Monthly Archives: November 2013

Gentrification and Placing Literature

I recently had a spirited email conversation with a well-known and influential book blogger who I am trying to encourage to write about our site. While most people I talk to are excited about the concept of mapping literary scenes, this particular blogger had some doubts. He lives in an urban neighborhood that is becoming gentrified, and he’s concerned that transposition from the fictitious to the real to the digital doesn’t really allow him to understand that place in the real and will only serve to encourage tourists to come to these neighborhoods without truly understanding the people who live and work there.

And that’s a fair point. I lived in San Francisco for 12 years and saw first-hand the tech professionals moving into neighborhoods like the Mission, Potrero Hill and China Basin and displace the native populations through exploding rents, high-priced restaurants and bars and mass transportation issues. The very people who made these neighborhoods unique are now unable to live and do business in the area, changing the local culture of the places. Don’t get me wrong, change is inevitable, but people coming into a neighborhood need to be aware of the culture that exists, be respectful and contribute positively. The tech nerds with their VC funding are not doing that, and it’s pissing people off.

However, as I told the blogger, I fail to see how Placing Literature is part of the problem. Our goal is to get people to appreciate the places around them through literature. Someone coming to San Francisco for a visit may go to the Mission for one of its new, up-and-coming restaurants. They take a cab into the neighborhood, spend their money and leave, failing to understand the people and places that really make the Mission a great place to live and visit. But let’s say that the visitor first goes to Placing Literature, searches for literary places in the Mission and decides to read a novel that takes place in the neighborhood. Then, when they visit, maybe they decide to take the 14 Mission bus instead of a cab because a character in the book rides the bus every day, and they get that great mixture of BO, booze, tacos and marijuana smells that every local knows and loves. Maybe the visitor goes to a hole-in-the-wall taqueria that is the setting for a scene in the book. Maybe they meet someone who invites them to a house party and they meet all sorts of interesting people that give them a much better sense of the neighborhood than if they hadn’t had that connection through literature.

The important thing to realize is that our users aren’t just mapping Union Square, the Ferry Building, Fisherman’s Wharf and Washington Square Park. They are mapping restaurants, bars and cafés owned by locals, turn-of-the-century factory buildings, old schoolhouses—exactly the kind of places that give visitors (and people who live there) the real sense of a neighborhood. And by introducing people to the characters and stories from that place—they get a better appreciation and an incentive to protect and preserve.

Here’s another hypothetical example I’ve cited in media articles and on the radio: Let’s say that a turn of the century school building in the Upper East Side is slated for demolition to make way for some condos. As a neighbor you may support the project because of blight. But let’s say that you find out that the school is the setting for the popular children’s book Harriet the Spy. Suddenly, it’s not just another run-down school building. It has meaning. You may decide to galvanize the neighborhood to save the outer shell of the building and turn it into artist lofts. Or a community center. Or indoor public gardens. Who knows? But the fact remains that tying a place to a popular children’s book suddenly gives it meaning and helps create community.

The key will be to show people how to use our data respectfully. We just partnered with Espais Escrits to map places from Catalan literature, and we’ll be highlighting their project over the next several months. We’re also hope to work with a PhD student who is studying Russian novelists’ use of place and is using Placing Literature as a platform for his research. I plan to make outreach to Black Words, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Aboriginal literature in Australia. It would be great if they could use our site to introduce people to their history and struggle through literature.

The fact is, we don’t know how people are going to use our website and our data. We simply want to be a platform to collect location-specific literary information and let the public go wild with various applications—and hopefully, we help enhance the reading experience and encourage people to appreciate and preserve these wonderful literary places that are being mapped.

What’s your take?

Introducing Author Spotlight Charles Finch

We introduced our Author spotlight in our last post, and now I’d like to introduce our other spotlight author, mystery novelist Charles Finch.

Charles is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries set in Victorian England. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007—one of only five mystery novels on the list. Charles will be releasing his first contemporary mystery, The Last Enchantments, in January.

