Writing life: Prison City research trip to Calvert County

Calvert County is a peninsula in Southern Maryland, squeezed between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River. (The lake across the street from my house feeds into the Patuxent River system.) The county is unfortunately fairly gentrified these days, but the inhabitants are proud of their historical ties to the water - hence our trip there.


The Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons places a greater emphasis on sealife than the Chesapeake Bay Maritime in St. Michaels - understandably, given its close proximity to Calvert Cliffs, where sealife fossils are plentiful. Doug and I both became enamored with the museum's jellyfish - how could anything that ethereal live? - and even more so with the otters outside which, if you sit next to the windows of their tank, will swim up and nuzzle the window you're next to, and then push themselves away - and then come back tirelessly to visit you over and over.

The otters alone were worth the visit.

However, the museum also has a large section devoted to watermen's lives and related topics such as steamships. I jotted down notes happily. I love well-designed local museums; they tend to be much more substantive than the Smithsonian, which has been aiming more and more in recent years for the lowest common denominator.

My main reason for visiting the museum was to see Drum Point Lighthouse, which had been moved from nearby Drum Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River. Like Hooper Strait Lighthouse - which I'd seen at the Chesapeake Bay Marine Museum - Drum Point Lighthouse is an octagonal cottage on metal stilts - a "screw-pile lighthouse," a type of lighthouses that is indigenous to the Chesapeake. (There aren't many of them left. They've tended to get knocked over by boats.) That made it perfect for my purposes; at the time I visited the Hooper Straight Lighthouse, I hadn't known that I would be setting a scene in a lighthouse, so my notes hadn't been as careful as I'd have liked.

Drum Point Lighthouse is carefully reconstructed to look as it did in 1906, in accordance with the memories of a woman who lived there as a young girl. I took tons of notes while cursing myself for not owning a camera - but at least the lighthouse is available online as a virtual tour. Doug patiently read far-away grocery labels for me again.

The bedroom upstairs is gorgeous in its simplicity. It goes into my story.


Solomons used to be Solomons Island, back before discarded oyster shells filled in the water area between the island and the mainland. It was one of Maryland's major ports at the turn of the century.

Solomons is tiny. It consists (as one guidebook puts it) of a pipe with a stem and a bowl; we walked around the entire bowl in the space of twenty minutes. It's hard to believe that this was the major hub of watermen's operations in Southern Maryland.

The town is gentrified now, in a pleasant way; though the harbor has a few tacky tourist traps, the houses in the town have cozy, pretty gardens. The harbor still has tons of boats; if you stand near the north end of the harbor (which is closed in by land on three of its four sides), you're surrounded by pleasure boats. The water near Solomons is unusually deep - more than one hundred feet in certain places - so ocean ships used to visit here.

Which is convenient, since Master and Servant begins with a character arriving on the island by way of an ocean ship.

The Calvert Marine Museum had a wonderful exhibit upstairs of a giant map of Solomons, with numbers corresponding to nearby photographs of Solomons in the past and present. I already knew where the town's steamboat wharf was, at the tip of the bowl (where the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory is now located, but a wharf is still at the tip of the bowl, just yards away from the gate to the lab, so I could easily envision that part of the story). With the aid of the map, I was able to identify which street my characters would walk down in the second scene of the novel.

What I wanted to know was how well my original draft of that scene would correspond to reality. Because in that original draft - typed up before I knew that I would be setting the scene in my version of Solomons - I had created the turn-of-the-century characters' conversation in accordance with landmarks that they passed. I had them pass a bank, pass a fish market, pass a business, and see the river dividing them from the neighboring landstead.

So Doug and I set off for a walk along Charles Street. We passed a turn-of-the-century bank, passed the harbor, passed the turn-of-the-century business district, and reached the point where we could see the river dividing us from the neighboring county.

My Muse can be scary sometimes.


Unfortunately, that turned out to be where our luck ended.

My Muse had placed my protagonist's estate several miles away, in the countryside. Having seen Solomons, I decided that my Muse had shown good judgment; there really wasn't room for a big estate on Solomons, or even on the nearby mainland.

So all that I needed was a cliffside location (my Muse had decided, for heaven knows what reason, to give the estate a cliffside view of the bay) from which my protagonist could see the Eastern Shore (because he needs to see that shore a lot in my story). Easy, right? Half of Calvert County faces the Eastern Shore, and the Calvert Cliffs extend for about six miles, all the way from Drum Point up to Calvert Cliffs State Park.

Try #1: Drum Point.

Drum Point seemed ideal. It's close to Solomons, it had a lighthouse in the 1910s, it should offer a good view of the Eastern Shore, and (perfect for my purposes) it had a mansion at the turn of the century. I was curious as to whether the mansion still existed. What was more relevant, I needed to know whether there was any sizeable amount of cliffside facing east.

