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?
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.