At this point I’ve written four books about Percy Wren, who’s gotten “Isn’t that a boy’s name?” so many times that she doesn’t even hear you anymore. Just to be clear: I am not Percy Wren. She’s braver, better at driving (and driving recklessly), far less anxiety-ridden, and deals with her problems in unhealthy ways that I never would. But we do have a lot of things in common. We’re both allergic to cats, because the world needs to know more about that battle. We both have sassy cars named Trixie because Trixie’s awesomeness transcends dimensions largely out of my control. And we’re both from small town coastal Florida.
If you ask me about that, I would probably tell you it was entirely motivated by laziness. I know exactly what it’s like to grow up in small town coastal Florida, and I’m already doing research on so many other things, that I’d rather give myself one easy setting. And that’s definitely true, and certainly saved me a lot of time. But, as my parents retire and plan to move away, I’ve realized it’s something else too. This quote from my favorite book, The True Meaning of Smekday, does a good job of explaining:
Arizona would always be one of our places now. It would be on the list of things we own in our heads. Don’t we all have this list? It’s like, everything that secretly belongs to us–a favorite color, or springtime, or a house we don’t live in anymore.
I think about this a lot, how even the most inconsequential-seeming parking lot or street is, to someone, one of their places. A setting they are so familiar with that their mind goes back there without even trying. Something they own, in their heart, through built-up memories and time and maybe affection, but maybe not. Everyone knows that certain places have meaning for them: the spot where your boyfriend proposed, the house you grew up in, your favorite restaurant. But I think there are other places that are important to us too, even though they lack these momentous events that make us realize it. Maybe it’s just the route you walked to school everyday, a tree in your neighborhood that’s been there as long as you can remember, a creepy half-built neighborhood that isn’t even there anymore, but left an indelible impression on your memory.
These are the places we own in our minds, the places it’s easy to reach for in fiction because they mean something to us even if we don’t realize it. Some writers set their works in wild and beautiful locales where the breathtaking scenery is almost a character in its own right. But I would say that it’s no less true, no less moving to set your scene in suburbia, a public library, a mall bathroom. They’re someone’s places, after all. Not all of us grew up amidst wild and untamed scenery. Some of us rode our bikes to school and hung out at the mall. It’s just as valid and just as real.
So, knowing that it might be one of my last chances to really go “home”, last time I visited my parents in Florida I tried to find all the places I secretly own. Places that came out in my writing whether through laziness or personal significance. Places that Percy Wren and I share. This is probably as close as we can come to actually finding Percy Wren.
This setting is definitely the most vivid. When I read the first description of it to my mom, she said she knew exactly where I meant. When we took these pictures, she drove there without any direction. Here’s how it’s described in the first book, The Untraceable Percy Wren:
In some other neighborhood, you’d probably have to worry about that—leaving your bike out all night in some vacant lot. But not mine. There’s never anyone around in mine. It’s big; it was supposed to be a fancy new development. They bought some old family orange grove and bulldozed it, reclaimed some other land from the swamp. The stucco wall around the outside and the streetlights were about the only things they had time to put up before they ran out of money. Our house is one of the few actually completed. The rest of the space is empty lots, some with concrete foundation already laid down, others with empty wood frames and plastic sheeting like sad ghosts. Every morning I ride out through a pointless expanse of little curvy streets, twisting away past nothing, and every night I ride home under the glow of hundreds of lonely streetlights, illuminating the emptiness. I don’t know why they did all the streets and lights before anything else, but it’s creepy, looking out my bedroom window, especially when a fog comes in off the sea. It’s like a long trail of ghost lights, twisting off into the darkness.
