I am fortunate to have been able to take a research jaunt to Germany and Avignon last year about this time, and to have brought home a couple thousand photos (I remember when that would have taken my entire carry-on full of film canisters–TG for digital!). I also, whenever possible, collected maps–and historical maps in particular. I even brought home this amazing book:
It weighs a ton–and is now proving its worth, as it includes a hundred or more historical maps of European cities large and small, with a sense for ladmarks, layout, the geography around them–even the types of boats, trees, and crops. The first period map I found of Avignon is printed on the carrier bag I got with my purchase at the Papal Palace and shows windmills. Technology geek that I am, I was thrilled.
Now that I’m drafting the scenes set in these places, I am pulling out my maps and studying them, learning stuff that visiting the modern versions didn’t always tell me (especially when I couldn’t read the signs). I often need to cross-reference the maps with descriptions from closer to my time period and research structures to be sure they were present (and at what stage of completion!) during my period.
For instance, here’s Heidelberg:
Similar to the one in the book above, and purchased from a street vendor. What struck me is the bridge in the foreground: a very long, covered bridge. I’ve visited a similar one from an earlier period in Lucerne, Switzerland, but in modern Heidelberg, this popular tourist destination is open air and a lovely stroll. What would it have felt like for my character, who is now so far from home, to cross the river in this darkened tunnel of a place?
I might have had him just walk across the bridge into town–now I have a marvelous sense of atmosphere, thanks to my map! I can track the progress of a character through this place, and imagine more closely what that journey would have been like. What would he have noticed? What might stand out? What striking settings present themselves? It’s the next best thing to being there.