Thursday, February 26, 2009

Writing Tool: Google Earth

This post started out to be about finding a suitable location for your current work in progress (wip) but I wanted to impart so much information, I realized I had to make it into 2 posts. And so, I’ll start with the more exciting one. You probably know about the Google Earth program but just maybe someone out there in blogland doesn’t. Normally I wouldn’t advertise software however, this program is available as a free download to anyone with a computer therefore I feel it’s too valuable a writing too to be ignored.

I discovered Google Earth by listening to my kids discuss what they learned in school. When I expressed my ignorance, my youngest sent me to the site and after only a few mins, I accepted the free download. Check it out here:

So what is Google Earth? First off, it gives you a bird’s eye view of the earth. Anywhere on earth. (I see the new version covers the ocean floor, too) When you first initialize the program, the first thing you see is outer space with the globe in the centre. When you input an address, the globe turns to the geographical position and zooms into the location until you’re looking down at it from a few thousand feet above. It was a thrill to look down at my own farm. I even added a virtual push pin so it would be easy to find again. The more populated an area, the closer you can zoom in.

I inputted my mother’s home address and watched the globe zip east a couple provinces to Ontario. It zeroed right down on her apartment building so that I could see her van parked in her spot in the parking lot. The next time I visited Mom, I showed her the program. She says when she goes outside now, her first thought after the weather is whether someone’s looking down at her.

This technology was just what I needed to find a location for the wip I was targeting for the Harlequin American line. Like the name entails, the setting had to be in America. I spent about a week crisscrossing Montana looking for the perfect location for a remote ranch since my hero is a rancher and inaccessibility plays a role in the story. I found the perfect setting on a gravel road about 20 miles north of Ryegate. Because of the physical geography, it takes almost 50 mins to drive the distance. How do I know that? Because with Google Earth, if you say you want the driving instructions from here to there, it will give you precise directions where to turn and how long it will take to get there. So, even with a fictional ranch, once the virtual push pin was in place, Google Earth used the longitude and latitude to do its figuring.

One of the best features of Google Earth is that I can zoom down so that I’m standing right in front on the ranch house, and the camera angle will change so and I can do a complete 360 rotation. Because my ranch is in a sparsely populated area, these photos are from 4000 ft above ground level so it’s clearly not as detailed as I’d like, but it’s the best I’ve got at this point.

The best location, of course, is one the writer knows or at least has visited but, that's not always possible. I found Google Earth to be a powerful tool in my writing kit for those locations I wasn't able to physically reach. I might not have gotten to know the people in the area, but I can always email the local Chamber of Commerce for the human aspect.

The photos I've used here are all screen shots of Montana I emailed myself from the Google Earth program.

Have you ever used Google Earth? Have you set your wip in a location you've never visited? Have you ever read a book and knew the author had never been there? What do you think of this new technology?


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
What a great tool. I've heard of Google Earth but never thought of it as a tool for researching locations. Thanks for the great idea.


Karen said...

I've visited Google Earth a couple of times but not recently. I never thought of using it to scout locations for a wip. Great tip. Thanks Anita.

Jana Richards said...

Hey Karen,
I had computer trouble yesterday so I just read your post this morning. Your're right; sometimes less is more. Here's my short story:
Texas hot, Winnipeg cold. I'll stay.


Anita Mae Draper said...

You're welcome Jana and Karen.

And that's a good story, Jana. It answers my question about whether you're back or not. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Last night while copying the screen shots of Wyoming (pics don't do justice btw), was the first time I read about Beta 5 version of Google Earth. I'd mentioned being able to view the ocean floor, but the second change took awhile (5 hrs sleep) to wrap my head around:

See global changes with decades of historic imagery: If you've ever wondered how your neighborhood has changed throughout time, Google Earth now gives you access to the past. With a simple click, check out suburban sprawl, melting ice caps, coastal erosion, and more.

Do realize how effective this will be for historical novels?

GE takes a while to download and I don't want it to get interrupted, so at 11pm tonight, I'm downloading GE Beta 5. Oh wait - I don't have time to play with it this week... well, at least I'll have it ready for when I need it. I wonder if they make a version for my ipod Touch...

Karen said...

LOL Jana.
Hope you're having a fab holiday.

Suse said...

Hi Anita, I've heard you talk about Google Earth, but I've never tried it myself. My husband uses it quite often though. He's a hunter and likes to see the lie of the land. My experience is only as far as Google maps and get directions.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, before I bought a GPS, Google Earth was where I'd look to find a new address.

In fact, in Sep 07 when I headed out to the Sask Rom Writers fall retreat, I had no idea how to get to Ancient Spirals. It's not on any map. I was given directions how to reach it via Saskatoon south but I was coming from the Southeast. So I went to Google Earth.

