How to Make a Custom Map for Historical Fiction

Writing a historical fiction setting is just as much about place as it is about time. Now, when I think about place, I tend to veer to the nonphysical sense of place, i.e. education, socioeconomic standing, religious beliefs, etc. This is because I’m a character-driven writer. Any physical sense of place, i.e. geography, landscape, and weather, is introduced and honed in the second drafts of my work. To help me focus on physical place, I create a custom map via Google My Maps.

Screenshot of my custom map on Google My Maps

About six years ago, I was all about using Google Earth to research a setting in a far off location. In my case, that far off location was Compton Beauchamp in England and my work-in-progress was Haunting Miss Trentwood. Google Earth is still a great tool, but for this work-in-progress, I live in the city that I’m writing about. So it’s not that I can’t imagine the forest for the trees… It’s that I’m a terrible judge of distance because, well, I drive a car everywhere. And, most of the buildings and roads of my characters’ time period don’t exist anymore.

As I’m piecing together information from my historical research, I turn to Google My Maps. This product is a special version of Google Maps where you can create your own custom landmarks and diagrams. I’ll walk you through the steps I took to create one for my current work-in-progress.

You will need a Google account to follow this tutorial.

Create a New Custom Map

  1. Go to Google My Maps.
  2. Click the big button that says “Create A New Map.”
  3. Give your map a name by clicking “Untitled Map.”

Since I haven’t titled my book yet, I decided to give the map a generic name. One day, when this book actually has a title, I’ll name the map the same as the book.

Customize Your Custom Map Cartography

Maybe for your book, waterways are more important than walk and roadways. You can change what the map looks like (and therefore what it highlights) by changing the display.

  1. Clicking the “Base Map” down arrow.
  2. Hover your mouse to see what makes the nine map views different: Map, Satellite, Terrain, Light Political, Mono City, Simple Atlas, Light Landmass, Dark Landmass, Whitewater.

Custom map cartography

Add Locations to Your Custom Map

  1. Click the location pin (or marker). This is the tool next to the hand shape.
  2. Click the desired location of the pin on your map.
  3. Give the location a name and description.
  4. Click the camera icon to include links to images. This will create a mini-gallery of images that you feel pertain to your location.

I’m pretty sure the map geolocates to the country you’re in based on IP address. At least, whenever I start a new map, it always begins with the United States and I have to zoom down to my desired location. Don’t worry, once you drop location pins on your map, it will center automatically on your locations henceforth.

Belinda's custom map tools

Add Shapes to Your Custom Map

  1. Click the Funky circles and lines icon.
  2. Click the first point to define the perimeter of your shape.
  3. Continue clicking locations to define your shape until you return to your original point.
  4. Define a color to help highlight the shape against your map.

This feature is invaluable for playing digital archeologist. For instance, Camp Chase in Columbus, OH no longer exists. The entire structure was torn down by July 1865. However, we do have maps and descriptions of where the camp was located, and where the prison and Confederate cemetery were located relatively. As you can see in my example map at the beginning of this article, I defined the camp outline and the prison shape.

Group Your Locations and Shapes into Layers

Since I’m character-driven and for this story it just makes sense, I named the layers after the main characters. For you, it might be something different. The nice thing about the layers is you can turn them on/off to focus on a particular view of the map while writing. If you add a location to the “wrong” layer, just drag and drop the icon from one layer to the other via that left menu.

And you’re done! I’d love to see your maps if you create them. If you have problems, let me know and I’ll try to help troubleshoot! I know I have a lot of fun creating maps, especially since I’m such a visual thinker.



5 New Resources on

Thanks to chatting with my educator friends, I am realizing that the young adult fiction from when I was a young adult… is more like middle grade or children’s historical fiction these days.

This was kind of a breakthrough for me. I’ve been browsing books by Laurie Halse Anderson, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Amy Timberlake to really help me understand this publication space. I’ve been busy running around the my website refocusing content.

It’s still a work in progress, but I did want to highlight that I’ve added five resources to help readers and educators when they visit my website…

1. Children’s Titles

Young Reader Picture Book

My heart loves to write for children, and I do have a picture book published under another name. I’ve brought the title over to this website, knowing that I plan to publish more books under my Kroll name.

