research & imagination

The reason to go to New Orleans was, of course, the novel I’m writing, the fifth in the Wilderness series. I’m calling it Queen of Swords. Let’s hope I can hold onto that title in the long run.

I did a lot of research for the trip and made plans, and got pretty much everything in that I needed to do. The re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans at Chalmette was high on the list, and that was indeed a good thing to see. People who spend so much time and energy doing reenactments are a wonderful resource. Who else knows what it’s like to wear woolen underwear all day long? And it’s one thing to see a uniform in a color plate, and another to see it on a man walking along the levee. Also, I always forget how loud the artillery fire is. I’m surprised anybody who fought in those battles had any hearing left.

Pitot HouseThe most instructive and interesting place was the Pitot House, (French Colonial/West Indies in style) built in 1799 on Bayou St. John. It’s been carefully restored and is maintained by the Louisiana Historical Society. We were fortunate to be the only people touring that morning, which meant I could ask all the questions I usually hold back for fear of slowing things down too much or boring less inquisitive types. Kathy Collins (our guide) was one of the best informed and most helpful people I have ever run across at a historic house. We got into such an interesting conversation that I took up a good hunk of her morning.

The house itself is the kind of place historical novelists are always looking for, with an atmosphere that is so strong that you can — for a few moments — get the sense that you are no longer in your own time. The furnishings, the way the light falls, the air itself — everything comes together in a very powerful way that allows the imagination to take over. I’m going to use the Pitot House as one of my settings in this novel. I will make some changes, of course, but then I will set my characters loose in its rooms. Kathy was kind enough to share the names of some of her ancestors with me, and I may well end up using them, as well: Jean Baptiste Baudreau dit Graveline is especially nice, but from Kathy I also found out more about the Pelican Girls (also called Cassette Girls).

In the early 1700s, the first families and young women came from France to the new French colony at what is now Mobile, Alabama. Many of the girls came from Parisian religious communities, and they were all approved first by the bishop (who made sure they were virtuous, but also hard workers). These young women — some no more than fifteen– married the French Marines who were already stationed at the colony. Prime material for a historical novel, if anybody’s looking.

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