Visitors to Florida know our white sand beaches and theme parks, but there is also wilderness here and you don’t have to venture far off the path to find it. My thriller series features uninhabited places which serve as a character all its own.
Trying to get the setting right for A Killer’s Daughter and The Hunted Girls was more of a challenge than I had expected. When I wrote about a mangrove forest, my UK editor could not fathom why my characters were using a kayak to travel through a forest. Her confusion made me rethink my description. Most people have never seen a mangrove forest, and if they have seen one, it was from a distance. Few ever venture inside this harsh habitat, and with good reason.
Mangroves are a unique tree. They grow only in semi-sheltered areas near the coast in warm tropical and subtropical climates, but their most unusual feature is their roots.
Here is how I described a mangrove forest in my latest release, The Hunted Girls.
They were in deep forest on an elevated jeep trail, under the canopy of interlocking branches with broad rounded leaves. Not oak, she realized, so she was no longer in Central Florida. A glance at the roots of the trees gave her the answer. They arched over each other like croquet hoops gone mad, covering the ground in a wild tangle that terminated in glistening silver water. Mangrove trees. One of the few plants that could survive the salt water of inlets, bays and the mouths of Florida’s rivers. With the change of tide, the roots would vanish, submerging with everything but the elevated road. Beside the jeep trail, and just above the tide line, scrub palmetto squatted.
My editor asked about whether the mangrove forest was a forest or a swamp. The simple answer is neither and both. If you arrive in a mangrove forest at a very low tide, you will see the arching roots anchored in sand. In a rising tide, all that is visible are the tops of the roots, the tree trunks and branches. In a high tide, even the tops of the roots might submerge, but the trunk never does, except briefly during tropical storms. The root system keeps the tree above the water and allows the roots to get enough oxygen in ground that has little to none. But there is more to love about mangroves.
First, the trees hold the sand and prevent erosion from Florida’s frequent tropical storms and hurricanes. They also act as a baffle, breaking the destructive waves and reducing the damage from storm surge.
Second, they act as bird rookeries. Shore birds, like egrets, Great Blue Heron, cormorants and anhingas hunt for fish among the roots. Ibis and pink spoonbills hunt for aquatic invertebrates and bugs. And all kinds of birds nest, perch, rest beneath the leafy green canopy where the temperatures are much cooler than out in the Florida sun.
Third, they can be inhospitable. You will find no freshwater or dry land. It is possible to walk from branch to branch, but moving this way is difficult as the algae on the arched roots makes them slippery and the jagged barnacles wait to cut exposed skin. In the wet season, the mosquitoes are brutal. Here is another brief passage about this unique ecosystem, again from The Hunted Girls.
Nadine recalled her Florida history. The indigenous people, the Seminole, were the only tribe in the country who had never signed a peace treaty because the US military could not find them in the Everglades to force a surrender. Their guns had rusted, and their wool and cotton clothing were torn to ribbons by the sawgrass. Meanwhile, the Seminole persisted, retreating into the mangroves like the Russians in winter ahead of the German army.
Fourth, mangroves are estuaries for fish and other sea creatures. The roots provide protection from predators and many species leave their eggs safely tucked among the roots. There is plenty of algae and rotting organic material, which attract worms, crab and shrimp. All the decomposition gives the place a characteristic smell of rot at low tide. Many species of fish spawn here, and their tiny offspring live in the waters beneath the trees, protected from larger predators. I’ve seen bonnet head shark on one of my many kayaking trips in mangrove tunnels.
And finally, I love mangroves because the Florida Parks service and the US Army Corp of Engineers have created aquatic trails among the mangroves. These tunnels are excellent places to kayak, paddleboard or canoe. Once inside, the temperature drops, the sound changes and you realize you have entered the real magic kingdom.
Here in the mangrove forest, no glint of electric lights penetrated the blackness. Tree frogs trilled and insects buzzed while the occasional brown bat swooped overhead. You did not have to venture far in Florida to find wild places. Everyone knew that Florida had thousands of miles of white sand beaches. But it also had thousands of acres of mangrove forests and saltwater marshes. Where they flourished, few people resided.
(The Hunted Girls, Jenna Kernan, 2021)
I hope that you now understand why mangroves are so vital to Florida and that you will seize any opportunity to leave the beach and venture onto an aquatic trail. I can promise you that you will love the journey.
(c) Jenna Kernan
As Agent Nadine Finch rushes to investigate the murder of newlywed Nikki Darnell in Ocala National Forest, Florida, fear floods her body. She swore she’d never set foot here again, not since the case fifteen years ago which tore her life apart. But taking in the triangular cuts scarring Nikki’s perfect pale skin, she knows she must put her own traumatic past aside to find justice for Nikki’s inconsolable husband.
Discovering water in Nikki’s lungs, and certain the triangular wounds were made by arrowheads, Nadine must convince her team of her terrifying theory: that Nikki was hunted down and drowned before being left for them to find. But what monster would do such a thing? And why? Then another woman, a mother of two, is discovered in the woods, tell-tale arrow marks all over her body.
Recognizing the victim as a local waitress, Nadine fears the killer has started attacking women known to her. And the moment she traces the arrow heads to a nearby outdoors store, her own partner disappears.
Frantic, Nadine follows the trail to a lonely cabin deep in the Florida wetlands where she finally learns the heart-stopping truth. To save one of her own, she must confront a deadly hunter obsessed with the case that’s haunted her whole career. Will Nadine have to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop him taking more innocent lives?
Jaw-dropping, packed with twists and turns, and impossible to put down until you reach the final page. Fans of Robert Dugoni, Lisa Gardner and Rachel Caine will be totally addicted to The Hunted Girls.