Research Notes · 04/12/2019

The Magnetic Girl

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jessica Handler writes about The Magnetic Girl from Hub City Press.


Mapping the Past

In order to travel back in time, a writer needs a map. Not a GPS, redirecting and redirecting as it evaluates traffic from a satellite. No mechanized voice from my phone, scolding me to take a left in fifty, forty, thirty feet. When I traveled to 1880s America, I used a physical map.

In my novel, The Magnetic Girl, I imagine the story of the brief vaudeville career of the real performer Lulu Hurst, a teenage girl from rural Cedartown, Georgia. Lulu pretended to harness the then-mysterious science of electricity in her fingertips, lifting grown men in parlor chairs, or hypnotizing them as they held walking canes in order to “throw” the men across a stage with her power. She was the first in a series of female performers at the end of the 19th century who exploited the phenomenon of “Magnetism,” which some people of era conflated with the new science of electricity. She called these tricks “tests,” in an effort to seem scientific. What they were was a deployment of the principle of fulcrum and lever, and more importantly, a mastery of people’s desire for escape.

I read her autobiography. I read contemporary newspaper and magazine articles about her. I stood in the empty lot in Cedartown where her childhood home had been. I even tried doing her “tests,” to mixed results. Enter the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. I couldn’t tell you how I first learned about them, but I love maps. Through geometry and orientation, through representation of commerce, residences, places of worship and recreation, maps reveal story. I often ask my undergraduates to draw maps of their childhood bedrooms, their neighborhoods, their dorm rooms. From those maps come writing prompts.

Maps, if you read them right, give explicit directions into the human heart.

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which can be found in a variety of libraries and archives, depict more than 12,000 American towns and cities. The Sanborn maps give names to places that often no longer stand; dry goods store, stable, railroad tracks. They carefully detail the sizes and shapes of homes and business. They list street names and outline property boundaries. These maps are meticulous wonders with their color codes for building materials; brick, stone, wood.

In the 19th century, maps like these were prepared for insurance underwriters in order to provide accurate information about the properties under their policies. The Sanborn Map Company was founded shortly after the Civil War, and stopped producing the maps about a century later. The Library of Congress now holds a collection of more than twenty-five thousand individual maps.

The Library of Congress website, my printer, and a three-ring binder were my way forward. I searched by city, county, and date. I first surveyed the maps on my computer screen, but what good is a map if a traveler can’t hold it in her hand and draw arrows to the places where she will later draw stars?

The Sanborn maps of Cedartown, Georgia, allowed my imagination to pace the steps from storefront to the warehouse, to see where the sidewalk ended, where the railroad station stood. A cartographer’s meticulous eye and a draftsman’s square-edged notes marked pathways of a particular 19th century life that I could almost resurrect at my desk. If I wanted to have Lulu run along the sidewalk from the newspaper office where her father places an ad for her first performance, the Sanborn map showed me how that sidewalk came to an abrupt end at the corner.

My story deviates from the facts in many places; that’s the nature of fiction. But maps and historical evidence can be fiction’s compass.Writers are captivated by history. We examine why and how a cultural event, a personality, a story — came to be, and what it means for us as people and for our cultures.

The Sanborn maps surprised me with facts about places I know well. An 1884 Sanborn map of downtown Atlanta stunned me when I realized that the theater — “Opera House,” in period parlance — where Lulu Hurst had once performed stood across the street from the high rise where my father’s law office stood nearly a century later. When she was fifteen, she had crossed the same street as I had when I was fifteen. With a map, I saw exactly where our lives had intersected, and this made me love her all the more.

Once there was a theater, a hotel, a train station. Once, there was a life that I can nearly touch with the help of a map laid atop my desk.


Jessica Handler is the author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief _and _Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, which was named one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009.” Jessica writes essays and nonfiction features that have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine.