The Royal Geographical Society: Still a treasure in its third century

Located in a classy but nondescript building in the Kensington neighborhood of London, the Royal Geographical Society is not your normal tourist attraction—but it should hold a special place in every traveler’s heart. Founded in 1830 as a dinner club hosting lectures from hearty travelers, the Society (or RGS as it’s often called) became a world-class institution for the advancement of knowledge about the planet.

With generous endowments, the RGS evolved into a training hub and planning headquarters for several famous Victorian and Edwardian explorers such as Livingstone, Darwin, Shackleton and Burton. They and other like-minded adventurers—all partially financed, trained by and associated with the RGS—mapped rivers in Africa, measured mountains in Asia, reached the North and South poles, discovered islands in the South Pacific, and carried out zoological studies everywhere. The official creed of the RGS was that no corner of the planet was too remote, too obscure, or too dangerous.

The rich heritage of the RGS earned it a role in my new novel, “Dangerous Latitudes”, about an adventurous travel writer on an extraordinary expedition. As the lead character Matthew Hunt explains to a colleague, “The RGS was the NASA of its time, training explorers and then sending them off on expeditions to learn about the world and return with new insights. Think Dr. Livingston and Darwin. Guys like that were the astronauts to the RGS’ NASA. And the places they went seemed just as remote to them as other worlds seem to us.”

The explorers who survived their journeys brought back amazing tales of new lands, new cultures, and new ways of looking at the world. The well-maintained RGS archives are an array of sextants, telescopes, compasses, charts and diaries comprising a breathtaking chronicle of human exploration—and almost all of them were from expeditions done when the telegraph was new, and airplanes and antibiotics were still just a dream.

Today the RGS promotes research and education as it transitions into the new millennium, and its archives are considered a treasure to historians and scientists alike. The next time you’re in London, get off at the South Kensington tube stop and drop by their headquarters (near Royal Albert Hall) to peruse the collections of hand-scrawled maps, drawings, and field notes made by the astronauts of another era.

I dare you not to be inspired.

The Joy of Research

When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.

I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.

Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.

The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.

I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.

The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.

Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.