The story is called Beatrice Learns to Dance, and it’s a lovely little story about a robot determined to learn how to dance her way. It’s meant for young readers… 3 – 5 years with a parent, or 5 – 7 on their own.

2. Discussion Guides

For readers who need help connecting to a story, I’ve added a couple of discussion guides per each publication. The questions are meant to help developing readers connect deeper with the content. If you have good questions, let me know and I’ll add them to the list!

3. Bibliographies

I do a fair amount of research to inform my Victorian fiction for teens. Rather than leaving all that research in the back of the book, I wanted to highlight the bilbiographies on the website. This is something I’ve meant to do for years, but never got around to it. Once I started my design exploration of other children’s historical fiction author websites and realized this can be common (especially since students are often asked to do a small project in conjunction with their reading), I was sold.

4. Suggested Reading

And lastly, I’ve always wanted to list other books kids and teens should read if they like my books. Some of the books on my suggested reading list are ones that inspired me when I was young, some are my books, and some are books I’ve found thanks to my educator friends.

Have more suggestions? Let me know in the comments!

5. Author Visits

P1060926I love to chat about reading, writing, and publishing with students. They ask some really great, insightful questions! I’ve visited my elementary school a couple of times since becoming a published author. I’ve also visited the classrooms of my educator friends, and I’m in talks to partner with next year’s class so I can get some brutally honest beta-readers for my work-in-progress.

Since my daytime job is fairly demanding, I can only visit schools in the Central Ohio area. If you have an educator friend looking for a guest speaker, let me know!


John Wilkes Booth’s Timeline to Assassination

One of my main characters is mistaken for John Wilkes Booth in the flurry to hunt down the man responsible for killing President Lincoln. While researching the plausibility of this hook, I’ve become intimate with the movements Booth made today, 150 years ago. I’ve created a nifty little timeline free for you to download or pin, and in the days to come I hope to continue the timeline as it took the nation twelve days to find Booth.




April 11, 1865: Columbus, OH Learns of Appomattox

Most people know Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865. How many of you did the math to realize this was 150 years ago? While researching for my latest work-in-progress, I’m counting down the days from Appomattox (the Confederate surrender) to Lincoln’s death. Both because it is the hook that kicks off my work-in-progress, and in memory of the great humanitarian, Lincoln.

As part of my work-in-progress, I’ve wanted to include snippets from Columbus newspapers. This is most likely where my characters would have looked for information about the nation, and Lincoln’s killer. The timeline of Booth’s plans to “abduct” the president (I’ll get into this in a different blog post), the shooting, and the twelve day chase after Booth is a pretty anxious reading of the local newspapers.

Seriously, it’s like reading about 9/11, but without the benefit (or unfortunate awareness) of having watched the planes crash on the TV myself. No one knew what had happened for certain, except that Lincoln was dead. But! I’m getting ahead of myself. So far in history, all Columbus knows is that the war is over.

Surrender at Appomattox by Tom Lovell
Surrender at Appomattox by Tom Lovell

Think about it… today on April 11, 1865, Columbus had just heard the news that the war had ended at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. That would be like hearing today that the War in Afghanistan is finally over. That the first ever draft had come to an end. That the bloodiest war in the history of the United States had concluded.

Columbus, Ohio had plans to celebrate! You see, people had no idea what was coming, as you can tell from this snippet, which was published today 150 years ago…

GOVERNOR’S PROCLAMATION. The State of Ohio, Executive Department, April 8, 1865.

The God of Battles has blessed our armies, and the glorious cause of human freedom. Under His approving smiles the patriotic and brave men in the field have achieved unparalleled triumphs.

The rebel Capital has been conquered, and given back to the Union, and the army that held it in rebellion has been broken and scattered. The military power of the rebellion–the strongest obstacle to peace–has received a terrible shock, and our gallant armies are pursuing it to final extinction….

Daily Ohio Statesman. (Columbus [Ohio]), 11 April 1865 : 2. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

 Columbus had plans for a big parade, all the lights to be lit on homes at night, etc… and it was made known that every loyal citizen of the Union had the duty of making the celebration a success. Columbus was going to celebrate the results of what happened at Appomattox, and they were going to party hard.

