One of the best parts of writing the sort of historical fiction I write is the research. I love reading about history – I’ve got a degree in ancient history, for goodness’ sake – and I also love the geography of the past.
Anyway, this post is about MAPS.
The internet is a brilliant source of maps. Online, I can find images of maps from ancient times to the most up to date of Google earth.
Writing “The Last Rhinemaiden” sent me researching not only the historical facts around which the story is based, but the details of where events in the story take place. I didn’t write the book with that in mind – too much distraction when pouring words onto the paper to go away and look at a visual resource – but when the act of refining and adding details is required, out come the maps.
For example, at one point I make two of the characters walk from the East End of London to the South Bank of the Thames. I could have just let them take the journey as I’ve described it in that last sentence and many readers would be none-the-wiser. The detail doesn’t add to the suspense of the scene and it isn’t important in the overall outcome. So why did I bother?
My initial draft is like a plain warp-and-weft. It’s a canvas. Does what it says on the tin – covers what needs to be covered, and nothing more. But I like details. You like details. Readers like details. Otherwise, most stories would be nothing more than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl turns into blob, boy gets blob back again. Or, bloke kicks ass in an empty warehouse and collects a few bruises while the bad guys lose.
The canvas has to be filled in with details. I’m a visual reader, and as such I’m a visual writer too. I see pictures when I read books, and my writing is a description of what’s playing in my head. I need to feel the blood trickling down my character’s ribs, see the sunrise over the river, feel the chill sandstone under my fingers.
So do you, readers.
Maps are part of this. It makes more sense to me that my two characters stop for a smoke in the shadow of a church on East Cheap, proceed to Cannon Street and when they cross London Bridge to the South Bank, they find themselves on Montagu Street, then Bankside. Don’t you think that makes for a more interesting journey?
Historical note: when the original idea for this story came into my head, I was working in Southwark on an HR/IT project with The Workmates From Purgatory (nowhere near as impressive as The Workmates From Hell – they at least sound lively). I had the initial image for a long time – years, in fact, until I wrote out a storyboard and started writing the novel.
I was quite surprised when The Last Rhinemaiden started to take those two characters down to the south side of the river and along to Cannon Street railway bridge. They were following a route I’d once taken, in reverse, to get to an Oddbins off-license in order to buy a bottle of whisky for a birthday present.
It helped, of course, that I could picture exactly the landscape of the street as it was in the mid-1990s. I can picture where they end up by the river, because I stood on that spot not far from the Globe Theatre and watched the sleet of a January lunchtime fall on the mudlarks working the shoreline beneath the embankment. I know instinctively how high the railway bridge is above me, how far and how clearly the dome of St Paul’s CAthedral is visible from the riverbank.
It’s not the same, of course, as it was in 1888. For that, I needed maps.
In the end I used two separate maps. My school geography lessons turned out to be more useful than my archaeology training. The maps I used were the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map or Plan of London and the 1899 Bacon Pocket Plan or Map of London, and by cross-referencing them I was able to work out approximately what the picture would have looked like in 1888. I also had use of an 1888 Jack The Ripper map which I’d bought in 2001 (at Murder One on the Charing Cross Road, IIRC).
The changes are fascinating. Here’s two shots of the same place on both maps, for comparison. The earlier map is on the left.
See how Rosemary Lane becomes Royal Mint Street, even though the Royal Mint buildings were there in the early map and it’s only later that the name changes? See how the odd rectangle of Goodman’s Fields has been filled in with buildings in 1899?
In the difference between the two maps we see the explosion of industrialisation and its effects on London as a cityscape.
Green spaces are filled with housing.
Tower Bridge appears (although as recent pictures show its construction in 1892, it wasn’t there in 1888).
And the railway termini have brushed out parts of the landscape to become landmarks in their own right, bridging the river like Cannon Street Railway Station. On the early map, before the railways were constructed, there is no station, no bridge, no railway lines snaking out towards Kent. On the later map, there it is: Cannon Street Station, with a frontage on Cannon Street itself.
The railway bridge is now known as Southwark Railway Bridge and amongst the heritage venues under its shade is the Clink Prison, at the site of the old gaol in Clink Street, and the Golden Hinde, forever encased in a little berth of its own. I walked along there every lunchtime to buy sandwiches from the newsagent. I know what it’s like: the colour of the bricks, the ironwork on the bridge piers, the texture of the mud along the shore.
I don’t live in London, but since I started writing The Last Rhinemaiden I’ve come to learn more about the city than I thought I wanted to.
Here’s the modern map of London. And here’s the earliest map of London we have. You can still plot the outlines of the city under the flesh of the modern layout. It’s fascinating how much it has changed.
However, the most fascinating thing is how little has changed. And the most significant part of that is the river.