When I start researching a new project, or even when I’m in the middle of one and just need some quick directions, there is nothing quite so practical as a good, historic map. They are hard to find, but when I stumble across a site that has maps in a format that I can enlarge and use, I get a little giddy. One of my favorites is on the Library of Congress’s site called American Memory. The maps that I have found the most pertinent to my personal research are the Railroad Maps. Most of my books are set in the 1880s, the decade that saw the most growth in the Texas railroad system. It was critical for me to know which towns the railroad had reached by which years. This site, combined with the Handbook of Texas Online, answered those questions.
For example, here is a map of the railroads in Texas in 1883:
Now, the beauty of using these maps online, is that I can enlarge them to the point that I can read all the little town names alone each of those tracks.
I used the map below to plot my setting for Stealing the Preacher. The Archer brothers lived on a ranch outside Palestine, and I needed my hero to travel to a town to interview for a preaching position. I opted for Brenham since it was a fast-growing town in the 1880’s. But Crockett never makes it there because he is abducted from his train just outside of Caldwell. The outlaws take him overland past the small town of Deanville and back to their ranch where he eventually meets the heroine, Joanna. I’ve circled the key cities in red.
Beyond railroad maps, historic city maps are priceless. Sometimes I use fictitious towns which gives me the freedom to put things wherever I want, but many times I set my stories in real places. In order to describe these places accurately and to give the reader a true feeling of steeping back in time, I need accurate maps.
This is a piece of the Sanborn Map for Ft. Worth back in 1885. These maps were collected for fire insurance purposes, and they are a wonderful resource. Not only do they show street names, but when you enlarge them, you can also see the name of local businesses that were in existence during that time frame. I gained access to the Texas maps through my local university library. I used this piece of the Fort Worth map when plotting the opening of Head in the Clouds.
Adelaide Proctor traveled to Ft. Worth, chasing the traveling book salesman she thought was going to marry her. I needed to give her a place to stay while she was there, and this section of the map shows a section of town right next to the railroad depot. The blue arrow points to Clark House which was a fashionable hotel in the area. Adelaide ended up staying here, but she brought her beloved horse, Sheba, with her on the journey and needed a place to stable her. Thanks to this map, I found a handy livery stable just up the street and was able to have my hotel drummer point her in that direction. (Green arrow) Unfortunately for poor Adelaide, this lovely hotel did not prove to be the welcoming retreat she had hoped, for it was here that she discovered the scoundrel she had quit her job to follow was already married.
Never fear for our intrepid heroine, however. I was able to use another portion of this map to lead her to a lawyer’s office on the corner of Houston and W. 13th Streets so that she might inquire about a governess position on a sheep ranch over in Menard County where a much more suitable hero waited.
My next release, Full Steam Ahead, is partially set in Galveston. And once again, I hit the goldmine in finding a map that fit my time frame. I found a 1859 Galveston map, only 8 years removed from the time period of my story. Combined with other resources, I was able to piece together where my heroine’s family house would be and the route she would take to escape to the docks in order to board a steamboat heading to Liberty, Texas. Here is the link to the Galveston map. You can enlarge as needed. Imagine Renard House (my heroine’s family residence) in Lot 61. I was able to verify the existence of other historical houses from the 1830s in the same neighborhood, so I felt safe placing her home there.
Are you a map person?
When you travel, do you use GPS or do you prefer the good old fashioned paper maps?
Do you get excited by looking at old maps that give a picture of what things used to be like, or is that pleasure saved for geeky researchers like me?