Using the original directions, I zoomed in to Saskatoon and them travelled south however many kms I'd been told but without a town, I missed it somehow. By the time I hit the golf course, I knew I'd gone too far and I back-tracked. I went as close as definition would allow, checking out each farm. When I was back to the approx mileage, I noticed a couple buildings just a bit west of the road but no barns so it wasn't a farm. My directions said something about following the lane. This feeling came over me and I just felt that this was the place. I emailed a screen shot to myself. Then I zoomed out a bit and followed the hwy down until I saw where it connected to the main one. I emailed a screenshot of that as well and then printed them both off.

Of course, the test was actually getting there. I was late leaving and it was dusk as I passed the golf course, knowing I was close. A few more miles and then I passed a farm on the left that I knew was the one just south of where I thought Ancient Spirals was. I passed it, drove up an incline and there at the top I almost missed the small turnoff to the left except a small sign flashed by. I backed up and went closer. Yup, Ancient Spirals to be. I followed the lane to the bldg feeling like I'd been here before because it was so familiar to me.

Google Earth is just so... practical.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Anita, like everyone, I never thought of using Google Earth for location research. Granted, I don't use real locations, but everything is based off something I can identify. I'll have to try it out.

Not sure if newer versions of Google Earth do the same, but last I used it (another computer), browsing north of Saskatoon got pretty weird. Some satellite imagery was during winter, patched in with stuff from summer, so the landscape beyond about 100km north of the city was very odd indeed.

Janet C. said...

Which, Hayley, would make a wonderful world in the fantasy genre - would it not?

I love Google Earth. And use it regulary - for everything including where I want to live next. In fact, I think I'm a Google Fanatic - for all their features (has anyone discovered Google Notebook?).

Great post, Anita - and great pictures.


Janet C. said...

PS - great 6 word story, Jana. You picked the perfect time to be away (-26 with a windchill in Winterpeg today).


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey there Hayley. I actually thought about you when I wrote the 2nd question at the end of my post. :)

Part 2 of this post is going to spell out the reasons for choosing a fictional setting over a real one. Fantasy writers however, get to use so much more imagination because contemporary or historical writers are bound by what actually is. You on the other hand, have infinite possibilities and worlds to create.

Yes, the land in the northern part of the province prob doesn't have good definition because after all, the powers that be who run Google Earth's satellites are more concerned about the populated areas.

After downloading GE, if you go to the bottom of the left column under Layers and click on More, you get to see the grid patterns of the satellites. The squares are huge in N.Sask compared to the U.S.

And yes, its not always current since I just looked at my farm and the green fields and drying sloughs dates it as August. I'm 1 hr SE of Regina and the best resolution I can get at my farm is 6 sq miles at 15,000 feet up.

I then went to Bodmin, SK and the at the same 15,000 feet, it showed 20 sq miles. Yet, the resolution was clearer at 30,000 ft up.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Janet.

Google Notebook? No, I haven't. What's that?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Well, I'm feeling pretty stupid at the moment... I realized a couple hrs ago that although I spoke of Ryegate WY for my wip, it's actually Ryegate Montana. Wyoming is the location of my historical. Sheesh. So, I'm going to change my post to reflect this since anyone stumbling over the post in the future will not necessarily read these comments. I wanted to admit it to y'all in case one of you smarties is sitting there scratching your head. :)

Yes, Janet, the cause of my confusion was because I decided on my way home from the city at 11pm that I wanted to write this GE post as opposed to the 'location' one I'd written. Hyped with coffee and a Gatorade slushie, I wrote the post while you all slept. And, it took a couple hours to figure out how to post the GE screenshots.

So there you have my big faux pas. Sorry.

Janet C. said...

Ack - I just went looking for a definitiona and link to Google Notebook and discover they aren't continuing with that feature :( But, if you check out you'll find another feature that is similar. And, after a quick browse, looks like it has more advanced features.

K, Anita, you got me - I read your post and didn't even question your geography. And just think how easy next week's blog will be - it's already written, right?


Anita Mae Draper said...

Janet - yup, it's written. Of course, it's not perfect, yet. I mean I do have to tweak it some more.

And, I haven't added my photos yet but I do have them on file. It's not like I have to go out and take them which is a relief because they're of North Dakota. :)

Okay, going to check your google note alternate thing now. I'll let you know. Thanks.

connie said...

Hey Anita

Wow! When you research, you don't mess around!

You have just expanded my world by a million percent. I will probably be on that site for days until I examine all its possibilities.

You amaze me with your knowledge of such sites. How do you do it? - husband, kids, farm, long drives to wherever, oh yes - and WRITING TOO!

What a research tool. Fantastic blog. Mega thanks.

It is my turn next week. Do you want to switch Thursdays so parts 1 and 2 aren't interrupted? This such a hot one, it would be a shame to toss mine into the middle.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Connie! What the heck are you doing waaaaaay back here? Today's post is on April 15, 2010.

Yes, it's about Google Earth, but it's better than this one by a long shot.

Come on over and try again. LOL