A large part of the joy of writing historical fantasy, for me, is the research. Although I also read letters, diaries, and newspapers from times and places equivalent to the historical setting I hope to use, the research tool I most enjoy using is obsolete travel guides. They have helped to spark my imagination and to improve my world-building.
Some travel guides had life and death importance for travelers. The Green-Book, written, published, and revised by Victor H. Green from 1936 to 1963, helped African-American travelers survive the dangers of travel in the United States. Some travel guides are centuries old. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea may date from the first century CE. To clarify, I don’t intend to get into the use of such important historical resources here.
Instead, I plan to reminisce about the origin of my fascination with travel guides published to help their intended audience to negotiate travel for pleasure to a particular place for a particular year. My very first obsolete travel guide was a Ward Lock guide. This particular edition of The English Lake District, or to be exact, A Pictorial and Descriptive Guide to the English Lake District, with an outline guide for pedestrians and a special section for motorists, was published in U.K. in the early 1930s.
I found the battered red book in a bargain bin at the excellent used bookstore nearest my college campus. I had no plans to write anything set in the Lake District, nor to travel in the Lake District, and at that point I sincerely doubt I knew where the Lake District was. As an avid reader of The Lord of the Rings, I had devoured many of the other titles Ballantine Books published in their fantasy line. Among them was E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros.
I found Eddison’s deliberately antiquated prose style difficult to read at first, but I think there was an element of the Ikea effect at work. Because I worked harder than usual to read that book, I connected with it more than the other titles from Ballantine. My love for Worm was cemented when I went to college and made friends* based on our shared passion for such novels.
The Worm Ouroboros begins with these words: “There was man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.” Wastdale is in the English Lake District. The index to the travel guide showed a reference to Wastdale, two for Wastdale Head, and two more for Wastwater. Intrigued, I read those entries, then went on skimming the guidebook.
I was eighteen. At the time, the travel guide, which seemed antique to me then, was about thirty years out of date. Perhaps because it was missing one of its maps, it only cost me 75 cents. Its true cost was the time I took to read it, as I should have been studying instead.
The guidebook had maps, photographs, detailed itineraries for hikers, and down-to-earth advice for the cyclists and motorists who were its intended audience.
[“…at this point is the Devil’s Elbow, a sharp double turn down a steep slope. (Cyclists, dismount! Motorists, crawl!)”]
The true reason I bought the book was its ads. The guidebook begins and ends with pages of advertisements to defray the cost of printing. One of the first pages is an advertisement for United Kingdom Credit, placed by the Westminster Bank Limited. “Motorists, tourists, and others traveling in Great Britain run no less risk of theft or loss here than they do abroad.” The ad goes on to say, “A customer of the Westminster Bank who provides himself with the Bank’s Letter of Credit may tour the Kingdom with no more loose money in his pocket than he wants for meeting his needs from hour to hour. By this means, he reduces his risk of loss and is sure of being able to obtain cash in any town throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.”
The hotels advertised had names straight out of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. As I read, I began to get a feeling for what it would be like to journey in this lost world. As a single woman, I thought I’d be more comfortable staying at a temperance hotel. I didn’t know how to drive, but that would present no problem. Walking holidays were popular enough to be catered for, so I could probably get a lift aboard one of the motor coaches that provided transport to the most popular sites. I would certainly obtain a letter of credit from a suitable bank. No travelers checks, or cheques, would be necessary.
In addition to providing help envisioning concrete details of daily life, it is a great source for names. Place names can make good names for people, too. Most of all, the obsolete guidebook can inspire. This is from English Lake District again: “Another feature of the by-roads are the gates, which are generally kept closed to prevent sheep from straying, and which form a real danger to the unwary motorist.” I’m sure I could have imagined a chase scene on a rural road. I might even have imagined the sheep, but I would never have thought to imagine a closed gate across a road suitable for motoring.
In Baedeker’s 1914 edition of Russia, the section on traveling in the Grand Duchy of Finland begins with this useful information: “In Finland Helsingfors (Helsinki) time is kept. This is 22 min. behind St. Petersburg time, 39 min. ahead of Central European time, and 1 hr. 39 min. ahead of W. European time.” I knew that time zones originated when scheduled train travel required such a thing, but not that the time intervals weren’t given in hours. It’s a world-building detail that would never have occurred to me.
When I was writing A College of Magics, I found period guidebooks helpful when considering such vital questions as which hotel in Paris my protagonist would choose and how she would get to the railway station (and which railway station should it be?) when she needed to leave the city. Many years after that, my vintage copy of Baedeker’s United States told me what coins and currency were in use, common and otherwise, in 1905. When my protagonist decided to ride the elevated railway in New York City, I knew how much the ticket would cost her (and what she should do with it), because my Baedeker explained that useful information in detail.
That first 75-cent guidebook has led to my current shelf of battered Baedekers, fragile Satchel Guides, and other out-of-date handbooks for travelers. In recent years, I’ve been happy to find modern reprints, which let me use a book without ruining it (and also contain every single map). I may think I know precisely what I’m looking for in an obsolete guidebook, but I never know exactly what else I’ll find.
* Ellen Kushner, I am thinking of you!
Caroline Stevermer (b. 1955) is known for her historical fantasy novels for young adults. She published her first book, The Alchemist, in 1981, and before collaborating with fellow Minnesotan Patricia C. Wrede to create a magical version of Regency England. Stevermer graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in art history and currently lives in Minnesota.