Daily life: Prison City research trip to Delmarva

"On the first Saturday of November the skipjacks of Tilghman Island were dressed for a ritual. The ritual was the Chesapeake Bay Appreciation Day skipjack race, which marked the beginning of the oystering season. This was to be my first season dredging oysters aboard a skipjack. . . .

"By 10:30 A.M. seventeen working skipjacks had gathered off the beach at Sandy Point. The Bay rippled with a light southwest breeze, and [Captain] Bart sent [his first mate] Bobby into the push boat to shut off the Cadillac. The skipper paid out the main sheet, motioned for me to take the wheel, and let Ruby Ford sail with the wind abeam. I turned the wheel tentatively to starboard what seemed two or three full turns, but the skipjack held her heading and drifted in the current with 1200 square feet of sails fluttering overhead.

"'Honey, come over[.]' Bart's right arm waved to starboard.

"Slowly his message sunk in: 'Turn the wheel, stupid.' I did."

--Randall S. Peffer: Watermen.


As you'll know if you've been following this blog, part of my Prison City historical fantasy series is placed in an imaginary setting (the Dozen Landsteads) based on the Chesapeake Bay, which is located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, about halfway down the East Coast and about forty-five minutes away from my house.

I attended college at a port town next to the bay - Annapolis - but I might as well have been living on the moon for all the attention I paid to the bay back then. Ditto during my recent year in Annapolis. So I persuaded Doug to let us journey over to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (Yes, there's a Western Shore too, though those of us who live there don't call it that.) An opportunity for the journey arose last weekend, May 15 to 17, when my father and stepmother invited us to join them in their vacation house in Delaware. So Doug and I took a trip to Delmarva: the peninsula that holds Delaware and the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia (though we didn't visit Virginia).


First stop on Friday, after we crossed the always nerve-wracking Bay Bridge, was the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Talbot County. Talbot is heavily visited by tourists, and St. Michaels (a former town for working fishermen) turned out to be a bit too upscale for my tastes. But the museum was wonderful - a good combination of entertainment and solid facts.

The best part was the museum's scale model of a skipjack, a sailing boat used for dredging oysters. The reason that skipjacks are still being used today is that Maryland has an old law forbidding the use of power boats from being used for dredging; otherwise, the fear is, the bay would be scraped clean of all its oysters, because dredging is a fearfully efficient way of collecting oysters. (Dredging consists of throwing down a weighted net and scraping the bottom of the bay.) At any rate, Doug and I worked our way over and into the entire model, marvelling at the tiny sleeping quarters. Nearby was an exhibit on oyster packing that was of great help to me in figuring out how to write one of my scenes.

Outside was a mock-up of a fisherman's shack, right next to the gorgeous harbor. Doug and I saw a jellyfish swimming in the water; a less fortunate jellyfish had wandered into a crab-pot that the museum had set out to show to visitors. One of the museum staff members nearby showed off a horseshoe crab, which wagged its tail at us in a 180-degree arc. (Okay, I know that it was actually trying to threaten us, but it looked cute.)

We also visited the Hooper Strait Lighthouse, which - as its name implied - had once been located at Hooper Strait, further south, but had been transplanted onto the museum grounds. It looked a bit like a hexagonal spider; it was standing on iron legs. By the time I finished touring it, I knew that I needed to add a working lighthouse to my story. (I'd already written a non-working lighthouse into a scene.)

As we left St. Michaels, dusk arrived, and Doug wanted to head for Delaware, but I managed to persuade him to drive a few miles down the road to Tilghman Island, where watermen still live and work. ("Watermen" is a medieval word for people with water-related occupations. The bay area tends to stick to older terminology.) Tilghman Island is only a few miles long, so we easily located Dogwood Harbor, which has the last remaining fleet of working sailboats in the United States. "Look, look, look!" I cried to Doug, pointing at the Thomas Clyde, which was almost a mirror image of the skipjack model we had seen at the museum. What the museum model hadn't revealed - because the roof of the exhibit building was too short - was how enormously tall the skipjack was. I swear, I've seen shorter skyscrapers.

