Thanks to JK for inviting me to play on her blog while she’s off on vacation.
I was recently asked if I was a “visual writer.” I started to answer no, because I immediately thought they were asking about putting faces to my characters. Then I remembered a day when I was twelve, and my mother walking into my room and finding me surrounded by drawings. I’d designed the house my heroine lived in and drawn floor plans detailed down to how big each room was, where the furniture was placed and even which way the doors opened. I had maps of the town she lived in and where her house was in relationship to her friends and the shops, etc. I had her entire world planned out through my drawings. And I thought about the pictures and maps that still cover my desk while I’m writing.
Thanks to the internet, I don’t have to draw maps and floor plans by hand anymore, thanks to the internet. For instance, when I was trying to determine what type of place my hero Sam in Personal Protection lived in, I turned to the DC real estate market. I figured a single guy probably wouldn’t have a house, but an apartment. But since he’s rich, it would be a condo he owned, not rented. And since he’s rich, he wouldn’t have a lower floor unit, he’d own the penthouse.
I’ve been to DC before, and I knew the buildings were not supposed to be taller than Congress or the Washington Memorial, I couldn’t remember which. (DC area has an ordinance forbidding the height of a building to be more than twenty higher than the width of the street. So instead of living in a skyscraper on the 85th floor as he would if he lived in Dallas or New York, Sam’s penthouse would probably be no higher than the 16th floor.) Thanks to Google, I found a brand-new upscale condominium site and scoped out the floor plans to its penthouse apartments. In a matter of seconds, I had a ready-made blue print to my hero’s apartment. Of course, I take some liberties along the way: I changed the design of the building so Sam’s penthouse is next to the one Rosie stays in. But getting a ready-made design is definitely better than drawing a floor plan by hand.
Why did I need to go to the trouble? Well, it comes back to being able to visualize things. Okay, and I’m also a little anal about getting details correct. If I had to write "Rosie turned right" when she headed from the living room to a study or a bedroom, having a blue print handy would make sure she would always turn right when leaving the living room.
When I want to scope out what the area where my hero lives is like, I turn to Google Earth. They now have a really neat feature – street level views. Yes, you can get right down to street level and click along the street, turning the camera 360 degrees to see what the neighborhood’s like. It’s a little scary how much detail you can get, (there have been lawsuits laid against Google for invasion of privacy.) But for a writer, it’s a great resource. (No, this picture isn’t where Sam lives, but it is an area in DC where I picture my heroine from my work-in-progress living.)
When I wanted to see where my heroine, Rosie, was walking in the final scenes of Personal Protection, I used Google Earth’s street level feature to “walk” along the actual streets. At one point, I have her reaching “the familiar white wrought-iron fence at the corner.” Unless the reader lived in the area, no one else would know that there really is a white wrought-iron fence at the corner of Zerega and another street. Little touches like that can add depth.
It can also be useful to check the area’s traffic cameras so you’re not having your character driving the wrong way on a one-way street.
Do I need to go to that much trouble? No, I should be able to rely on my imagination. The trouble is these days, if you get a detail wrong, it’s likely someone from that area would challenge me. As I said, I’m anal about details, and that’s why I love that we can use the internet to do our research.
Unfortunately, webcams and Google Earth can only go so far – I won’t be able to hear the birds that populate the forests of Banff National Park if I have a character hiking the Rockies, or smell the pine surrounding them. I won’t get details like how my glasses might steam up when I step out of a store in New Orlean’s French Quarter and get blasted by the heat on a July afternoon, nor would my nose run from the crispness of the air as snow fell … oh, right, I live in Canada. Cold weather I can do. But no camera will let me feel the hero’s as he walks along the street in downtown DC at midnight. (I have walked around in downtown DC. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, but I didn’t feel comfortable. Then again I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking the downtown area of the city where I live at midnight.) So as good as Google is, nothing beats a real life experience.
Then again I could Google all I want but I’d never find a webcam that would help if my story is set on Mars (then again, there are a lot of pictures from the Rover NASA sent up.) I can’t experience warp drive on a space ship or watch a troll battle a dragon. That’s where a writer’s imagination has to kick in.
Leah Braemel’s newest novel, Personal Protection, releases May 12th. For more information about her, check out her webpage.
Personal Protection http://www.leahbraemel.com/books.html