Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 20, 2014

Writing Tip – Google Maps = Magic Carpet Ride

Guest Blogger: Johanna Bilbo Staton  

Map Program = Magic Carpet

You’re writing about a particular place, but your description feels flat. What you want, instead, is for your reader to feel as though they are actually “there.” Time for a field trip? But maybe that’s not possible—it would take time and money, lots of both if the location is far away from you.

I’ve discovered another solution: the map program on my computer and in particular the satellite and street level views. Granted, they will not give you the sounds and smells of a place, nor how it will look in a variety of seasons and weathers. Yet a map program can provide you with a surprisingly useful amount of detail.

Here are two examples of how I have used this resource:

Those computer maps are likely less than ten years old. How much use could they be for a story set almost five hundred years ago? Answer: quite a bit. Part of my story is set in Quarley, a tiny village of thatched-roof cottages in Hampshire, England. I know for a fact that they are at least forty years old. Four hundred plus? Maybe not. But in that relatively flat countryside there is one high spot, Quarley Hill, and it would have been there at the time of my story. I’ve seen it in person, but before that, I had seen it on Google Maps, and had written about it:

By mutual agreement, we angled toward Quarley Hill, a bump in the landscape that was our one local claim to any sort of height. Trotting up and down it, Frydd declared, was the best way for Bonesy to regain his mountain legs.

Later in the same manuscript, the main character and her companion are riding west toward Wales. Obviously there’s a big difference between modern roads in the UK and those of Tudor England. But I compared a British Ordnance Survey Historical Map of ancient Britain (also a useful resource) with a modern Ordnance Survey map of the same area, and so had a good idea of the probable route my riders took. Going to the area on Google Maps and going to the street view gave me this detail:

The Salisbury Plain had been flat. Now we rode through rolling countryside. We were in a valley, with slopes rising up on either side of the road.

Chances are I may find the program useful in a possible future project to be set in medieval Scotland—find a modern road through a wild area (plenty of those in the Highlands!) , and see what there is to see.

(However, Google seems to have changed its map program slightly since I did that. Instead of being able to move a little person-on-foot icon to a road, the program shows me a selection of street-level pictures. But this ought to be helpful also.)

I’ve also used the map program capabilities in my freelance copyediting, but in a way that would be just as useful for my writing. The text in question was from a contemporary novel set in New York City, in a scene that was set on the roof of a major theatrical landmark, and concerning what the characters could see from there. From the map program, I was able to determine which of the details given were, in fact, visible from that location, and which ones were iffy or impossible.

Writer’s block about your setting? Call up your map program, tell it where you want to go, let it get you down on the ground, and see what inspires you.

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