Recreating a World that No Longer Exists

Justin Reed is an aspiring author. According to Justin, he’s been an aspiring author since he was in junior high. Recently, he took the drastic step of quitting his job to aspire full-time. And don’t you love that notion: to aspire full-time!

In February 2022, Justin’s debut novel However Long the Day will release – and believe me, the blurb is compelling! However today, Justin shares some of the research and work that went into creating a world that no longer exists – or as he says, “catch a vision of the past”.

~~~

What is a writer to do when locations they are writing about are so altered by people and time they bear little resemblance to their historical selves? How can a writer pierce through modernity and experience history? How can a writer accurately fill in historical gaps in their mental image?

I do everything I can to mentally see, feel, hear, smell, and taste the totality of my settings and characters so I can pass some portion of what I experience onto my readers. On rare occasions, I see everything, but most of the time, a strange partial astigmatism afflicts my mind’s eye, leaving some objects in focus and others in a smear.

Over time, I developed what I think of as a composite layering method to address these questions, using five resources:

  • Site visits
  • Modern maps
  • Historical maps
  • Historical images (photos, illustrations, artwork, etc)
  • Historical descriptions

I align these layers one on top of the other until I catch a vision of the past. 

Site visits are a mainstay of the fiction writer’s toolbelt. In many circumstances, they’re irreplaceable, and impart a level of feeling impossible to duplicate through other means. I’ve learned, however, to view modern sites, especially those with long histories, with modern eyes. I’m often asked, “Have you been there?” and the answer is usually, “Yes, but not in 1918 [or whatever year my story is set].” I try to get the feel of a place, and view what I see with a bit of skepticism until I add a few more layers.

Modern maps help me put specific sites in context, and allow me to take a broader, higher view of the general locale. These maps provide a substrate, and they bring to light historical features of the setting that survived into the present. I sometimes use these features as landmarks for the modern reader. For example, my novel However Long the Day is set in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1918. I used the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, now used as a Smithsonian Institute museum, to orient readers to the general location of parts of the story.

Historical maps are where, for me, things get exciting and complex. I try to find maps published as close to the time of the setting as possible, which isn’t difficult for the past century, but becomes more difficult the further back I go. I was able to find a host of intricate maps in my research for However Long the Day, but had a difficult time finding useful maps for an unpublished novel set in 1864 Idaho Territory, and a nearly impossible time finding maps for a novel I was toying with set in 900 AD Norway. 

I look for as many types of maps as I can find, and my search is often driven by specific plot points. So, beyond standard regional maps, I look for transit maps. Depending on the era, this might include subway/streetcar maps, railroad timetables, highway maps, stagecoach routes, shipping maps, and more. If my story has an urban setting, I look for sewer and utility schematics, assessor maps, and anything else that might show specifics of what buildings existed at the time. In my However Long the Day research, I found a fabulous 1916 atlas of the borough of Manhattan, which showed sections of the city at the building level and included names of prominent buildings, transit stations, and landmarks.

This last bit, the historical names, is interesting, valuable, but also challenging. I love being able to weave history into my stories as though the reader is living through it, but doing so—especially using historical naming—can leave the reader unmoored. I typically default to allowing the reader to figure it out without much explanation from me, but this is always a topic of conversation with my editor and initial readers!

My goal with these maps is to cover things as they are (what I’ve seen in my site visits, and modern maps) with things as they were (historical maps and images). Historical maps give me the layout, the names, the landmarks, but I typically can’t picture my characters on location until I superimpose some kind of historical imagery. 

For settings in the past century—even century and a half—imagery abounds in the form of photographs and video. Finding imagery for 1918 Manhattan was simple. I found black and white photos of tenements, elevated trains, the street lights, the crowds, the City’s first traffic light, the streets, bars, restaurants, row houses, and just about everything else I needed. I wasn’t able to find specific photos of certain locations, but the imagery I did find allowed me to extrapolate the scenes in my mind and create a complete mental image.

Finding imagery for 1864 Idaho was more difficult. Daguerreotypes from the era exist, but are very rare, and are almost all portraits. Landscapes and cityscapes, if they were taken, did not survive. So, I was left with painted portraits and landscapes, newspaper illustrations, advertisements and other printed imagery. These images, though less detailed than modern photography, are still valuable.

The last layer is historical description. This is the last layer, because it leaves the most to the imagination, and therefore requires the most tempering from the other layers. These written portrayals sing the same siren song as site visits. They subtly try to convince me to believe everything I see, or in this case, read. Even so, if description is all I have, why not let my imagination run wild? I’m a novelist, not a historian, and while I strive for accuracy, I’m happy to let my mind fill in gaps in the historical record (much to the dismay of historians)!

I’ve written this post as though these five layers come in sequential order, but in practice, they don’t. The process actually starts wherever I can find information. Sometimes I start in the middle with a historical map and work my way out. Sometimes I start with a site visit, and others a description. Often they’re all happening at the same time. However, I find when I sit down to write, my mind processes the layers in the order I presented them. 

I love doing the research. It’s one of the great joys of choosing a historical setting. Time is a reverse alchemist that leaves behind ingots of lead we don’t realize we can turn back into gold. Each revolution around the sun transmutes common knowledge into hidden lore, and for some small part of the story, I get to be the apprentice that brings back the shine.

Many thanks, Justin. I love the notion of layers combining together to form a truer picture of the past.

However Long the Day by Justin Reed is the tale of two strangers—Niall Donovan, a poor immigrant from Ireland, and Frederick Philips, a rich ne’er-do-well from New York’s Upper East Side—who discover they look so similar they could be twins. Frederick, desperate to avoid a lecture from his father, bribes Niall to switch places for the evening. Niall finds there’s more to the story than Frederick let on, and is dragged through the turbulence created by World War I, the Spanish Flu, and social upheaval, and into the corrupt belly of Manhattan on the cusp of Prohibition.

As Niall and Frederick hurtle through the next twenty-four hours, will either get what they bargained for?

However Long the Day is available for pre-order now.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

6 thoughts on “Recreating a World that No Longer Exists”

  1. Great post, Justin (and Mary)! Very cool that you’re leaning into “aspiring full-time.” I’m sure you’ll make a success of it.

    BTW, as another author of NYC historical fiction—albeit WAY before your time frame—I found a useful reference in the obscure book “Native American Place Names in New York City” (© 1981 Museum of the City of New York). It’s only available online from Amazon and includes maps, but if you’re tracking the origination of NYC place names (including the Upper East Side), it’s a good one. Along with “Manhattan in Maps” (© 1997), which I’m sure you know about.

    Best of luck with your debut!

    1. Thank you for the well wishes, as well as the tip on the resource. Very helpful. Place names and place name history provide an irreplacable level of texture to a story, especially when woven into the natural fabric of the plot, characters, and themes (I’m guessing I’m preaching to the choir here).

  2. Thanks for this post — I agree with the notion of layering a variety of sources to get the feel of the past location. A lot of my historical fiction takes place in sites that are still undeveloped, and I found Google Maps to be a great entry into the topography and vegetation.
    Still, site visits and one’s imagination are critical to discerning what has changed over the decades and centuries.
    Theresa Hupp

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.