Friends and Neighbors

Ah, community.

What is a cozy mystery without one? I don’t know because I’ve never read one that didn’t have a strong sense of community in it, but for me, the depictions of community is one of the primary draws of cozies.

As I have mentioned before, the vast majority of cozies are generally set in small towns, small communities where everyone always seems to come together, everyone knows everyone, and there’s an undercurrent of caring about others that makes them cozy and comfortable to read. I was worried at first about setting one in New Orleans, to be honest; New Orleans is many things to many different people, but I’ve kind of always seen New Orleans as a darker city than most, and that darkness that is always out there on the periphery of the bright sunshine, no matter how cheerful you might be or how lovely of a day it is. Part of it is the history here–New Orleans was a center of the slave trade, after all, and you don’t get much darker than human trafficking–and of course, the city has always been a major port…and ports aren’t exactly known as sedate places. There has always been a lot of crime here, and you really can’t go anywhere in New Orleans without overhearing people talking about the “crime problem” and shaking their heads at the decline of Western civilization as we know it down here by the riverside.

So, how can I write a light, breezy novel about a city that is so dark?

The key was community, of course. New Orleans is a city, but it’s also a city of neighborhoods, and always has been. Generations of families passed homes and property down to their children and their children and so on. “Where’d you go to high school?” was a question asked because the answer told the asker lots of things. Private school or public? What neighborhood did you grow up in? And as I thought more about it, I realized my lonely block in the lower Garden District has that sense of community to it. Neighbors look out for neighbors. We’ve lived in the same place since either 2002 or 2003; I’m never really sure I can remember when we moved onto the property; those years between moving back here in 2001 and Katrina are kind of blurry for me. But we’ve gotten to know our landlady pretty well as well as some of our neighbors; others have come and gone over the years but we always all end up down at the corner for parades during Carnival, catching throws and hanging out and having a good time.

And I realized I could do the same for Valerie.

In A Streetcar Named Murder I only introduced the reader to a few members of Valerie’s community in the Irish Channel: her best friend and neighbor Lorna; the gay couple next door in one side of a double and one’s mother, Mrs. Domenico, on the other side; and her friend Stacia who lives further down the street. I also mentioned there were a couple of houses being used as Air BnB’s, which may play a part in a book should the series get picked up. I had learned my lesson from the failed Paige spin-off series years ago; the mouthy, brash and snarky best friend cannot be the main character, but the book/community needed someone like that in the book. The main character has to be kind–but there’s always a more colorful secondary character necessary to say the funny and borderline mean things in place of the main character.

This is where Lorna comes in.

Lorna is very colorful indeed, and was a lot of fun to create. She’s married to an airline pilot who is often gone for long stretches of time (his name is Jack Farrow; since he’s a pilot she calls him Captain Jack Farrow). She’s British, speaks multiple languages, is fiercely intelligent and doggedly loyal. She also writes lusty romance novels that are huge bestsellers under the name Felicity Deveraux. Lorna is a great best friend who is also always up for anything, and naturally, she has a huge imagination and a big personality. Interesting and fun as Lorna is, I don’t think I would ever write about her as the main character because, like Paige, she would need to be toned down and I don’t really want to do that to her.

It is Lorna’s ambition to join a Mardi Gras krewe that actually puts Valerie at the scene of the crime in the book. See how that works?

But her neighborhood isn’t her only community, either; there’s a community around Rare Things, the antiques store she inherits–Randall Charpentier, her new boss; Dee, her co-worker; and of course the people who are in and out of the shop–the hot guy from an outer parish who repairs and refinishes furniture, for one–on a regular basis. If it becomes a series, I can flit the cases back and forth from her neighborhood to the store and vice versa; there are all kinds of plots and stories I can tell that could come from both.

And there’s still another community that Valerie belongs to that was only touched on in the first book–the parents’ group at Loyola High (it doesn’t exist in real life, folks, but it’s based on Jesuit), the Cardirents. This is how Valerie knew the victim in this book; they were both in the group, with a fraught history (which is more fraught than Valerie ever knew).

So, yes, it is possible to create the sense of community a cozy mystery requires in New Orleans; New Orleans, in fact, is ripe for it.

And on that note, I will sign off here. More blatant self-promotion to come, no worries on that score!

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!

Valerie

Seriously, how could I not love this cover?

It literally has everything I love (well, most of it, at any rate): the St. Charles streetcar, Scooter, and all kinds of fun antiques and artifacts–and so brightly colored and beautiful. They even slipped in a strand of beads cleverly disguised as pearls! It is one of my favorite covers, and not just because it doesn’t have a shirtless man on the cover–I know, I know, it’s been awhile since I actually had one–certainly it’s been since Royal Street Reveillon–oops, no, Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories is post Royal Street Reveillon, so I guess it’s just the last two young adults and this one since then. And as I said, I really love the color scheme. I may have to have this blown up into a poster and have it framed–that’s how much I love it.

So, who is this Valerie Cooper and why did I decide to write about her and from her point of view?

