The Awesomeness of Finding a Setting Through Google

1 Mar

by Biljana Likic


Ah, setting. The place where all the magic happens. The city, village, or town where all your characters live out their fate. Setting is something that every fiction writer wants to establish from the very beginning. It’s important to start out with a clear image in mind of where you want your story to be taking place. If you can describe well, either briefly or at length, where everything is happening, it can help set the mood, the colour scheme, and the general attitude people will have whenever they think of the place.

The problem is, if you’re writing something set in a place you’ve never visited, it can be hard to visualize or imagine without pictures. And sure pictures are great, but panoramic walkthroughs are better.

So today, I’m giving you guys a tip that one of my English teachers gave me, so simple and obvious that I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before: Google Maps.

It’s being continuously established that Google rocks at everything, so really it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise, (especially with Google Earth,) when I recommend Google Maps as a good writing resource. And here’s why: Google Maps has a Satellite View feature. In a lot of the more popular cities, especially in Europe and North America, you can go into a Street View, which can walk you through the city with awesome and clear images.

Here’s how you can do it.

Let’s say I’m writing a book set in a fictional town in Medieval Italy, an architecture that I don’t know much about. I hardly have anything come to mind, except for what pictures I’ve seen of Medieval France, which isn’t the same. Say also that a courtyard with a clock tower is pivotal to my plot. First, I searched for a medieval town that’s been fairly well preserved. I came up with Siena, a couple hours away from Rome. Luckily, since many medieval towns have courtyards and clock towers, it wasn’t a big deal to find.

Then I went to Google Maps and searched for Siena, Italy. I switched the view, in the top right corner of the map, to Satellite.

Satellite View of Siena, Italy

Then, I clicked on the little orange man in the top left corner of the map, and dropped him down onto the blue highlighted streets. (Because the world is huge, you can’t drop the man down into every street.)

Satellite View of Siena, Italy

And then, voilà!

I’m suddenly in Siena, Italy, with a panoramic view of what’s going on. There’s a courtyard, a clock tower, and it’s Medieval. I can click on arrows to go down the streets, click and drag the mouse to turn in a circle, and double click to zoom in. I also have a box in the bottom right that tells me where I am, and if I click and drag my orange man, I can go somewhere else in the city. Now all I have to do is erase the modern stuff from my minds-eye picture and imagine the action.

Awesome, no? Next time you need to write about walking down a street in New York and you’ve never been there, just pull up Google Maps and do it virtually. Then nobody will be able to say that what you’ve described sounds wrong.

Unfortunately, because of how large the world is, and because Google is very North American/European-based, not every city or town has the Street View option. I’m thinking they’re working on it, so keep a look-out in the future.

And now for a fun poll! Of these five European cities, which would you like to visit most? Check them out on Google Maps. I made sure that Street View was available for them all of them.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s in her final year of high school, waiting and waiting to graduate, finish university, and finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here, and check out her work on her FictionPress account.


15 Responses to “The Awesomeness of Finding a Setting Through Google”

  1. svonnah March 1, 2010 at 8:39 AM #

    I was trying to use google maps for that time travel novel… it helped me realize that I should NOT set them in Chicago, but NY City, and they can be in Chicago for a couple years before coming back to NY; not the other way around.

    • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 3:04 PM #

      That’s pretty sick. Did it help your plot development, or did it make it easier or harder?

  2. Rowenna March 1, 2010 at 10:34 AM #

    Ok, I could get distracted for hours doing this! Maybe I should avoid getting addicted until I get my next draft done 🙂 Then I can start planning virtual vacations to all sorts of places I want to write about! Thanks for the tip!

    • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 3:06 PM #

      I spent SO much time procrastinating on Google Maps while I was trying to write this haha. It’s a little bit mesmerizing.

  3. Vanessa March 1, 2010 at 11:13 AM #

    Still can’t believe I never thought of using google maps for that! It’s SUCH a good idea!

    On a random note, has anyone seen the angry Norwegians in scuba gear chasing the google street view car?

    Check it out on google maps here, too! You can see how long they follow the car! Click Here!

    • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 3:10 PM #

      That is absolutely HILARIOUS. And yeah when my teacher said it I did one of those things where you slap you forehead because you feel stupid. Even before he said it I loved looking around on Google Maps.

  4. junebugger March 1, 2010 at 2:53 PM #

    Oooh this is AMAZING! Why did I never think of this before? Thank you, thank you. I’ve been writing about Regency England for eight years now–eight years of writing about a country I never stepped foot in. I always had to rely on books to gain knowledge of how it might have been to live there. Now I have google map!!!

    The only problem is…. Googlemap does not tell you how it would be like to actually BE there…as in….the surrounding noise, scenet/smell, etc., And that is so crucial to me as a writer who needs to imagine her story transpiring as a movie.

    • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 3:11 PM #

      Yeah it’d be SO cool if they could get a sountrack playing in the background :P.

  5. Victoria Dixon March 1, 2010 at 4:14 PM #

    You are a brick! This is such a cool idea and I have no idea why I didn’t think of it since I’ve looked at my own home with this tool. Ok, so I write settings mostly in China, but I’m still going to give it a try! Thank you so much for suggesting this!

    • svonnah March 1, 2010 at 5:25 PM #

      ‘You are a brick’? Where is that slang from? 🙂

      • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 7:06 PM #

        Obviously it means I’m solid :D.

    • Biljana March 1, 2010 at 7:08 PM #

      Aww China’s one of the countries that Google doesn’t have Street View for :(… Sucks. I really hope they’ll have it relatively soon though. There are a bunch of places, even really well known, that still don’t have Street View. Good luck though, still.

  6. Victoria Dixon March 1, 2010 at 5:28 PM #

    LOL. Sorry! I was so excited by the google idea, I became a Brit momentarily. It’s British slang. Means “You’re the best,” etc.

    • Vanessa March 1, 2010 at 5:48 PM #

      I am SO going to use that! I don’t know why, but I think that slang terms/sayings from other countries are SO COOL!

  7. Victoria Dixon March 1, 2010 at 5:50 PM #

    I agree, they can be a wonderful means of placing the characters in the setting. That said, make sure it’s appropriate to your setting. I know they used that phrase in the early to mid 1900s. I don’t know if they still use it. You’d need to check. I doubt they used it as much (if at all) before the industrial revolution.

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