Quite obviously, things were still pretty charged in the nation, including Ohio. Sure, Ohio was a supporter of the Union and sent the most soldiers of any Union state to support the Federal Army.

But Copperheads i.e. Northern Democrats who supported negotiations with the Confederate States, also wrote newspapers in the central Ohio area. They were not so excited about the Union victory, but what could they say?


After four years of dreadful and desolating war, we seem to be approaching peace. After four years of absolute and bloody disunion, we appear to be on the eve of a restored Union. Many have believed the thing impossible. We have not been of that number.

The idea of conquering, subjugating and territorializing the Southern States is about to be abandoned by the Administration North, while on the other hand the project of a separate government South, is being abandoned by the men there who chiefly have given dignity and importance to the struggle, and they who opposed secession at the first, and who have been reconstructionists ever since, are getting the control.

All that is wanting now, is fair and honorable terms–“the Constitution as it is, and the Union as it was.” That “true reconcilement” may yet grow between the sections and stronger bonds of Union than ever, all history attests….

Dayton Daily Empire. (Dayton [Ohio]), 11 April 1865: 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

 A couple of days later, Lincoln and his wife would be attending a play, hoping to have a nice evening out after having won a momentous war. Columbus would be lighting candles and having parades, intent on celebrating the same.

It’s rather mind-boggling, how innocent the country still happened to be, before Booth aimed that revolver.

Echoes in Time: Who Killed Lincoln? Review

ohioHistoryConnection2Last Saturday (April 3) I went to my first ever Echoes in Time theatre at the Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society). This event is new to me, but according to the coordinator Mike Follin, it has been running for about six years. That’s six years of me missing out, you guys.

The topic for this talk was “Who Really Killed Lincoln?” which of course piqued my interest given my work-in-progress. I had to ask, why were they asking who killed Lincoln, don’t we know this for sure? Well, yes, and so we learned from Mike who played the “investigator.”

The Echoes in Time Set Up

echoesInTimeApril2015This particular Echoes in Time theatre started with the room set up to look like an 1800s personal study. Our seats were stadium style in the other half of the room, probably enough to hold 30 or 40 people. I made sure to pick a spot near the aisle and under a light, since I figured I’d be taking copious notes (I did) and didn’t want to distract anyone (pretty sure I didn’t). The audience was a range of ages, mainly on the elderly side, but there was one family with school-age children. I was the only young professional, as it were.

Once we were seated, an Ohio History Connection rep came to welcome us, thank us for attending, and mention the topics coming up for the theatre. There’s going to be a talk about the Reconstruction era in June, which is already on my calendar.

After that, our investigator shuffled into the room and was surprised to see he had an audience. He accused us of sneaking into his office, which elicited chuckles. Then he realized his opportunity, and he announced that since he had our captive attention, he was going to chat about the conspiracy theories, which is exactly what we wanted.

The Conspiracy Theories

The question, therefore, was not, “who pulled the trigger?” Come on, we all know that was John Wilkes Booth. The question instead was, “Who put John Wilkes Booth up to pulling the trigger?” That, of course, is a far more interesting question. Was Booth the mastermind we’d all like to believe? Was Booth a cog in the wheel? We learned there are five major popular theories about Booth’s participation, listed below:

  1. Grand theory
    The Confederate government hired Booth to kidnap Lincoln to force negotiations to end the war. When the war ended, the plan turned to assassination.
  2. Simple theory
    Booth was a Confederate patriot and racist who meant to kidnap Lincoln, not kill him. When kidnapping plans fell through because the war had ended, he turned to revenge and shot Lincoln. Using his acting prowess (he was the George Clooney of his day), he manipulated others into realizing his plan, and taking the fall with him.
  3. Eisenschiml’s theory
    Secretary of War Stanton was behind the assassination, because he didn’t do enough to stop it, and he didn’t like Lincoln anway. Evidence shows Stanton respected and admired Lincoln, and no one expected this, so he did his best to shut down the city to catch Booth.
  4. Banker/Jews theory
    Important European bankers like the Rothschilds offered Lincoln loans to finance the war, but he found other means; what an insult! Plus, Lincoln’s Reconstructionist policies were mild, which would have destroyed Rothschild commodity plan to take advantage of a crippled American agriculture.
  5. Pope theory
    Lincoln won a case for a Catholic father against a Bishop in his early lawyer career, and apparently the Catholics never forgave him. It’s a long game, and a long shot because there’s absolutely no evidence to support this since no one can confirm if Booth was Catholic or had any religious affiliation.

