Mapping out a novel


maps

I love maps. Whenever, I decide to visit a place I aim to get a printed map and study it carefully. The map speaks to me of the layout of the place and how it has developed. This helps me to get inside the place a little bit.

On my desk at the moment, are five maps which are connected to my novel, Weaver of Words, which is set partly in Czechia and partly in Poland. When I first arrived in Český Těšín I used the map to orientate myself. I had in my mind the railway station and the border with Poland. Looking at the map, I could see that the whole of the original town centre had two railway stations at opposite ends, with the border in the middle. It gives an understanding of how the modern town developed – one railway line served the Polish side and one the Czech side. Every municipal building of importance was situated with that boundary. The two halves of the town seem, on the map, to mirror each other. The town halls of both sides of the river are on the right hand side of the main street which runs from one railway line to another, straight over the bridge on the Olza. This is clearly visible from the map but might not be so obvious from the ground.When I visited the town, the map gave me a greater understanding of the layout and feel of it. It also allowed me to see how I could have my characters interact with the town.

My three maps of Prague date roughly from the same era – the 1980s. The largest one, gives the layout of the whole city including suburbs. I used it when I went to live in the Czech Republic to help me get around. It still has some of my markings on it. When visitors came, I used the second map, to explain the history of the buildings. This map came with a booklet giving the provenance of all the buildings in the centre of the city.  By looking at these maps it can be seen when the streets were constructed and in which order as the building number and street numbers are both written down. (The building number is the order of construction). This allows observers to locate a building in the archives. The map has the names of streets, buildings and metro stations as they were called in the Communist Era.There are such delights as the Square of Soviet Tanks, which has probably been renamed by now. This is the city as my characters would have experienced it. When I used the maps to walk the city, I photographed the buildings and then located them on the street map. Would my characters have noticed this? Would they have visited the shops? Which pubs would they have sat in? The ones nearest their hostel?

The smallest map, is a tourist street map showing the areas the Communist government thought tourists should be interested in. It is a snapshot of a view of the city at a particular time in it’s history. It has the pubs, cafés and restaurants marked which has helped me to accurately locate places from the time and give buildings the name they would have had in that period.

When I look at the maps I am instantly transported to a different place and a different time. I look at the street names and wonder who are what they celebrate. I look at the buildings and infrastructure to see how the town planners envisioned their town or city. What were the important buildings and places for them? I see the out-of-date names and am reminded of times past. I look at the length and width of streets and wonder at their destinations. In maps, I see a country and I see dreams. When I can, I walk the streets with my map in my hand and experience the place from the ground. Then, I come to know the place.

Urban Walking


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Kings Cross Development

Urban Walking or Urban Hiking is a trend which has spread over here from the States. The idea is that you abandon your car, bus, train or even bicycle and go out for a walk in the city. Obviously, those of us who are Urban Photographers have been doing this for years but any trend which gets people out of cars and walking is good.

A few years ago a friend gave me a book full of London walks which included places like the Regents Canal and the River Lea in East London. It was full of suggestions of things to see and places to stop for a snack. Very useful it was too. The last time I did a proper bicycle trip, I went around the Trent Valley starting off at Gordon Hill in Enfield and was pleasantly pleased to run across a walking couple who had the same book. They were able to point out things I had missed on my ride.

Walking the streets gives us a connection to our urban environment and is particularly useful in these times where we are becoming more isolated from our neighbours. In the part of North London where I live the streets are changing rapidly and by walking them I am able to see how it is changing. Shops open up and then disappear. Buildings are pulled down and become student accommodation. Small shops are amalgamated into bright airy supermarkets.The population is slowly changing and this is evidenced from who is sitting in the new hipster cafés and bars – it is becoming gentrified. I read this morning that the largest Jewish community is moving out to Canvey Island as it is now expensive to live here. That is a decision which will affect the look of the streets if the kosher shops and bakeries follow them.

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If the town planners would get out of their cars and come out of their offices to walk the streets they might have a greater understanding of the layout of this urban jungle. A recent housing development sported a mock direction sign showing the distances to different local services and amenities. The distances and timings they gave were based on paper plans. Anyone who has walked the streets knows that in reality these places are not quite so easily accessible by car. However, if you walk down the small path skirting the waste ground and then along by the terraced houses built for the family of the railway construction workers you can be in the centre in around 15 minutes. The walk, by the way, is much pleasanter than the car journey. On the way, you will see apple trees, imaginative gardens, blackberry bushes and meet your neighbours.

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I recently did an urban walk with a friend. We started out at Kings Cross and went in search of a pub. We strolled along the Regents Canal and ended up in a very nice Victorian pub which still had it’s original fireplace and stained glass windows. We bought a drink, had a friendly chat with the landlady and sat enjoying the summer sun in the yard. Then, we continued walking until Camden Market. We had a look at a second-hand bookshop and moved on. Eventually, we arrived at Primrose Hill. I remembered a pub I had seen at the corner of England’s Lane. We asked directions and we directed to a bus stop. Since the bus stop was on the route we followed the directions. A road sign directed us to Belsize Park and we had a lovely walk up to it and a stroll around the streets looking at the restaurants and pubs on the way. Eventually we came across a delightful tapas bar where we stopped for supper. It was a lovely day and a lovely way to see the city. The tapas bar was a big hit and a wonderful “find.”

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It was a delightful way to connect with the city once again and I strongly urge people to walk their streets to get to know them.