In the real world, in Seminole, there was a family orange grove bulldozed to make way for a fancy new development. And for the longest time, it was a big swath of emptiness inhabited only by twisty roads and streetlights. I don’t know how often I drove by those streetlights in the dark, illuminating nothing, but it didn’t have to be many to make a lasting impression. Now, though, the development is almost complete:
Although there are still some empty lots
The houses there are huge and packed really close together, basically a testament to the housing bubble. Like people that rich want to live in Seminole? I was able to find a few empty lots to take appropriate pictures:
One of the streetlights, a lot less creepy now that there are actual houses
The stucco wall separates the housing development from the bike trail
In the book, it’s a bayou behind the wall behind Percy’s house
Even though the neighborhood is fancy and finished, there are still places to find alligators
The Bike Trail
In The Untraceable Percy Wren, Percy is riding her bike just everywhere, since she’s still 14-15 and lacks a car. She rides it to school:
It was a huge let down the next day, to ride my bike to school and sit through a math test. Who can think about logarithms when the world is so huge and interesting?
She rides it for work:
I was just unloading the very last delivery: a Siberian tiger rug. I’d spent most of the ride with it peering out of my bike basket at me accusingly. I wasn’t sure if it was real or not and had decided not to ask.
And pretty much any other time she needs to jaunt around town/the world:
I was riding my bike to the library—the actual library. I had to study for exams.
All this bike riding comes naturally, because I grew up with a kickass bike trail spanning the entire county:
It goes through parks
Past the back of random neighborhoods
With big bridges over major roads
You really can get anywhere in the county on a bike. Of course, since Percy can see the shortcuts scattered about the world, she’s not just limited to the county:
It was possible, if I squinted my eyes right and concentrated, for me to not see the shortcuts. Otherwise I would end up in Mongolia every time I took the pedestrian overpass above the highway.
Here’s that overpass:
Unfortunately, I’m not Percy Wren, so no Mongolia in sight
Very few scenes actually take place in Percy’s school, but one thing we know about it is that it’s haunted:
The school’s resident ghost wafted above me in the air current from the vent in the ceiling. She didn’t even bother to reenact her suicide for the 181st time, for which I was grateful. It had been so hard to concentrate the first week of school with her hanging from a spectral noose everywhere I looked. I think maybe she was just excited to meet me—I’m the only one who can see her, as far as I know. But now that I was over jumping and cringing away every time I saw her, she’d settled down to a more sedate, atmospheric kind of haunting.
There’s a little more detail about this ghost given in a short story at the end of the second book (titled by Percy “The Unquiet Dead or Percy Thanklessly Saves the Day Again Because She’s Awesome”):
The oldest ghosts faded away until almost nothing was left but a cold spot, or just a strange feeling. There had been one in my high school that looked just like a student, albeit with old-fashioned 1920s clothes. She used to follow me around and reenact hanging herself at me, since I was the only one who could see her.
Percy’s school can be haunted by a student from the 1920s, because my high school totally was that old. And, according to legend, that haunted:
Also, it has bell towers
St. Petersburg High School was built to look like a Spanish manor, with interior courtyards and breezy outdoor hallways perfect for pre-air-conditioning Florida:
Percy’s school also has courtyards
Why was I sitting in a school courtyard eating a sandwich when I should be out looking for her?
And, really, how can this school not be haunted:
Creepy early morning pictures courtesy of my mom, who teaches there
These stairs always smelled like humidity and ghosts
Two levels of outdoor hallways, taken from the courtyard
And fancy light fixture by the main doors
And this bitchin side door, which actually makes an appearance:
But the next day was Monday and so I had a full day of school to dwell on it before I needed to figure that out. Or so I thought. I was walking into school when I noticed a tall man in a suit standing in the shadows near a side door.
Florida is a huge swamp. They try to trick you by paving over parts of it, but nature is having none of that nonsense. It comes up in the book multiple times:
I couldn’t hear anything. Not the chirping of the katydids, the buzzing mosquitoes, the squawking swamp birds or the faint hum of cars on the road outside the neighborhood.
I took this at Millennium Park, near where I grew up, but it might be anywhere where Florida is just let alone to be Florida
“It was perfect,” I said, despite the sweat trickling down the back of my neck and the promise of a hot, air-conditioningless night listening to the song of the swamp through my open window.