The Finale

The presentation was great, mainly because Mike is an entertaining historian. He had side comments that had us chuckling the entire time, and yet I still managed to scribble down four A4 (letter sized) pages of notes. He shuffled out of his office, thanking us for listening to his ramblings, and we applauded. Then he returned as Mike the historian (rather than the “investigator” character), welcoming questions and talk of other theories he didn’t have time to mention.

One guy was super into talking about how the United Kingdom probably helped the plot because they wanted to support the Confederacy. Mike shot that down pretty quickly with some interesting facts, and saying you can always find a connection if you really want to. I made a point of chatting with Mike after everyone left, and he was kind enough to give me contact information so I can shoot him a question whenever. So helpful for my new book!


All in all, I’m excited to attend my next Echoes in Time. If you’re in town, make sure to look up the Ohio History Connection’s event calendar. It’s affordable (only $10) and well worth the time. Plus, you can wander around the free rotating exhibits for the rest of the day, which is always fun.

P.S. Since I’m sure you’re curious, historical evidence supports the Simple Theory.

Researching 1800s Grove City, OH

20140607 Century Village Primer
A Union school primer to learn your alphabet

Over the past couple of weeks I discovered somewhere between 100 – 230 men from the Grove City (or Jackson Township) area signed up for the Union Army in the Civil War. Janet Shailer, one of the authors of a book I’m using as primer for all things Grove City, gave me names of local historians who could go into more detail about that; I haven’t contacted them yet.

And then of course, there’s the Century Village in Grove City, OH. It’s a sort of living museum exhibit, a first-hand glimpse at how families living in 1850s-style log cabins and barns might have lived. This is an excellent little plot of land mostly intended for school field trips, but once a year they have a Civil War enactment day, and I was lucky enough to be in town this year!

It was a fantastic little field trip for me! Here are some pointers for those of you also working on in situ research…

Chat with the historians

Jones Log Barn - This small barn is exactly the size my characters need
Jones Log Barn – This small barn is exactly the size my characters need

Each building in the Century Village had hobby historians who were trained to tell you all about the building. However, once one of the historians realized I was interested in the Civil War and Grove City, and not just 1800s old stuff in general, she launched into a fascinating tale about how her husband’s grandfather was a Union soldier. She told me I’m researching the wrong part of Ohio, that I actually want southern Ohio because of the skirmishes and Underground Railroad.

I thanked her for her opinion, and was ready to tour the old school house until she stopped me to tell the anecdote about how a handful of men went to answer the Union call up in Columbus… but when they got there, they were told to go home, they had enough soldiers! And then came the second call, when the war refused to end… and then Grove City men refused to answer the call because they’d wasted their time before!

Moral of the story: Your elders have all the interesting stories the books don’t have time to tell you about. Collect on their knowledge.

Take more photos than you think you need

1850s log cabin with two rooms; my characters have a four-room house
1850s log cabin with two rooms; my characters have a four-room house

I took 41 photos in 45 minutes, and I regret not taking more! You might only have one opportunity to see your landscape / building / what-have-you, so take advantage for all its worth. Take photos of corners, and stairs, and how furniture relates to one another. Don’t EVER use flash photography unless told you can, because you don’t want to be kicked out. So you might want to bring a real camera, if your phone/tablet doesn’t handle low light very well.

That said, I used my phone to take pictures, with and without flash,  to show the difference between today and yesteryear. The upstairs of the log cabin was SO DARK, and it took me a while to realize because the only window on the second floor faced north, I believe. If it had been southern-facing, there might have been light all day (since I’m in the northern hemisphere). It’s little details like that which just seem to make the period come that much more alive for me.

Moral of the story: Take a picture, it lasts longer than your brain memory.

Obviously these are two quick hits in terms of insights, but honestly, this is my first time traveling to a location to study for one of my historical fictions. Previously, I tried to do everything via Google Earth, and the internet in general. It was really cool to stand in a bedroom/kitchen where they served hardtack and Johnny Cake, or in a barn where they were drying out corn. A patchwork blanket was strung in a wooden frame to hold a bed mattress, and an empty horse stall was the exact size to hide my character.

