Pulling a Town Out of Thin Air

Getting Moore Hollow ready for publication this fall made me think back to this piece from my old blog. Moore Hollow is set in West Virginia, but not in any place that actually exists on the map. Jenkinsville and Vandalia County were pulled straight from the ether. Maybe that’ll change someday.

One of the cool things about writing fiction is you get to make up stuff as you go along (it’s sort of the nature of the game).  Not just characters and what they do but, often just as important, where they do it.  You can build entire worlds and nations in your mind, not to mention cities.  I’ve even made some maps (crude, but effective – I’m not a cartographer, after all) of the world in which my Water Road books are set, as well as another world I’ve yet to write in.  It’s all quite fun.

But imagine that you could create a town out of thin air, as a fiction, only for it to pop up in real life?  Now that’s really cool!

Consider the strange case of Algoe, New York (not to be confused with the planet Algon, where an ordinary cup of drinking chocolate costs 4 million pounds).

Back in the 1930s, it wasn’t unusual for mapmakers to steal each other’s work.  After all, if a map reflects realty and someone copies the map, don’t they have a defense to plagiarism by arguing that both the original map and the alleged copy accurately reflect reality?  How can that lose?

Turns out, map makers got savvy and began including some fictional places to trap would be copyists:

That’s what Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co., and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, did in the 1930s. They were making a road map of New York state, and on that out-of-the-way dirt road, they created a totally fictitious place called ‘Agloe.’ The name was a mix of the first letters in their names, Otto G. Lindberg’s (OGL) and Ernest Alpers’ (EA).

The trap set, it appeared to work, when the town of Algoe appeared on a map made by none other than Rand McNally a few years later.  Case closed, right?  Big check from Rand McNally to Lindberg and Alpers.  Not so fast – Rand McNally offered a defense: there really was a town called Algoe.  In fact, the official county map showed an Algoe General Store in that location.  Checkmate, cartographic honey pot.

But how’d that happen?

Good question. Here’s the ironic answer. The owners had seen Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, which owned scores of gas stations. Esso had bought that map from Lindberg and Alpers. If Esso says this place is called Agloe, the store folks figured, well, that’s what we’ll call ourselves. So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed. Rand McNally, one presumes, was found not guilty.

Then the store closed. It isn’t there anymore.

Having said that, according to the NPR story, Algoe held on for years on Google Maps until it, again, vanished into thin air recently.

So, want to have an impact on the world?  Make a map and give it a fictional town.  It might come to life without you even knowing about it!

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old blog on April 1, 2014.

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