The new online map ain’t the old territory

When you set a story in the past and are researching its location, Google Maps isn’t the place to go. Why? Because looking at today’s online map, doesn’t tell you which of those roads were there twenty or thirty years ago.

Here’s a Google map of Liberty County where my four Florida Folk Magic novels are set:

Since I grew up in the area, I can tell you right off the bat that I-10 wasn’t there in 1954. We used highway 90 for east-west travel. Most state highways I know one way or another, but I can’t be sure of city streets.

If you can’t find anything online or in the library about road maps from an earlier era, one solution is going to a site like eBay where there are usually old road atlases and service station maps from almost every decade in the last fifty years.

A few dollars spent on a paper map is money well spent. You can, of course, rely on Google Maps Street View to get a general idea of what areas looked like, especially those out in the county where no new construction has occurred. When you do this, you often find out that certain roads are scenic byways and probably have separate websites where you can look up flora and fauna, including the yearly growing seasons for plants so you know when flowers appear. (Nothing worse than saying Flowers are blooming during a season when they’re not!)

Old maps and the websites describing protected areas will sometimes link to folklore and history sites–quite a treasure hunt.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Land Between the Rivers.” Since it’s set before there were any roads, the accuracy of highway maps wasn’t a research issue.

What’s all that green stuff?

Part of describing a locale in a novel is mentioning the green stuff outside the car window. Oaks and Pine trees and flowering shrubs are usually obvious. But what about the wildflowers and grasses?

Wikipedia Photo

I once knew a man who knew what every single piece of green stuff was, whether it grew in a forest, savannah, marsh, or coastal area. When he led tours, I was there as he not only named and described every plant and its seasonal cycle but told us how to know one plant from another.

If there had been a test, I would have flunked. Even if I’d crawled through it, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between Bluebunch wheatgrass and rough fescue.

I have wildflower guides for most of the areas I write about. I’ve found others online. But occasionally, I come across (in my writing research) a place where my characters will interact in some way and realize that I can’t be sure what all the green stuff is.

Many state, federal, and private wildlife areas and private preserves list the specialists in charge of interpretation. They have been a godsend. For some books, I’ve asked about the prominent plants one sees when driving through a place. In others, where there are, say, Longleaf Pines and other trees that depend on fire, I’ve asked specialists what order the smaller understory plants return after a fire.

I owe a great debt to specialists who will take time to field questions from a novelist, some of which take quite a few pages to answer. I always try to note down their names and organizations and mention them in each book’s acknowledgments. It’s my kind of thank you and also a way of saying that I’m a writer and not a biologist.


Malcolm R.  Campbell is the author of “The Land Between the Rivers” which focuses on early Florida Folklore and animals.

Research can be frustrating

Long-time followers of this blog know that it puzzles me when I watch a movie set in a certain year and see a lot of products used as background props how the set decorators knew that the products they showed were actually available in in the year when the story happened.

When I research the kinds of products that were in used during, say, the time-period of  “Little House on the Prairie” (which had a general store), I wonder how the film crew verified what products they could show and what products they couldn’t show. Many product availability dates are obscure, given in terms of decade rather than specific year.

If you’ve been around for a while, you may remember that Duz laundry detergent gave away one item of Golden Wheat dinnerware in each box. But what year did they start doing that? Most sites say the 1950s. Others, the late 1950s. Neither Proctor & Gamble (who made Duz) nor Homer Laughlin (the company that made the China) mention the promotion.

There are a few blogs out there discussing the China (which has become a collectable) and how much fun it was to find it in the soapboxes. They don’t mention when the promotion started either. Neither do sites showing vintage Duz ads. I remember these kinds of promotions from when I was a kid: cereals, gas stations, and almost everyone else seemed to be giving away stuff. But, it’s not like I kept a diary that noted what day we got our first free drinking glass from an AMOCO or Gulf service station.

I have a feeling this Duz promotion began after the year in which my novel-in-progress is set. Nonetheless, I want to know what year the promotion began so that I can confess in the author’s note that I fudged it a few years.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer.”




If you’re writing a novel about a slaughterhouse. . .

then you need to tour a slaughterhouse. Or, at least read a lot about slaughterhouses, what happened inside then and what became of the people who worked there. In his essay in “The Writers Chronicle,” Colson Whitehead suggests writing what you don’t know, otherwise, you’ll and up writing the same book over and cover. So, you probably don’t need a slaughterhouse career to craft a novel about them. Frankly, that’s the last place I want to work.

Many things fall into the category of research that makes writers sick. Researching the KKK for my novel in progress fits into that category. And yet, since I never belonged to the KKK, I need to find out what happened in their meetings or my scenes and descriptions won’t be correct. I could say, “who will know?” Well, I would know. So here’s a selection of KKK books you’ll find on Amazon if you go looking. Fortunately, I found what I needed on free sites and didn’t have to buy any of these.

In addition to those, older books have been captured by Google or reside in various libraries and archives. If you look on state-operated photo archives (such as Florida Memory), you’ll find photographs of KKK fliers, pamphlets, parades, and posters. I grew up in an area with an active KKK presence, so I have a sixth sense when it comes to tracking down the filth.

Looking at this shit is about like being forced to eat a food you detest, like turnips, for example. Do you eat the entire crock of turnips in one sitting, do you eat one bite every week smothered in something that disguises the taste, or do you say to hell with the turnips—or the KKK–and give up on your book? I think that historically accurate novels that mention the KKK are important to our understanding of the Jim Crow years of our past and (sadly) to the deluge of white supremacy groups we’re seeing around the country today.

When I was in high school, I got physically ill reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Later, I felt the same way when I read Hiroshima. I wondered how the authors were able to suffer through the facts and put words on the page. Such questions are a consideration, I think, for anyone writing a novel with horrifying sweeps or history and the bad guys responsible for them.

Anger is good motivation, and suffice it to say, I feel plenty of anger about the KKK. I researched the KKK when I wrote the Florida Folk Magic Series. My work-in-progress novel follows up on that trilogy, so that means reading more about the KKK than I want to know. You might find yourself in a similarly uncomfortable research situation. if you decide to write a novel about the prison at Guantanimo, the rape culture, terrorist attacks, or even a tour of duty in the House of Representatives.

When it comes down to it, you have to learn about it before you can write about it.