What good is this to a writer? Well, let’s say you’re writing a story that takes place in a city far, far away. Let's say Paris. Just zoom in, and there it is.
That's at about 20,000 feet. All those icons show churches, businesses, museums, parks, and historic sites. A Portuguese American club lets you know what ethnic group lives in the neighborhood, which might suggest a name for your character. Churches, temples and mosques let you know if your population is mostly Catholic, Jewish, or something else. The liquor stores or Starbucks on every corner tell you something about socio-economic levels, all fodder that can help with characterization and description.
Perhaps you’re writing a thriller. Need to know how far it is from the Palace at Versailles to the US embassy? Need to know what the palace looks like? It’s right there. Just zoom in closer.
They even have a street view, so you can walk around your site. You can see any place you need to describe without ever leaving your desk.
Maybe your latest WIP takes place on an imginary desert world? Check out the Gobi and Sahara for ideas. Are there castles in your story? Buzz over a few to see how they use terrain for defense or to see how they were built. Look at the differences between an English castle and a German castle. Do you need to know what the bayou looks like, or a seaside town? Does your story take place in Hollywood or a South African diamond mine? Google Earth can help you. You can even go to the moon and Mars if you like. While there’s not much to see (yet) you can at least get place names.
And what about non-fiction? If you’re writing about places or national monuments, the benefits are obvious. You get a bird’s eye view of whatever place or monument you’re writing about. Doing volcanoes? You can go to any volcano on Earth. You can stare right into the mouth of one.
Writing about Nascar or baseball? Visit a few tracks or stadiums. Doing the Olympics? You have aerial views of any Olympic village you want to visit. Biographies? Visit your person’s hometown or the place of their demise. I haven’t explored copyright issues on using these pictures, but it may be worth looking into if you’re paying for your own photographs.
Google Earth comes with lots of extras, too. You can see earthquakes in real time (not the actual quakes, but dots on the map that show position and strength.) They place shipwrecks and ocean expeditions, what seafood you’ll find off any given coast, and even water temperature. You can go back in time (to the inception of Google Earth) and see Sendai, Japan before the quake, and after it. The same with the gulf coast oil spill - very helpful if that’s what you’re writing about.
There are so many things here that I haven’t yet explored, or simply touched the surface of. Some museums and archeological sites have even made it possible to tour them in street view. Unfortunately, street view isn't available everywhere. Mostly it’s just the larger, more well known cities. But perhaps, in time . . . .
The drawbacks? 500 feet, give or take, seems to be about as close as you can get without everything going blurry. And when you go back in time, you can only go back to the times they have images for.
So how do you get Google Earth? How else - google it and download. Or you can use this link. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s fascinating.
All photos were taken on Google Earth.