One of my favorite parts of starting a new story is the research. I’m all about immersing myself in the setting: time, place, clothes, food, everything—I want to live and breathe the world of my story, and I want to take my readers there, too. If the setting is somewhere I’ve traveled, I add in details that only come from being there. There is no substitute for personal experience. Which sucks, since I’m not made of money (though “research” is one of the finest motives for travel, IMHO). So that brings us to the topic of the day, virtual research.
Right about now, you might be thinking, “Syd, you are not seriously going to spend an entire blog post telling me to use the internet for research!” Now, before you re-christen me Mrs. Obvious, let me clarify. It’s all in the way you use it that takes a website from being just information to the next best thing to being there. So bear with me and I’ll share my esoteric knowledge!
My Number One Super- Secret Website: Google Maps
If you aren’t aware of Google Maps, you must live under a rock (even though Google Maps has probably at least documented the upper side of said rock). Street View is the best thing ever for exploring a setting, worldwide. I use it in a variety of ways. First, it’s a snapshot of the real, candid, caught-in-time view of your real setting, un-posed and authentic. The actual businesses, the architecture, the vibe. Most of the time, they’re not pretty, just real. Power lines, check cashing places, delivery vans. But that’s real life. Here’s a screen shot of the Promenade in Blackpool, U.K. just as an example.
I’ve got the beach at the far left, and the brown-gray color of the sea, the kitsch of the tourist attractions, and the quality of the sunlight in the morning. I’ve also got images of passing people, bundled up against the wind (this is October). I can take all of these details and build them into a setting. The map part itself is valuable just to establish directions in my narrative and to add a little authenticity to something that might be entirely from my imagination, otherwise. Google Maps are great for exploring those everyday side streets you might not get to see, even if you were able to travel there. Think about it: maybe your heroine is a college graduate who has just moved to Manhattan, and you’ve been to NYC. But realistically, is she going to live in a neighborhood near Times Square and the other places on every tourist’s must-see list? What does her building look like? What would she see when looking out of her window? Google Maps will help. I’ll travel down the streets of my novel’s setting, looking this way and that, looking for buildings I like, places my characters might shop, restaurants where they might eat. I don’t dump all of this in, but a judicious name-drop of a street or a shop adds a touch of authenticity.
One caution, though: this can be a real time suck. I’ve logged so many hours on Street View that when I’ve actually visited in real life, I’ve been able to walk around like a native. Yeah, I’m obsessed. So I don’t use this when I’m actively writing a draft. All it takes is for me to wonder how far a character lives from his office, and I’m off stalking the streets for office buildings……and now it’s dark outside, I’ve got a Word document with a blinking cursor and I’m on the receiving end of some very pointed questions regarding dinner. But for that glorious time when the spark of your story is new, put on your imaginary traveling shoes, get to clicking, and explore!