Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Artistic Licence and Google Earth

Last Saturday I was part of a fabulous panel called "Intrigue and Deceit in a Foreign Setting." (Thank you Diana James Publicity for organizing this). Given the fact that it was a stifling hot day, we had a really great turn out at the Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles (thank you CRM Lisa Kingsley for having us!) Of course, the air conditioning at B & N is excellent and there is also an amazing coffee shop which probably helped.

My fellow panelists were Kwei Quartey, Lynne Sheene and Aileen Baron. Between the four of us we covered Ghana, Paris, the entire Middle East and of course, my home country—jolly old England.

One of the questions that came up during our panel discussion was how each of us did our research to create that all important "sense of place." Some of us relied on memory or just had vivid imaginations. Others wanted to depict the real world where their story was set with as much accuracy as possible.

Naturally one of the joys of writing about a foreign land is having a good excuse to visit. It's also a great tax write-off but sometimes it's not always practical or economical to fly off into the wide blue yonder to double check the architectural details of a historic monument in Dawlish Warren.

My heroine Vicky Hill's world of Gipping-on-Plym is fictional but I do use bits of places I know well. I've stolen the High Street in Tiverton, the clock tower in Totnes, a stately home in Cullompton and some beautiful woods on the outskirts of Haldon Hill. Lynne uses Google Earth to confirm Parisian street names but as Kwei discovered, Google Earth is often hopelessly out of date. His Inspector Darko Dawson series is set in the fast developing city of Accra in Ghana. On Kwei's last trip to Ghana, he was dismayed to discover that a parking lot that had featured prominently in his current book had completely vanished. I wonder if it matters? Isn't that why writers are allowed artistic license?

I use Google Earth a lot. Visiting childhood haunts that I can put into my books is a trip down memory lane that I really enjoy. I know it's not reliable but in this instance, I don't care. However I do care when a place I'm really familiar with claims to be the real deal but the author clearly has never been there.

I've also discovered that Google Earth has come in very handy in my day job. If I have to have a package delivered to an address I'm unfamiliar with, I'll google earth and see if the place looks secure, "Yes, just walk up the drive. It's safe to leave on the front step."

Technology is evolving all the time and it won't be long before we can use Google Earth in "real time." Perhaps that's when we'll have to contend with readers who want—and can—virtually visit the places described in our novels. A rather worrying thought.


Rick Blechta said...

Google Earth can be a very useful tool in drafting a novel, but you cannot rely on it if you're writing about real places. You simply must go there for accuracy. I'm not talking about those small details that give a novel veracity. I'm talking about details that you may get completely wrong. Nothing destroys the "reality" of a novel like getting a crucial fact wrong.

Case in point: My forthcoming novel (The Fallen One) has a critical scene at a Paris Metro stop. Using Google Earth, I surmised that the entrance was on a certain corner. Fortunately, I was able to go to Paris and that Metro entrance turned out to be a bus shelter. The blocking of the scene as I'd written it was hopelessly incorrect.

Now the chances of a reader being familiar with the Sully-Morland Metro station are slim, but if I'm going to identify a real location in a novel, then I owe it to my readers to get it correct.

Added benefit of on-the-spot research: my wife and I went into a nearby park, sat on a bench and spent a lovely hour working out the details of the new scene. It was infinitely nicer sitting in a Paris park rather than being parked at a computer in a small room at home!

hannah dennison said...

Rick - I LOVE your comment. Ha! Yes - I agree that to really get a feel for the place you absolutely have to visit there.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

A Paris park would certainly work for me . . . alas, the book I'm working on is set in Albany, NY in 2019. Can't even find the place on Google Earth.

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Hannah Dennison said...

I just spent a whole hour of a very busy day (before leaving for vacation) on Google Earth. My daughter mentioned she was visiting Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire and I decided to zoom in from Los Angeles. It was great!

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