In the Summer I was nearing the end of the first draft of my most recent book when one of my main characters had to deliver something to a prison facility in Louisiana. I had already researched the sort of place I wanted him to be going to and found one listed that seemed to fit. I could have winged it, making up the scenery he drove through, but if I was even to mention the name of the State I knew I had to get it right. Not yet being a writer who can just hop on a plane to go and visit the place for my research (and put it down as expenses) I flew Google!
I took in the aerial view, dropping lower and lower, noting the town to the north east of the prison, the expanse of empty fields around it. Google landed me on the stretch of road that led up to the prison gateway, I went as far as I could, peered left and right along the boundary fence, then turned around and drove back down Prison Road and on towards the town. I sped through the town until it petered out, then turned back and slowly, glancing left and right, drove back through, noting the types of houses, the few large red-brick buildings, the empty stretch of road before the Prison Road turning. I took in this road, its features to either side and its length. Finally I lifted off again, looking down on the whole scene. I had what I needed. I think the information from my Google street-view and satellite journey that I used will feel authentic enough, they describe the right type of countryside, the right type of town.
“After two hours drive I hit the small community that bore the same name as the jail, drove past the red-brick elementary school and library, through the streets lined with white painted clapboard homes and out the other side to the junction where Prison road joined the highway through town. I turned in, the fields stretched out bare and flat on either side between stumpy hedges that led off left and right in long straight lines, the ploughed soil red, the grass sparse. About a mile along the road was a dark clump of fir trees but after that nothing to give shelter or a hiding place for miles, only the gate to the prison way up ahead of me, blocking the road like a toll-booth, and as I neared, the miles of fencing which could be seen stretching away on either side.”
I already feel someone beginning to object, saying that there’s nothing like ‘being there’ to get the things right. I agree, if you need in-depth understanding and a verifiable atmosphere, but I think that for this background-filling work flying Google is a useful aid for the modern author, with back-up research needed if there are any queries in what you see.
On the other hand, I clearly remember reading a book in the 1980s by an American author who liked to set her stories in Britain, and who, the info claimed ‘spent a lot of time in Britain researching her novels’. She had set one on the edge of Dartmoor, an area I know well, in a key role it involved a Chalk quarry and a muffin shop. The muffins in question were cranberry, chocolate and carrot and orange, not the sort of muffin you would have found in the UK back then, and I can only assume she had seen the white china-clay pits on the edge of Dartmoor and thought they must be chalk but not completed her research. So ‘being there’ isn’t always foolproof either.
What do you think? Anyone else been flying to plot destinations by Google?