Home / Meta / Learn Something / Facts About New Orleans for Spec Writers
I know what it's like, I've been there myself. There you are, dying to write your spec, eager to put in all of the details about New Orleans that the books are so known for and damned if you know anything about New Orleans to start with.
Never fear. In an effort to give a little something back to the spec writing community here's a list of random facts that are useful to know for background detail.
- There are no doors to the Cafe du Monde. It is an open air coffee house. There is a small area that is enclosed if you want to eat inside but the primary part of cafe is out in the open with only a large green awning covering it. There are heaters in the ceiling to keep you warm when it gets cold.
- Cafe du Monde serves beignets (French powdered doughnuts), coffee, milk, soda, orange juice and water only. It is open 24 hours.
- Jackson Square is typically filled with street performers and tarot card readers during the day. At night it is less populated but gutter punks, drunks and die-hard tarot card readers will usually be out even until the wee hours of the morning.
- There is usually a street performer by Cafe du Monde. Typically it is someone playing a trumpet or a saxophone.
- It does get cold in New Orleans. Starting in December and lasting until about April temperatures will drop to the 20s and 30s (that's Fahrenheit). What will typically happen is that it will be cold a few days, warm on others and mild temperatures scattered throughout. Thus, if you're writing about it in the right time of year, it would be reasonable to have your characters bundle up in coats and sweaters.
- Tombs are above ground almost always. Cemeteries are typically nothing if not rows upon rows of at least two-vault above ground tombs.
- St. Louis #1 is a maze of tombs so tall and convoluted that arrows had to be painted on the ground to help people find their way through. Lafayette Cemetery, on the other hand, is laid out in a much neater grid pattern which is separated in the middle by a crossroads.
- St Louis #1 is made up of the tombs with asphalt pavement serving as paths, whereas Lafayette Cemetery has asphalt on the crossroads but otherwise has grass around the tombs. (The tombs of Lafayette cemetery are tightly packed together, though, with only small grass paths weaving around them).
- St Louis #1 is located near the French Quarter and was founded in 1789. This is where Louis' family tomb is. Lafayette Cemetery is in the middle of the Garden District and was founded in 1833. Lafayette is where the Mayfair family tomb is located and where Lestat buried his jewels when he went to ground.
- If you are writing about the vampires visiting a New Orleans cemetery back in the 18th or 19th century, however, be aware that they looked a great deal like parks - grass, trees, people picnicking were all common sights (although obviously you didn't get as many picnickers at night).
- Tombs are built out of brick covered over with whitewashed stucco (which is the most common kind), stone and mortar, brick alone, cement and marble. Marble is most often used for faceplates and other accents on the tomb rather than for the entire tomb itself.
- It is rare to find a tomb which is in perfect condition. Most tombs are decaying and falling down.
- The most typical tomb design is a two-vault structure which has two long shelves on the inside. Coffins are put into the tombs by sliding them into the front.
- Buildings in the French Quarter are small and tightly compacted together, as are the blocks. The city was built on top of marshy, swampy land and could not be built any differently. Front doors are right on the sidewalks. There are no visible gardens as they are all hidden in the back in courtyards. The architecture is of Spanish and Italianate influence. Wrought and cast iron galleries are common. Most buildings around the Cathedral and where the flat at Rue Royale are located are at least two stories high (townhouses). Most buildings on the opposite side of that corner of the Quarter are one story homes (Creole cottages).
- Buildings in the Garden District are much bigger. When the area was founded there were at most four houses per block. Everything around the homes was lush, lavish gardens with an emphasis on flowers which were used to perfume the air. Iron gates surround most of the homes even to this very day. Architecture is Greek Revival, Italianate and a bit of Victorian as well.
- 99.9% of buildings in New Orleans do not have belowground basements. Walk out basements - meaning the use of the first/ground floor of your home as a basement while living upstairs from that - are far more common.
- In most parts of the city you can hear the river but not see the river. Anywhere in the city you can usually hear the horns of boats on the water or the whistles of trains going along the tracks that run parallel to the Mississippi. However there are warehouses all along the riverfront which block the view of the water. The only place you can actually see the river is a walkway along the river which is on the other side of the tracks by Cafe du Monde (which has no view of the river either as it is blocked by the levee).
- When walking about uptown you can usually hear the bell of the streetcar as it passes, even if you're a few blocks off of St. Charles.
- There is another streetcar which runs along the riverfront along the French Quarter and past the Riverwalk mall. These streetcars are bright red on the outside but otherwise resemble the St. Charles streetcars. The only real difference is that the riverfront cars are newer so they are much quieter (you can hardly hear them pass, even when you're standing at a stop) and have modern equipment in them such as handicapped access.