It took us a while to get there. We kept getting lost. First of all, you can't just drive due east to get to Drum Point (which can be easily seen from Solomons), because there's river water and unbridged creeks between Solomons and Drum Point. You have to drive northeast, and then drive southeast.

And then you get lost in a maze of roads. This was partly my fault. Looking at a turn-of-the-century map before we left, I'd realized that one of those modern roads was based on a road that had existed at the turn of the century. So I figured I'd have us follow my characters' winding route from Solomons to the estate.

Um, right. I wonder whether the road had as many dead ends back in 1912.

By the time we actually reached Drum Point, Doug and I were both in a foul mood. Then we found that we couldn't enter Drum Point. It is now the private property of a club.

"You know," I said to Doug, staring at the "No Trespassing" sign, "my series is all about the class divide between the masters and their servants. I have the feeling I've just been told which side of the divide we exist on."

Try #2: Cove Point.

Okay, we'll just go to another point with a lighthouse, right? We really didn't have much choice, because the entire area between Cove Point and Drum Point is now private property, judging from the map. So I had Doug drive back via the winding roads, then drive east till we reached Cove Point Lighthouse, which is managed by Calvert Marine Museum, so it should be open to us, right?

Closed for the day.

Try #3: Cove Lake.

"There's a Cove Lake Road just south of here that appears to go right next to shore," I said. "Let's give it a try."

Swallowing a few curses, Doug drove us back to Cove Lake - which, as it turns out, is a product of Purgatory Creek.

Private property.

Try #4: Camp Canoy.

"I want to see the cliffs," said Doug through gritted teeth.

"We'll try Camp Canoy Road," I said with forced cheerfulness. "It's near Calvert Cliffs State Park, and it appears to end at the shoreline."

Private property.

Try #5: Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.

"Okay," I said, peering at the map again, "there's a visitors' center at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant. It's right next to the shore."

Closed to visitors.

Try #6: Calvert Cliffs State Park.

"I want to see the cliffs!" roared Doug.

"But there isn't any road to the cliffs through this park," I objected as he got out of the car. "Just hiking trails. And it's sundown now. And I'm not dressed for hiking--"

"Here," said Doug, jingling his keys as he started onto a trail. "You can wait in the car."

Cursing, I hurried to catch up with him. And failed. Have I mentioned that Doug is much more fit than I am?

At the one-mile mark - with me still trailing behind, and twilight rapidly arriving - I began to plot his murder.

At the 1.5-mile mark, I decided that he was trying to murder me.

We reached the beach at the 1.8-mile mark of our powerwalk. Up till then, we'd been travelling through forested marshland, very different from the marshland we'd encountered in Dorchester Couty. Then we walked over a ridge--

And the bay was spread out in front of us. Between Rocky Point (to the north of us) and the winking light of Cove Point Lighthouse (to the south of us), all we could see was the Chesapeake Bay, one off-shore rig, and the Eastern Shore. The fossil-strewn beach in front of us was empty. On both sides of us, the Calvert Cliffs rose like giants.

"Have I redeemed myself?" Doug asked, putting his arm around my shoulders.



Yesterday, I did some online research about the history of the Calvert Cliffs State Park. I turned up a wonderfully valuable article in the Chesapeake Bay Journal about the history of the Cove Point region. Drawing on research done by other scholars, the article writer said that there had been several Colonial manors in the region. So I started doing Web searches on the manor names and turned up a 1913 book on them at the Internet Archive, describing what the manors looked like in that year. I also found at Google Books an 1873 novel set in Calvert County that gave a very detailed description of one of the manor houses and of many of the regional features.

None of the manors seem to have been close to the water or connected in any way with water occupations, but I think I can use artistic license here. I did go searching to see how good a harbor the cove north of Cove Point is (the one that Doug and I visited at Calvert Cliffs State Park). Not a very good one, it turns out, but it's half-heartedly recommended to sailors as a shelter from northwestern winds.

The information I cannot find, for the life of me, is how far into shore visiting boats can go. I need to know that in order to know whether a wharf there would be at all plausible. Cove Point Lighthouse marks a shoal, I know - as well as a nasty bit of water where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Patuxent River and gets all stirred up - but I can't locate any information on what the depth is of the shoreline water to the north of Cove Point. Nobody seems particularly interested in that particular cove; it doesn't have a name and barely qualifies as a cove.

*Sigh*. Writing quasi-medieval fantasy was much easier. (But less satisfying to me as a history writer.)

So I still don't know for sure where my protagonist's estate is located, but for better or worse, that's my only trip to Southern Maryland this year. Now I just need to read the turn-of-the-century texts on lighthouses that I downloaded last weekend - which I can do throughout the fall - and I'll be all set to finish writing "Master and Servant."

Except that Spiralred has invited me to join her in a visit to Dorchester County next month. Yay!


June 2018



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