Adventures in History: Old Town Alexandria


For Labor Day, I decided to wander around Old Town, Alexandria. It’s a place where it’s like walking between two different times.  We have all the historic buildings and shops like Starbucks and Banana Republic.

It was a pretty nice day for wandering.  Not too hot and not too cold (we’ll have cold soon enough!).  Everyone was out walking their dogs, so lots of doggy action.

Alexandria was originally part of Washington, DC.   During the 1700s, it was major shipping port.  Those wonderful tall ships came down the river to pick up tobacco and other goods.  It was such a popular port that the city built out the waterfront from Lee Street down.

Visitor map is here if you want to follow along.  That street will become very important soon.

Potomac River from Alexandria

This is the Potomac River from Waterfront Park.  Maryland is that land in the distance.  In the 1800s, the British burned Washington DC.  Then enemy warships came down this area.  Fearing the same thing would happen to the city, Alexandria waved a white flag of surrender.

Statue of the Seafarer

This statue was also in the park.  It was called “The Seafarer.”  Not a specific person, but a beautiful work of art.

Then it was off to check out Point Lumley.  I admit I was thinking that there might be a lighthouse (there is one somewhere in the area).  Lumley was named after the skipper of a ship that moored there.  So I walked down Union Street.

As I pass a hotel, I catch a passing conversation.  A woman tells the concierge if he knows about the Coast Guard ship on the next block.

Wait…ship?  What ship?

Needless to say I have to explore this.

The Coast Guard ship Eagle moored at Point Lumley

I turn left on Duke street and see these masts.  Holy cow!

I was expecting a Coast Guard cutter, not a tall ship.  Magnificent, isn’t it?

It’s called Eagle.  Across the water, I can hear a woman’s voice over the intercom.  There is also a lot of activity on board, with the crew about their business.

After this, it’s time for Captain’s Row.

Historical signage for Captain's Row

This is a sign in front of a two block street dating back to 1783 and preserved for us to have a look.

Captain's Row Cobblestone street

It’s a cobblestone street.  I read about cobblestone streets in books, but this is what one actually looks like . I try to walk on it, a little bit.  The stones are very uneven.  Some have settled in places.  Not good for my feet.

A closeup shot of cobblestone

And a closeup of what it looks like.

Bizarrely, as I look at cobblestone from three hundred years ago, jets are roaring overhead.  I’m on the flight path for Reagan Airport.

Next up is George Washington.  I’m on Lee Street again, so I follow that to Cameron, then turn left.  I know George had a townhouse here.

From the perspective of today, it seems like a long ways. But if he lived here before the waterfront was built out, then he might have been pretty close to the water.

View of Gatsby's Tavern

My trip up Cameron takes me past Gatsby’s Tavern.  It’s actually a museum and a restaurant.  I’ll spend a whole post on that, since there’s a lot to see.

Sign saying George ate here

And, as you can see, this was a place that George Washington visited.  Hmm.  Maybe I need to check out the restaurant when I visit the museum.

Replica of George Washington's Townhouse

And here is George’s townhouse.

It’s actually a replica of the house and privately owned.  But note in the left window that George is peeping out.  George would stay here when he traveled in from Mount Vernon.

It’s also amazing because I never knew this was here, and I nearly always pass by it trying to get out of Old Town.

By the time, I’ve done a lot of walking, so I’m heading back.  But not without one last stop.

Historic city hall, fountain, and American flag

This is City Hall.  The building is historic.  The fountain and the flag is pretty cool.  It’s a lot of water, and the air is filled with the scents of it.

Back down to Lee Street and my car.  Parking for 90 minutes was fourteen bucks!

How This Pantser Does Research


Research came up as a topic on Facebook, one of those things where the writers want to know how you keep your research notes.  I suppose I’m an oddity, because I don’t keep any research notes.

To start with, I don’t plan out my stories at all.  I have no idea what will happen in them, or how they will end.  Consequently, I also wouldn’t know what I needed to research.

I could try, but I would waste a considerable amount of time.  I learned that on one of my book projects.  I researched several subjects to death, dutifully wrote down cool things that caught my interest.  Even went to a college campus, hit their library and looked stuff up, took notes.

Then I made first contact with the story.  Used none of that research.

So what do I do instead?

Most of it is long before I write the story, and it’s not for any specific story.  I go to some place like Old Towne, Alexandria, Virginia and wander around.  Enjoy myself.  Look at stuff.  Smelled the malt of beer being made at a distillery. Be horrified at the cobblestone alleyways—how did people walk on them things? 

Then, when I come with an idea, I do the reverse of what I think a lot of writers do. They get the idea and shape the research around the idea.  If the idea involves a doctor doing surgery, they go out and learn everything about that type of surgery.

On the other hand, I start with the setting, which is where most of my research would be needed, so I can pick some place that I’m well familiar with and intersect other elements, then plop an idea there.  I’m also not going to pick occupations for characters where I have to do research just to do the character.   

As I write, the details filter into the story through my subconscious.  I think that’s because I had fun at these places.  Fun leaves an imprint.

I’m working on a story that started with Old Town as a basis, and I added bits from a fascinating lecture on Civil War maps I attended ten years ago, and  the visit of a three masted sailing ship (isn’t the ship below glorious?).   Oh, and also a Civil War fashion show from a few years back.  Clothes are always interesting.

18th century replica ship

After that, it’s the writing.  It’s a fantasy, so some of it is made up (magic and swords; no repeating rifles or muzzle loaders). Still some research, but it’s on the spot, as I discover what I need while I’m writing the story.  For the story, that’s been food.  I just look it up and put what I need directly into the story.

On the plate for the future is to visit the masted ship in Baltimore.  I really want to walk on board and see what it was like to live there.  Some of my ancestors came over on sailing ships like that.  And it would be really cool to write a pirate story one day…