A Plug for Google Earth

I was sitting here trying to think of what to blog about next. As a person who never has to worry about what to SAY next, this blogging three times a week is getting frustrating. It’s like I’ve run out of things to say. So I figured I’d skip the blog post this week (again) and do something constructive, like work on my novel. As I was digging through my pile of papers to find the one sheet I needed, I came across the maps I drew of my character’s neighborhoods. That’s when I came up with this blog post: a plug for Google Earth.

 
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I’ve used it on my last three novels. The first and second were set in Seattle, about a 1.5 hour drive from where I live. I had a paper map of Seattle, and I had a statistical map (my husband provided it for me) of the socio-economic status in Seattle (poorest parts in one color, middle-class in another color, richest areas in… you get it). So I knew the general area where I wanted my protagonist cop to live, where my antagonist would live, where my run-away teen would live. But seeing it on a paper map just isn’t enough. So I conned a friend into driving me up to Seattle and we cruised through those areas I’d marked as important to my story. I took a ton of photos, chose which houses/apartments my characters would live in, and got a general feel for the neighborhoods. Excellent stuff.
 
But I could only drive to Seattle once (it’s stressful, believe me!), and I didn’t learn absolutely everything I needed for the story. Enter Google Earth. It’s fantastic! I find the area of the city I want to explore, then zoom around like a bird to see the big picture of the surrounding neighborhoods, how far it is from famous landmarks or waterways, locate nearby parks, restaurants, and coffee shops, etc. Then I can zoom in and get a street view as if I were really there. If I stand on this particular street corner, I can turn and see all that can be seen–and what CAN’T be seen–and do a full 360. It’s not as excellent as being there, but it’s a really close second.
 
My newest novel is set in my hometown, which I know well. Yet I still use Google Earth to look around neighborhoods I’ve never driven through before, chart distances from a house to the hospital or from a house to downtown so I can estimate drive time, and see entire neighborhoods in one big overhead shot. It’s great for finding good hiding places (for bad guys), back roads for escape routes, and finding nearby conveniences likes groceries and coffee. 
 
The downside to Google Earth is you’re never certain if the views are up-to-date, but I figure it doesn’t matter all that much. Readers may complain about inconsistencies (that massive tree was cut down in 2011, or that building burned to the ground in 2013), but as artists we’re allowed the old “artistic license” thing. In one of my novels, I used this exact scenario to my advantage: a house that used to sit on 6th Avenue in Lacey is no longer there, but using Google Earth, I went back in time to find out when it came down. Then I set my story six months before the house was bulldozed and put the house’s destruction into the story. Did you know that you can go back in time with Google Earth? There’s a little clock icon with a back arrow attached. Click that, and you get a slider that let’s you go back to previous pictures taken of that same area. There are limits to this (the photos don’t go back very far), but it can be useful to know what the neighborhood looked like last year, or two years ago, or five years ago (if they have photos from that far back).
 
If you’ve never tried using Google Earth, give it a shot. You might find it one of the most useful tools in your writer’s tool box. If you have used it, share your experience in the comment section below. I love hearing from you.
 
-Sonja
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