A Surprising Resource for Writers
One of the most common questions I get from readers is how I did research for my historical fiction novel. My answer surprises them, and as I have never heard another writer mention it, I wanted to share.
Did you raise your eyebrows? Good. You’re not the first.
My debut novel is set in Liverpool and London, two places I had never been to when I set out to write The Memory of Us. How was a girl to roam the streets and soak up the culture without a pricey ticket overseas?
In my day job, I am a real estate agent, so I often use Google Maps to preview neighborhoods for buyers and to plan my routes. It occurred to me that it would be a great resource for my middle-of-the-night, or whenever-my-kids-are-asleep job. Writing.
The first time I typed in L-i-v-e-r-p-o-o-l U-K into the search menu, I didn’t know what I’d find. But it opened up the story in ways I couldn’t have imagined. To the north of Liverpool is the Mersey River. With the help of the little orange man that you can drag onto the streets, I “walked” along the banks of the river, discovering Albert Docks. I needed the father of my main character to be a prominent businessman, so this discovery led to more research into Albert Docks and its role during the earlier part of the twentieth century and wartime. A shipping business became the perfect field for Mr. Westcott, making him the influential person he needed to be.
Next, I wanted the family to live on an estate facing a park. I was pleased to discover that Liverpool was home to many parks – different from the cold industrial town I’d envisioned. I glanced over all of the green spaces on Google Maps and found one that had two small lakes. Again, the little orange man and I took a stroll through the park and I determined that it was the perfect setting for the Westcott home. I did further research into the little lakes at Newsham Park and discovered that in the last century, children would make toy boats and sail them on the water.
It was another snippet that I brought into the book. My character, Julianne, looks wistfully at the children as they play with their homemade boats, wishing that her parents would let her do the same. It enhanced the societal division that I wanted to create.
There were so many parts of my book that Google Maps helped me discover. When I needed a honeymoon spot, my characters took a drive out to Wales and visited ancient ruins on the sometimes-island sometimes-peninsula of Llanddwyn. When I needed an orphanage to become the recipient of charity money, I found one in Liverpool through the map search. When I needed a church for Julianne to visit in the Kensington area of London, Google Maps helped me find the perfect one.
I cross-checked all of my findings with additional research, of course, but finding them in the first place was a simple process of traveling with my keyboard.
How did people write before the internet?
My subsequent books have benefited from this fantastic tool as well. Before the Rain Falls takes place in a fictitious border town in Texas. But the story takes the characters to Harlingen, where I discovered palm-tree lined streets, and to Port Isabel, where I added the detail of a store specializing in shrimp as the characters drive to an appointment.
My WIP is set in New York City, and while I do get to travel there frequently, I don’t have to pay taxi fare to take a walk with my little orange friend down 33rd street, scrolling up to see the architectural details of buildings.
The devil is in the details, they say, but so is the authenticity of a story.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to visit Liverpool for the first time. It was like saying hello to an old friend. The red brick façade of Albert Docks came as no surprise. The lakes of Newsham Park were just as lovely as I’d known they would be. The Lime Street Train Station, the bench by an old cemetery, the many places my characters visited, felt like places I’d always known. It was surreal – an almost out-of-body experience – to see, touch, smell the city. But very familiar at the same time.
And I have Google Maps to thank for that.