I love Google Earth. I’m sure some of you are familiar with it, since the service has been around for several years, but I only recently downloaded the small bit of software necessary to run it. Given how hugely graphic Google Earth is, I think you need broadband to make it work. But it’s one of those things that makes broadband worth paying for! You can zoom into the globe, turn the world with your trackball, and click on dots that give photographs of particular places. Very, very addictive.
I suspect that most people, when they first sign on to Google Earth, go directly to looking at their own homes. Not me. I looked at the map of a globe and swung over to Northern England, zeroing in of the Cumbrian coast site of the book I recently finished, and the beginning of the book I’m working on now.
Zoooooooom! Closer and closer, till I could look at the buildings in a small town near where I’d placed my fictional village of Hartley. Then inland, following a route that might be taken by the kidnappers of my heroine. Hills and sheep, oh, my! (Well, to some extent my imagination was kicking in, but that’s part of the fun.)
I have lots of maps, old and new, some of them contour maps that show elevations. I’ve also had the advantage of visiting most parts of Great Britain, from Land’s End in Cornwall to the coast of East Anglia and the wild islands of the Outer Hebrides. (I visited a collapsed old village of stone cottages—“black houses”—on Harris and Lewis many years ago, and thought that the ruins would make a great site for a romantic suspense chase. Years later, I acted on that memory with a scene in Shattered Rainbows.)
Certainly visiting a place in the flesh is the best way to get a sense of it, but that isn’t always possible. (I still haven’t made it to Uzbekistan or India or China or Indonesia, places where I’ve set stories.) A good writer learns to fake it, through reading or asking questions. It’s not unusual on my Novelists, Inc. loop to have someone ask for help with a setting. (“Is West Texas really that flat? What’s an upscale neighborhood in Charlotte?”)
Landscape is an important aspect of setting, both for itself and for how it affects the characters. Jayne Ann Krentz’s sun-baked Arizona books have a very different underlying feel from her green, moist Pacific Northwest settings. Barbara Samuel’s wonderful Western settings make me want to book a ticket for Colorado right now. (Indeed, I ate at a restaurant that was the inspiration for the heroine’s workplace in Madame Mirabou’s School of Love. The food was great, and it was a Colorado/mountain state experience, different from eating by the sea in Santorini or in a funky Greenwich village basement restaurant in New York City.
Of course, landscape facts can also be treacherous, especially when writing historical novels. It isn’t just the spread of cities and highways, but the presence of plant and animal species we take for granted might not always be accurate. I remember when an American author of Regency historicals got criticized for putting bullfrogs in England. Sorry, that’s an American sort of amphibian.
When I researched my one and only medieval, I found that rabbits weren’t native to Britain. Hares, their larger, longer earred cousins were, but your basic bunny was introduced by the Normans because rabbits were good huntin’ and good eatin.’ (’m guessing, knowing what rabbits are famous for, that introducing them wasn’t too difficult. Just a matter of bringing over a few pairs and letting nature take her course. <g>
Trees and plants also get around. The Chelsea Physic Garden ( http://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/ ) in London was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries to study plants, including specimens collected abroad. To this day, they research the nature and properties of plants from around the world.
The copper beech, one of the most lovely and distinctive trees in the English countryside, with dark reddish/bronze leaves, wasn’t introduced until the 18th century. (I think that’s when.) Many of the garden flowers we take for granted were brought for other lands. For example, chrysanthemums were introduced from China in 1790. And woe betide the sloppy writer who gives medieval characters a plate of that fine North American vegetable, the potato.
One of the skills that most seasoned historical writers develop is to question the dates and origins of everything: plants, animals, words. In a quote credited to various people (but probably belonging to Josh Billings), “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” It’s the questions we don’t think to ask that get writers into trouble!