Fiction Writing Tools: Google Maps & Street View

Sometimes it’s necessary to be a bit accurate with the descriptions of streets, parks, monuments, shops, alleys and the like even when you write fiction. It’s easy as long as your character is going about doing her job in her hometown or any other place where you’ve personally been to. So it’s more or less straightforward to implant your perspective into her and make it feel real to the reader.

However, the problem arises when you need to make her go to a different city that you’ve never seen. Though it’s still easy if that place happens to be within your country. The challenge is when it’s a foreign location. It might be that all you’ve got in your arsenal is nothing more than nondescript hearsay from friends or perhaps a few photos that you happened to come across in some travel mag. And they have already triggered that juice of imagination within you. You feel like, “Damn, Rebecca’s gotta be there!” Let’s say Rebecca is your brainchild who dwells in the words that you’ve painstakingly typed all the while ignoring the pain zipping up and down your sore back. You’re scared and apprehensive that you might ruin it real bad for Rebecca. You may think, “No way! She doesn’t deserve that!” Guess what, Google Street View can be your savior.

So I’ve got this ongoing techno-thriller Flickering Innocence on Wattpad. The main action takes place in and around Hyderabad (I currently live here) and I faced a similar crippling situation while trying to write the chapters set in Sydney and Singapore. I haven’t been to either of them… yet :(

For Sydney it was considerably easier because the chapter was shorter and my requirements for details was not that high as it was for Singapore. I needed a location for the Sydney headquarters of Vasointel, a fictional behemoth multinational company. A quick research on Wikipedia pointed me to Sydney CBD aka “The City”. Now I looked up the area on Google Maps and explored it in Street View. For some reason Castlereagh Street caught my fancy, and there you go: Vasointel’s Australian operations team got themselves an office up there, somewhere near the Commonwealth Bank. Neat eh? ;)

Now Tara, the Data Engineer at Vasointel had pulled an all-nighter at the office. She’s pretty pissed and I needed to give her one more reason to be grumpy: she has to drive at least 10 km to her beachfront apartment. I needed a location for that as well. But before that I wanted her to spend some time in solitude, perhaps gazing at the water reflecting the city lights in the wee hours before daybreak at the docks or something. So I started panning, zooming around Castlereagh. I had almost finalized Dawes Point but then on a whim I felt Tara should drive down Sydney Harbour Bridge! And so I ended up picking McMahons Point on the north side.

Next, Street View comes into action again. First, placed that cute little yellow human icon on Bradfield Highway to a get a feel of how it is to drive down with those steel columns zipping past over your head. Have to say though, the view looked vaguely similar to looking up while driving down the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata.

Needed to use a bit of imagination here, with the lights and all, ’cause in my story, it’s night time and also other random stuff like the lights from the Sydney Opera House (it’s on your right by the way, not shown in the screenshot here) reflecting off the rear view mirror of Tara’s car. She drives down to Blues Point, parks her car by the wall along the Blues Point Tower and flops herself onto the grass by the waterfront.

Now Tara had to drive back to her beachfront apartment which is quite far away. While scanning the map within a 10–15 km radius around Blues Point for a place, I zeroed in on Dee Why as I happened to like the pics of the area :D Directions helped to get an idea.

So, that was all Sydney. The tougher challenge was with Singapore as Street View solved only part of my problem. I was looking for some weekend shopping zone and Google suggested me the Kampong Glam area. I happened to like the place especially because of Masjid Sultan, where my characters, Laiq and Nura (a young married couple) would pray the evening daily prayer and and do some kebaya (Singapore Airlines themed ones) shopping down Arab Street. Nura is true blue Aussie by the way, born and raised in Sydney :)

kebaya, photo credit: Rita Franz, licensed CC BY 2.0

There are a number of streets running parallel to each other like Muscat Street, Kandahar Street, Haji Lane, Bali Lane and others. I randomly picked up Haji Lane and was quite impressed by the small shops along the length of the street. Perfect! That’s what I needed for a weekend shopping trip.

But then I happened to spot a No Parking sign with timings on it. And that actually got me thinking all over again whether I should make Laiq and Nura bring along their car as I learned from an online travel mag that parking can be an acute problem on weekends. So I made it like they don’t have their car that evening.

All of a sudden, something happens (read the book to know what that is :P ) and they have to rush to Nanyang Technological University, which is pretty far from that area. According to my Singaporean author friend ’Amira,

“NTU seriously has always been like on another end of the world!”

The damage was already done. I had let myself fall into the trap of not having a car. That is to say, I had to research public transit. But it was fun. ’Amira had been of much help during the info-gathering phase as well :)

According to Directions, I could take MRT from the nearest Bugis station to Pioneer and cover the rest of the distance in a cab maybe. I wasn’t sure if Bugis was underground though. A quick Wiki search helped me out with that.

About NTU, Laiq and Nura had first met here. So a walk down the serene Nanyang Avenue along the School of Computer Engineering seemed romantic enough :)

Thoughts? Questions? Let me know! Cheers! :)

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