I’d written from a female perspective before–under pseudonyms–and since I generally relate easier to women than I do to (straight) men, most of my reading is from a female point of view. I’ve always wanted to do a series from this perspective; on the rare occasions I’ve written from a straight man’s point of view (usually in a short story, although occasionally under a pseudonym for a novel) but not as often. I had thought about trying to write a cozy series from a male perspective (I have a great idea for one that I don’t think anyone would buy or want, but I love the idea and may try to do something with it sometime) but eventually defaulted to a woman. Most cozies are told from the feminine perspective (there are exceptions), and so it felt more right to have a female protagonist. I learned from the Paige series being marketed as cozies (which they weren’t) that the strong, sarcastic, borderline bitchy doesn’t play well within that subgenre, and so since I knew I was specifically writing a cozy this time, I knew to follow the rules.

One of the things I had noticed in the cozy series I read is that usually the first book in the series follows a transition of sorts for the main character (Mia P. Manansala’s flopped in the big city and returned to her small hometown; Raquel V. Reyes’ character has just moved back to the Miami area from New York, so she’s happy about it but concerned on others–read the book, you won’t be sorry; others have just gotten divorced, walked on a cheating partner, etc. etc. you get the drift), and I wanted to do something a little softer and less jarring–so I went with her being a youngish empty nester. Married young to a handsome fireman several years older (six, to be exact) she is left a widow when he is killed on the job to raise their twin sons by herself. She’s not worked outside the home since she was a teenager, and now the boys are off to LSU and she’s home alone in the big Victorian house she and her husband bought as a fixer-upper and then renovated while raising the kids. The house is done, her husband is dead and her kids are at school–so she is now finding herself at loose ends and not really sure what to do with herself. She dropped out of college after her marriage when she found herself pregnant–not planned, but not a disappointment, either–and now is considering going back to get her degree at UNO, or maybe finding a job–but what can she do?

I did worry about her not having finished college and just being a stay-at-home mother. It didn’t seem very pro-woman to me, but then I chastised myself. My sister was a stay-at-home mom, and I remember that when she finally was given the choice, my mother was one as well…and I realized I was falling into the wrong mindset about Valerie to begin with–there’s nothing wrong with a woman deciding to be a stay-at-home mom and not ever really working outside the home; the point of feminism is that women should be able to choose what they want rather than have limitations placed on their decisions (which a lot of non-feminist women do not understand), and why not write about a stay-at-home mother now finding her own way in life? I also wanted to surround her with friends and support–so she lives next door to her best friend (they became friends after the woman moved in next door) and is also close to Stacia, a divorced lawyer who lives down the street. The gay couple next door in a double shotgun, Michael and John, are also friends, as is John’s mother, who lives in the other side of the shotgun. Her own parents have retired to the Gulf Coast of Florida, and she is very close to her late husband’s family, the Coopers.

Her name is Valerie because I’ve always liked the name (it’s one of my favorite female names, along with Laura), and I picked Cooper because it’s a friend’s maiden name. I decided to make her be an actual local; born and raised in the city–but her parents are not from New Orleans; they moved here for the father’s job. So she was born here, but she wasn’t born into any of the many striations of social class here. Her parents weren’t connected to old-line New Orleans, they didn’t belong to any Mardi Gras krewes, and Valerie herself–while going to Sacred Heart–never got involved in any of the Carnival stuff, preferring, as she says, to participate by going to parades and catching throws. She’s also an only child who thinks of her late husband’s older sister Therese as a kind of replacement older sister since she didn’t have one.

I wanted to upset Valerie’s tame, placid, almost boring life with a series of shocks that upend everything about her life and what she believed she knew about her life, her house, her late husband–and what better way than to have her realize, thanks to someone else–that the notice she got from the city about the house being reappraised for taxes and didn’t think too much about could actually become a big catastrophe for her. The house they bought so cheaply and renovated could now be worth vastly more than she and Tony paid for the house (I named her husband Tony because I’ve always liked that name for a man; Scotty was almost Tony) because their neighborhood, sketchy and dangerous when they moved there, has been gentrified (as so much of the city has been) and when someone she knows and doesn’t like (a very thin line there I was worried about crossing by introducing that character–toning it down to a Valerie level of dislike was something I really had to pay attention to) lets her know what the market value of her home might actually be–Valerie instantly goes into financial panic mode. If the house is worth ten times what they paid for it, wouldn’t that mean the tax assessment would also got up times ten? She’s run into the woman while picking up fresh shrimp at Big Fisherman Market on Magazine (right there by what used to be the A&P and now I can’t recall what chain went in there? BREAUX MART. Whew, was getting a bit concerned there about my brain working) and walking back home, turning it over and over again in her mind as she reflects how much the neighborhood has changed since she and Tony first moved in–and then when she gets home, she finds out a registered letter from a lawyer has arrived for her.

And nothing in her life is ever the same again.

Essentially, the letter lets her know that she and her sons have received an inheritance from an uncle of Tony’s she never knew even existed, and it includes Rare Things, an antiques business on St. Charles Avenue in the lower Garden District, and the story is then off and running.

