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Monday, June 15, 2009

I’ve mentioned many, many times on this blog about working with the fictional setting of BONNETERRE, LOUISIANA (pronounced Bon-terra, though Bone-terra would be appropriate as well), and today, I’ll be sharing the inspiration behind the creation, development, and population of this wonderful city.

In the summer of 1992, when I was a student at LSU, my then–best friend Amy and I were out running errands one evening. We were discussing our friends and acquaintances and Amy made the fateful remark: “I wonder where we’ll all be in five years.” For anyone not in the know, this is a very dangerous thing to say in front of a writer, especially one that, until that moment in time, had no focus to her writing, but just dithered here and there as the mood struck. I’d always thought I would only ever write historical-set novels. I didn’t read contemporaries, so why would I write them?

That night, and for the next several weeks, I immersed myself in writing A Shared Dream, my vision of where Amy and I and five or six of our closest friends would be and what we would be doing five years down the road. It was the first time I’d ever shared my writing with anyone, and because Amy liked it, I kept on going. After a few months of this, though, I realized that I was going beyond just amusing my friend with a few speculations of what we’d be when we “grew up.” So I changed it from first person (my perspective) to third person, re-named everyone, and changed the location from LSU/Baton Rouge to the University of Louisiana/College Park (no, not a very creative name). And thus, what would become Bonneterre was born.

At first, it was a relatively sleepy college town—I pictured it being a place in which everything revolved around the University of Louisiana and their Marauding Pirates sports teams. Why? Because that was my perspective of Baton Rouge when I was in school there. I didn’t need for the city to branch out much from the university, because when I first created the town, I was writing about characters who were in college (I went back and re-started my story with my main character, Ash’s, first day at ULa). I didn’t need office buildings and corporations in a downtown area. I didn’t need major retail shopping areas (college students at a state college are notoriously poor). I needed a campus. I needed restaurants and shops surrounding a campus. I needed a church. I needed my character’s grandparents’ home out in the country. So College Park was small.

And then I dropped out of college and moved to Northern Virginia. The first year I was there, I worked in downtown Washington DC. The next two years, I worked in Fairfax and Vienna, Virginia. I wrote voraciously (it not only helped me conquer the depression I was in that was part of what led me to dropping out of college, but it was how I, in a round-about way stayed “in touch” with my closest friends I’d left behind in Baton Rouge back before there was such a thing as e-mail or Facebook). My characters grew up and graduated from college. They got jobs—and College Park grew beyond the university campus.

Because I’m constantly developing characters in my head, with each new character I got an idea for, I started making a database of people who populated College Park—their families, their businesses/professions, their connections. I worked at a newspaper. College Park gained a newspaper and some TV stations. I worked at an advertising agency in a major corporate area of NoVA. College Park gained a downtown where businesses like that could exist. I went with a friend to the county courthouse for her divorce proceedings. College Park gained a Parish Courthouse and lawyers.

By the mid-1990s College Park had about doubled in size from what it had been when I first created it. But by then, I was already breaking away from that original, and still unfinished (at 200,000 words) manuscript. While it had been a good project while it lasted, I needed to grow as a writer, and that meant working with other characters, other stories. And then, in 2001–2002, I wrote my first full manuscript: What Matters Most. I’d been developing the characters—main and secondary—for years, and as I got into the intricacies of the story, I realized just how much bigger College Park needed to be. It needed to be, well, bigger than Las Cruces (where I grew up) and smaller than Baton Rouge (otherwise, how was I going to “hide” it in the middle of the state?). Small enough that there could still be scandals about a newscaster on the local news channel that would make headlines yet large enough that she could lead a normal life otherwise.

