Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Researching Boston streets adds credibility to a time travel scene

The third book in my series Students of Jump is in redraft.  The addition of scenes to complete several jumps back in time required some research.  My current endeavors involve determining which streets were in existence in 1851 in Boston, whether or not they were paved with "cobs" (round stones commonly annoying the farmers in those parts) or setts (rectangular cut-granite stones) considered to be the better street paver for use by horses, carriage wheels and pedestrians, and where the major newspaper publishers were located.

I had originally assumed the roads would be dirt, but after looking at pictures, I saw the streets clearly indicated pavers.  So I had to find out what kind and when they were in use.  This is what I have learned so far.

Cobblestones were used but not throughout Boston and were often replaced with the flat sett granite stone for ease of rolling carriage wheels over, otherwise horses tripped and wheels broke more easily.

There were several papers in existence, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the Daily Advertiser, to name a few.  Fine, but when?  Well, the Globe did not exist until the 1870's, so that threw out that paper.  The Boston Herald existed but had several names over the years and had the frequent habit of purchasing other papers and incorporating their names into its own.  But when and under what incarnation was the name in 1851?  The Boston Herald bought out the Daily Advertiser but not until the 1880s.  So that means I could use either the Herald or the Advertiser for my purposes. 

But that hardly made things easy.  There was a section of town known as newspaper row, but it was located in two different sites due to movement of paper publishers over a period of years.  I finally had to accept that there was no definitive address for either paper until the latter part of the century.   So I settled for Washington Street because it bisected both areas that went by the designation Newspaper Row.

I settled on the Daily Advertiser in the end (Sorry Boston Herald. I know you are still in existence, but I needed to be sure there would be an advertisement of the nature I wanted.  And the name sold me.)

I have been staring at maps of Boston from 1847 and 1950 using magnifying glasses and my daughter to confirm my reading of the nearly unreadable print to make decisions on how my characters are moving through the streets to perform the task they must complete.  The latter map made it possible to read the street names of the earlier one.  (My mother loved books and had the foresight to purchase an amazing Atlas printed in 1950, which was given to me when I married.)  You would be surprised how many times I have turned to it.  (Save old atlases and dictionaries if you are a writer.  Words evolve and roads change names.  My classroom has two sets of dictionaries, a brand new set and a 1980s set.  There are times when my class is reading from an old text and that 1980s set comes in handy even when the work is Middle English. The words are missing from the new set or have taken on new meanings that don't apply in the old texts.)

By the way, the most useful site turned out to be the South Boston Historical pages.  The site had several clear pictures labeled with useful information.  I even got a nice glance at the fashion of the day for ladies and men as well as the building architecture, types of wagons and carriages likely to be seen and some history.

Hours of research for a 1000 word scene.   I even spent my childhood in a suburb of Boston. The sound of the wind still stirs memories, so I have the feel of the place just not the details.  I was busy chasing a dachshund and riding my bike.

I wonder what the ratio of research is to writing.  Has anyone made a point of figuring this out.  Hmm, maybe I don't want to know the answer to that question, or not until I finish the book.  But I am curious, so tell me if you have.

I'm off to research the trees in Boston Common in the 1850's.  And I learned to write "Commons" with the "s" is incorrect.

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