Research tip #7: Check the map

So, I’ve finished a wholesale revision and final(ish) edit on my Civil War novel, the first draft of which started me on my whole “Researching for fiction” series a couple of years ago. And in the process of working over that text, I came across another aspect of research I’ve long been aware of but had forgotten about: checking the map.

It happened a few days ago, as I thought I was nearing the end of the editing process. Late one night, I flashed awake with the realization that, in my revision, I’d created a minor plot hole and would have to go back to correct that. The problem was that one of my main characters, Buford, had been stabbed through the calf just before getting washed a couple dozen miles inland on a hurricane’s storm surge. In the first draft, he and the girl he’s with hike back in, oh, no time at all, the wound in his leg utterly forgotten. So I had to go back and deal with Buford’s wound.

A map of Louisiana’s major bayous, from Ouchley’s Bayou-Diversity. The deep, swamplike bayou I was imagining was Lacassine Bayou, even though I’d set my novel far to the west, between Sabine Lake and Calcasieu Lake (those two bean-shaped bodies of water in the extreme southwest corner along the border and the coast).

I managed to fix that error fairly easily, but in the process, I got to checking some of the regional details in a couple of excellent new resources I picked up from the library (Kelby Ouchley’s Flora and Fauna of the Civil War and Bayou-Diversity), and I discovered I’d manufactured a geographic impossibility. I had characters traipsing from saltmarsh to swampland to grassy prairie to sugarcane fields, all in the space of roughly a day. All those regions exist in southern and southwestern Louisiana, where my novel is set, and I’ve been to all of them in the span of a day — by car. Which was the problem: All my characters are on foot. So basically, I’d compressed a range of about 200 miles wide by 100 miles northward into a space roughly 1/5 that size.

I’ve written before that I’m not terribly concerned with geographic perfection. It’s a fictional story, so even set in a realistic world — even set in a real place — I give myself a lot of license with locations. But I’ve also written before about how cool it is to see regional descriptions in a story so accurate that you could treat them like a map. At the time, I was referring to Tom Franklin’s story “Triathlon” and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, but it works for other fiction, too: when I went to New Orleans deep in my obsessive Anne Rice phase and followed the descriptions of the Mayfair witches’ mansion home there, the novels took me directly to Anne Rice’s Garden District home, on which she’d based the Mayfair house.

When you use real locations in your work, you need to know what you’re talking about, because people will call you on it. Not just the absurdly nitpicky folks, either — the ones who write all the “goofs” observations in IMDB are ridiculous, but normal people can be just as dickish about the details. Ordinarily, I say to heck with them, because it’s fiction. But details are important in fiction, and we can’t spend all this energy detailing teacups or firearms or shoeleather or weather or what birds are in the sky without also paying equally careful attention to the cartography of our world. Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, writes that “locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players.” And one of the key elements of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s revision checklist, in her text Building Fiction, is to check that “the physical setting for your story [is] so consistent and believable and the relationship between different places so clear that you can sketch the floor plan of a house, the streets of a town, or the route of a cross-country trip that is important in your story.”

And more than any other location, you don’t mess with someone’s hometown.

When I was discussing all this on Facebook the other day, I got a lot of agreement on this point. My father, who normally thinks I overthink fiction (and he’s probably right), wrote, “I pick a novel because of the geographical region of which I’m familiar then am critical of the author because I can tell they didn’t really know the area so appreciate the work an author puts into the accuracy of their story as it relates to geography.”

Author and editor Eva Hunter, of SOL: English Writing in Mexico, noted, “Yup. If you get the details wrong, you throw the readers out of the dream.” Or, perhaps a worse offense: making a mere dream out of their reality.

I remember reading many years ago an article in a writing magazine (was it Poets & Writers? The Writer? Writer’s Digest? I forget), in which the author talked about setting her mystery stories in a real city. It was somewhere in Colorado, if I remember correctly, and it was a relatively small town. No big deal. And so, because it was no big deal, she took a lot of license with the geography: she used some street names but didn’t bother much with their layout. She moved some buildings around. She changed some of the city’s history (or something) — whatever she needed to do to get the story told. And the book passed her agent, her editor(s), the publisher’s fact-checkers. . . . And then she gave a read in Colorado. Not even in that town, but a bigger city nearby. And when it came to Q&A time, that’s all anyone wanted to talk about. Not just that she’d mixed up street names, but that she’d had car chases going the wrong way down a one-way street, that she’d had a stop sign where there was really a stoplight, that the drugstore used to be the candy store but she’d forgotten to mention that fact. I mean, these people were flat-out asinine.

And we might be tempted to leave it at that — because we can expect the locals to feel protective of their geography — but somehow it got picked up in a newspaper, started getting mentioned in reviews, and before you know it, the author was roundly panned as a hack who didn’t know enough to do her research.