Thomas Clyde was docked, with no one around, so I gave it a good look from the pier. There were a couple of oyster shells on the deck, and the boat generally gave the appearance of being a working boat, though I later remembered that we're past the oyster season; it's now crabbing season in Maryland.

The trip to Tilghman Island made me realize that I do not - as I'd originally planned - need to place the bay-island school in my story in the middle of the bay. In actual fact, islands like Tilghman Island - only narrowly separated from a nearby peninsula - are much more characteristic of Chesapeake islands. That means that I won't need to take the long trip out to Smith Island and Tangiers Island that I'd planned.

Aside from a rather nice homemade sign by the captain of another skipjack, who was offering two-hour tours on his boat, Tilghman Island looked refreshingly non-touristy. Alas, the wildlife reserve at the bottom of the island was closed for the evening, and while I would have liked to have gotten out and walked around the main village, the sun was setting, so we headed out to Delaware.


I'd already planned a scene in the third volume of Prison City that was set along a beach, at the mouth of the Dozen Landstead's bay. As it happens, my stepmother's house is located next to a beach, at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. So I spent part of Saturday walking along the beach, gathering sights and sounds and smells.

Most of the rest of the time was spent with my father. We engaged in mutual grumbles about the poor state of publishing and mutual excitement about recent developments in software and hardware. "I have a thing about gadgets," my father admitted at one point.

Sunday, we would have left earlier than we did if my stepmother hadn't chosen that moment to decide to throw out vintage cooking ephemera that she'd inherited. I promptly pounced, and we ended up taking back a box's worth of cookbooks, pamphlets, and clippings. My father made sardonic remarks about my collecting tendencies till I asked him how many rare books he owned. (I get my acquisitive genes honestly, from both sides of the family.) Doug was mercifully patient with me, partly because my stepmother had just presented him with a used bike.

Finally we set off, amidst winds gusty enough to be sending white-capped waves crashing onto the beach.


Doug had given me last-minute notice that we could do more research-journeying on Sunday, so I spent Saturday night on the Internet, trying to find another watermen's village. It wasn't easy. The tourist guides only mentioned Tilghman as being "untouched"; all of the other towns for watermen that the books mentioned had been transformed into pleasure-boating sites.

Finally, in desperation, I began going systematically through each of the Websites for the Eastern Shore counties. It was at the Dorchester County site that I found Hoopers Island.

I'm not sure how you spell it, by the way. The Dorchester County Website spells it - on a single page! - as Hoopers' Island, Hooper's Island, and Hooper Island. Other sources - including the author of a book about the island, who presumably took the trouble to check - spell it as Hoopers Island. One of the sources I ran across said that the oo in Hoopers is pronounced, not as in "hoop," but as in "book." At any rate, the island is located northwest of the Hooper Strait that the aforementioned lighthouse was located at - about twenty miles above the southern border of Maryland. The island is actually three islands strung in a row, though the southernmost of the three is no longer inhabited. The other two, like Tilghman, are an extension of a peninsula.

According to the Dorchester County site, this was the genuine article: a working watermen's island. This seemed too good to be true, so I did a quick Web search. What I turned up was this video at YouTube, showing someone's drive through the upper island. Sure looked like a working island to me; there wasn't an upscale shop in sight.

"Are you certain this is what you're looking for?" asked Doug skeptically, judging the amount of driving we'd need to do to reach the island.

"Nope," I said. "The only way we can find out if it's what I'm looking for is by going there."

It wasn't what I was looking for. It was so much more.

To start with, in order to reach Hoopers Island, we had to cut southwest across Dorchester County. Now, Cambridge, which is the county seat of Dorchester, is along Route 50, which is the major highway through the middle and southern portions of the Eastern Shore. Cambridge is a big town, as Eastern Shore towns go - over ten thousand people.

