Writers’ Tools: How Google Maps Can Enhance Your Narrative

Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I have a few moments to do something other than pour words into my novel. One of my most invaluable tools this year, and in 2011, was Google Maps.

My mystery series is set in Cardiff and spills out into South Wales. While I was resident in Wales for seven years and spent five of those years in Cardiff, I am currently living in London. Therefore, real life research would require hopping on the train and having a limited wander in the time available.

Or I could just look up my location in Google Maps, plot out the route and make notes on the twists and turns of the adventure.

For example, here is a chase sequence from the first novel – from Cardiff Central station to the River Taff:

chase-zoom

(To orientate you, the station is at the very top of the image and Cardiff City Centre is north of that. The river runs south towards Cardiff Bay.)

This is not a route I have ever walked – why would I? I have left Central Station by the back exit but not to dive down a series of alleyways to escape my pursuit.

Of course, I could’ve just made it up. No one would know the difference if my chaser and chasee turned right instead of left, or if he squeezed through a narrow alley or leapt a fence. If the facts were inconvenient or the drama could be improved by a slight detour, I don’t think a writer of fiction should be a slave to the absolute truth.

However, on a slightly larger scale, the geographical landmarks have a little more bearing.

esc-map-large

Note the van on the far left: the green line indicates the route it should’ve taken, and the blue line is the detour. At the second van, someone emerges on foot – the red line is the most direct route, the yellow route the path taken.

As I journey my character into Cardiff centre, I nudged the yellow line as he went, making decisions for him based on Google’s satellite images. Would he see the river from this point? How far would he avoid towns, main roads?

At one point, I had no idea how I was going to get him across a river and the satellite image showed only a dense woodland. So I looked at the routes detailed by the local rambling club and I happened upon a photograph taken of an old railway bridge at exactly the point where I needed a crossing.

While that instance was more luck than judgement, it gave me a starting point for my description. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the boy goes – it matters that my readers care what happens to him, can visualise his trials and tribulations on this journey.

For example, there is a dilemma about the M4. On his route, he’s avoided it once already, only to find himself back there. At which point he realises that he must cross it at some point and now is the time. I could look at the bridge and the tree cover at each end, the position of the streetlights, the probability of someone seeing him. Did I need that information to the imagine the scenario? No. But was it easier for having a template on which to base it? Yes, absolutely.

So, Google Maps – not essential to the work of a writer, but a helpful aid to the imagination when plotting from afar.


Rosie’s debut novel BINARY WITNESS is available from Carina Press from May 2014 (Google Maps Not Included).

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