November 24, 2014

Why a Book’s Setting Counts as a Character

By Laura Childs

I think every author worth his/her salt constantly strives to create that all-important “sense of place.”  You want your readers to vividly picture your novel’s setting as seen through your eyes.  You want every word to be so filled with imagery that they drink in each scene – tasting the salt on the breeze, smelling the perfumed jasmine in the early evening dusk, and detecting that ominous crunch of footsteps on gravel behind them.  You want your readers’ hearts to pitty-pat a little faster and think to themselves, “Who’s that following me?  What’s happening here?”

When I set my Scrapbooking Mysteries in New Orleans, I hit the jackpot. Seriously, nowhere else in this country is there a spookier, decrepit, elegant, and highly atmospheric city all rolled into one.  Setting a mystery in New Orleans means you can borrow lonesome-sounding tugboat whistles from the Mississippi River or allow faint notes of jazz to bump along on the breeze.  You can impart the grandeur and old world elegance of the Garden District, the raucousness of the French Quarter, and the danger and solitude of nearby bayous.

But there’s so much more to work with. 

I particularly love the infamous aboveground cemeteries in New Orleans.  First of all, they’re bizarre.  I mean, you can’t even bury a body in New Orleans.  If you do, the water table will send it right back to you.  So there’s a nasty concept to play with.  The cemeteries are also a strange amalgam of stately marble crypts, tumbled-down tombstones, oven crypts (you don’t even want to know), and ancient statues whose faces have long since been eroded by hurricanes, rain, and relentless heat.  Yes, a cemetery in New Orleans is always the perfect setting for a somber funeral, a dangerous tiptoe-through-the-tombstones chase, or even a nighttime ghost sighting.

I particularly love the contrast between the French Quarter and the Garden District.  The French Quarter is where the city of New Orleans dug in hard and put down roots.  There are ancient warehouses that have been turned into lofts and apartments, narrow alleys, tiny shops, four-star restaurants, haughty hotels, a genuine cathedral, and cobwebs of wrought iron draped everywhere.  Some of the old brick buildings began life as absinthe bars, houses of ill repute, and voodoo shops.  Interesting enough, some of them are still absinthe bars, houses of ill repute, and voodoo shops.  There’s honest-to-gosh history here and it’s all there for the taking.  And here’s a tidbit that always makes me smile: some of the French Quarter’s interior courtyards are utterly breathtaking with their pattering fountains, marble statues, and riots of flowers, but they’re never seen by anyone except a small handful of privacy-minded residents. 

Even though the Garden District consists of big homes and big money, it is equally private and closed.  When I attended the Rex Ball during Mardi Gras, I came to realize that the real Mardi Gras takes place in these magnificent mansions.  All that hoo-haw down in the French Quarter?  The beads, balconies, drinking, and music you see on TV?  That’s for the benefit of the tourists and the cameras.  No self-respecting member of the Rex, Comus, or Bacchus krewe would ever throw open the doors to their float den, or invite the public in to their elegant parties. 

But there is a way you can partake of these magical, hushed settings.  An author who’s been there can put down the words, take your hand, and gently pull you in for a good long peek.  Are you interested?  Then come along, let’s both enjoy the spectacle of the debutantes, dine on oysters Rockefeller and crab etouffee, and step inside the drop-dead gorgeous mansions and drink twenty-four year-old Bourbon in Baccarat crystal.  Let’s crash this fine eccentric city known as the Big Easy.
Laura Childs is the author of the Scrapbook Mysteries set in New Orleans, LA, the Tea Shop Mysteries set in Charleston, SC, and the Cackleberry Club Mysteries.  Her books have been continually named to the New York Times Bestseller List and have been featured selections in the Literary Guild’s Mystery Book Club.  She is a former Cleo Award-winning advertising writer and CEO of Mission Critical Marketing. She is currently co-executive producer of two reality television shows. Her website is Laura Childs’ newest Scrapbooking Mystery, Gossamer Ghost released in October by Penguin Random House.

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