I spent the weekend in one of my favorite cities: New Orleans. NOLA was a huge part of my youth – Counselor Shelley lived right outside the city and we’d go dancing there on the weekends (or go to the parades during Mardi Gras). Some very good times were had. (Yeah, I thought I was immortal. I know now that I was just darn lucky!)
But NOLA is the setting for my next two books, and not only was my last trip to NOLA over eight years ago, let’s just say that many of my memories of NOLA are a bit, um, fuzzy. At least as those memories pertain to locations and things I’ll need to actually know. Since it was Fall Break weekend, Darling Geek, Amazing Child and I headed for the Big Easy.
To do research. (Oh, I love my job!)
Now, I’ve set books in places that I haven’t personally visited, and I did all the research online or by calling people I know who live there. It’s a valid way to research. But NOLA is a special place. The city itself has character. It infuses everything and affects everything. The city is as much a character in the stories set there as the protagonists are. You can’t just plonk any ol’ story in New Orleans and expect it to fly. So I needed to go there and experience it all again.
Of course, this was a very different type of trip than the ones of my youth. I mean, I had a 10-year-old in tow. That very much affects where I could go and what I could do. I was back in my hotel room every night by 9pm and asleep shortly thereafter. (My inner 21-year-old is horrified. The party was just getting started at 9pm!) There was no bar-hopping down Bourbon St. or dancing with frat rats to questionable cover bands. You know, that was probably a good thing; Bourbon St. is for tourists, and the locals go elsewhere for a good time.
But I did take AC down Bourbon St… But just a couple of blocks, and it was four o’clock in the afternoon, so it was relatively tame. That’s responsible parenting, right? DG put her on top of a paperbox and took her picture under a Bourbon St. street sign. Yeah, we expect CPS to be by any time now…
So what did I do? I explored the other streets of the French Quarter, visiting art galleries and stores that don’t sell t-shirts or Mardi Gras masks. We walked through the Garden District, picking out the type of house my heroine’s family lived in, and got a feel for what the neighborhood felt like. I rode the streetcar to the Warehouse District to see how long it would take for my hero to travel between his house and his studio. I walked the path to my heroine’s apartment three different ways and talked to a few of the people who live in that neighborhood to see what is was really like. I took a carriage ride through the French Quarter and learned some off-beat history from someone who knows the city and it’s secrets well.
And then I had beignets at Café du Monde. (Okay, so I did that twice. They’re really good.) For fun (but I don’t think it will show up in a book), we toured the Voodoo Museum. That was AC’s choice of activity. (It was actually very interesting, but it really, really, needs a good dusting.)
I was actually worried that a post-Katrina New Orleans would be different, and not the city I remember and love. (And no, I didn’t personally tour any of the devastated areas. To me, that type of voyeuristic tourism borders on skeevy. People lost lives and property and I should not be gawking at their loss and misfortune. That is the research I’ll do online. I did talk to a couple of locals about it, but I didn't go see it.) But New Orleans is still New Orleans and it still calls me to come sit on the steps across from Jackson Square with a drink in my hand and listen to the clop-clop of the mules, the horns from the boats on the Mississippi River, and the musicians who play with varying degrees of talent, but massive amounts of enthusiasm.
I love New Orleans. It speaks to me. What cities speak to you?
(And in true Problem Child style, I injured myself. I almost made it, but then slipped off the curb as I was getting into the car (literally two seconds from being in the clear), and sprained my ankle. Sigh.)