The Irish Channel

Writing a cozy set in New Orleans seemed, at first, to be a little daunting.

One of the key tenets of a cozy is the sense of community one gets while reading it (see Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series for the perfect example; I love Caerphilly, Virginia, and enjoy revisiting twice a year to see how everyone is doing), and it took me a moment to readjust my thinking from “community means a small town” to “no, you moron, anything can be a community; and you can certainly find community in New Orleans.” And then I remembered Leslie Budewitz’ superlative Spice Shop series, which is set in Pike’s Market in Seattle. Seattle is a city, just as New Orleans is; and sure, it might be easier to just invent an entire new fictional small town to set a cozy series in, but if anything, there’s more sense of community in New Orleans than I’ve ever felt in other cities…and it was really about creating a community around my character, Valerie, and picking a neighborhood for her in which to live took me a while as I weighed pros and cons; the only thing that was definite was she was NOT going to live in the French Quarter (there’s a throwaway line where she thinks about how long it’s been since she’s been to the Quarter, and maybe she and her two best friends should arrange to have dinner at Galatoire’s or Antoine’s–yes, I used two of the better known restaurants in the city and the Quarter for the examples, but I also knew I could mention them without needing to explain them to the reader). I did go back and forth about the Marigny or Bywater, but finally decided to put her into a neighborhood that did not flood during Katrina, which narrowed the choices dramatically.

New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods used to be so distinct that knowing what part of the city someone lived would automatically create some assumptions–just as how the ever-popular question of where’d you go to high school used to be another way to connect with someone you’ve just met–there are any number of differences between those who went to Newman or Jesuit or Holy Cross or Ursulines or Ben Franklin or Warren Easton or McMain Magnet. New Orleans is a small enough city that chances were, you’d also know (or ar related to )someone else who’d gone to that high school at the same time, or you also knew other people who lived in their neighborhood. Obviously, the French Quarter is perhaps the most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, followed by the Garden District, working down through the Marigny, the Bywater, Mid-city, Gentilly, Lakeview, Broadmoor, etc. (With the gentrification of the city over the past sixteen or so years, realtors have also started creating new neighborhoods–which can be confusing. For example, they are trying to rebrand the Central Business District–the CBD–into SoMa, South of Market, which makes no fucking sense whatsoever as there is no market for the area to be south of; I often will have someone mention one of these new neighborhoods by name to me and I have no idea what they are talking about. They are also trying to rebrand the 7th Ward as the “new Marigny”…good luck with that.)

Scotty lives in the Quarter, and Chanse lives in the Lower Garden District–I’ve also written a lot of stories set in that neighborhood, which is also where I’ve always lived, and is quite distinct from the actual Garden District–I used to joke that we lived four blocks and three decimal points from the Garden District. So having done those neighborhoods already extensively, I wanted to pick a new place for Valerie to live and for me to write about.

I’ve always kind of been partial to the Irish Channel, although we’ve always lived in the Lower Garden District (distinct from the Garden District). I wrote one book about the Irish Channel already (aptly titled Murder in the Irish Channel), and of course, when I needed a place for Valerie to live, I decided the Channel would be the perfect place for her. Twenty years or so ago there will still blighted and crumbling houses in that neighborhood just waiting to be purchased, renovated and gentrified. The stretch of Magazine she lives near used to be one of my favorite parts of the city–I met any number of people for coffee at the Rue de la Course that used to be there, I used to really enjoy the Semolina’s restaurant as well as the Middle Eastern place whose name I can’t remember now (Byblos? it was the last restaurant meal in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina), and of course I sometimes shopped at the A&P or the Walgreens–before I realized Prytania and Tchoupitoulas were the easiest and quickest ways to get uptown; I wasted a lot of time stuck in Magazine Street traffic back in the day. Our friends Carrie and Lisa used to rent half of an enormous Victorian house near Third and Constance; I loved that enormous, drafty and dusty old house (it’s actually where my main character in my in-progress novella Never Kiss a Stranger lives), and was very sorry when they moved further uptown. Paul and I used to have a lot of fun looking for costumes and other home decor in the numerous thrift shops on Magazine; the one for St. Vincent de Paul (at the corner of Robert and Magazine, which eventually closed and became a Vitamin Shoppe; I don’t think the space is currently in use) was amazing. They used to sell handmade wooden tables and bookcases, made by monks in a monastery somewhere in northern Louisiana, and this furniture was not only solid, but it was inexpensive. We still have the bookcases and tables–one of them is my desk, the other is Paul’s–and I don’t think we spent much more than a hundred dollars on the two tables and the four bookcases. We must have bought that all after we moved back here after the year that should be forgotten; we didn’t move much furniture there or back.

