Will Travel for Words: Where Were They? by Karen A. Chase
I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly handy with maps. That’s good news for a travel junkie. Without them, I am certain that Long Island runs north-to-south (it does not). With them, I’m ever more convinced that the left bank in Paris should be called the bottom bank for living below the Seine. The newest maps are best for travelers given how quickly some things change.
However, as an historical fiction writer, the most valuable maps are the ancient ones. It is one thing to pick up my smart phone to determine where I am walking in Philadelphia. It is quite another to try determine how a man on horseback would ride from Philadelphia to Williamsburg during the American Revolution. The questions arise quite quickly. How long did that take? How did he cross the rivers if there were no bridges? Did the route I want him to take even exist?
Early on in my research a fellow historian recommended a website: David Rumsey Map Collection. What a gem. It includes some of the most stunning and hand-illustrated antique maps. On the website I can select the year, the location, and then zoom in very close to see all kinds of details. (Caution: Looking at maps sucks you in to a time vortex, and soon the whole morning is gone.)
For me, this map of the Middle Colonies has been a constant go-to source. I can see the ferry stops where my rider would wait for men rowing a raft to fetch him for the crossing. The post roads–the most direct routes in 1776–are marked by double lines. In many cases, those roads have since become our main highways.
I can also see how the land has changed, like on this inset street map of Manhattan in 1776. Back then the city was only a few blocks gathered at the tip of the island. Since 1776, the docks in lower Manhattan were filled in, expanding the island and creating Battery Park. It’s important to understand how it was versus what it is. I can’t very well have my character walking down South Street if it didn’t exist can I? It didn’t, so he doesn’t.
There are many other map sites, which gather multiple collections under one source. The Library Of Congress, Old Maps Online, and the Boston Public Library are but three of them. It’s not about which website houses more, but for the writer, it’s a matter of selecting a collection that includes the right tools for your project.
Incidentally, I have found Google Maps to be of very little help except in one factor. It helps approximate the time a trip takes on horseback. If I select two destinations and then hit the icon for “bicycle” directions, the amount of time is approximately the hours by horse. I divide that by the number of reasonable hours a horse can travel per day (10 is fair), and I learn that a trip from Philadelphia to Williamsburg is about a three-day ride. It’s longer if the terrain or weather was bad, or if the ferrymen had been drinking.
When the early readers of my latest revolutionary manuscript have struggled to comprehend the locations, I have pointed them to these maps. I see the need to include them in my book. I refer to them as I’ve double-checked my writing, to ensure I explained the sections about travel well. I believe even my characters should travel for words my readers can easily decipher.
Have you used maps in your writing or research? Please share with us your best sources.
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. She is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven Independent Book Publishing Awards for travel and design. She is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Find Karen on Facebook, or on Twitter.
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