resources and research: Queen of Swords

I had an email from a historian today:

I just finished reading your latest installment of the Wilderness series, and as always, enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious as to what sources you consulted for your discussion of Indians in New Orleans. I am a history professor at Tulane and while my field is general social history, my specialty is in immigrant and ethnic history. I have recently begun researching 18th century S/E Louisiana Native Americans and I was struck by your description/discussion of Indians in your novel, hence, my e-mail. As you are undoubtedly aware, sources about native Americans, especially small tribes, are sparse. If, and when you have a moment, I would love to hear about your research.

When I sent the answer it occurred to me that other people might be interested. So here you go:

I had to piece information together from a dozen or so different sources. Below is a list of the ones I used most. Latour’s Memoir was most useful in a general way, and included names in some places which was very helpful. The Perdue book was also really useful for my purposes. […] I had to make do with mostly secondary resources, and my writer’s imagination.

Laussat, Pierre-CLément. Memoirs of My Life to My Son during the Years 1803 and after, Which I Spent in Public Service in Louisiana as Commissioner of the French Government for the Retrocession to France of That Colony and for Its Transfer to the United States. Baton Rouge: Published for the Historic New Orleans Collection by the Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Smith, Gene, ed. [Arsene Lacarriere Latour’s] Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana in 1814-15. Gainesville: Historic New Orleans Collection and University Press of Florida, 1999.

Griffiths, N. The Contexts of Acadian History, 1686-1784. Montréal: Published for the Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University by McGill-Queen’s University, 1992.

Walker, Daniel. No More, No More. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Owsley, Frank. Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: the Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812-1815 University: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

Perdue, Theda. “Mixed Blood” Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Halbert, H.S. and T.H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. Chicago, Illinois: Donohue & Henneberry, 1895 (

Phillip, Chief and Tom Mould. Choctaw Tales. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

I found the name Juzan in relationship to the Choctaws who fought in the Battle of New Orleans, and pursued that through genealogical sources. The discussion boards at gave me a lot of information to start search primary records:

Juzan family genealogy

Similar information from a different angle from

more genealogy

Websites dedicated to documenting the men who fought in the Battle of New Orleans also produced some leads:

military history

a project to make my crafty little heart beat faster

Pam had a suggestion:

Publish Hannah’s medical journals. Or fragments of the same. A partial even. Sort of a Sabine and Griffin-ish publication in appearance. You’d have to collaborate with your favourite artists and font designers, but isn’t that interesting regardless? Include side notes where Hannah, in her old age, goes back over the journal and adds reflections in a Curiosity-like manner. And Hannah hopefully will not age cynically.

I’d include recipes, character portraits of her notable patients, and a list of symptoms and diagnoses. Bonus – sketches Lily had done and given to Hannah could be clipped in or inserted (imagine on tracing paper weight paper, they fall out of the book when you unseal it from its vacuum packed plastic wrapping – hey, other things might fall out too. Hm, what budget am I imagining here? Craziness.). And, Neat-o. Likely a bugger to publish. And expensive. Us fans would simply drool and wonder what was in the plastic wrap until our birthdays or Christmas, eh?

I think I once mentioned that a not-so-secret desire of mine was to include letters in the novels. Not transcriptions of the letters, but folded letters, in handwriting. Yellowed paper, the whole thing. So you’d have the sense of holding the actual letter Nathaniel wrote to Elizabeth while he was in New Orleans. Also, newspaper clippings. All these bits could be in an old fashioned (miniature) letter portfolio in the back of the novel. And if we’re going there, the story itself could be illustrated. Not in the traditional sense — a glossy page with a formal painting showing a cabin in the woods — but small illustrations on various pages. The pine tree with the crooked top. Elizabeth’s writing table.

So I love Pam’s idea. Given the realities of the way publishing works, it’s unlikely to ever happen — unless suddenly all five books in the series jumped to the top ten NYT bestseller list. Ha!

Why New Orleans?

I had a question from asdfg — the person who is organizing the Queen of Swords discussion on the forum, and doing a stellar job, too — regarding the setting of that novel.

She asked why I decided to set most of Queen of Swords in New Orleans. Which is a reasonable question, with a fairly simple answer.

I knew way back when that two of the novels in the series would have to do with the War of 1812. I won’t go into my standard why don’t they teach more about this in the schools song and dance. It’s enough to say that the war interests me and it seemed a good source of stories, most of which haven’t been told in novel form in a compelling way.

But the War of 1812 raged all over the country, from the Canadian border to Florida. The British burned D.C., which strikes me as a major historic event, but if you ask the average person on the street, they will tell you that D.C. has never been invaded, much less torched.

However. I was thinking two novels at the most, and my usual squadron of characters. It strikes me as silly when an author tries to write a single novel that covers a whole war, and goes to contortions to get the characters at every major battle, no matter how geographically separated they may be. I read a novel last year which really irritated me for that very reason. It irritated me so much that while I wrote a review of it, I can’t recall the name.

So I had to be choosy about what parts of the war I used as my backdrop. I had hoped to be able to have Hannah and Jennet at the burning of Washington, but that didn’t work out. I was more interested in the New Orleans theater. Not only because of the final battles of the war, though Andrew Jackson is great material for a novel. I really wanted to explore New Orleans as it was then — because it was unusual, to an extreme, in the way different races constructed social structures for themselves. The relationship between the various peoples of color was particularly interesting, too. There are a lot of storytellers’ myths about New Orleans in the early 19th century, and I wanted to try to tell a story that avoided most if not all of them.

On top of all that, you’ve got pirates and smugglers and voudou mambos and faux-French aristocrats, an influx of rude Americans and lots of Creole outrage, and swamps. Swamps were a challenge to write about.

And I really love New Orleans. I’ve been there six or seven times, and I love walking through the city. I’m not talking about the French Quarter — although I can gladly spend hours examining the architecture — but the whole city. I still wish I had found a way to get down there after Katrina to help out for a few days or a week. Not that I had anything special to offer beyond willing hands and a fairly strong back, but it seemed awful to just sit here and watch all that unecessary suffering. We did what we could long distance, and we should still be doing that. Every single one of us. Things are pretty dire down there, still. Not that you’d ever know from watching the television news.

So that’s it: that’s why I set the novel in New Orleans.

Library Journal review

Jeanne alerted me to the Library Journal review for Queen of Swords, which had somehow slipped by unnoted. Here it is:

Library Journal

The latest volume in Donati’s popular Bonner family series opens where Fire Along the Sky (2004) left off, with Luke Bonner’s wife, Jennet, a captive of a renegade priest in the Caribbean. Luke and his half-sister, Hannah, rescue Jennet, but soon realize that she had to give up her newborn son, named Nathan after his grandfather, to keep him safe. The Bonners track Nathan to New Orleans, where he has been adopted by the matriarch of a prominent Creole family and her profligate grandson. Finding Nathan isn’t difficult, but keeping him and avoiding the ire of the Poiterin family is, and the Bonners soon find themselves caught up in the wartime politics of 1814 New Orleans. As with the previous books in the series, Donati treats her characters with sensitivity and does not shy away from tackling thorny themes, such as racial relations between Native Americans and whites during the early 18th century. This fast-paced, engaging book is sure to draw in readers. Highly recommended. Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL

I’ll take a ‘highly recommended’ any day — and with a smile. However, I have to point out that there are a few factual innacuracies here. Anybody pick them out? If so, please post a comment.

Which means: WARNING. Possible spoilers in the comments.