Research Notes · 09/20/2013

Fort Starlight

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Claudia Zuluaga writes about Fort Starlight (Engine Books).

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When I moved to Florida at the age of 15, I lived in a villa-minium at the edge of the grid, or at least that was where the grid ended at that time. We were on the edge of wilderness. It was summer. The other villas were mostly still unoccupied. Over that hot two months, I tried making friends with anything that moved. Anything to get me out of our new, sour-smelling walls. I took long, ill-advised walks, hopeful that I would find something to take up a few hours, a place to spend a couple of dollars. Surely, the flat dark green with the white-hot sky above didn’t go on forever. Actually, it sort of did. Soon after, we moved to a house closer to the center of the town, but still, there were no sidewalks, the stores were just a little too far for walking, and though I made friends, none lived anywhere near me. While it is hard enough to get away from yourself, when you are sixteen and alone, it is impossible. The aloneness says you are pathetic, you are powerless, you are stuck. The aloneness says everything you don’t want to be forced to think about. And when the sun is beating down on you, it is even crueler. If it hadn’t been for the music of the late 80s — namely Depeche Mode, REM, Sinead O’Connor — my teenaged head would have popped off.

I moved away. I got older. I held onto that feeling, though, always surprised that a place had such an effect on me. I’d remember it like people might remember the haunted house they grew up in, a dark force in their lives that no longer held any sway. When I started drafting Fort Starlight, I was writing it because I wanted to be inside of that humid, heady, desperate feeling long enough to think about what it really means: you have to change. So this part of researching the book, the core of it, really, was mining memory, and that teenaged feeling that the problem is not you but your surroundings. I looked through old journals and diaries, paying attention to the sentences that trailed off, the handwriting that deteriorated, really looking closely at evidence of a life that felt purposeless. This was disturbing at first, but I quickly found affection for my old self, proud that I found my way out of it.

I also had to know Florida better than I had when I lived there, when all I wanted to do was get old enough to leave. I read about the flora and fauna of the southeast. I read the history of some of the newer communities and was particularly fascinated by Andrew Ross’ The Celebration Chronicles, which is about the Disney-made town. I read lots of Florida novels, and especially loved Mermaids on the Moon, by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I watched every movie I could find about Florida. At parties, whenever I met anyone who had lived in Florida, I’d corner them, making sure they had a drink in their hand, and tried to get them talking.

There was other research, too, which was a bit more fun to immerse myself in. I did a lot of online research about tree houses, because one of my characters, Peter, is a naturalist who builds an intricate one for himself, hidden in the forest hammock. I learned about how they are built and shared some amazing google images with my architect husband.

The happiest research happened in my kitchen. Because my protagonist, Ida, wants to be a baker, I had to bake. Throwing a box mix cake into the oven and slathering it with a tub of frosting is easy. Decorating cakes that look like something in bakery case is another story. Though I ordered a few instructional books about making and decorating your own ‘professional looking’ cakes, it wasn’t enough to just read them. I knew that it wouldn’t come easy to Ida, so I had to see exactly what the process was like for someone even less skilled, to see just how flustered I would get, as I’m not great with my hands. While I didn’t do anything as complicated as a tiered wedding cake, I made a few birthday cakes and did my best to make them look like something somebody else might pay for. There were quite a few flops, but the first one that came out the way I’d envisioned it would was a Bob the Builder cake for my daughter’s 3rd birthday (OK, I copied it from a photograph I found on the internet). I spent quite a bit of time looking at the pictures on cakewrecks.com, though I’m not totally sure whether that was researching or procrastinating.

Read an excerpt from the novel at The Collagist

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Claudia Zuluaga was born in White Plains, NY, grew up both there and Port St. Lucie, Florida, and now lives in New Jersey. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, JMWW, and Lost Magazine, and was included in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web series. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. Claudia is a full time Lecturer in the English department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.