The Lure of Old Maps

An author of historical fiction must perform research to understand the time period. I love to research and often must time-box my efforts, lest I get lost in the research and never write anything! One thing I consult, and enjoy, is a map from the era.

I’ve always enjoyed looking at maps. Years ago, I planned family vacations by pouring over a Rand McNally atlas. I studied the routes, tourist sites, rest areas and more. It helped me visualize and plan. The atlas folded into a vinyl cover and accompanied us in the car. It became dog-eared and worn, requiring a replacement every few years.

I also picked up the paper, accordion-fold, state highway maps along the way, usually at rest area. They may have been more up-to-date or included features the atlas lacked. On the way home from our vacation destination, Elaine would sometimes drive and I’d study the atlas, dreaming of the next vacation.

Google Maps changed all that. Now I have maps on my phone of anyplace on earth Google goes. I can even use the Street View to see the buildings and roads! You guessed it–I love Google Maps! But they are incomplete for historical research.

I was researching the layout of Boston in 1854. A famous event roiled the city after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. A fugitive slave was arrested, hauled to a hearing and sent back to slavery in Virginia, leading to street demonstrations and the use of military units to transfer him through the city.

I had questions. Where was the courthouse? Where would the ship dock that carried him away? What were the streets like? How would my character, who was not from Boston, arrive in the city from rural Massachusetts before the event?

Besides answering some of these questions, I also discovered that the shoreline of Boston changed over the years. Reclamation projects filled in marshes and extended the land. The internet located numerous historical maps that had been scanned. It also pointed me to which allows you to compare maps of Boston from different eras. If you’re a map geek, you might want to try it.

A beta reader recently commented that I must do a lot of research. I do. I want to provide accurate historical information as much as possible for my readers. Old maps help me research and imagine life in historical settings.

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