Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past geographies, or Where are you Lotte C. van der Pol?

One of the many challenges when writing a historical novel, especially one set on a different continent, is making sure you are truthful to the layout of foreign cities. Even if, like me, you have traveled to many of the cities featured in your novel, you're still not off the hook, because while it's extremely important to get a boots-on-the-ground feel for a location, the cityscape you're seeing is a 21st century one. Sometimes that does coordinate passably well with a city's 19th century layout and dimensions, but certainly not always. Neighborhoods grow and change, new neighborhoods arise, new parks are built, new statues are erected, businesses rise and fall. If nothing else, street names change, and you don't want to be caught using an embarrassing anachronism. In writing my Van Gogh novel I have had to do a great deal of meticulous internet searching to make sure I am not including a street name--in Paris, let's say--derived from some 20th century cultural hero. Your pretty safe with Rue St.-Vincent but Rue Cortot? Rue Paul Feval? Even if, as with Feval, the person named is from the 19th century, that doesn't mean the street had that name when Van Gogh lived there. (Almost certainly not with Feval, since he died in 1887.) Arles is an interesting case, in that the layout of the city itself hasn't changed much from Van Gogh's time but the street names have frequently. In some cases, the former ("ancien") name is helpfully posted there on the corner building, next to the new name. I spent some time in my visit last May furiously writing down as many as these older names as I could find.

The best solution is to find good, clear maps that date from the period you are writing about. I have been lucky to find on the internet old maps of The Hague (pictured above) and Antwerp, but even so reading them is at times difficult, as they are time darkened, with the street names in small cursive script. Online, too, I found listed a 19th century postal map of London offered for sale by a dealer in that city, but he wanted $300 for it. More than I felt like paying. (But maybe I should have.) But that's only one aspect of using streets correctly--getting the names right; you also want to be true to the character of those streets, and this can be especially tricky. For instance, it's a fact that Van Gogh, in many of the places he lived, gave business to prostitutes. (Having read a book on the subject for my novel, I can tell you that nearly every other man in the 19th century did as well.) This is assuredly how he met the woman he came to call Sien. (See my earlier posts about Vincent's "wife.") But on which street or streets did the prostitutes hang out in The Hague (Den Haag) of the 19th century? I've examined the old map posted online and I can recognize street names. But which ones constituted the "red light" district? (See the questions you find yourself having to answer when you write a historical novel? I won't get into my struggles regarding underwear.) I've even gone so far as to try to track down one Lotte C. van der Pol, a historian who, among other things, has written an encyclopedia article about prostitution in The Netherlands in the 19th century. I simply want to ask her: On what streets in The Hague did the girls hang out? Surely, these were infamous locations at the time. Even though I've discovered that Dr. van der Pol appears to be on faculty at Utrecht University, I have been unable to find an email address for her or a listing for her on the university's web site. So my question remains unanswered, and my search continues.

One school of thought would ask: Why worry if you get the street names exactly right? Who's going to know if you don't? My answer is: Eventually, somebody will. And if I can avoid it, I don't want to discredit my novel to even a single reader, not over something as fixable as street names. I want my novel to sink or soar in a reader's heart based on what really matters: the characters I develop and the story I tell. But I know very well how much harder a task that becomes if you've slipped up on smaller matters. Once lost, a reader's trust is hard to earn back. And I guess too there's a part of me that thinks that if you are lazy about the little things you're likely to be lazy about the big ones too. True in life, true in novel writing.