the books I have that take place in a swamp-like land. BRB, time to go outline! Thanks, Gene!

  5. Loved this! Have never lived near a large swamp like that. I have to say though, I find out the story is in a swamp and I expect prehistoric crocs or giant snakes or something else ginormous and maybe a little ridiculous. lol
    LOVE this series.

  6. susielindau says:

    Excellent Gene! Have you ever heard of “Old Greg?” Hahaha!

  7. Catie Rhodes says:

    I had never heard of the Dismal Swamp. Of course, I live in a part of the US where there are swamps. The swamp is a place of haunting, mysterious beauty. We travel mostly in Texas, and I often use our vacation locations as settings for my writing. One travel location I want to use but haven’t figured out how is Caddo Lake in Texas. Google this if you don’t know what I mean. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous place.

  8. amyshojai says:

    I think the Dismal Swamp rings a bell but not sure where I heard it. One of my best friends writes history nonfiction and is from Virginia so perhaps that’s where. But never in such detail. What a rich find for all kinds of genres!

  9. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    I was surprised that this is in the U.S. I never heard about it. Thanks, Gene, for another cool post. It’s always good to get my weekly Designing from Bones fix!

  10. Having lived in New Orleans, I have always been fascinated by the creepy swamps. This one has the best name. Ever.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Cat: I share your love for bogs and have a bog people related idea on my “long list” that I hope to get to in early 2012. Fun and gooey.

      Shea: Vampires are always fun. So are Swamp Dragons. Just sayin’.

      Prudence: Thanks! I have no plans to stop. You really made my day 🙂

      L.S.: I’m not familiar with Poppy Brite but I’ll be looking her up for sure. Go, go, go with the books, swamps need lovin’ too 🙂

      Lisa: Swamps are those places were we can put all the weird stuff and it will still be plausible. There are plenty of places deep in the swamp that have never seen a human, or only rarely. Thanks for the compliment 🙂

      Susie: Old Greg? Nope, but I’ll be looking him up now.

      Catie: Caddo Lake, love mangrove trees, very pretty area. I think this location would serve well as the setting for a book, not just a visit, but the whole thing. Protag as the visitor or investigator trying to sort out an event and working against insufficient knowledge of the swamp and the inclusive relationships of the locals. Tension and fun to be had there for sure.

      Amy: Thanks. Great Dismal Swamp has thousands of stories this was only a gator’s ridge of possibilities *grin*

      Lynn: Lots of fun and creepy places in the U.S. Check any state and you are sure to find a half dozen (or more).

      Renee: Louisiana is great for swamps (I watch Swamp People when I can, fun show). Great Dismal does have the best name, agreed 🙂

  11. kerrymeacham says:

    Hey Gene. I lived from 2-10 years old about 10 miles from Lake Seminole in northern Florida. Swamps breed lots of critters that have to be taken into account in any story. During the summer I often looked like I had the measles because of so many mosquito bites. We lived on a small farm in the country, and the “Rattlesnake Rodeo” people literally came to our farm every year to ASK if they could get our rattlesnakes. “Uh, let me think..YES, take as many as you can find.” Great place for wildlife and creepy stories to originate. Great blog, bro. Happy T’giving.

  12. Jess Witkins says:

    You’re ruining my plans for opening up a hotel in the swamp. Swamps are for Lovers will one day be a reality, just you wait.

  13. Jenny Hansen says:

    Swamps freak me OUT…that’s all I’m saying… Monsters, gators, CRITTERS.

  14. Pingback: Mind Sieve 11/24/11 « Gloria Oliver

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