But oh, how I would love to get some more of those bookcases. They are sooooo solid…

Plus, putting Valerie in the Irish Channel gives me the opportunity to write about St. Patrick’s Day–which I’ve never done with either of my other series–at some point in the future.

The Irish Channel obviously takes its name from the fact that many Irish immigrants settled there when they came to New Orleans. The Historic Landmarks Commission defines its boundaries as Jackson Avenue to Delachaise Street and Magazine Street to Tchoupitoulas. However, the New Orleans City Planning Commission defines the boundaries of the Irish Channel as these streets: Tchoupitoulas Street, Toledano Street, Magazine Street, First Street, the Mississippi River and Napoleon Avenue.

See what I mean about how confusing the city can be? We can even properly define the boundaries of our neighborhoods. I’ve always considered the Channel to start at Jackson (as does the Garden District proper) and end at Louisiana; with the other boundaries Magazine and Tchoupitoulas.

But I did think having her live so close to Louisiana Avenue–between Seventh and Harmony–would put her right smack dab into the heart of that neighborhood and in walking distance of practically anything she might need. I wanted her to be able to be able to do her errands most of the time on foot, because that also (in my mind) cemented the sense that it was a neighborhood and a community, if that makes sense? And once I’d picked where she lived, I was able to start building her community around her.

But that is a tale for another time.

I love these kinds of double houses!

Solsbury Hill

Thursday and working at home today. Huzzah!

Yesterday was yet another day when I woke up feeling rested and invigorated. I had thought, oddly enough, that I hadn’t slept particularly well the night before–I woke up several times throughout the night, and the last time was five thirty, so I just kind of laid there in a half-sleep until the alarm went off. But oddly enough, I never hit the wall yesterday afternoon and I was also full of energy and highly functioning and got a lot of stuff taken care of, which was absolutely lovely. I hope to match that productivity today. I only have to work a partial day because I had to stay late the other day, so I am hoping to get some writing and editing done today as well, and make it to the gym once I complete my work-at-home duties. Fingers crossed!

I went to sleep later than I’d planned last night. We finished watching Dopesick, which is an amazing production with exceptional acting and writing, and then I went into a wormhole on Youtube and wound up staying up until midnight. I woke up early this morning–earlier than I’d wanted to, but hey, more time to get things done–and I think I slept relatively well last night. I am awake, after all, and not tired physically or mentally; I call that a win, really. I also finished reading Shucked Apart by Barbara Ross–more on that later–and started reading Guilty as Cinnamon by Leslie Budewitz, who is a favorite writer of mine and one I should read more of–I loved Assault and Pepper, the first in her Seattle Spice Shop series, this is the second.

I’ve also been reflecting a lot on my trip to Boston. I made a mistake the other day when I was talking about visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; I referred to reading about Mrs. Gardner in a book called The Grande Dames by Stephen Buckingham; his name was actually Birmingham. I think I can be forgiven for that error, primarily because Buckingham seems like a more likely last name for an American than Birmingham–and buck instead of birm is a very easy mistake to make, and therefore forgivable, despite my incredibly high standards for getting these facts correct. But I always loved the story of Mrs. Gardner, the ultimate diva and grande dame of Boston, and now that I’ve seen the Italian palazzo she built as a home for herself and her extraordinary art collection…I need to reread Mr. Birmingham’s book again. The museum was spectacular, just spectacular.

The day began with me looking out the window of my room at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to see it was drizzling a bit outside; and I had to decide: lug my suitcase through the subway, or summon a Lyft, or walk ten blocks to the new train station, Moyhihan Hall? Being a hardy New Orleanian, I decided I’d just walk the ten blocks–my Fitbit would love all the steps–and as long as I could keep my glasses dry, I should be fine. It was just a drizzle, after all. So, I rode the elevator down and walked out the front door and walked over to 8th Avenue and headed downtown. It was, despite the slight drizzle, a lovely walk. I debated stopping for coffee along the way–I’d not had any (and it was actually rather delightful to not be so dependent on caffeine this trip as usual, and perhaps that’s why I had no issues sleeping?), but decided to wait till I got to Moynihan before getting coffee–what were the odds there wouldn’t be at least a Starbucks, if not a Dunkin’ Donuts, inside? I made good time, and was actually enjoying people watching as I made my way down 8th.

