|Ellie James, author of the |
Midnight Dragonfly Series
Researchin’ The Big Easy
Research is one of those words that can strike fear into someone’s heart. Research makes you think of long hours in front of the computer or pouring over cumbersome books with small print, watching documentaries or searching through libraries (do people really do that anymore?). Research makes you think of trying to figure things out, of piecing together disparate sources of information. Of work. Of time. And yeah, probably some frustration, too.
Rarely does research make you think of this:
But for my series of paranormal Young Adult thrillers, the Midnight Dragonfly Books, that’s exactly what my research involved. Beignets. In New Orleans.
Yeah, sometimes life can be really cruel.
The books tell the story of a teenage psychic in New Orleans, so being a dedicated writer person, I realized I had to make a trip or two (or three or four) down to the Big Easy, a city where the dead outnumber the living 10:1. I wanted details. Authenticity. I wanted to walk the streets Trinity walks, to breathe the air she breathes, to slip inside the centuries-old buildings where spirits linger. I wanted to feel the heat and the humidity, to hear the music pulsing through the French Quarter, to taste the cuisine, and yeah, even smell the smells (not all pleasant!)
Along the way I found so much more.
The city of New Orleans is a world unto itself. Someone once asked me for the three best words to describe the city. Being kind of a word-aholic, I came up with seven: Beautiful. Mysterious. Decadent. Haunting. Exciting. Unforgettable. Addictive.
Here are a few reasons why:
The Garden District
This is where the first book in the series, Shattered Dreams, begins, as a group of teenagers sneaks into one of the beautiful old abandoned mansions. Dating back to the 1800s, the streets of the Garden District are among the most beautiful and historic not only in New Orleans, but in all the United States. In addition to all the mansions, you’ve got fantastically old sprawling oak trees, all drenched with Spanish moss. (Sadly, Hurricane Katrina did a real number on the live oaks and cypress, but many remain.) Wide lawns. Cracked sidewalks. Quiet streets.
The Garden District is where Anne Rice and her vampire Lestat lived, and where Peyton and Eli Manning grew up. There’s this amazing vibe there, like a long cool sip of mint tea on a hot summer day. You can feel the history when you walk the street. You can feel the memories. It’s amazing.
They call them Cities of the Dead, and the second you see your first one up close and personal, you understand why. These aren’t the sterile plots where Aunt Ethyl rests, with a little urn of yellow plastic flowers. Far from it.
In New Orleans, cemeteries much more resemble museums with elaborate works of statuary—and tour-guides. Yes, you can tour the cemeteries, and since Trinity visits more than one cemetery during the series, you better believe I did, too. You can visit by day or night, though it’s highly advisable not to visit after dark if you’re alone. You can walk among the hauntingly beautiful tombs. You can visit the crypt of renowned voodoo queen Marie Leveau, and leave an offering of dried flowers or candles. (Lots of people do.) You can even see the freaky pyramid that sits waiting for actor Nichols Cage. You never quite know what you’ll see….
The French Quarter
Also known as the Vieux Carre, this is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans and the heart of the city’s tourism. This is where you have Jackson Square and St. Louis cathedral:
Bourbon Street and the famed Café du Monde, where jazz music and local performers fill the streets. Fantastic food and fun shops, shops you’ll never see anywhere else, with merchandise you never even imagined…
This is also where the psychics gather, a key piece of research for me. I spent hours walking among the palm and tarot card readers, watching them interact with tourists and customers—and getting a few readings of my own. Yes, you really can. They’re sitting right there, along the old wrought iron fence, gifted mystics ready to look into your future, or your past. And most of them don’t charge. Instead, they’ll accept “whatever you see fit.”
Jackson Square is also where you’ll find fantastically talented artists, some ready to paint (or sketch) your portraits, others busy painting scenes of everyday life, including the horse-drawn carriages clomping along the streets. Just beyond the railroad tracks is the levee. Just beyond that is the muddy Mississippi, ambling on.
Before the storm, Big Charity, as locals call it, was a large, always-crowded medical center serving many of the city’s underprivileged. During the storm, the hospital sustained significant enough flooding to warrant evacuation. After the storm, Big Charity, once a teaching hospital run by Louisiana State university, sits empty.
An entire hospital. In downtown New Orleans. Sitting in abandon. How could I resist the allure? The possibility? I mean, hospitals have morgues, and I have it on very good source that while the hospital is abandoned, it’s not empty… It’s like everyone just left one day and never came back. Which they did.
Which brings me to the absolute highlight of my research:
All these years after Hurricane Katrina, and so much of New Orleans continues to sit waiting for life to resume. I never realized this, but apparently I have a real thing for abandoned places, which is probably why Trinity does, too. But seriously, for a teenage psychic who sees things before they happen and picks up memories from objects, what could be more tempting than places long forgotten?
Once, the Six Flags park on the outskirts of New Orleans was a thriving local attraction. When the storm came, the park shut down.
It was supposed to be temporary. The stores were still stocks, food still in the restaurants, even the shift schedule still on the white board. But Katrina hit far harder than anyone anticipated, and no one ever returned to the park. Instead it sits amid ever-encroaching swamp waiting-and rotting. It’s all still there, behind police lines, the rides and the shops, many with merchandise still strewn about and graffiti sprayed on the walls, huge broken urns and overgrown shrubs—and all sorts of new kinds of inhabitants.
How’s an author-girl supposed to resist something like that?
Research. There really is no substitute.
About Ellie James
Most people who know Ellie think she’s your nice, average wife and mom of two little kids. They see someone who does all that normal stuff, like grocery shopping, going to soccer games, and somehow always forgetting to get the house cleaned and laundry done.
What they don't know is that more often than not, this LSU J-School alum is somewhere far, far away, deeply embroiled in solving a riddle or puzzle or crime, testing the limits of possibility, exploring the unexplained, and holding her breath while two people fall in love.
Regardless of which world Ellie’s in, she loves rain and wind and thunder and lightning; the first warm kiss of spring and the first cool whisper of fall; family, friends, and animals; dreams and happy endings; Lost and Fringe; Arcade Fire and Dave Matthews, and last but not least…warm gooey chocolate chip cookies.
You can follow Ellie on Facebook.
FRAGILE DARKNESS, is available from Griffin Teen November 27, 2012.
About the Midnight Dragonfly Series
Glimpses. That’s all they are. Shadowy premonitions flickering through sixteen year old psychic Trinity Monsour’s dreams. Some terrify: a girl screaming, a knife lifting, a body in the grass. But others--the dark, tortured eyes and the shattering kiss, the promise of forever--whisper to her soul. They come without warning. They come without detail.
But they always mean the same thing: The clock is ticking, and only Trinity can stop it.
Find out how in Shattered Dreams, Broken Illusions, and Fragile Darkness, available from Griffin Teen!