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'Flowers' nurtured over time

Author Maryhelen Clague began working on This Land of Flowers, a novel set in 19th century Florida, about 20 years ago.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published January 5, 2006


ZEPHYRHILLS - Twelve years ago, Maryhelen Clague stopped writing novels. She had published 16 books in as many years, researching and writing them while raising two kids and working as a religious educator. "I was tired," she says.

But there was one more book she had to write.

This Land of Flowers is Clague's 18th book. She published eight historical novels and a children's book under her own name, and eight "pretty racy" romances under a pen name. But her new novel, she says, was a labor of love.

Lea Hammond Carson, the novel's main character, arrives at Fort Brooke in frontier Florida in 1835, almost a century before Clague was born in Lakeland. But author and character share a love for the state's original wild beauty.

"Old Florida is just disappearing," Clague says. "It breaks your heart."

At 75, she remembers moving to Tampa when she was 10 and growing up in Seminole Heights when most of the streets were not yet paved.

"There was a little dirt road we took over to the river. I grew up swimming in Sulphur Springs."

When she and her husband, William, a retired Episcopal priest, moved to Zephyrhills five years ago to live closer to their daughter, they left the home on Lake Roberta her family had owned for 60 years.

Now, the Clagues live in a tidy new subdivision. The view from their living room is a quiet pond ringed with grandfather oaks. Sepia portraits of Clague's maternal great-grandmothers gaze down from one wall, and photos of her three grandchildren gather nearby.

But the town around them, not long ago a sleepy place circled by groves and cattle ranches, is exploding with golf courses and housing developments.

"I identify more with what it used to be," Clague says. "I hate what it is now."

She has always been fascinated by the past, she says, and it's a passion that led to her career as an author.

A fondness for history runs in the family, she reckons. Her father loved reading about the Civil War, and her grandfather owned the nine-volume Ridpath's History of the World.

But Clague didn't set out to be a historical novelist, or to write about Florida.

"When I was growing up, this was nowhere," she says.

So after graduating from Hillsborough High School, she headed for Tallahassee to earn a degree in music from Florida State University. From there she went to an Episcopal seminary in New York City, where she got a master's degree in religious education.

"Today, being on that track, I would be ordained. But back then, no one was even thinking of women doing that."

Working for churches in the Hudson River region of New York, she met and married her husband. She continued to work in religious education while raising their son and daughter. Then, in her 40s, she took a writing class at Briarcliff College.

"It was six young kids and old me," Clague says.

The first assignment was to write a description. Clague had been helping her son's Cub Scout troop with a mural of the Battle of White Plains, during the Revolutionary War, and the research was fresh in her mind.

So she wrote a descriptive paragraph about that. The next assignment was to invent a character to put into that situation.

The character the class came up with was a young woman. "I put her in a tavern near White Plains, made her an indentured servant during the Revolutionary War."

The next thing she knew, Clague had written her first historical novel, So Wondrous Free.

Published in 1978, it was soon followed by other novels set during various eras of American history, as well as some set in ancient Persia, England and Scotland.

She wrote a couple of mysteries, too. "But I said, no more. Too hard to keep track of all the strands."

After she had published several books, she received an offer from Zebra, a romance publisher, to write historical romances.

Clague says, "They told me their books were pretty explicit, pretty racy, and they said, "Can you do that?' I said, "Well, I've read enough of them.' "

She wrote eight, under the pseudonym Ashley Snow. "Well, you know, my husband was a priest, so I couldn't use my own name for those."

The explicit scenes Zebra wanted were so explicit she isn't comfortable putting a sample in the newspaper. But she includes some sexy scenes in This Land of Flowers, such as this one:

"Ben stirred, coming up out of slumber, growing conscious of the soft petal kisses on his face. . . . His hand moved lethargically to touch soft flesh, tantalizing in its hollows and curves. With a start he realized his fingers had closed around the full symmetry of a woman's breast.

"With a groan he rolled over against the yearning body next to him. . . ."

Although Clague loved writing historical fiction - "It's like time travel" - Clague stopped writing books in 1994. The New York publishing business had changed, she says, emphasizing big-name authors and often leaving midlist writers out in the cold.