So I was figuring that most of the rest of Dorchester County would be the same. I should have taken a closer look at the map. Below Route 50 and east of Cambridge, none of the roads have numbers. And that was exactly at the point where the roads stopped having direction signs as well. As far as I can tell, nobody actually travels through southern Dorchester County unless they're (1) a resident, (2) a lover of wildlife, or (3) a particularly determined tourist.

I guess we fell into the third category. After about an hour of driving, we passed people in another vehicle - locals, at a safe bet, because the vehicle was a pick-up truck. The locals waved at us. We waved back.

All told, during our two hours of driving through Dorchester, we must have passed less than half a dozen vehicles. It seemed at times that that was how many houses we passed too. Me having grown up in small towns and small cities, I began to get nervous after a while over all the emptiness. It didn't help that we were surrounded by marshes.

Literally. On both sides, the road-shoulders ended in marsh grass. "You're not allowed to rubberneck," I told Doug severely when I realized that everything he was driving us past was some variation on water.

Now, some of this was part of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, but not all of it was. It began to seem like the entire darned county was denuded of human population. I'd thought that Talbot County was as rural as the Mid-Atlantic region gets, but Talbot County was beginning to seem positively urban compared to Dorchester.

Other than a heron that nearly flew into our windshield before deciding to take an alternative route, we didn't see any animals. I wish we'd gotten out to look at the marsh, but there really wasn't any place to park, and I didn't much relish taking too close a look at a landscape whose defining characteristic seemed to be swallowing up living bodies. So I chickened out, but now I'm determined to go back and look at that marshland again some day.

We finally made it down to Hoopers Island around four PM. The video I'd looked at had neglected to warn me (though this video would have warned me) that about one-third of the inhabitable island is the width of a two-lane road. The road is maybe a yard above its surroundings. There are no shoulders. On one side of the road is Honga River; on the other side is the Chesapeake Bay.

"You're not allowed to rubberneck!" I told Doug very loudly as he drove our car between the waves splashing up toward the road. I had my eye on the upcoming bridge, which looked steep and narrow.

Somehow we managed to make it off the island alive. In the meantime, we were treated to an extraordinary landscape. Throughout much of the island, the houses' backyards are against the water; the front yards are marshland. We saw restaurants, churches, houses, a post office, a firehouse, harbors . . . That was it. It was just marshland and boats and houses and crab pots and lots of water. Off in the distance stood a 1902 lighthouse.

I think I've fallen in love with Hoopers Island.

In fact, I've fallen in love with all of the lower part of Dorchester County, but Hoopers Island especially. I'm now plotting ways to get Doug to travel back there again this summer.

In the meantime, I'm plotting ways to get the landscape of Hoopers Island into as many stories as possible. I've already borrowed the landscape for the location of the boys' school (and wrote part of the relevant scene the morning after I got home). It occurs to me that I could place the girls' school (which appears in the second volume of the series) on the upper island. And there's a scene in my Triad series that is set on an island in the Dozen Landsteads; I could easily place that scene on my imaginary version of Hoopers Island.

I only wish that I could go and live there for a while. That would be the proper way to write this story. But I can't, so I'll have to make do with brief visits and research from afar.


Where have you guys gone travelling in recent months, or what are your travel plans? Where they connected with literature in any way?



Your turn now

I am a huge fan of reading books acting in places I am acquainted with. I feel really privileged when I can share this knowledge with an author. And sometimes a book is so captivating that you absolutely must visit the town or region where it takes place. That's why I am so happy to be able to return this summer to Barcelona to see again all the places mentioned in Carlos Ruiz Zafon‘s fantastic book “The Shadow of the Wind “,an absolute must for all book addicts.

Re: Your turn now

"And sometimes a book is so captivating that you absolutely must visit the town or region where it takes place."

Oh, absolutely. When I read Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series as a teen, I dragged my family around to the sites mentioned in the series. Recently, I encountered the LJ fan communities for the series and discovered them filled with other readers who dragged their families around to the sites mentioned in the series. :)

June 2018



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