Some of my first research for my novel started out as recreational travel. I traveled to Paris in June of 2003 for 10 days. The city enchanted me, and it seemed the perfect place to set a story. I did visit museums (the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre), and some of the other tourist areas, but I was mostly inspired by a visit to the well-known jazz club Le Bilboquet, just off the Blvd St. Germain. (Unfortunately it no longer exists at that location.) But, my memory isn’t photographic, much as I might wish it.
Google Maps, especially the Street View, is a godsend. In my original draft I had a character looking out over the Seine from the Left Bank. Rather than guess at what that view might be, I took a peek with Google. It turns out that where they were standing was right across from the Louvre. So instead of coming across as a complete idiot author who doesn’t know Paris, I was able to properly set the scene.
Sophie’s gaze was drawn to the Louvre, whose windows glittered in the orange light of the sun that was beginning to set.
“I love this city. Sometimes I wish that I never had to leave.” She leaned on the low stone wall, looking over the water. He leaned beside her, his eyes mostly on her, flicking occasionally to the museum and the river.
“Why don’t you stay?”
She turned to him. “What would I do here? I’d have to find a job.”
He shrugged. “Everything’s possible.”
“Of course. How badly do you want it?”
Most of what I find out via Google Earth isn’t used in the actual writing, but gives me enough background information to write with confidence. If I know that walking from Saint-Sulpice church to Shakespeare & Co. is going to take an average of 15 minutes (20 for the laggards), then I know that I can put in a lot of conversation without the Parisian wondering how I was able to get almost half an hour’s worth of conversation into a five-minute walk.
Google Earth is also fantastic for wowing your non-computer-savvy relatives with the awesomeness of having them look at their own house online, or finding out how they can get from the middle of the prairies to London, England. (It involves a lot of swimming.) So, +1 internets to Google!