Because she forgot the check the map.

From “Lloyd’s new military map of the Border & Southern states Drawn by Edward S. Hall. Waters & Son, engravers. Battlefields are marked by red lines and strategic places by red dots. New York, H. H. Lloyd & Co., 1862.” From Library of Congress. (I found this map through the Louisiana Digital Map Library. Click the image to visit the site.)

So I’ve been checking my maps, including modern maps of Civil War battles in Louisiana (there were quite a few minor skirmishes but few battles important enough to show up on a map) as well as contemporary military maps of the region. They’ve proved invaluable. I also hit up Google maps and plotted the walking distance between a few key locations, and I used Google Earth to draw a bunch of place-markers and paths on the planet. Using those tools, I shrank down the size of my region (thanks to those books by Ouchley, I was able to find easy botanical substitutes for the plants and trees I needed that do exist within the walking distance I’m describing), and I tweaked some details and changed some of the story, and it’s turned out not only more accurate but also better.

Which isn’t to say I’m slavish about any of this. As my friend Ryan Werner reminded me on Facebook, “Shoot the bullet, dude.” And I do still take a lot of license with my descriptions. For example, when the women in my novel visit the nearby town of Leesburg, I didn’t bother looking up any city plans for street names or buildings, even though Leesburg is a real town. Or was — it was abandoned and all but erased from history, the only remnant of it the current town of Cameron, which sits in roughly the same place as Leesburg once did. But they’re not the same town, so I’m not terribly worried that the locals are going to call me on my descriptions because there are no “local” Leesburgians.

Also, since there weren’t really any settlements out there in the marsh except a loose community in Johnson Bayou (which I mention in the book), and no roads to speak of except an old shell road along the chenier roughly where today’s Gulf Beach Highway is (I mention the shell road, too), I can get away with some really broad depictions of where the women and Buford live out in the marsh. The flora and fauna are more important than a roadmap, because there was no roadmap.

Except the map I made in Google Earth.

I get away with this sort of ambiguity (I hope) because I’m more interested in what the region represents than in how it functions as a roadmap. Janet Burroway, in her text Writing Fiction, admonishes that the cartographical realism of a setting is only a small part of its function: “But realistic settings constructed from memory or research are only part of the challenge, for an intensely created fantasy world makes new boundaries for the mind. [. . .] Your fiction must have an atmosphere because without it your characters will be unable to breathe.”

And Stephen King reminds us, in On Writing, that “[t]his isn’t the Taj Majal we’re visiting, after all, and I don’t want to sell you the place. It’s also important to remember it’s not about setting, anyway — it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.”

So check your map — always, always remember to check your map — but that’s just to get your bearings and keep your back-seat readers from trying to tell you where to drive, and don’t be afraid to drive off into the thickets and make new roads. As long as you know where you’re going, your story will probably be the better for it.

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8 thoughts on “Research tip #7: Check the map

  1. Hmm.. WordPress is being finicky today – it didn’t let me include a link in the comment I tried to make here…

    What I wanted to say was I had a similar problem with my Civil War ballad ‘The Tartan and the Blue’, about the 79th New Yorkers. The problem was the line ‘We marched for miles, passed Baltimore before we stopped to eat’ – a commenter pointed out that it was a hell of a long way to march non-stop, New York to Baltimore. I had to point out that I hadn’t said they marched non-stop, just that they didn’t get fed until that point. There’s no arguing with History anoraks.

    By the way, here’s some trivia. Did you know that ‘Baltimore’ is Irish and means ‘Village of the big farmhouse’?

    M

  2. Such a simple idea, yet so important: check the map! I admit, it’s usually not something I ever really focused on when writing a story…but I definitely will now! Great tip!

  3. Hi Samuel. I share your paranoia about getting the “map” right. Nothing turns me off quicker than an otherwise believable story that has major geographic glitches. For that reason I usually limit my fiction to regions that I am very familiar with. In my Civil War novel, “Iron Branch–The Civil War Tale of a Woman In-Between” (also set in Louisiana), the setting is the exact area where I worked as a field biologist for 30 years. Best Wishes.
    Kelby Ouchley

    1. Wow! I’m honored you stopped by, Kelby Ouchley! I really admire your books and they were a huge help to me. There are still a few details I need to work out, stuff the books couldn’t answer definitively for me because I’m at the point now of obsessing over minutia, so I was hoping to contact you for some insight. So it’s thrilling that you found your way here!

      I still plan to get back down into my family’s old hunting grounds (literally — my uncle used to duck hunt on his land out in the marsh) and walk the marsh and the reed beds. I just submitted a grant proposal for that very purpose, in fact. Because I completely agree with you: nothing beats field research and walking the land.

      I haven’t read your novel yet, but it’s on my list! It sounds great.

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