One of the first things I do when I start writing a book set in the past, or even when I start reading one written by someone else, is locate an old map. It is helpful, and often essential, in transporting me to a setting that is locked in the specific era where the story will play out.
I own a Rand McNally International Atlas that is so old there’s a coupon affixed to the inside front cover good for updated supplements once World War II was over. The publisher apparently anticipated having to make a good many changes. And, sure enough, Germany – in that atlas – is significantly larger than it is now, splashed out over much of northern Europe, containing states called Mecklenburg, Wurttemberg, Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. None of Germany had been, when that atlas was printed, chopped up and whittled away. That would come at the conclusion of the big show, when the victors got together and brought out the knives.
In that old volume, much of Africa is pretty much completely unrecognizable, lost to time and military coups and revolutions. Where Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana ought to be are Rhodesia (North and South) and Bechuanaland, which sounds more like the name of a theme park than a country.
Now you might ask why I would own such an outdated thing as that atlas. Here’s why. There’s nothing like an old map for transporting me to another time and / or place.
I don’t know when I became fascinated with maps. But whenever it was it took a strong hold and never let go. A big historical novel isn’t worth a darn, in my opinion, unless there’s a good map printed on the endpapers. And whenever I’m reading a novel that is set in England, like a murder mystery by P. D. James or Patricia Moyes, I’m never very far away from a slender hardback titled Road Atlas of Great Britain: Fifth Inch to Mile. Mine is the 1968-69 edition, published in Scotland, and is amazingly detailed, with even the most remote roads and villages displayed. I bought it for one pound at a used book stall in London in 1984 and have hung on to it because I want to know where the events in stories are transpiring. That, and I just like maps.
When I have a good one in front of me, I sometimes catch myself running one fingertip along a narrow, meandering line representing a road, imagining the towns and cities and countryside I’m traveling through. The better the map, the better the journey. I prefer the really detailed ones that show little tufts of grass for pastures and tiny trees for forests. Very old ones – I’m talking several centuries old – have curlicue lines for waves, with an occasional whale lifting up out of them to leave no doubt that it’s an ocean.
Don’t get me wrong; not all my maps are antiques. An up-to-date map is a good thing to have, especially when you’re using it to actually get somewhere. And the fact that I keep a big map of Texas folded up in the glove compartment of my car is the cause of much ridicule by my family, who contend that GPS has rendered it obsolete.
But a vintage map is a window to the past.
Try to locate one from, say, sixty or seventy years ago of an area you know well. I’ll wager some of the towns you see there in bold letters have been demoted to tiny print. There will be fewer highways, and some will have been rerouted.
When I was a kid, the most common trek between Houston and Dallas was Highway 75. Today, Interstate 45 offers a speedier journey, but not a more pleasing one. Because 75 wandered from town to town, right through their centers, past cafes, drug stores, five and dime shops, and full service filling stations. A good bit of waving went on in those towns, since you had to do a lot of stopping. I can’t recall ever waving or being waved at on Interstate 45.
One of my favorite maps is of a mythical world that has a warning inscribed over one dark, ominous area that reads “Here be Dragons!”
I think of that one whenever I start a new writing project. Because there always are.
(Some of this was originally published as a Sunday newspaper column)