The Natural Georgia Series: The Okefenokee Swamp

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Okefenokee Swamp Writer: Virginia Lanier

By Pamela P. Holliday

My sons can't believe we're living in this bug-infested swamp," Virginia Lanier says. She and her husband Robert, known around town as Hoss, welcomed me to a seat beside their kitchen table piled high with books. I bet her sons were also amazed when their mother, at the age of 63, began writing a series of award-winning mystery novels set in the Okefenokee.

After Hoss retired from a career in the Navy which required the family to move throughout the U.S., he and Lanier settled in the South Georgia wilderness. Twenty years later, Lanier, frustrated after reading a bad book, let Hoss convince her to take up writing herself.
Virginia Lanier's second mystery novel set in the Okefenokee.

As we talk across the table, Hoss sits at the head, half reading and half listening to our conversation. The tanned-skinned, tattooed-armed serviceman is his wife's biggest fan. With gray hair and "more wrinkles than her bloodhounds," Lanier is a jolly and animated storyteller. She and Hoss share a love of life, literature, and nicotine.

"I know the Okefenokee," Lanier says, smoking between sentences. "I'm fascinated with the swamp, so I decided on it as a setting. I just needed a story."

In the story she settled on for her mystery series, the protagonist is a feisty, southern feminist, Jo Beth Sidden, who lives in fictional Balsa City, Georgia. Jo Beth is a 30ish divorcee who stays busy breeding bloodhounds and teaching them to track people who are lost in the Okefenokee. Lanier says she decided on Jo Beth's occupation because she hadn't read much about search and rescue. Lanier has never owned a bloodhound and had only seen one before she started writing her books.

"Jo Beth is what I would like to have been 35 years ago if I hadn't found a good ole boy to settle down with," Lanier says. "I had to keep my feminism in the closet all these years. Hoss never knew I was a feminist. After he read about a speech I made in Atlanta, he asked, 'Are you a feminist?' I said sarcastically, 'No, we wives enjoy walking three steps behind our husbands.'"

Behind Lanier's desk hangs a hand-drawn map of Jo Beth's fictional domain, complete with milages and sites of rescues which occur in the books. Lanier uses the map as reference when plotting Jo Beth's search-and-rescue missions, drug sweeps, and on-going battles with her ex-husband, Bubba.

Lanier researches the flora and fauna of the swamp on boat trips and through conversations with experts. Her advisors range from line walkers for timber companies to experts in marijuana and moonshine.

When asked why she waited so long to start writing, Lanier says it's because she didn't know she could. Lanier had a list of excuses not to write, but Hoss eliminated them one by one. When she claimed to be the world's worst speller, he bought her a dictionary. When she claimed she had no space to write, he cleared out a bedroom, bought a $59 used desk and a $94.50 typewriter. Five months and one day later, she mailed off 848 pages of manuscript to Pineapple Press, a small Florida publisher. She has never received a rejection slip.

She doesn't outline her books before writing, and doesn't know how they will end until she types the last page. "I normally write seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. Sometimes I go a month and the only face I see is his," Lanier says pointing to Hoss. "Of course, I do see the meter man once a month."

She didn't see the meter man during the first two years and three months she and Hoss lived in Echols County. They live so far from town it took that long to negotiate how to run electricity to them. Their mobile home stands alone on a 28-mile stretch of dirt road. Their private pocket of civilization includes a catfish pond and Hoss's bar, a plywood addition off the laundry room which contains a seating area and a bar lined with 9,000 pennies and Hoss's name spelled out three times in nickels.

From Lanier's home, it's 40 miles to Homerville and 50 miles to Valdosta where she does her shopping. They only read the newspaper once a week - on Sunday, when she drives 50 miles round-trip to buy one in Jasper, Florida.

Her first book, Death in Bloodhound Red, released in April of 1995, was nominated for three literary awards: the Agatha, the Anthony, and the Macavity for the "Best First Mystery Novel in 1995." Her three subsequent books were bought by HarperCollins, a major New York publisher. Her second book, The House on Bloodhound Lane is in bookstores now, and her third, A Brace of Bloodhounds, will be available later this year. She has completed her fourth novel, and already has a fifth mystery in the works.

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