Research: Mapping the Past

London, 1270

While not always possible, it’s definitely good if a writer gets to tread the ground we write about. Some details, like the ambient sounds, the scents, the ineffable feel of a place, are best captured by experience, even to a small degree.

Some places exist primarily in the past, however, are beyond our reach to capture: at least until I get my own TARDIS.

Until then, the best tool at hand is access to old maps. They are excellent comparisons with the present, to see what still exists, and they are a window into places long past, yet which still lie just below the surface.

When I was writing “Hoorforst”, the Kitty and Cadaver origin story that appears in Scar Tissue and Other Stories, I needed to see what 13th century London looked like. Luckily, when I visited London earlier in 2018, the British Library came to my aid. (My Reading Room card is still my favourite souvenir of all my London visits!)

Medieval historian Christopher Brooke was my particular saviour on this point, providing a fantastic overview of the city’s culture and economy over several centuries. His work included pages of maps, showing change over time. 

I used his map of London in 1270 (above) to chart William and Thomas’s progress through the old walls, across the frozen city to old London Bridge on the Thames. Some of the places on his map still exist today – St Paul’s and churches, mainly.

Melbourne, 1852

I have written various stories set in 19th century Melbourne as well. That city’s landscape changed a lot in a short time, thanks to the 1851 gold rush and the later economic crash of the 1890s. 

The State Library of Victoria has a great map collection that assists with charting modern Melbourne against its history but one of the handiest I found when I was writing “Virgin Soil” for the And Then… anthology was this 1852 map showing the inner city layout and the streets just north of the city grid, along with a few of the major buildings of the time.

Let’s face it, old maps are fantastic in and of themselves, and I’d gaze on them avidly any day of the week. But they’re especially wonderful for helping to give shape to locations that remain only as ghosts under the skin of the present.