Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Location, location, location

By Mark W. Danielson

Rather than selling real estate, I am suggesting using aerial maps to help create realistic scenes. As a reality-based novelist, I have found that visiting my settings is critical to accurately writing about them. In most cases, I’ve been physically able to walk the areas I’ve described, but there are times when I must resort to other means. One of those involves using satellite imagery through the Internet. Here, a variety of mapping web sites allow me to zoom in on specific locations using a full range of magnification. Other than actually visiting the site, there isn’t a better way to create or verify a potential scene.

Using this method is simple. Let’s say I want to find a hotel for a particular crime scene. First, I’ll do an Internet search to locate a hotel that’s closest to my desired location, then I’ll switch to the aerial view that’s normally provided on the hotel’s web site. If an aerial view isn’t available, then I’ll plug the address into a mapping web site. The large scale aerial view gives me a broad understanding on how everything can fit together. Then, if I plan on describing a route to or from this hotel, I’ll pan the map to follow specific roads, picking up details along the way. I always keep my descriptions brief, though. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but there’s no need to use that many.

Scaling a map is equally important, but even this space image of the San Francisco Bay Area shown above provides remarkable detail. If you’re familiar with this location, you can pick out Golden Gate Park even at this range. Once I understand the big picture, I’ll zoom in for clarity, such as in this image of Chicago’s Michigan Boulevard. (See photo below.) Of course, the value of satellite imagery is proportional to one’s familiarity with a location. If you know the area, then satellite images will stir memories that can be woven into your story. If you are unfamiliar and attempt to substitute these images for actually being there, then you are jeopardizing your credibility, for no matter how clear the image, these photos cannot even hint at the smells, sounds, or general condition, nor can they give a sense about the people who walk its streets.

I am a firm believer that reality-based fiction must be accurate in every detail. Since credibility is the essence of any suspense story, why create fictional cities when so much crime happens in existing ones? Remember that even though a small percentage of your readers may discover your error(s), your resulting loss of credibility can seriously damage your writing career. (I still remember some “big name” authors’ inaccuracies from years ago.)

Like everything, satellite imagery is one more gizmo in your tool chest, no different from taking photographs, making video recordings, or talking to street people. The key to being a solid writer is including the details in your scenes. Pay attention to the dust on the light bulbs, the background music, and most of all, have fun with it.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Mark. I also use aerial imagery and am a stickler for reality-based fiction. I once read a book about Wyoming that had seven digit license plates and I put the book aside, never to pick it up again. Wyoming's plates have a large cowboy on a bucking bronc, a separate county number and four other numbers and letters. A minor detail, I know, but what else did the writer get wrong?


Ben Small said...

I use Google Earth and then drive or walk the areas too, taking camera shots, so certain scenes grow in my head, apt for the terrain and locale. And I pick up local newspapers, home buying guides and What's Going On magazines. Gives a flavor for restaurants, local businesses and the like.

Chester Campbell said...

I not only use the aerial maps in my research, in The Surest Poison I had my characters use MapQuest aerial shots while driving to find a farm in the next county. Handy stuff.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Technology is a wonderful thing, but nothing substitutes for being there. I think of how much the smells and sounds differ between China, India, and Europe. No pictures can ever capture that.