St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest continuously occupied European-settled city in the United States. And some spirits have been occupying it considerably longer than others. So if there was any place I was likely to experience an encounter with a ghost, this was it. Better yet, I was going to be there for three whole days on a conference set up by the Tampa Bay Ghost Watchers. So even if I didn’t find a ghost, I was going to learn a lot about them. Because, I’ve been on ghost hunts before, and I just don’t find ghosts. And since Dad worked in electronics, I know a little too much about what can really set off that EMF detector. But that’s a different story. This one is about the ghost.
Because in St. Augustine, I didn’t make it past the first night without bumping into a ghost. We were out in small groups being given tours of various haunted locations in town by local experts, and since these weren’t the standard guided tours, we had more time to stop and explore various locations. I took some pictures and nothing much happened. Until Huguenot Cemetery. Huguenot Cementery. Now every ghost tour in town will take you to the cemetery and tell you about the various hauntings. What they may not tell you is that the grassy area outside the cemetery remains undeveloped because it is believed to have been used as an unmarked burial ground during one of the cities yellow fever plagues.
Now, I wasn’t sure why we were all poking our cameras through the closed gates of the cemetery (it was late at night) when we were apparently walking around on top of other graves. So I wandered away to stand quietly in a spot between a palm tree and an oak tree. As I stood there, I felt something just brush my arm. Now is Florida, this is more likely to be a bug than a ghost, but it didn’t feel bug-like. Then I noticed the cold spot. From about waist height down, the air around me was chillier than it should have been for a muggy Florida night. As I stood there, moving my arm up and down and deciding that, yep, there seemed to be something unusual going on, my friend Elizabeth join me. She was able to feel the same distinct cold spot.
In this case, the haunting didn’t feel spooky or scary. Instead I picked up more a sense of loneliness. People, adults and children, died and were buried in haste, then forgotten. We left our ghostly friend where we found him. But if you ever visit St. Augustine, stop outside Huguenot cemetery and take a moment to remember the people the guides don’t tell the ghost stories about because time forgot them.
Recently I attended a witchy gathering where we all made witch bottles. If you’ve never made one, I suggest doing so because you’ll be taking part in an ancient form of protection magic. Witch bottles are put together to draw in and trap evil directed toward a person. They can protect against spells and malice from a witch, but also from evil thoughts sent by those with no knowledge of how their energy manifests. They help keep evil influences away from the house and those who inhabit it. Various types of witch bottles have been recorded. Archeologists have even unearthed one from Colonial Pennsylvania, proving the use of witch bottles was well known in our witch-worried colonies.
Making a witch bottle isn’t difficult but gather some witchy friends put your witch bottles together in a group if you want to draw from each other’s knowledge and share supplies. To put ours together we had a selection of glass bottles, each with a cork. We had a bunch of sharp pointy objects including pins, needles, and nails. Various herbs and hot spices including cayenne pepper, which I managed to get on my hand. Then I made the mistake of touching my face. Part of the night is a bit of a teary blur after that. I remember glitter because I had that on my hands (and face) too. We didn’t add any body fluids in the group meeting but blood, spit or even urine can be added to aid in the protection. I’m fairly sure my bottle had some cayenne pepper induced sweat in it. We filled out bottles with olive oil then put the corks in tightly and blessed them.
If you make a witch bottle, you can bury it in your yard. Or if you don’t have a yard, place it in a large potted plant by the door. Some people even tuck them in an inconspicuous place inside the doorway. Ancient bottles have been found inside the walls of homes. I’ve been told that if I move I should dig my bottle up and take it with me. But I wonder what an archeologist will think if centuries from now he finds my purple bottle filled with sharp objects, olive oil and herbs. Including that cayenne pepper.
When my first novel, Tea and Witchery, was entered in the Royal Palm awards for Florida, one of the judges returned a low score with one reason scrawled on the sheet – Too Unrealistic. (I have to note that the other two judges gave it nearly perfect scores.) But that “too unrealistic” comment has always amused me because the mystery novels are set in Cassadaga, Florida, a town many people find unrealistic.
Why is Cassadaga unrealistic? Well, it’s a town created for Spiritualists and psychics. Perhaps what catches people by surprise is that they don’t expect to find a town like this tucked away in Central Florida somewhere between theme parks and the beaches. But it is there. It’s been there longer than Disney has been in Florida.
Cassadaga was founded in 1895 as a Spiritualist camp and winter retreat for Spiritualist from Lily Dale in New York. My mother still remembers the camp back in the 40s and 50s when it was really only open to visitors in the winter months and when the Cassadaga Hotel used to host dances in what was then a ballroom.
The town now gets more business in summer than in winter and the ballroom is long gone. But the hotel is still there as well as the Colby Memorial Temple which holds Spiritual healings on a regular basis. The town also has half a dozen bookstores and even a post office. Plus various houses and apartments which can be leased from the Spiritualist Camp — if you can prove that the spirits want you there. Most of the inhabitants of Cassadaga offer psychic readings of some sort. On one side of the street, you’ll find the Spiritualists who tend to have their own views on how readings should be conducted. On the other side of the street, you’ll find the renegade psychics who use tarot cards and other forms of divination. And the two sides do have their arguments from time to times.
If you’re ever in Florida, I suggest stopping by for an afternoon visit. It really doesn’t take much longer to see the place. If you’re there in the evening, you can take the Orb Tour. Or you could stay overnight in the hotel and decide if it’s really haunted. But I’ll warn you, it may seem a bit unrealistic, this quiet little Florida town where chats with the dead are just an everyday occurrence.
I’ll start pointing out that this probably isn’t good “how to” advice at least not in a direct way. But people often wonder how a writer comes up with story ideas and sometimes the “training” to think creatively comes in unpredictable ways.
I’m prone to motion sickness. I can get seasick in a rocking chair or on a swing set. Growing up, we took lots of car trips and I spent lots of time with my eyes closed trying to focus on anything to keep my mind off being car sick. I was also an avid reader, but attempting to read in a car wasn’t a good idea. So, I told myself stories. Lots and lots of stories. They weren’t polished stories by far, but over the years anything spotted outside the car window became fodder for a story.
I still suffer from motion sickness, but fortunately not when driving myself. But the day job always involves a commute of some sort. These days it’s under 30 minutes. But that drive time is always a great time to think about story ideas. Trust me, it’s less distracting than the people I see chatting on the cell phone or texting while driving. Or the person who was actually reading the last Harry Potter book by propping it on the steering wheel while driving down the interstate.
Now, I don’t recommend learning how to become seasick as a way to seek your muse, but there is a lesson I’ve learned from it. Inspiration can’t always be planned but sometimes you can plan to allow yourself some unplanned thinking. Time to let your thoughts drift and not to worry about forcing the direction. If you have trouble letting your thoughts wander, meditation classes, yoga and other activities can help. I’ve found weeding the garden is a great time to let my thoughts drift and story ideas to surface. Besides it’s much more pleasant than car sickness.