So, of course, about a block and a half from my final destination, the sky opened with a deluge worthy of a New Orleans street-flooding strength downpour. By the time I reached the train station I was completely soaked, but was also highly amused by it all. I had a three and a half hour train ride to Boston ahead of me, and I was really looking forward to getting back into the book I was reading–These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall, see the blog entry where I discussed how terrific the book was–and the Amtrak ride from New York to Boston is one of my favorite train trips–Connecticut is so scenic and beautiful, and the train hugs the coast most of the way, with spectacular views of bays and inlets and estuaries and boats and lovely homes. So I got my coffee, wiped off my head and glasses with napkins, and debated battling with my suitcase in the bathroom to get dry clothing–I decided against it eventually–and finally boarded my train and headed for one of my favorite cities that I never get to spend enough time in, Boston (I’ve always had an affinity for the city because I love history, and of course, Boston was pivotal in the American Revolution, and Johnny Tremain is set there, and I love that book). Alas, the scenery was perhaps not as spectacular along the route as it usually is; it rained and was gray and cloudy and overcast the entire way, and whenever I tried to take a picture by aiming my phone at the window, all I got was a gray photo of water beaded up on glass and nothing beyond, which was terribly disappointing. But this lack of ability to take great scenic photos enabled me to focus on the book, which I was absolutely loving (see blog entry from several days ago where I discuss the phenomenal novel at great length). It was raining in Boston when the train pulled into the station, and my wonderful friends were there to pick me up, and we headed for the Gardner Museum.

I could spend days in that museum, seriously. The building itself is breathtakingly beautiful–as are the Sargent portraits of Mrs. Gardner on display–and so much other amazing art: paintings and sculptures and tapestries; the Velazquez painting of Philip IV of Spain that is perhaps the most famous image of that sad Hapsburg king; everywhere you look there is a spectacularly beautiful piece of art. It’s overwhelming, and even more awe-inspiring perhaps than even the Uffizi in Florence–you expect the palaces and collections of European nobility and royalty to be spectacular; and to be sure, Mrs. Gardner’s home and collection pales in comparison to that of the Medici, but she was an American heiress…and even though she was fabulously wealthy, to me even the wealthiest of the robber barons pale in comparison to the sumptuous palazzos of the Renaissance Italians. But it’s still an impressive collection, if not a Medici one, and that’s why I think it’s more impressive. Mrs. Gardner was simply a wealthy woman, not a Renaissance lady or princess or queen. She couldn’t be expected to compete, and yet…the collection is exceptional and extraordinary, as was the woman herself.

And of course, as a crime writer, the robbery–the empty frames that once held Rembrandts brazenly stolen and yet to be recovered still on display–is also fascinating to me, particularly since I love treasure hunts.

I am forever grateful to my friends Stuart and Robbie for taking me there–and I plan to visit again sometime.

Crime Bake, the event put on jointly sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, was why I went to Boston in the first place, so Stuart and Robbie dropped me off in Dedham at my hotel (which was where the event was) and I got a lovely night’s sleep–again, a complete shock, but is it a mere coincidence that the coffee I had at the train station was the only cup I had that day?–and I got up early the next morning for the breakfast buffet and to start attending panels. When I said earlier that I’d forgotten how much I love listening to writers speak about writing, and books, and everything to do with being a writer, I was not kidding. I haven’t been to anything like Crime Bake since the Williams Festival in March 2019; I missed that year’s Bouchercon because I developed an inner ear infection and couldn’t fly. It was so inspirational. I listened to writers I admired and writers I wasn’t aware of, and was scribbling notes in my journal the entire day. It was marvelous! And inspiring. I’ve talked on here a lot about feeling disconnected from writing and publishing; part of it was not being around writers and listening to them talk about craft, what inspires them, how they work, how they develop and flesh out their ideas–the joys and heartaches and the Imposter Syndrome–because writing can be a very lonely business (it’s just you, the keyboard and the computer screen much of the time), and it’s nice to connect with others and realize we all go through the same thing, the same frustrations, the same heartaches and aggravations and joys.

Today I have a lot of catching up to do–what else is new?–and I am hoping to get some writing done around my work-at-home duties. Wish me luck, Constant Reader, and have a lovely Thursday!