If you spent a lot of your growing-up years in one place, it’s likely that that place will hold a special status in your memories, even (and, maybe, especially) if you later live much of your life elsewhere. One seems to get to know the place of one’s beginnings with a degree of intimacy that seldom happens again. Such is certainly the case with me. I lived my first 31 years in Louisiana, and then, after being away for a decade, spent another 5 years there. As I write this, I am “away” again––in Georgia––for going on 13 years. And, while one should never say never, I have no plans to resume residence in what I still consider my home state––at least not to be an actual resident. I have, however, taken up a sort of fictional residence there which I hope to maintain for a long time to come.
When it came time to choose a setting for the story idea that eventually blossomed into my first book, Dark River Rising, Louisiana––Baton Rouge, to be specific––suggested itself and there were no other contenders. Even though I have lived for considerable stretches in other places––each and every one of which has its own charms and attractions––no other place exerts the kind of emotional and circumstantial gravity on me and my thinking that Louisiana does. Many people I’ve met, who are not from there, tend to speak and think of the state almost exclusively through the lens of New Orleans. An intriguing place, to be sure, but it is only one such place in a state filled with intriguing places, and it is certainly not definitive of the state as a whole.
Baton Rouge is the capitol city and was, during much of the twentieth century, home to probably the “liveliest” state politics in the country. And, owing to the presence of LSU, it remains one of the epicenters of big-time SEC sports. There are other dimensions to it, though, that give it such a rich texture. It sits along the Baton Rouge Trace, an unusually long, straight stretch of the titanic Mississippi River, so it has been a thriving river port for many, many years. The northern part of the city, north of the capitol building, is very industrialized and rougher around the edges than the southern part––a dichotomy that practically begs for its stories to be told.
Much of the city is carpeted with a lush growth of old trees, and the shade beneath this canopy harbors a deep, brooding sensibility that seems to lurk at the edges of my memories, forever casting a moody shadow across the otherwise festive atmosphere that, for the most part, buoys the city. In the warmer months, the humidity-laden air breathes thick and, on especially hot days, the sunlight feels as if it has a weight of its own.
Even the areas that surround the city can be fertile, fascinating sources of fuel for the imagination. To the east are the wild and beautiful Florida Parishes––so known because, for a brief period back in 1810, they were part of the very short-lived Republic of West Florida. To the southwest is the Atchafalaya Basin, a vast riverine swamp that gives rise to so much of the lore and culture of south Louisiana. Much farther to the south, and slightly east is New Orleans.
While many will find my view controversial, Baton Rouge is the true center of the Louisiana universe––the focal point around which so many elements of the Louisiana experience revolve. The city, itself, and the regions around it all contribute the people, ideas, traditions, and ways of life (lawful and lawless), that make the state such an irresistible location for the kind of stories I like to tell. For those of you out there who are readers and/or writers of crime fiction, I’d be interested to hear what draws you to read or write, with greater interest, about a particular place.