Time after (map) time

Just a quick mid-weeker tonight, folks, but I want to throw this out there.

I’m basing a lot of Raven’s Blood’s aesthetics on Elizabethan England, albeit changed in a lot of major and minor ways. The native Westrons may have dark, almost Hispanic complexions, and the clothing may be sensible rather than risible – I’ve been reading about Elizabethan fashion and it was balls-out cray-cray – but still, Crosswater is meant to resemble Tudor London in a bunch of ways that (hopefully) make the story interesting and the setting evocative.

But here’s the thing – Elizabethan London was fucking tiny.

Here’s a rough map of what was considered London (i.e. the important bit that was then surrounded by farms and suburbs n’ crap) in Shakespeare’s day:


According to that scale that’s like, what, two miles across? Two and a half? And maybe one-and-a-half miles high. Westminster Abbey on one side, the Tower of London on the other, the Thames up the middle – that’s your city.

Now here’s a modern tourist’s map of London:

Twice the height, twice the breadth, four times the area, but we can still see where Shakespeare’s London fit in that lower right quadrant, still make out the same landmarks. They haven’t moved; it’s just that what we consider ‘the city’ has expanded hugely in the last few centuries.

So what’s the point? Well, a couple spring to mind:

– Shakespeare’s London was no more than maybe 3-4 square miles of land, but in there was crammed enough trade, intrigue, culture, religious tension and frenzied shagging to propel more than four hundred years of storytelling. There’s always an urge to give stories breathing room, to send your history back a thousand years rather than twenty or throw the dice out over a continent rather than a countryside, but you don’t need a million hectares or years to anchor a story; what you need is a concentration of people, of culture, of conflict. And you can find those in a backyard if you look hard enough.

– Cities expand over the ages, by and large, but history doesn’t flow as fast as real estate figures. There are stories about Kensington Gardens and Regent’s Park and Belgravia, but do they have the same resonance, the same hook for readers as stories about London Bridge and the Tower of London? Well, maybe they do for the folks who live around there, I don’t know; local stories matter to local people and so they should. But your readers are always tourists, never residents, and you’ll have a better chance of drawing them into your story if time and space are co-conspirators; if your fascinating place has a fascinating history to go with it, even if it’s a history that never gets spelled out.

– Speaking as an Australian, what the fuck London is tiny you could drop that shit in Brisbane and never find it again. Getting my head around the sheer freaking density of Britain, or indeed Europe in general, or indeed anywhere that isn’t an unpopulated urban wasteland punctuated by the occasional bottle shop and hipster mandolin collective just makes my head swim. I’m going to Europe at the end of the year, and I fully expect to freak the fuck out due to the sheer density of history and armpits.

Maps, people. They only tell part of the story. But it’s a crazy goddamn part.

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