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How I Wrote "The Mermaid of Little London,"

Or What I Learned from the Word Hunt Challenge

By Geoffrey Philp Published 12 months ago 6 min read
Geoffrey Philp and Midjourney

I couldn't sleep. It was one of those nights when my mind wouldn't quiet down, and the minutes seemed to stretch forever. It was 3 a.m. Instead of lying there, I got out of bed and did what I usually do every morning. I read Google News, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, searching for a story to spark my imagination and become the seed for a story or poem. Nothing worked. So, I read some stories on Vocal to see if I could find something there.

As I scrolled through the site, one of the challenges caught my eye—the Word Hunt challenge. I had seen the challenge a few times, but it seemed too daunting and had to be submitted in fifteen days. I didn’t know if I would have the time because I was already scheduled for my second cataract surgery. That was too short a period for me because---and this comes with a confession—I am a plotter.

In the world of writers, there are two main types: plotters and pantsers. Plotters carefully plan and outline their stories before writing, while pantsers prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, discovering the plot as they go along. It's like the difference between having a roadmap versus embarking on an exciting journey without a fixed destination.

So before I begin writing, I usually plan all the details in my stories with charts, Venn diagrams, and Myers-Briggs analyses of all the characters. I’m kidding. You get the idea, right? But this time, I said to myself, “Channel your inner pantser!”

I read through the guidelines: "All approved words in the puzzle are nouns containing at least three letters. Some of the words double as verbs and may be used accordingly.” I only had to find three words--that was easy enough. Also, thank God, the words in the puzzle were written: “horizontally and vertically, not diagonally or backwards.” If they had been printed otherwise, I wouldn’t have completed the challenge.

I printed the challenge and highlighted the words I recognized. The first word I saw was "mermaid," and something sparked. And given the current furor over Halle Bailey in the remake of ‘The Little Mermaid, ” I wanted to put my two cents in.

But there was a crucial missing piece—what would be the mermaid’s name? I googled the popular names of Jamaican women and settled on "Tanya.” It felt right, especially since it was the first name of the publisher of my upcoming graphic novel about the life of Marcus Garvey , "My Name is Marcus."

During that week, I had been thinking about a friend's question on Facebook: Why do writers, especially poets, continue to write when their readership is small? It haunted me, and I wanted to explore a story where others ignored the main character. Drawing from my experiences with climate change presentations, where some of the influencers in Jamaica said to me, “Great presentation, Geoff,” and the next day acted as if climate change is not an existential threat, I felt compelled to write about the frustration of being unheard.

With "mermaid" and "Tanya" in mind, I started piecing together the story's puzzle. The Word Hunt challenge also had the word "scallops." Now I was sure the setting would be a seaside town in Jamaica, but I needed a specific location. After research, I settled on Little London. Anti-colonialist that I am, it seemed the perfect setting.

So far, so good. I knew it would be a magical realist tale with a mermaid named Tanya, and the setting would be the town of Little London, but I needed more details. Who would discover the mermaid? Would it be a local fisherman? Would there be romance? Maybe. But I needed a name.

I googled popular names of Jamaican men, and two names stuck out: Donovan and Patrick. Friends? Hmmmmm.

But old habits die hard. I did a complete character sketch of Donovan and Patrick. I wasn’t going into uncharted territory without a map, no matter how useless it was.

I began the story in media res, as I had taught students in my creative writing classes. I wanted to captivate readers from the first sentence--an image that would also be olfactory—for the hook. I researched tropical fish in the Caribbean Sea and wrote "Dead parrotfish," setting the stage for the journey.

Throughout the writing, I relied on Google to help me with specific details. I wanted plausibility, so I researched landmarks in Little London, such as Fisher’s Bar and the Methodist church, to maintain a balance of fantasy and realism. I also used the frustration from that Facebook post to write the line, "If only they had listened, so many lives could have been saved." It added depth and a sense of urgency to the narrative.

Each word I found in the Word Hunt challenge guided the story's direction. I would look at my discovered words and ask, “And then? And then? And then? And then, what?”

When I stumbled upon "shoe" and "pool," I knew Donovan, the main character, needed to go to the beach to meet the mermaid. A baby’s shoe became the means to introduce Patrick, Donovan’s childhood friend who had also ignored his warnings. Donovan could now meet the mermaid.

In Jamaican folklore, a mermaid is often called a “River Mumma.” I searched for a nearby river and found the Cabarita River —a hidden sanctuary for the mermaid. Its inclusion added a touch of mythology and hinted at deeper themes. Plus, the river's name introduced the idea of genocide—another of my preoccupations.

To move on, I glanced at the word "solstice," which offered a natural progression for the mermaid's appearance. In many cultures, the summer and winter solstices are celebrated as a time when supernatural events are supposed to occur. It would also be the catalyst for the tidal wave. It couldn’t be a tsunami. Although the words are often used interchangeably, a tsunami differs from a tidal wave. Tsunamis are much faster, larger, and more destructive.

But how did Donovan survive the tidal wave?

To ensure Donovan's survival during a tidal wave, I searched for hills near Little London where he could seek shelter. Mount Zion was a gift that added a theological dimension to the story.

Then, I stumbled upon the word "feather. In African folklore, peacock feathers are associated with Oshun , the orisha of rivers, fertility, and love. The peacock’s feather symbolized her connection, but Donovan couldn't understand its significance because of his ignorance of West African culture. It added intrigue and a sense of mystery to his journey.

The more I delved into the story, the clearer Donovan and Tanya's voices became. I grappled with how Tanya would transform into a mermaid, and that's when I intertwined her story with the tragic history of Jamaica—the devastating earthquake in Port Royal in 1692. It also gave me a chance to fill out Tanya’s backstory with her royal lineage, the fall of the Kingdom of Oyo , and her escape from slavery to work in the White Horse Tavern in Port Royal .

But then came the pivotal point in the story when Donovan says, “Speaking of gifts,” which is related to the Cassandra-like issue that every writer must confront, whether to continue writing despite poor sales and only a few readers. I suspect Donovan’s initial wish, “To see things clearly,” had something to do with the cataract surgery on my right eye. I was still marveling at how much my eyesight had improved and how much I had probably missed because of poor vision.

I followed my intuition throughout the writing process and trusted the story to unfold. I wrote for six hours straight, completely immersed in the narrative, and time seemed to slip away unnoticed. After completing the story, I revisited and refined it, allowing it to settle before submission.

So have I become a pantser? I don’t know. We’ll see how my next story goes. What I do know is that this challenge helped me to trust my intuition a bit more and to guide me through the twists and turns of storytelling.

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About the Creator

Geoffrey Philp

I am a Jamaican writer. I write poems (haiku & haibun), stories & essays about climate change, Marcus Garvey, music icons such as Bob Marley, and the craft of writing. For more info, visit my webpage:

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Comments (2)

  • Mike Singleton - Mikeydred12 months ago

    Interesting article

  • Great Article ❤️😉📝

Geoffrey Philp Written by Geoffrey Philp

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