Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

by Joan Vincent

The” Carmen” in my stories is usually found in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century in England, France, or Spain. This TIME and PLACE of a story is known as the setting. Settings are unique even when they meticulously follow the reality (past or present) of the location chosen for a story. Since the place is described as seen through a particular set of eyes, an individual vision, it will be one-of-a-kind.

My historicals are set in Georgian (during the reigns of any of the four King Georges of Great Britain 1714-1830) and Napoleonic times (1799-1815). I blend reality and imagination. That means I use buildings and companies as well as people that existed during the time I set my story as well as those I have created. Using real people and buildings means doing research. Let’s say I want to set a scene in Drury Lane Theatre in London in July 1812. But the theatre burned down in 1809 and did not reopen until October 10, 1812. Research, you see, is important. The accuracy of what actually existed depends on it. If I want characters watching a play Drury Lane Theatre in July I had better make it a rehearsal and have carpenters and painters working around them.

My Honour series Book Five opens in 1810 Paris in a disreputable portion of the city and involves the heroine’s flight to escape those intent upon capturing or killing her. To map a route I needed to know Paris in 1810. One resource I discovered in my research is the gorgeous Turgot map. It is early for my period (published in 1739) but much of the city had not changed. Here’s one small portion of the map—the detail is unbelievable. The entire map can be found at Turgot Map of Paris —just click on sections and then click again to enlarge.
My reaction to this map also hints at one danger with research. Be careful not to get so lost in it that you never write your story. There always comes a point when I have to say “Enough.” Then I get to writing but keep a notepad at the ready to jot down what needs checked for historical accuracy at a later date.

Since I am beginning book five in a series, much of my world for that series has a good solid base of constructed places intertwined with real places and events. “World building” was a phrase coined by fantasy/sci fi writers for their fictitious worlds but the term works well for historicals. For all my major characters in my Honour series I had to construct not only their families complete with back story and their life’s avocation but also family estates, town houses and their floor plans, clothing style,—the details appear endless at times. Since many of my main characters are cavalry officers I had to determine the regiments in which they served. That decision had to be based on which regiments were in the Peninsular War and when. Then there are details on uniforms, places stationed in Portugal and Spain, winter camps, etc. Research. Research. Research.

When I began writing in the 70's I had only the public library for a resource. Now, with thanks to my sister Vera, I have a library of research books on my period with a our specialty being Peninsular War memoirs, journals, etc. Makes researching much easier. After reading a lot of general history on my period I settled in on first hand material. Period journals, memoirs, and letters are a great way to absorb the cadence of the language, the topics that were of import, the political leanings, and gossip of the times. The information Peninsular war letters etc contain in words and written between the lines is invaluable in fleshing out the setting, especially of skirmishes and battles.

Many of the men who write and were written about become very alive to me. Major the Honourable Edward Charles Cocks was an intelligence officer in the Peninsula from 1809-1812. His letters and correspondence by others show him an intelligent, gifted, courageous, and caring young man. When I reached the end of his story and learned he had died (at age 26) during heroic action during the siege of Burgos in Spain I grieved. Lieutenant Tomkinson, another writer of an interesting Peninsular journal, but one who survived the wars, wrote “He (Cocks) is regretted by the whole army and in those regiments in which he has been, not a man can lament a brother more than they do him. He is on every ground the greatest lose we have yet sustained.”

General Sir John Moore is another man I have come to admire greatly. He was killed at the Battle of Corunna in 1809 after saving his rag tag army from Napoleon and was unappreciated if not outright maligned for many years. But time has proven his worth as a general and the value of what he tried to accomplish with training regimes and improving the life of the common soldier. In the Collection portion of my website www.joanvincent.net under Napoleonic War go to Part 3 to see the variety of journals, both English and French that I have acquired.

Research has become much easier in this Internet age (with the usual caveat to have more than one source as wiki and other sites can prove unreliable). Some answers can be found quite easily—such as the date of the fire at Drury Lane Theatre. Other questions take more painstaking research because it’s important not to learn just the physical setting but also to understand the political, social, and technological climate in which your characters live. Some writers try to give the eighteenth century woman the same outlook on life as we have today. It could never happen. Today’s woman would find it very difficult to conform to 18th century mores and the 18th century woman would be appalled at some modern women’s behavior. Technology was just in its infancy and computers undreamt. Facebook to “my” Carmen would indeed be a book with faces in it!