And you better believe I know the misery that is Florida when your AC is broken
[At the hospital,] She pulled around to the back, where she knew there was a small terrace that looked out on a swamp. It may have been an uninspired view of scrubby bushes and brackish water that always gave off an unpleasantly organic scent, but it was still a nice change from the antiseptic smell and the fluorescent lights inside.
In Florida, everything overlooks the swamp, sooner or later
Percy Wren and I definitely share an affinity for the beach. I don’t particularly like the beach–I burn instantly and sand feels dirty and gross. But I still have to go sometimes, just to see it. Percy does too:
She walked the way she had the last time she’d been here, towards the sea. She missed it when she didn’t see it for a while. The sound of the waves would fill her dreams, and she would take a detour the next day to some spot and just look out at the wide, blue expanse, like a bit of the sky trapped on earth.
This is the one near my parents’ new apartment
My favorite beaches are the kind in national parks like Ft. De Soto or the Pensacola National Seashore that don’t feel so touristy and tacky:
I was pretty experienced with beaches, of course, having one a short bike ride from my house, but it was strange to be on one so empty. Sometimes I imagined I’d traveled back in time, to a beach before we’d covered it with pastel hotels and t-shirt shops. It was peaceful, and the sea and sky seemed to fill the whole world.
Rita’s Italian Ice
Rita’s Italian Ice was THE place for drama in middle school:
You can smell the angst
It had a prime location, across the street from a middle and high school and on the way to the beach. Every time I come across a Rita’s that’s not a little shack with no indoors, I don’t know what to do. It’s obviously the place where the teen drama goes down in Percy Wren’s town too:
Gossiping with my French partner, Shae, about who had come back from vacation dating and who had been at the center of dramatic public breakups at the Italian ice stand on the beach.
He was smiling at me in a friendly way. If it had been my normal life, and he was just some guy at Rita’s Italian Ice, I probably would’ve swooned.
Percy no longer lives in Florida after The Untraceable Percy Wren, but the third book in the series, Revengeance does feature a pretty big scene at a park there:
He was waiting for them under a shelter with rows of picnic tables underneath. The rain was coming down in torrents, blown almost sideways by the wind. But after you hunched your back towards it, it would quickly change direction so it always seemed to be pelting you in the face. The world all around them was an indistinct, hazy gray. The children’s playground nearby was almost completely invisible in the downpour, except for some vague, somehow ominous shapes, like beasts in the mist.
This is that exact shelter, right by a playground and the water
Of course, I visited on a much more pleasant day where everything wasn’t flooding catastrophically.
Percy tried to shoo an egret off the driver’s side mirror, and it snapped at her, long neck darting out like a snake. She opened the door and slipped in as quickly as possible…
“There are far too many alligators here,” Silas remarked as she piloted the floating car around submerged trees in the rushing floodwaters. “And that picnic shelter was destroyed by some kind of wave. I don’t know how you survived here to grow up.”
“Swimming lessons,” she replied easily.
It’s true, everyone who lives here was on a swim team at least once
Percy and I have pretty different opinions about the library:
I tried my old standby of “I have to go to the library… for homework.” But then my dad offered to drive me! So I actually had to go to the actual library. It was terrible.
Where as I, of course, spent a lot of years working at this one:
Don’t listen to Percy; it wasn’t so terrible
The Mall Bathroom
I told you I tried to go to every place specifically mentioned in my books:
At the mall near my house, if I opened the second stall in the ladies’ restroom, I would be met with a wall of water and some fish lazing around a coral reef. I reached out to poke it the first time I saw it, but, of course, it was cold and wet. I wondered if the fish ever got confused and ended up flopping around on the tile floor for a fed-up janitor to find. Probably not. Fish couldn’t see the shortcuts, same as anyone who went into the bathroom. No one avoided that stall but me. It was possible, if I squinted my eyes right and concentrated, for me to not see the shortcuts. Otherwise I would end up in Mongolia every time I took the pedestrian overpass above the highway. But no bathroom trip should carry the risk of a watery grave, so I generally just waited till another stall was free.
Mall bathroom photoshoot!
Don’t be jealous of how much fun I am to hang out with.