One goal of my author blog is to provide a forum where I showcase the diversity and depth of talent that a novelist calls upon from subject-matter experts. Today’s blog entry is first in a series of interviews with one of the professionals who has helped me bring the 18th century alive in my fiction.
My guest is historical cartographer and fellow North Carolinian John Robertson. I first met John in 2000 at Cowpens National Battlefield in South Carolina. He gave me my initial tour of the battlefield. (I’ve been back. The Battle of Cowpens forms the climax of the third book of my series, Camp Follower.) John created the maps at the front of Paper Woman and The Blacksmith’s Daughter. Cartography is a flexible science that reveals the interpretation and perception of the mapmaker, and John’s maps, with their blend of old and new, help establish a sense of place for my readers.
SA: Hi John, and thanks for chatting with me. The word "mapmaker" conjures the image of a wizened fellow perched upon a stool, applying pen and ink to parchment by candlelight. How does this differ from the method you used to produce maps for Paper Woman and The Blacksmith's Daughter?
JR: Wizened works. Think OziExplorer (GPS mapping software), PhotoShop Elements, David Rumsey's Historical Maps (available online), my Global Gazetteer, and prayers for a publisher who can think in 300 dpi.
SA: Ah, so software has encroached upon the pen-and-ink mystique surrounding mapmaking. I'm curious about the award for lifetime achievement in cartography that you received in November 2007 from the organization Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution (SCAR). For what project did you receive this award?
JR: The Global Gazetteer of the American Revolution that I created. What I've attempted to do with this gazetteer is "marry the geography with the history" and improve both in the process. The history of the war, for example, gets rescued from a boring chronological list of facts and takes its place in a 3-D world.
SA: It’s an impressive work. The image on the home page puts into perspective that what Americans regard as the War of American Independence in the thirteen original colonies was actually one part of a huge world war. A widespread belief is that most of the Revolutionary War took place in the Northern colonies. In fact, Paper Woman, with its setting in the Southern theater, was originally rejected by several editors in New York because they didn't believe enough of the war happened in the South to generate reader interest. So I'm curious, after all your research, which colonies had the most battles and skirmishes in this war?
JR: South Carolina, New York, and New Jersey. Almost all my collaborators want to work on South Carolina or the South, so that is where I work. However, someone recently gave me a tip for three New Jersey locations that, upon further research, exploded into almost thirty actions! If I ever find collaborators interested in working on New Jersey and New York, I expect to get my eyes popped with the results.
SA: What inspired you to start the gazetteer? When did you begin work on it? Is it completed?
JR: I read a Revolutionary War history book each week for fourteen weeks while having a full-time job (secret is no TV or newspapers). I finally figured out that the authors didn't tell/show you where battles were because they didn't know. I set out to find the battle sites. I've worked at it for eight or nine years, have found most of them, but will likely never finish. Think of it as harnessed obsessive-compulsive disorder.
SA: With whom did you work on this project?
JR: Anybody I could get. Those helping the most have been Jack Parker (writing a guide book for South Carolina Revolutionary War sites), Patrick O'Kelley (writing a library on the Revolutionary War in the South), and Charles Baxley (editor of the SCAR newsletter). There is a pattern there, and that's o.k. by me.
SA: By "pattern," it sounds as though research for your projects and those of your collaborators has been mutually beneficial.
JR: Yes. Whatever they are working on or plan to work on benefits greatly and directly from what I do. When they help me, they gain full permission to use my data in their projects. In the Comment column of the gazetteer, I've included the initials of those who help supply information for each entry.
SA: How might interested parties access your project?
SA: Most cartographers also have a degree in geography. What is your background in the two disciplines?
JR: I am an accidental cartographer. Friends writing books knew no one knowing of more sites and asked me to make maps for their books. Speak of a "leap of faith!" Maps have always intrigued me. There is a yellowed book nearby, The Round Earth on Flat Paper, by The National Geographic Society, that I have owned since 1954. I have worked with computers since Microsoft was spelled "Micro Soft" (1982) and have made them do a little bit of everything. OziExplorer helped with GPS work, site locations, projections, and map data. Graphic software with layers was essential, and I started with Adobe Photo Deluxe, version one. I only do maps where I know the history.
SA: You work at Cowpens National Battlefield as an interpretive guide. What do you do as an interpretive guide?
JR: Mostly, I have fun. All day long, I get to ask people where they are from, and four times out of five, I can associate their point of origin anywhere on earth to the Revolutionary War, including an Iraqi from Sweden. Although I am rarely put to the test, I could present continuously for four hours, without notes and without repetition, on the Revolutionary War at Cowpens and worldwide. Passionate, I suppose, is the operative word.
SA: By the way, folks, John's definition of "have fun" means that he gives a fascinating walking tour of the Cowpens battle site, detailing where and when different tactics were deployed during the battle. In the South, people are more familiar with the Civil War. Why does the Revolutionary War interest you, John?
JR: Like most, I had assumed that the Revolutionary War was small and simple. It was startling to discover that it was very long, huge, and immensely complex, and the history provided us was scant, distorted and garbled. I have found Revolutionary War action sites on every continent other than Antarctica and Australia, every modern state east of the Mississippi, and three west of the Mississippi. It is incredible what some of these people did with sheer brainpower, what great distances they traveled, and with so few resources to work by our standards. Having read British fighting sail for at least forty years, and owning many books by authors such as C.S. Forester, Alexander Kent, Patrick O'Brian, and C. Northcote Parkinson, I was well-conditioned to study the war even-handedly from both sides -- the only way any war can be understood. Most of what determines the outcome of such a war does not happen on a battlefield.
SA: Which non-fiction books about the war are your favorites?
JR: The War of American Independence, by Don Higginbotham, an American, and The War for America, 1775-1783, by Piers Mackesy, a Brit. These books go into every aspect of the factors that determined the outcome of the war, such as economics, politics, transportation, and inter-service rivalries. The books, laid side by side, do not contradict each other, they complement each other. Higginbotham's book is the only one I have ever found that deals with "the armed populace" with which Britain had to contend, wherever they went.
SA: Hmm, I have both of those books in my personal library. I'm almost certain some fellow with a love of maps at Cowpens recommended them to me back in 2000. Again, thanks for being my guest today, John.
Thanks also to Heather Good Gruber, who supplied me with
general information on cartography.