Monday, 18 November 2013

Maps and Chaps - Celia Rees

When I was at school, this was how one of my teachers defined Geography and History. Of course, the scope of both subjects expands far beyond this narrow definition (what about Chapesses?) and neither are they mutually exclusive. I don't know about other History Girls, but I spend an enormous amount of time poring over maps. I have them in my notebooks, pinned to my noticeboard. They allow me to track my characters' journeys and to get to know the places where they are living. 

In Sovay, the journey was from the English Midlands (it was possible to us a modern map for this - avoiding the M40) to 18th Century London and then to Revolutionary Paris. 

Just looking at the maps is exciting, an adventure in itself. The lettering, the illustration, the way the maps are set out, give a feeling for the time when they were created. The maps differ from period to period, just as countries and counties change and cities grow and develop. The 18th Century maps I referred to for Sovay, are very different from those that I looked at for The Fool's Girl, set two hundred years earlier.

Vissher Panorama

Agas map

The Agas map gives a unique bird's eye view of the Elizabethan city and the Vissher Panorama is just that, a panorama in almost photographic detail. A magnifying glass reveals tiny, accurate  visual details, not just of landmarks but of the everyday life of the people going about their business, where they would be going, what they would have seen and witnessed, all this is a priceless resource to the writer.

Useful as maps are, there is really no substitute for visiting a place, following the streets and alleyways of the old cities makes it much easier to imagine your character there, to bring the place and the period to life. Much of what was marked on the historical map will have been swept away by the intervening centuries, by fire, war, continuous and continuing development, but some things remain. When I'm walking a town or a city, or travelling though a landscape, I remember fellow History Girl, Adele Geras' advice to write about what is still there, rather than what has disappeared. It is always possible to find an old building, a cobbled courtyard, a narrow alleyway that holds something of the period that you are hoping to discover.

In Peter Ackroyd's London: A Biography, he describes a continuity of use that can stretch back for many centuries. A walk along modern Bankside won't show much that is left from Shakespeare's day but there are pubs, theatres, restaurants, street performers and beggars, the vibrant life of the river, different vessels on the choppy waters, the rubble strewn foreshore, a cormorant drying its wings. Much has gone, but some things are still there.

A page from The Fool's Girl Notebook

Celia Rees


Liz Penney said...

I adore maps, too, and am thankful that old ones exist to show me how a place once was. I also love visiting my setting to absorb the smell, weather, flora, light, and feel.

Penny Dolan said...

Exactly as you say, Celia. Maps are such a satisfying resource, especially when trying to write a believable world.

Frquently used maps can become incredibly personal patterns too. I recall my aged father, being given a new set of road maps, saying (rather illogically for his proposed driving purposes) that he preferred the pre-motorway maps, presumably because the old maps were part of his experiences and personal history.

Celia Rees said...

'Modern' map just as fascinating, Penny. I have an A-Z of Birmingham priced 1/6, pages curled, covered in tea stains and jotted down phone numbers - priceless!
I suspect we are all map addicts and visiting places you intend to write about is one of the great joys of writing.

Celia Rees said...

'Modern' map just as fascinating, Penny. I have an A-Z of Birmingham priced 1/6, pages curled, covered in tea stains and jotted down phone numbers - priceless!
I suspect we are all map addicts and visiting places you intend to write about is one of the great joys of writing.

Mark Burgess said...

Great post, Celia. I love maps but as you say, there's a lot to be gained by walking the territory and getting first hand experience of the topography. For example, Fish Street Hill, which led to the old London Bridge, is quite steep and would have been steeper before the embankment was built up. Quite something for the carters coming off the bridge.

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, the whole City of London before the Great Fire was steeper. I love maps too. When I was starting to plan Forged in the Fire I was so excited to find the Copperplate Map and see exactly where all my characters lived and worked. But my favourite resource (for London) is The A-Z of Elizabethan London. This covers the whole of London: Southwark to Islington and Whitechapel to Westminster. And some parts are so detailed you can almost walk through doorways.

I love seeing your notebook page, Celia.

Celia Rees said...

I knew this post would strike a chord. All map addicts! I have a detailed map book of Elizabethan London, Ann, and found it invaluable when writing The Fool's Girl. Especially as all the little fields and open land have now disappeared under buildings.

Ann Turnbull said...

That sounds like the one I've got, Celia. It cost me around £24 (years ago!) which seemed very extravagant - but it has been well worth it.

Mark Burgess said...

If anyone is interested in London topography then I recommend the London Topographical Society. It's a publishing society, indeed the publisher of the Elizabethan A-Z. For £20 per annum you get the annual publication, a magazine twice a year and 25% off previous publications. This year's book was the A to Z of Charles II's London, and last year's was a sumptiously illustrated London - A History in Maps (worth much more than the subscription).

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating, thank you Celia. I read somewhere the other day that map reading is a dying art (thanks to GPS no doubt). Such good advice to write about what is there - always tempting to recreate, but there is 'living' history all around us.

Maria McCann said...

Off topic, I'm afraid, but I'm looking at the cover of 'Sovay', Celia, and I'm fascinated. Is your heroine in any way connected with the Sovay of folk song, the one who 'dressed herself in man's array/With a brace of pistols hanging by her side'?

Maria McCann said...

Whoops...I should have read your previous post! Nice to know I was right,'s a most inspiring song.

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