Go to your story’s location, if you can, and absorb whatever details resonate with you. This is the stuff of fiction.


Revelations Leading to Researching Grove City, OH

Ohioan Origins by State
Morrison, O.D. Ohio in Maps & Charts, a Historical Atlas: Social, Economic, Political

The untitled work that I’ve been slogging through the last three years continues to morph as I try to figure out just what it is I’m trying to write. It’s been quite a while since I’ve done real research… I knew starting out I wanted the book to be set in Ohio, and I did a lot of research about Ripley as an Underground Railroad hotbed until I burned myself on all the sad stories of escaping slaves.

Revelation #1

I didn’t want to write about Ripley, OH anymore, despite the rich history. I wanted to learn more about my city, Columbus.

So I switched my location from Ripley to Columbus in general… but back during the Civil War, Columbus was much more spread out and disconnected than it is today. Clintonville, Westerville, Grove City… they weren’t suburbs, though perhaps still part of Greater Columbus, they were areas in their own right.

I knew I wanted to write something referencing Camp Chase. What’s left of the Union barracks turned Confederate prison camp consists of the largest Confederate cemetery north of the Confederacy itself. Isn’t that fascinating by itself?

Revelation #2

I didn’t want to write about the sad and scary conditions of the prison itself. I wanted to learn about what happened to those men after the war ended, after Lincoln was assassinated. And how did that effect people living in Columbus?

Revelation #3

Bust mostly, it’s becoming clear to me I want to write something fun and escapist. This has been a challenge for me, because I’ve had some personal issues the last couple years which make it difficult for me to keep spirits high consistently. How would I write cheeky characters if I didn’t feel cheeky myself?

Is this what happens when a teenage writer grows up? She loses her “I don’t care, I do what I want and I’ll be funny while doing it” attitude?

Revelation #4

I was trying to research Clintonville, OH because it’s near where I live and I figured, hey, it should be easy to find information online as a start, and then hit the libraries for in-depth research. No such luck! I couldn’t find anything very helpful about Clintonville.

On my birthday, however, The Boy took me to tour historic Grove City. This is an area south of Columbus, and has been teased over my years in Columbus as “Grove-tucky.” Ohioans have this thing for making fun of people from Kentucky; I don’t get it, I guess it’s because it’s south of us and oh, by the way, Kentucky didn’t ratify the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments until 1975? Your guess is as good as mine.

The fact is, Grove city has a lot of historical pride. An art gallery is housed in the first bank (1st floor) and telephone (2nd floor) building. A number of shops are in the old Gantz mill. History was within reach, and I was able to walk on floorboards and peek into old safes that might have been around during the time I’m trying to write about.

Revelation #5

If I’m intending to write about a prisoner of Camp Chase who manages to escape before the prisoners were set free as a whole, then it would make more sense for him to escape south to Grove City, rather than north to Clintonville, wouldn’t it? Oh logic, how thee loves to play with mine heart. Anyway, Grove City has a pretty cool genealogical section in their library, which is how I took the photo of the image in this post. I haven’t had a chance to drive to Grove City in about two weeks, so I’m hoping to get there soon to continue research.

So yes. I’m writing a book that is set in Grove City, for now. I think this could work. I’ve already gotten some anectdotal stories about people’s reactions to Lincoln being re-elected, etc. Oh, the possibilities!


Using Evernote as my Distributed Brain

With the restart of the latest WIP, I’ve been using Evernote to collect research about living in 1864 Columbus, OH during and right after Lincoln’s death. As convenient as it is, I kinda miss the old way of doing research.

Once upon a time, I ran to the library to grab all the books on a topic. I filled paper journals with notes to reference when I couldn’t remember a clothing detail etc. It got a bit unwieldy the more mobile my life became. I have a  bin of research for Catching the Rose, which I wrote back in high school, so my research methods weren’t quite so methodical and clean. I filled two paper journals of notes for Haunting Miss Trentwood, covering transportation, clothing, the rise of the “independent woman” in 1880s England, and even English law.

For this new untitled Work-in-progress, I’m trying something different: Evernote.