- During the summer New Orleans typically gets rain everyday at 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
- Mule drawn carriages go throughout the Quarter giving tours even at night. This means that until approximately midnight you can hear the sound of hooves along the streets of the Quarter.
- Plants commonly seen around New Orleans are: magnolias (both local and Chinese varieties), live oaks, ginger, jasmine, roses, camellias, wisteria, banana trees, elephant ears, crepe myrtles, bamboo, palm trees, azaleas, sweet olive and oleander. There is a year-round floral scent in the area, especially in the Garden District. Roses, sweet olives and camellias bloom in cold months, magnolias, azaleas, oleander and jasmine bloom in hot months, wisteria, and crepe myrtles bloom in cooler months. Jasmine blooms both during the day and at night so it would be possible for the vampires to enjoy its strong floral scent.
- Animals commonly seen around New Orleans are squirrels, newts (very small lizards that change color and eat bugs), palmetto bugs (HUGE flying roaches), fire ants, termites, bluejays, doves, pigeons, cardinals and mocking birds. Mocking birds will come out at night so it is possible for even vampires to hear birdsong. Along the river it is also common to see huge rats and seagulls.
- No sidewalk in New Orleans is straight. Tree roots are always above ground and thus crack every kind of sidewalk material. Cement/Concrete sidewalks will crack and snap in two, flagstones will break into little pieces and brick (typically in a herringbone design) will undulate and form waves along the ground.
- Flagstone sidewalks are more common in the French Quarter than the Garden District.
- Streets in Louis and Lestat's time were made out of slate, wood or crushed seashells
- The number one most common material in New Orleans for building, walking on or doing anything with was mud. The rich typically had servants trailing behind them everywhere they went with a clean pair of slippers for them to change into once they arrived safely at their destination.
- Duels with swords were often fought in the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral
- The St. Charles streetcar is predominately green in color on the outside and red/brown on the inside. The seats are made of wood with backs that can flip back and forth to make the seat face either direction. They are very noisy and make a great deal of humming and popping sounds as they go. During the day they are usually packed with people who often talk loudly. At night they are either packed with people who are cramped together and very tired as they are trying to get home or, much later at night, very quiet and empty with few people in them save night owls, drunks and, of course, the occasional vampire.
- The plantations are predominately North (because alligators were predominately South) lining the river. They lined the river because that was the highway back then and the only way to move around. Going back and forth from your plantation to the city of New Orleans was quite a trek. Even today it is at least an hour and a half ride by car. In Louis' time it was a considerable jaunt, usually done by boat if possible but occasionally by horse and/or carriage.
- Citizens had more than one home back then. The first was your plantation, the second was a home in either New Orleans/French Quarter if you were Creole or Lafayette/Garden District if you were American. The multiple houses were used because of the sheer effort it took to travel back and forth between the plantation and the city house and also were used as a way to get away from problems like floods or fire. This is why Louis had both the Pointe du Lac Plantation and a townhouse in the Quarter, for example.
- Most buildings in New Orleans are in a perpetual state of disrepair. The easiest way to picture this is to realize that Mother Nature is forever trying to turn the city back into swampland. Moisture cracks stone and warps wood, the marshy soil destroys the foundations of houses and anywhere it is possible for plantlife to spring up will be filled with green almost at once. A building in pristine, perfect condition is a rare sight in New Orleans. One with paint peeling, vines covering the walls and gaps in the floorboards is common.
- Though New Orleans was Spanish for over thirty years, being French was still the desirable thing. In the same way that an actor could not go to Hollywood today and expect to get a career with a name like Mortimer Diphthong, likewise you got nowhere in the city of New Orleans if you did not act French, speak French and give yourself a French sounding name.
- New Orleans is flat. There is not a single natural hill in the city. The only hill the city actually has is one built in Audubon Zoo. It was built by - I kid you not - a rich man who wanted the children of New Orleans to know what one looked like.
- The Garden District and the French Quarter are not within walking distance of each other. A vampire could certainly do it in a few minutes, a mortal would need a streetcar ride of at least 20 minutes.
- City Park is not within walking distance of the Quarter or the Garden District. It is approximately 4 miles away from both.
- City Park is not the same as Audubon Park. Audubon Park is on St. Charles and is approximately 15 minutes away from the Garden District via streetcar.
- The French Quarter is approximately one mile by one mile and a half in size.
