Magic of Google

I love Google and Google Maps! Research is one of the time consuming tasks of writing historical fiction. Physically going to each locale in a manuscript is prohibitively expensive to say nothing of time consuming.

And, of course, there’s the minor question of going back in time. Unless one has a time machine, trying to figure out what a location looked like several decades ago is dammed difficult.

Unless, of course, one has access to Google and Google Maps. Once I know the location of the passage, then its time let the Internet work its magic by giving me access to stuff that used to be in a library or not even available at all.

For example, a few weeks ago I wrote a firefight scene in MANPADS. I wanted the action to take place in and around in a small village in the mountains of Kunar Province in Eastern Afghanistan.

First step was finding a location for the mythical village. Using Google maps, I toggled between the traditional ‘maps’ and the ‘earth’ views. Zooming in and out allowed me to examine terrain closely. If you don’t know, the ‘earth’ view puts you in an airplane looking down.

By moving the cursor to ‘move the terrain’, I found a valley for the battle scene. Its in a fictitious village up in the mountains east of a real town called Asmar.

The resolution is in the ‘earth’ view is good enough so I can see individual trees and terrain elements. Next step is “mapping” out the firefight.

Figuring out what happens takes a Tactical Pilotage Chart. There are several sites I can go to and download the right one. Zooming in gives me the terrain features that are under the trees.

To write the passage, I have to figure out how and where do the bad guys come from and what terrain features affect their approach and where the good guys set up their defenses. Often to do this, I resort to the “old fashioned” way, i.e. I print the image from Google and the TPC chart and draw lines on it!

The result are two documents I can use as a reference for both writing the passage as well as for future editing. It is what a CPA would call an “audit” trail.

Scenes in cities follow the same process. I’ll look for locations and then zoom in. Google Maps has a great feature that for some cities, it will give you a street view of the buildings. This makes it easy to figure out how many stories it looks like as well as write a description of the street.

It gets harder when one is writing a scene that took place several decades ago. In older cities like London or Paris, not much has changed over the decades. Often zoning rules force property owners to maintain the same look as the building had when it was originally built. By the way, that’s something else to research!

Google again comes into play because you can enter a location and time period in Google and voilà, one can click on a link and there are many images to browse. While this sounds simple enough to do, in reality, it takes hours.

For example, in RENDER HARMLESS, there’s a scene in East Berlin at the Hotel Stadt Berlin that takes place in 1976. The Hotel Stadt Berlin was one of a couple dozen four-star hotels run by the East German government where foreigners were allowed to stay. I’d been there in the sixties with my parents and remembered the bar and restaurant on the top floor from which, one could see into West Berlin.

To be polite, my memories of the hotel are a bit fuzzy. It’s been five decades since my visit! Finding useful images of its interior in 1976 took awhile. In fact, I spent four hours on a Sunday morning searching the Internet. The research boiled down to two paragraphs, probably about a hundred words or so that appear on page 373 of the book!

Net net, without the Internet and the magic of Google’s algorithms, the process of writing these two scenes would have been much different. Or, they may never have been written at all.

Marc Liebman

October 2014