Both of my first two finished manuscripts were set in College Park. The third, I set in Nashville, just for a change of scenery. But when I started my fourth manuscript, what would become Stand-In Groom, I realized I needed to go back to my fictional town, because it was the only logical setting. Nashville wouldn’t work, because a celebrity’s wedding wouldn’t be (isn’t) that big of a deal here. I wanted it to be set in the south, but I’d been away from Baton Rouge for almost fifteen years, and every time I went back I realized how much had changed. Plus, it was still a little too big for what I needed. My other main reason for using my already-existing fictional setting was so that I didn’t have to do a lot of research on a city I wasn’t very familiar with. I already knew College Park. I’d “lived” there for so many years.

I submitted the first ten pages of Stand-In Groom for workshop my first residency at grad school. I don’t remember who made the comment, but someone remarked on how “College Park” didn’t sound like a very Louisiana-ish name. And they were correct. So one of the things I worked on that first semester was renaming the city. I wanted it to be something that sounded vaguely familiar, as if someone might have heard the name before, but just couldn’t remember where. So I got out my old road atlas, flipped to the index of towns/cities and parishes in Louisiana and started reading. And I found it. Terrebonne Parish. Beautiful land in the French. So College Park, Louisiana, was re-named Bonneterre, Louisiana, in the fictional parish of Beausoleil on a river that I have yet to name (could be an existing one, could be a fictional one. I haven’t decided, and I haven’t been forced to, so I don’t think I will). ULa, which was not only confusing to readers who weren’t familiar with UVA (the University of Virginia), now had to be renamed because the public university system in Louisiana renamed two colleges in the state to the University of Louisiana at ______ (Lafayette, Monroe—or ULL and ULM). ULa, even with the lowercased a might be misconstrued as University of Louisiana at Alexandria, since Bonneterre is supposed to be in the mid-state region. So I tweaked the name to the University of Louisiana at Bonneterre, or ULB.

Where exactly is Bonneterre supposed to be located? Basically in the middle of a swamp. If you look at the map of Louisiana on Google Maps, I imagine Bonneterre being east and slightly north of Alexandria, in the triangle created by Catahoula Lake, Saline Lake, and Honey Brake Lake. Or, in other words, about halfway between Alexandria, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi.

What does Bonneterre look like? Well, since it’s a conglomeration of many different places I’ve been or lived and not just based on one place, I’ve collected many different images of different cities when I’ve seen something that resembles my image of places/locations in Bonneterre. Here are some of the important locations in Menu for Romance:
Boudreaux Tower, the tallest building in Bonneterre (and it looks like in Shreveport, too) at the top of which is Vue de Ceil, the sky-view event center that not only plays a major role in Stand-In Groom, it’s where Major’s office is located. Meredith’s office is on the fifth floor in the Boudreaux-Guidry Enterprises Corporate offices, in which we also get to spend some time in the executive dining room.

The kitchen in Major’s condo is not only inadequate for him, but creates a big problem for him once we get into the story.

And then, of course, there’s Meredith’s house that, at the beginning of the novel, she’s in the process of refurbishing.

And for more images of settings in Bonneterre, check out the Bonneterre Set on Flickr.

  1. Monday, June 15, 2009 9:12 am

    Really enjoyed this post! I loved your Flickr sets too…from the looks of it are Anne and George going to show up in the MFR? I hope so!!!!!!!!


  2. Monday, June 15, 2009 11:50 am

    Oops – I’ve been mispronouncing Bonneterre this whole time. I had in my head Bon-a-terre. Its going to be really hard to get the right pronunciation….


  3. Monday, June 15, 2009 12:21 pm

    And all this while I was pronouncing it “Bonn-ah-TARE” 🙂


  4. Monday, June 15, 2009 12:36 pm

    Well, the reason I’ve been pronouncing it Bon-terra is because the parish name is pronounced Terra Bone.


  5. Kim permalink
    Monday, June 15, 2009 1:51 pm

    I love reading your books that are set in Bonneterre. After reading “Stand-In-Groom”, I immediately recognized the LSU campus and surroundings. I grew up in Hammond, LA which is about 40 minutes east of Baton Rouge on I-12. I’m in Texas now, but my dad lives in BR, so it’s fun to read books that remind me of home.


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