I’m personally excited about Charles mapping his scenes because they are set in a historical context, and play into the difference between setting and place—which is a subject I’ve discussed in the past on this blog. Many places exist over time, between eras, and change greatly in appearance, function, name and community impact. No doubt Charles will be discussing this topic as he maps the scenes throughout November.

Not surprising, Charles is also mapping some of the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. We tend to think of Holmes and Dr. Watson as Victorian England mainstays, but the scenes that Charles has mapped span across the globe in India, Burma, the U.S. and Australia.

I urge you to check back often throughout the months to check on Charles’ status and his thoughts about place in literature. For more updates, please follow Charlie on Facebook.


Introducing Author Spotlight Hugh Howey

You’ve no doubt noticed that we’re highlighting two great authors on our homepage. Over the course of November, Hugh Howey and Charles Finch will be mapping the scenes from their novels as well as a novel that has inspired them. The idea is to get the authors themselves to share with their readers why place is important in their writing. Check back throughout the month to hear about why Hugh and Charles chose locations for specific scenes and how other authors’ use of place have inspired them.

But for now, I’d like to introduce Hugh Howey, our Author Spotlight for the month of November. Hugh is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling Wool series. The books are set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. in underground cities that extend more than a hundred stories deep.

A prequel to Wool, Hugh’s novel Shift uncovers the story of what led to the downfall on the surface—and it’s this novel that he will be mapping for us. The scenes in Shift take place up and down the east coast of the U.S. in Georgia, Washington, D.C. and Boston in real locations like Kramer Books near Dupont Circle, a nuclear waste treatment facility near Atlanta and the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Hugh has also left an Easter egg on one of his scene cards that includes a humorous clue into why he picked a particular place for the novel. See if you can find it.

Hugh is also mapping Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard, and we look forward to hearing throughout the month more about how Hubbard’s works have influenced Hugh.

Finally, we’re extremely grateful to our sponsor,, for helping us create the connection between novels and the places in which they are set. And we hope that you, our users, enjoy this new monthly feature of the site.


Placing Literature reaches 1,000 scenes, launches new features and honors authors Hugh Howey and Charles Finch

What a crazy four months we’ve had. Never in a million years did we think Placing Literature would take off like it has. Katie, Steve and I founded the website to give readers and researchers around the world a single platform in which to share the locations where their favorite novels take place. We recently passed the 1,000 scenes plotted mark—and we have all of you—our users—to thank.

But, we’re not satisfied. Over the next four months we’ll continue to update the website and add more features to make it easier to plot, view and search the scenes in our database.

Author Spotlight

First, we’ve kicked off an Author Spotlight program. Placing Literature has named Hugh Howey and Charles Finch as its inaugural Author Spotlight subjects, recognizing their use of real locations in their works of fiction. Over the course of November, Hugh and Charles will be mapping the scenes from their novels as well as the novels from an author that has inspired them. They’ll also be blogging about their experience, explaining why place is important in their writings and how other author’s use of place has inspired them.

Hugh Howey is our inaugural Author Spotlight. He is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling science fiction Wool series. The third part in the series, Shift, was published in August. We’re also honoring Charles Finch, the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries published by Macmillan. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award.

We’re eternally grateful to these authors and our sponsor, Check back throughout the month to learn why place is important to these authors.

New Features

We’ve also added a ‘Search by Author’ option that will help sort through all the great data that we are collecting. This is especially useful for those who want to just see the locations in the Sherlock Holmes series or just the places that Amy Tam has written about. We’ve also added an auto-fill feature to make it easier to map a scene in a consistent manner with other data on the site.

We’re also investigating the move to a true Wiki model in which users have the ability to complete missing information and edit each other’s entries for accuracy. However, we understand that safeguards need to be set up to ensure that good data isn’t overwritten or that someone isn’t able to post advertising or SPAM. We’re working on creating a model that works, and that’s going to take time. The idea will always be to collect more accurate and, ultimately, more useful information. Look for an update in a few months.

In the meantime, please let us know how we’re doing. We’re always excited to hear feedback from our users. Tell us what you like, what you don’t like and how the site can be more useful to you. Feel free to email us at info (at) We’re listening.