- It's worthwhile to make an investment in a guidebook of New Orleans at your local bookstore in order to see maps of the city and find out more about what's located where. However to help out here's a few maps I put together which actually show where the locations in the books are:
- Knowing the layout of the flat at Rue Royal is something that spec writers are given more leeway with as it's rare for anyone to get down to New Orleans to take a look at it. However, if you are interested in knowing the actual floor plans, here they are (Note: these are NOT to scale):
- Louis and Lestat's flat does have a lot of fireplaces in it but they are all coal-burning. A wood burning fireplace was a New Orleans rarity.
- Anything written after 1857 can truthfully have indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water on the second story of the house. Prior to that, New Orleans did not have any.
- The flat at Rue Royale was actually built in 1857. In the books, though, Louis and Lestat move in much earlier than that. This leaves a lot of grey areas open for you to work with as a spec writer in terms of what may or may not have been in the flat during that time.
- The French began exploring the New Orleans area of the New World in the 1690s and officially made it a colony in 1718. New Orleans was then made Spanish by 1769 and remained Spanish until 1803 at which point it was given back to France who immediately gave it over to America (aka the Louisiana Purchase). In other words, it was a Spanish colony when Louis and Lestat met up.
- The French Quarter was the city of New Orleans back when Louis and Stat first tromped all over it. The Garden District (aka Mayfair territory) was the city of Lafayette, founded in 1833. They were not melded into the single city of New Orleans until 1872.
- Lafayette was founded as a place for Americans to live. The Americans who moved in to the city of New Orleans were utterly hated by the Creoles living there at the time and both parties wanted nothing to do with one another. Reasons for the hatred included the language barrier (English/French), their religous differences (Protestant/Catholic) and disputes over legal matters (Creoles law provided much more by way of civil rights, especially to blacks and women). Once it was realized that Creoles would not tolerate Americans in New Orleans, the Americans moved two miles upriver and founded the city of Lafayette, otherwise known as the Garden District.
- Back when Louis and Lestat first lived in the Quarter, the Spanish used the location of Jackson Square as a place for their armies to run drills and other such activities. It was known as Plaza d'Armas.
- Plantations grew sugar cane or indigo, not cotton. Sugar cane is a multi-year crop which means that what you plant in spring will not be harvested that November. Indigo was processed into a blue dye. Cotton and tobacco are not common crops.
- Citizens of the colony of New Orleans were Catholic. If you were not Catholic by the time you arrived there were priests on the docks waiting to baptize you.
- The New Orleans colony had many problems in its time. Flooding as high as one's waist happens at least once a year to this very day. Add on top of that was famine, fire (2 fires burned the French Quarter to the ground within 6 years of each other - 1788 and 1794), Indian attacks and plagues. Even until the 1940's New Orleans had the highest death rate in the country.
- Malaria, Cholera, Small Pox and Yellow Fever were the most common plagues. In the 1850-60s the Yellow Fever plague was the worst with a death rate as high as 1 in 4. Yellow Fever was worse in summer (it was spread by mosquitoes) and those who could leave town during the summertime usually did.
- Louis is only technically a Creole but is most certainly not Cajun. Creoles were anyone who's parents were born in France, Spain, Portugal or Africa. Said parents then came to New Orleans and had children. The children were known as Creoles and the term Creole became applied to subsequent generations that came after that. Louis is only technically Creole because he was born in France. However he was brought to New Orleans when he was a small child so it's a fine line to split. Creoles were "city folk" and had homes in the city of New Orleans. Cajuns were French settlers who first lived in the Acadian region of Canada. They were kicked out of that area for religious reasons and moved into the swamplands around New Orleans to live. If you slur "Acadian" with a French accent you get "Cajun". Cajuns are "swamp folk" and live in the swamps to this very day, often speaking both French and English with equal ease.
- New Orleans was and is a port city. It's biggest commodity back when it was a colony was slavery. Most of the slaves of the South first came through New Orleans from the 1720s-1800 (but not after the early 1800s). Creoles (like Louis) kept slaves, although they treated slaves differently than other Southerners did. Slaves were considered prisoners of war (compared to other Southern cities which considered them sub-human) and there were laws in effect to try to protect them as such. The laws, called the Code Noir (Black Code) said that slaves could not be mistreated, that slaves had to be given one day off a week, they had to be baptized and that they had certain civil rights (slaves could sue their masters and win). Slave families and tribes were often kept together.
- By no means was slavery perfect in New Orleans, however. There were areas near the Cathedral where you could pay to have someone whip your slaves for you and horror stories about slaves being used for medical experiments are common.