Some of us write historical fiction, while others, like myself, write fantasy set in historical places. Still others write contemporary fiction, or stories set in the near future. No matter where your story is set (unless it's in a completely fabricated place, current or historical maps can mean a great deal in how well you describe the storyworld for your reader.
By strange circumstances, I decided to set my current novel in medieval Croatia--an unbelievably beautiful place that I must visit before I die. In order to learn more about the area in which I'm setting my story, I've used a few different tools.
Google Earth was my first stop. If you've never tried it, this software visually flies you around the world to the place you've selected. You can then zoom in fairly closely, depending on the satellite photos available for the area. Try your own address for a bird's-eye view of your neighborhood.
Google Maps will give you a map of the area you're researching. Click on the little man icon on the zoom bar, and you can place him on any street. If photos have been taken on street-level, you'll be able to "walk" along the street, looking around like any other pedestrian. This is a great tool to use if you have a novel set in say, San Francisco, but you don't have the money to actually visit.
For historical maps, I've discovered an excellent site, The David Rumsey Map Collection . Here, you can view over 21,000 historical maps from around the world. Due to the sophisticated scanning technology used, you can blow them up and drag them around to view them in great detail. The maps of your choice can be purchased, as well, but there is no charge for viewing these incredible documents.
Many universities and other organizations have online map collections. Here are a few I've found:
- MyTopo : a collection of historic USGS topographic maps, organized by state.
- University of Texas Libraries : historical maps of the world.
- Humboldt State University Library : links to many map collections.
- About.com : links to map collections, including rare panoramic maps of historic US cities, railroad maps, even concetration camp maps.
- University of Georgia : more than 1,000 maps from the sixteenth through the early twentieth century.
- University of Alabama : US and world maps, including coastal navigation charts, railroad maps and maps relatinto to national forests and Native Americans.
- Map History/History of Cartography : images of early maps online.
Though I'd love to travel to a hundred of these places, I'm content for now, to let my fingers do the clicking. Where do you want to travel for your novel's research?