Rhode Islanders, where are you? It’s time to show off the literary places in your part of the world. That may be coming true after the Rhode Island Library Association featured Placing Literature in its latest newsletter.
By Megan Black
Research and Education Librarian, Providence College
I read The Time Traveler’s Wife my senior year of college. I was living in Chicago at the time where parts of the book takes place. I have a distinct memory of reading a passage that takes place in a bar on Belmont Ave and freaking out, “OH MY GOD, I know that place!!!” Subsequent passages took place on the street where I worked or other stomping grounds, and I was equally excited. There are other books where I had similar reactions due shared experience in a story’s setting. Those feelings of excitement and connectedness stay with me, long after I’ve forgotten plot details and characters.
Several years later I met Andrew Williams at his book reading in New Haven, CT. I loved that his book, Learning to Haight , took place in real-life San Francisco, and we shared our love reading novels that transport the reader to real settings because it add that extra layer of connectedness. He told me about a project he and two friends were working on to map scenes from novels that take place in the real world.
The idea had come to him after mapping scenes from his own book using Google maps, “I had more than 1,000 views in 24 hours.” To get the project going, Andrew and his sister-in-law, Kathleen Colin Williams who is a PhD candidate in in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, applied for and received the Reintegrate Grant through the Arts Council of Greater New Haven in 2012. The funds are intended to encourage scientists and artists to collaborate on research projects. Andrew and Kathleen spent the next six months researching the role of place in novels that were set in New Haven, CT; San Francisco, CA; and Duluth, MN. Andrew’s friend Steven Young joined the group to create an online platform to map the books. They realized that they had created a unique project that was perfect for crowd-sourcing, and Placing Literature was formally launched at New Haven, CT’s International Arts and Ideas Festival in 2013. Since then, more than 3,000 places have been mapped by readers, authors, and librarians.
The site has featured authors and allows users to explore the map by author, title, or place. It’s a great way to find literature that is set in a place you love or about to visit, or to map out travel destinations based on where your favorite author has set characters. Anyone with a Google login is able to add to the map.
There was only one place in Rhode Island mapped when I set out to write this article, which was the McFagan & McFagan Funeral Home from Waking the Merrow by Heather Rigney. There is a fair amount of literature that takes place in our beloved state, so I set out to add some additional places. I found two lists of books that take place in Rhode Island: Warwick Public Library’s “Fiction Set in RI” list, and Quahog.org’s list of books.
I read The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr. aka Houdini by retired Providence College professor Peter Johnson (a delightful YA book if you’re interested). It takes place on the East Side, and while generic areas of Hope Street are mentioned, the zoo is the only specific place named that could be mapped.
It’s much easier to map locations after doing a location search from the “Explore” box at the top of the landing page. This way, you’re able to zoom in and move the pin if Google doesn’t originally place it in the right spot. Once you’re on the map page, click “Add Scene.” A pin will appear on the map, which you can drag to the exact location, and you’re prompted to fill out information about the scene: title; author; what happens in the scene; where the scene takes place; etc. Click submit, and your scene is added. If you make a mistake (like not moving the pin to the appropriate location, like I did…) you can send an email, and they respond fairly quickly.
Placing Literature also has various collections of mapped books that various groups have added (these can be found by clicking “Collections” (http://www.placingliterature.com/collections) at the bottom right portion of the page). My favorite is the collection curated by the Sherlock Holmes Society. The screenshot below is just a portion of everything mapped by the group.
Andrew, Kathleen, and Steven continue working to improve and promote Placing Literature. When I spoke to Andrew most recently, I asked him if he’d be interested in presenting on the project at libraries in Rhode Island. The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is much more interesting that a regular presentation. “I started an author speaking series at the New Haven Free Public Library called Get Lit in New Haven. A group of literary cartographers gets together to read and map a book set in New Haven. The author comes to do a reading and answer questions about setting a novel in the city. We had two events last year, and we are now going to do one per quarter,” and he said he’d love to work with RI librarians to help create similar programs here.
Placing Literature is an easy way to bring out the literary cartographer in all of us.