Mapping the Past

Writing Historical Fiction

· I Love Maps,Writing Process,Novel Writing,Writing Inspiration,Historical Maps

I'm obsessed with maps. Big print maps you have to unfold. Maps that accordion out and then fold and fit neatly into the pocket. Some of you may remember them. I remember dad in the driver's seat bickering with mom in the passenger seat. He had the wheel. She had the map. That intersection of perception of "where in the hell are we" set up at least an hour of arguments. My brother and I let it roll. It was part of the journey. Without it, we might be lost. Or wonder when our parents had been replaced by aliens pretending to be loving agreeable parents but were, in fact, a degree more frightening than the brain-fizzling monsters in the Alien I-II franchise. Somehow or other, we got where we needed, and mom and dad returned to their normal bickering sweet selves.

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But I digress. This is not a post about my childhood and the time I slammed my brother's finger in the door and it bent into a really odd set of 90 degree angles. Nor when he had chicken pox in HIS EYES and we went motorhome camping and he was a grouch, thus ruining the trip for all and sundry. (My mom said it was the never ending loop of the Helen Reddy 8-track that actually ruined the trip, but frankly, I love Helen Reddy and Ruby Red Dress almost as much as I like maps.)

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Maps...back to maps. This is about historical maps. In particular, how I use maps as one of the very first elements when planning and plotting a novel.For me, the setting weaves through everything in a story - in addition to immersing us in the atmosphere of the period, we see how the setting molds and sometimes warps our characters. The more specific the map, and the closer to the exact year I'm writing about, so much the better. (Hint to writers: Use Sanborn Fire Maps from Library of Congress. These maps have been around since the early 1800s, and as they were insurance maps, list building materials, businesses and residences, alleys, liveries, water sources, and so much more. Many buildings and streets have been renamed or paved over - these maps are priceless for getting your setting right.)

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Let's start with Bowery Girl, which follows two young women, a pickpocket and a prostitute, as they struggle to survive the streets of the Bowery. When I wrote this book, set in 1883, I did not know about the Sanborn Maps, and spent many hours online searching for a map of the Lower Eastside of New York. I finally found a treasure: "Sanitary and Social Map of the Fourth Ward of the City of New York". And what a marvelous source this map was. Back alleys to run through while evading the police. Saloons lining street after street. Tenement buildings marked with how many people had tuberculosis or small pox or scarlet fever or every other communicable disease. I then cross-referenced this with a business directory from the time, so I was able to set fictional locations amongst the real life ones. (Writers - look for city directories at your state archives or university research centers.) With this process I was able to give Mollie Flynn and Annabelle Lee a home in a windowless room in a tenement around the corner from Lefty's Saloon and down a few streets and an alley from a Do Gooder's settlement house. My characters lived their whole lives within ten blocks.

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For After Alice Fell, set in New Hampshire in 1865 in the fictional town of Harrowboro, I used old maps of Harrisville and Peterborough, then found a copy of the New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane to serve as a blueprint for the rather dismal Brawders House, where poor Alice jumped off the roof - or did she? Her sister Marion doesn't believe it and her search for the truth is the engine of the story.

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Then I sketched out the environs where Alice, Marion, and their brother grew up, as much of the story takes place at the house and grounds and a creepy pond. Please don't judge my artistic ability; I have none and am perfectly fine with it.You can see below the specifics that were required for various scenes I wanted to include - a glass house, a tree stump, sheep across the road, the family plot. PS - it's still legal in New Hampshire to bury a family member in the back yard - just check with the town clerk.

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The Good Time Girls takes place in 1899 Orinda, Arizona and 1905 Kansas. I wrote the bulk of the book during Covid and had to rely heavily on those Sanborn Maps, Google Satellite Maps, and locating train schedules and timetables. When I was in Arizona for that "Who in the Hell is Pearl Hart" trip, Vernon Perry at the Gila County Historical Society kindly shared a 1905 city directory of Globe. I paired that with the 1898 Sanborn Fire Map I had found online and then fictionalized it all into the town of Orinda. The same was done with a map of Kansas City, which I required for the opening chapters - this was incredibly helpful as the whole of the area in question, buildings and all, no longer exists. Here's Globe, with a mix of real and fictional locations:

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Trains are very important in the story. I was able to find, on eBay, a 1904 book of all the train schedules in the entire United States. This book used to sit next to the Bible in hotel drawers. I also spoke with the National Association of Timetable Collectors and you would not believe the info I gleaned from them. Here's one of the train maps I used for Pip's and Ruby's travels through the wilds of Kansas, with the stubs and local stops:

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If you are a fan of "O Brother Where Art Thou" or "Thelma and Louise", you will understand this need of maps while in the hinterlands - The Good Time Girls joins this group of worthy travelers.

Without a map, you're lost. With a map, well, I suppose you can be just as lost. It's happened to me. But that's another tale.

NEXT POST: The anatomy of writing The Good Time Girls, from a single sentence through the final cover and a peek into the tools I used during drafting. I might include a couple pictures of Kansas to liven it up...

K.T. Blakemore grew up in the United States West and never left. Her upcoming novel THE GOOD TIME GIRLS is the first in the Wild-Willed Women of the West Series, featuring women who take no prisoners and succeed through sheer grit, determination, and a parcel of luck. Look for it in Kindle, paperback and hardcover on April 4, 2023.


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She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.

Subscribe to her newsletter for an exclusive excerpt of THE GOOD TIME GIRLS *and* a free gift of "How to Survive Cactus" a Good Time Girls short.

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