Google Maps: The Descriptive Writer's Secret Weapon

One of the things I like about writing in imagined worlds is the freedom you have to invent detail. It’s a place the reader isn’t familiar with, so it has to be described to them so they’ll understand what’s in your head.

Of course the flip side of that is you have to describe all that stuff so they’ll understand.

Writing in a familiar place is easier in that regard. You don’t want to waste a lot of the reader’s time telling them all the details about things they are familiar with. But even in a familiar setting there are details they need to know, and it’s your job as a writer to provide them.

This comes back to the old saw that you should ‘write what you know.’ What doesn’t occur to most people is that ‘what you know’ is not limited to what lives in your head. It can be what’s in front of your eyes, too.

The story I’m currently writing is set in a fictional world, but it’s a world that’s a lot like ours, except that it has suffered some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe and oh yeah, there are zombies. Aside from that though, it looks a lot like the real world, with cities that resemble ours, people that are like ours, a culture that was like ours until catastrophe struck.

I’m trying to go for a feeling of authenticity in the city descriptions, but there’s a problem. I’ve never lived in a large city. I’ve visited them, sure, but never spent enormous amounts of time in one. I live in a small town, so I can’t really just open my door, go to the coffee shop and write what’s in front of my eyes. That would work for a small town, but not a large urban center.

Enter Google Maps and StreetView!

While absolutely NOT a replacement for research or visiting areas in person, if possible, StreetView (or similar services from Microsoft and others) can give you instant access to the world, at least on a visual level.

There are certain scenes in The Fast and the Dead that I want to be distinctive, to have the feeling that they’re real places, that they really exist. The best way to accomplish this is to base them on places that actually do really exist.

Ideally you’d use a place you know or can go to, but if you can’t, or if you simply don’t know something suitable, pick a real-world area that evokes the feel you’re going for and find a suitable street. Virtually explore it until you find the perfect building to describe.

It’s unlikely you’ll find an exact, 1:1 match, unless you happen to be writing in a real location and you’re describing that specific location. That’s okay though. It means that what you describe will remain within the realm of things that come out of your head; you won’t be lifting your descriptions off of a photo and pasting them into your writing. You’re going to have to adapt the descriptions, accommodate the differences, invent or change additional details.

It’ll still require some work, but the realism and detail of your descriptions will thank you for it.