Evernote is nice because it allows me to “clip” interesting paragraphs, images, and other online research. It captures the URL for me, so I can go back and build my bibliography without fear of missing something. And, best of all, it provides tagging and searching capabilities! When I’m trying to remember just who tried to bust all those Confederates out of the Lake Erie-based Johnson’s Island prison, I can do it easily.

So it works for my mobile life of bouncing around town writing in different locations per my schedule and availability. I can look something up on my phone, which is awesome, but actual collecting of materials is best on a laptop. And it’s making a sorted bibliography super easy to create!


I’ll try to do a better job sharing some of the things I’ve been learning, whether that particular research detail makes it into the book or not. In terms of progress, I’ve written two-and-a-half chapters and it’s felt like pulling teeth, but at least it’s progress!


Kentucky Unionist Slaveholders?

KyCivilWar_SlaveCompensationDear Reader,

When you’re in school in the States, it’s really easy to make it seem as though the Civil War was Yankees vs Rebels, North vs South, Unionists vs Confederates, Abolitionists vs Slaveholders. As if Yankee = North = Unionist = Abolitionist and Rebel = South = Confederate = Slaveholder. Without question.

It’s only after doing a (very little) bit of digging that I’ve realized this is not the case at all. You could be a slaveholding Unionist, i.e. supporting the federal Union that made the USA government. You could be a Confederate abolitionist, i.e. someone who supported state rights but disagreed with slavery. And on and on. It’s a fascinating mess.

Anyway, The New York Times is continuing its great series about the Civil War, chronicling the four years on its 150th anniversary. Today it’s a great article about Kentucky during the Civil War, this time about a staunch Unionist family who also happened to be slaveholders.

Though the Underwoods, like Kentucky, stayed loyal, their staunch Unionism made them outsiders at home. Josie’s father campaigned across the state for peace, leading to charges that he was under the sway of “Lovejoy and the abolitionists” and thus not a “consistent Southerner.” Crowds of secessionists shouted “hurrah for Jeff Davis” at trains passing through town on the L and N. “Every man on that train will think Bowling Green is Rebel — when she’s Union,” Josie lamented, “though the Union sentiment is much the greatest in Kentucky, the Rebels have so many rowdies they make the most noise.”

Make sure you read the entire article. It is certainly eye-opening and great material for The Rebel’s Touch, since Tempest is a slaveholding Unionist.

Honestly, the more I read about the Civil War, even though I’m focusing on one year around the Ohio River at Ripley and across the river in Kentucky… I keep learning so much. It is a real struggle to know what to include in the book and what to keep out. Which real people to I add as supporting characters, and why? How does it support the story of a man trying to regain his memory during a tumultuous time in history? My brain hurts just thinking about it. Goodness, why do I have to make everything so difficult…



Old Maps Online

Dear Reader,

I have been beyond busy practicing for a local swing dance/lindy hop team competition, which is exhausting, thrilling, stressful… but we won first place, so all the hard work was worth it! It would have been worth it had we not won, I became close to some really amazing people, but winning… yeah. It was indescribable. I might have almost started crying.

In other news, I just found this awesome website called Old Maps Online, via Flowing Data.

So of course, I had to look up Ripley, OH where The Rebel’s Touch is supposed to be located. They don’t have a specific Ripley map form 1860 – 1865, but they do have a map of Ohio and Indiana linked, which is pretty freaking awesome. And! A map of Kentucky and Tennessee (because Tempest is actually from Kentucky).

Now that the competition preparations are over, I have more time to read and write. I am dipping my toes into The Rebel’s Touch again, trying not to feel like a total loser for not writing for three months and for feeling completely stuck at where I did stop.

Rather than picking up the story right where I left it, last night I let my mind wander and wrote a scene that would happen a couple chapters after the current written point. The scene is internal, Tempest thinking about Daniel and how her feelings might be starting to change but she has no idea how he would react…

Not gonna lie, writing the scene almost made me cry. Sometimes there is nothing worse than the not-knowing, the wondering, the too-scared-to-ask-and-ruin-a-good-thing. Happens all the time in real life, happens in fiction, too. Heartbreak via silence is a tough thing to handle. Not sure if you have experienced it, but believe me, it’s no fun. But boy is it a great thing to draw inspiration from to write about!