Creating your own world is work but fascinating too. It would take several blogs to detail how I constructed "my" world. I hope you've enjoyed this brief glimpse. Here are a few web sites with basic and in some cases detailed information if you’d like to construct your own Georgian/Regency setting:
British History
Greenwood’s 1827 Map of London
Historical Conversion of Currency
The British National Trust Especially Find a Place to visit for getting ideas on estates and houses Find a Place
UK Climate and Moon Cycles
The Regency Library
Jane Austen’s World In particular on this site a page with great links to all aspects of Regency History-- Jane Austen’s World Regency Links
The Regency Collection
The Georgian Index
Food and Drink in Regency England
Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion
The Napoleonic Guide
The Napoleon Series
The Peninsular War
The Peninsular War 1808-1814
Military Heritage
My Armoury


Elaine Morrison said...

Joan, the amount of work that goes into your research is amazing. So is the clarity with which you express yourself. Thank you for the glimpse. Other blogs already had me doing more work - I'm busy drawing a town in 1857 and one in 2010. When you said that 18th century women and modern women wouldn't understand each other's viewpoints, you hit on one of the themes of my book. I am hoping that even though time travel is fiction, the stunned reactions of my characters to the different time periods will come across as believable. I couldn't get the Turgot Map link to work but googled it. Amazing detail.

Penny Rader said...

Great job, Joan. I would love to hear more in future posts about how you create your worlds.

How lucky you are to have your own reference library at your fingertips! Interlibrary loan was my best friend when I was researching S & G. And the reference librarians. :D

Do you keep your maps, estates, etc in binders, or pinned to a wall?

I wasn't able to get the Turgot Map link to work, but I'll follow Elaine's lead and google it. Thanks for sharing with us!

Joan Vincent said...

My apologies on the Turgot map link. The http line is correct so I'm not sure why it isn't working. I'll log onto blogger and see if something in the code is wrong. Sorry.

One of the problems with some regencies and historicals being written currently is that the writers want to make the women totally liberated females with no consciousness of the mores of the period. While I agree you will always have independent women it was not possible to flaunt the conventions of the day and not have consquences. I think you will be able to do a great job with contrasting periods, Elaine.

Joan Vincent said...

Penny, I have some laminated and pinned to the wall and some are in binders. I have 3 Pattersons (like a Rand McNally) from 1784, 1795 and 1820 which give mail and coach routes in England. I also have a copy of a 1793 book with maps of each shire in
England which gives the important peers, crops, industries, estates, and views. I just lately acquired a book of city maps from the late 17th and early 19th Century England which even shows the plan for the gaol (jail) and other major buildings.
I've also been very blessed with people in the UK helping me. When I needed the layout of the abbey ruins in Whitby England. When I couldn't get enough detail I hit a contact button on one site and I found a guy who sent me jpegs of highly detailed maps. I do owe him a drink at the pub if I ever get to Whitby!

Reese Mobley said...

Wow. Amazing work and research, Joan and very well presented. Thanks!

Starla Kaye said...

This was an excellent blog touching on how you build a world for your storyline, particularly in the Georgian time period.

My only thought is that the term "world building" doesn't have to apply to only sci-fi, fantasty, or historicals. I believe you need to know the same type of setting, social, and other details when writing a contemporary story.

Nina Sipes said...

Joan, how cool is that, that you have those maps and books? VERY cool, I say. The amount of detail you have is so lovely good. I'm rapturous with envy.

About that people wouldn't understand each other's viewpoints. A lot really depends upon the region AND the subject. Even now, I get treated like I don't have two thoughts to rub together by some idiots who think that they need my husband's permission or that I do, to do things. In general women run the money and accounts out here. There are very successful women running their own farming operations and custom farming operations. So, imagine how ticked I was when I left a pickup to get a complete set of new very good tires and they didn't do it. Why? Because surely my husband would want to sell the old pickup with cheap ones. We weren't selling it and didn't for another five years. I can't tell you here every level that hit me wrong. Suffice to say, they no longer have our business. Or window replacement companies or insurance people who seem to think they need my DH's presence for a deal to be struck. Like he gives a rat's tail which insurance we use or anything about windows for the houses? However, I was on talk radio out of Los Angeles once. The radio hostess had a little difficulty understanding that not all women are treated like appendages to men. It is really unusual here. We also have Mennonites and other groups here. They all have different things and same things they do. Remember there are same things as well as differences.