But she had been working on This Land of Flowers off and on for 20 years, and after she returned to Florida she began working on it in earnest.

Although the novel is set nearly two centuries ago, its publication couldn't be more contemporary. Clague published it through iUniverse, an online publisher that prints books on demand.

This Land of Flowers is available in hardback, in paperback or as an e-book. Clague says she has been happy with the self-publishing process, and she even painted the cover illustration herself, basing it on a sketch from the diary of a soldier at Fort Brooke. It depicts the fort and the wild shore of Tampa Bay that would become Bayshore Boulevard a century later.

The idea for This Land of Flowers was born while Clague was researching a book set in Savannah, Ga., during the Civil War and came across the story of an officer who married his wife's sister after the wife died.

The possibilities of the situation stuck with her, and she began to weave it into the early history of Tampa.

The diary of Lt. Henry Prince, who was stationed at Fort Brooke, was an invaluable resource for her. "The best thing is diaries, written by the people who were there in their own voices."

She also drew from Frank Laumer's Dade's Last Command, a history of the Dade massacre in 1835, and Canter Brown's Tampa Before the Civil War, "my bible."

In This Land of Flowers, Lea Hammond and her sister, Rachel, travel from their home in New York with Rachel's two young sons to Fort Brooke.

Commissioned in 1824, just three years after the United States acquired Florida from Spain, the fort was built at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, roughly where the Tampa Convention Center sits today.

When Lea and Rachel arrive in 1835 to join Rachel's husband, Capt. Ben Carson, at the fort, the tiny hamlet of Tampa nearby is little more than a few cabins and saloons.

Arriving just in time for the Second Seminole War, the intrepid Lea perseveres through the death of her sister and a chilly marriage to Ben as well as snakebites, fevers, plagues of insects, Indian raids and the machinations of a sinister rival of Ben's. Her adventures culminate in the 1848 hurricane that flattened almost every structure in Tampa.

Clague fills her story with historical details, from vivid accounts of the backbreaking labor of daily life on the frontier to glimpses of real people from Tampa's past, such as Augustus Steele, a judge and developer who had the sense to ask the Florida Legislature to change the county's name from Mosquito to Hillsborough.

But Clague's focus is her characters, not only Lea and Ben but the Seminoles determined not to be forced off their land and the black laborers, slave and free, who built the foundations of modern Florida.

"We tend sometimes to see history as being full of cardboard people," Clague says. "But they were just as full of complexities and passions and sins and goodness as we are."

This Land of Flowers is available from online booksellers, including Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders, or from iUniverse.com.

- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

A peek inside

In this excerpt from This Land of Flowers, by Maryhelen Clague, the main character, Lea Hammond, has a conversation not long after her arrival in Florida with Pvt. Ransom Clarke, the man who would soon become one of the few survivors of the 1835 Dade massacre.

* * *

"Did you know that oysters in Florida grow on trees, Miss Hammond?" Clarke asked as they neared the fort. Lea caught a glimpse of mischief in his eyes.

"Oh, no, you won't catch me on that one, Mister Clarke," she said, smiling. "I had not been here two days before Private Bell tried to trick me with it."

"But it's true."

"Yes, I saw them myself clinging to the roots of those mangrove trees growing around the shoreline. But it's stretching the truth to claim they grow on trees."

"Well, it makes a good tale. Like those schools of fish that take two days to pass by. And. . . ."

"Oh, my goodness. . . ." Lea had slowed to observe a Seminole family resting by the side of the road near the path to the river. They appeared to be one of a small group of friendly Indians who had taken up squatters rights outside the fort hoping to garner enough food from the soldiers to stay alive. The women were thin and gaunt but it was the children that caught at Lea's heart. Their bellies swollen, their huge impassive dark eyes looking starkly out at the world, they sat listlessly in the dirt, showing none of the childish exuberance she was accustomed to seeing. Several old men sat nearby wrapped in dirty blankets. There were no young men at all.

"It's hard enough dealing with reality around here, Private Clarke. Forget about tall tales."

[Last modified January 4, 2006, 11:48:03]


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