I do really like Valerie. I hope readers do, too–because I’d like to keep writing about her.

You Can’t Hurry Love

No, you’ll just have to wait.

Friday morning and working at home. My new in-office schedule, if you haven’t been paying attention, has been shifted to Tuesdays thru Thursdays, so now I work at home on the bookends of the weekend, Fridays and Mondays. I have data to enter and condoms to pack, ZOOM work meetings (no offense, day job, but ZOOM is the bane of my existence and has been since March 2020)–technically it’s Microsoft Teams, which is kind of the same thing, and then later, chapters to write and clothes to launder and filing to do. It’s non-stop glamour around here at the Lost Apartment, right?

I had a doctor’s appointment yesterday–just routine maintenance to get my prescriptions refilled–and then came home to work on the book. I am very pleased with how it’s shaping up so far (of course, as always, I go back and forth constantly between this isn’t terrible and this is going to ruin my career, which is essentially what I do with every manuscript, so everything is normal. Realizing that I am going through my usual emotional journey with this one eased my mind significantly). We watched the first episode of the new season of Resident Alien last night, which was rather fun, and then the new Peacemaker, which I am glad we stuck with. The first episode was okay, but we weren’t sold completely on the show; I love John Cena, so obviously we were going to keep going but I didn’t have high hopes; the show seems to be hitting its stride and this week’s episode was probably one of the best. I went to bed early and then slept deeply and beautifully; so whatever it was that was bothering me earlier in the week and keeping me from sleeping apparently eased off yesterday, which is always a plus.

I also got a copy of Lisa Lutz’ The Apprentice this week; I can’t wait to dig into it. One of the primary reasons I am looking forward to finishing this manuscript is because, as always when I am going into the final stretch, I am too nervous to read another writer’s work, particularly Lutz’, because I will inevitably feel like why do I bother when there are authors like this putting work out into the world? How can I possibly compete with these incredibly smart and literate writers? Then I have to stop feeling sorry for myself and sulking to get back into the right mindset for writing my new book; which is a process and I can’t spare the time for that right now, so the books continue to pile up (this is exactly what happened when I took a break for “just an hour” to indulge myself in Alafair Burke’s Find Me and then couldn’t put the book down until next thing I knew the book was done, and I’d (I can’t say wasted; reading Alafair is never a waste of time) lost an entire day of work. I know the new Lutz will have the same effect on me; so I need to not give into temptation and even crack the book open. (I may allow myself a Laura Lippman short story later on today, as a reward after the writing is done and before I crack open the wine.)

I also have a lot of other work to do over the course of the weekend; I have emails to answer as well as some writing to do for my friend’s website, which should be a lovely distraction from all of the other things I am (always) doing. I can’t wait for you all to see the cover for A Streetcar Named Murder; it’s absolutely gorgeous (I may have to get it made into a poster). It looks like I will be doing a “cover reveal” with a book blogger, which is a new thing for me. But this is actually a mainstream book (which is an offensive term on its face; but more on that later); my main character is a straight woman who lives in the Irish Channel, is widowed, and her twin sons have just gone away to college (LSU, of course) and suddenly finds herself (and the twins) as the beneficiary of a bequest from a relative of her husband’s that she didn’t know existed; and this is the heart of a mystery she (Valerie) finds herself in the middle of trying to figure out…and of course, it eventually leads to murder. I am doing something different here–I don’t think I’ve ever done something that could be called a cozy before; although in some ways the Scotty series is precisely that (but that can be a topic for another time)–and so am not sure if I am following the established rules for the sub-genre; but I also have to tell the story that I want to tell within that framework. It was a challenge to me as a writer; and one of the things I had been feeling as a writer over the last few years was that I was getting stale; that my work was in a state of stasis and I wasn’t growing within my work. In 2015 I felt that way, too, and so I took some time away from the writing and the grindstone I’d been pushing my nose against steadily for the preceding five or six years. This was when I wrote the first draft of #shedeservedit; this was when I decided to start taking more risks with the Scotty series, and when I decided to not continue the Chanse series. I am kind of looking at 2022 through that same lens; I decided to write this novel (possible first in a series) as a challenge to push myself to do something different, take a chance, and force myself to stretch my abilities and skills.

I think Chlorine is another step forward for me as a writer; writing a historical novel set in the recent past (although I suppose the 1950’s isn’t that recent past, really–which really makes me feel horrifically old) is going to push my talents and ability as a writer, and will require a lot more focus and research (which, while I love really history and reading it, the problem is that I can never really focus my interests in solely reading and researching what I actually need to look into for what I am working on–that ADHD problem) as well as writing in a different style than what I usually do; that rat-a-tat-tat pacing and use of language that keeps the story moving and says something about the times, the culture, and the characters themselves and how systemic homophobia can affect the lives of those with same-sex attractions; in addition to the toxic culture of sexual harassment and assault that was so prevalent in old Hollywood; the 1950’s were a transitional period for Hollywood as the old studio system began to crumble in the face of a new, changed society and the challenge of television.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.