I recently became part of a rising indie publishing house, and I'm telling you that because I'm telling EVERYBODY! Unfortunately, you have to actually go write a book when you do that sort of thing, so I've been plugging away at a novel for the past couple of weeks. In doing so, I've discovered the fiction writer's best nonalcoholic friend: Google Street View.
My novel takes place in Madisonville, Texas, because I wanted a small town and I vaguely remember that being where Stu Redman was from in Stephen King's The Stand. Granted, I've never been to Madisonville, nor am I ever likely to go. It was just a handy place that would fit in nicely with the Small Town America setting I wanted. After all, Bram Stoker never set foot in Transylvania when he wrote Dracula, so why should I let it bother me?
As I was writing about cloudy winter days and gas stations on the corners of streets, I started to wonder about something, though. It's the age of the Internet, and if I say that my protagonist works in a three-screen movie theater on Troughton Street in Madisonville, Texas, it's likely that someone will eventually point out that not only is there no movie theater in town, there's no Troughton Street either.
A minor detail fudged for the sake of storytelling? Sure, but at this point, where so much accessibility is available to a writer without even having to get out of his or her chair, to not do due diligence on those minor details feels like laziness.
That's when I decided to give Google Street View a shot, starting with the address of Madisonville High School. My protagonist is a teenage girl looking for a job to buy a car, so just as she would walk home from school, I walked step by step as she would from the doors of her school. I saw a slightly disreputable-looking motel nearby, and long stretches of bramble-covered fences. The cars on the road were mostly trucks, all loaded down with equipment, and the buildings that you passed tended to be in need of some paint.
You see the difference that comes from taking a few minutes to play with the satellite view of the place? Suddenly, all the details that you were previously just pulling out of your oubliette fill in themselves and color your narrative with a more definite realism. Sure, you could just make up a town and lay it out however you wanted to. Millions have and do, but I personally love knowing that every weird location in Neil Gaiman's American Gods is actually there right down to the Center of America.
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I'm not the only person who has used the magic of Google Street View to take virtual tours of the world and flesh out a story. When Sinead MacDuhglas was penning her story "Carmaterdea", she used Google Street View for everything from exploring Vatican City to finding a cave where the hero Perseus might have hidden. When she needed a location where it would be feasible to gather every world leader together, that's the tool she used to make that happen.
Likewise, SK Whiteside didn't send her character Syn out to patrol nighttime London in Inheritance: World of the Guardians until after she'd used Google Street View to gauge the skyline and the buildings in Syn's path. Ditto for Kristen Day, who couldn't afford to get a personal look at the ruins on southern Cypress for her Daughters of the Sea series of novels, but was able to have a reasonable facsimile thanks to the internet.
A good writer is able to transport a reader worlds away, and it's just amazing to me that now you can ensure that that journey is a very accurate one almost effortlessly. Whether it's exotic locations like Bermuda or just a small town in Texas most people have never heard of, Google Street View can show you what it's actually like to walk the streets as the characters you create.