Researching a novel in the age of Google

One of the things that only strikes you about writing a book after you’ve sat down and started is how crucial it is to write from immediate experience. You just can’t describe something you haven’t seen, smelled, heard and observed personally – or you can, but it comes out as a hollow and phoney reduction of other books and movies you’ve digested. Anyone who reads it immediately sniffs out that it’s phoney, and biffs the book.

With this in mind, I thought I’d describe the process of writing a fiction chapter entirely via Google products – Google Maps, Streetview, Earth and Images – plus some extra research on Wikipedia (which I accessed through Google Search in the first place).

It’s something that should have sounded a death knell for the chapter in question – but in this case, I think it worked. In fact, it’s probably my favourite out of the whole 87,000 word novel. (If you want to it, I’ve cut and pasted a pdf here)

It was a funny passage though. I decided to write it at a point where almost everything in the book had been planned. I had the logic of the plot and the themes and the development of the main characters all planned out in a kind of delicate arrangement (it only lacked a finale – that would come later). In my head it looked like a model of DNA – different threads wrapping around each other, all building towards a greater purpose. And I was pretty pleased with that image, because for a LONG time it had looked like a ball of wool that a cat’s played with. But then something funny happened. I’d sorted the logic of what happened and why and to whom – and the excitement died.

It felt like any reader who was familiar with basic story-telling would feel they were being hurried to a foregone conclusion. I was being careful to write a tight story, one without a lot of fat in it, but as a consequence you could see the bones. You could sense the logic. The story felt inevitable – and because it felt inevitable, it was no longer exciting. I’m a big believer in the reader providing at least half the story – after all, you make the pictures in your head, you provide the emotion – but a reader who feels like a story is inevitable, gets bored. Why should you care about a story that doesn’t let you play along, that seems intent on having things march along the way it wants, and expects you to just tag along for the ride?

So I decided to write something that would let the story breathe. Something completely pointless, that the reader would enjoy reading and I would enjoy writing (I think those two flow into each other): I sent my main characters on holiday.

Just for a short one – a train trip to the countryside for a day. The sort of thing I had done dozens of times from London. And anyway, I needed my characters to get close, and holidays are one way that happens. Perhaps by the time I finished the chapter, sparks would appear…

But where to go? This is where technology came in. I was writing about a trip out of London from a desk in suburban Auckland, and I wasn’t about to hop on a plane for research reasons, the way ‘real’ writers should. I had to do it over the net.

I needed them to visit a town a few hours, max, from London. It had to be on a train line – the characters had no car. It had to be small. And it had to be pretty.

I loaded Google Maps.

From London I scrolled around in a circle, and found the main train lines. Traced along the lines until I found towns – hunting for a small one somewhere nice. Sussex? Surrey? Kent… Kent would be good. Down the line I went, ’til I found Wye.

Well Wye not? Did it look nice? Up came Google Earth, I found the place and zoomed in – trees, fields, a line of hills – it was perfect. But what the hell was that?

The town had looked the right size, so using the tilt tool I’d raised the horizon up to a person’s perspective. That way I could see the place in the same way my characters would. I moved Google Earth to the train station where they’d disembark – and form their first impressions – and hit the 3D button for extra realism.

Up came the hills (or downs, rather), only to reveal a strange symbol carved in chalk – which would be visible from where they’d be standing.

This was perfect. My book had a theme of old things coming up through the surface of the modern – so this seemed like a gift from the gods. I would research what this strange symbol was via Wikipedia, and have my characters check it out as part of their day trip. Done.

Incidentally, anyone who’s read the book or this chapter will probably realise that the process of researching it matches closely to how the narrative evolves. The two characters start off not knowing where to go – they roll out a (real) map – choose the place, then pile out of the station and spot the carved chalk symbol. Everything they do just rolled out of the process of researching the town of Wye over a few days, and I wrote it as I went.

From the station I had them walk up the hill to the carved symbol, then I realised they would soon need some lunch. Out came Google Earth again – I needed to find them a pub. On Google Earth I spotted the next small town over (Crundale I think), and using the distance measure tool, I worked out that it was realistically walkable. Then I switched to Google Maps to get closer. That looked like a pub… I switched to Google Streetview and confirmed it – went back to Google Search to find the pub’s name, and had them walk over there across the downs. Phew.

Hey but what did those downs look like from ground level? At that point I started searching Google images for “Crundale” and “Wye” and found this idyllic shot of people walking between the two towns.

Perfect. What a relaxing image. It had exactly the feel I’d wanted to create in this chapter in the first place – that drifting holiday looseness. So where was the image from? Oh – the website of walking club for older gay men. Ha! And now that I looked closer at the people making their way down the hill, I realised I had a minor character in the making…

The portly gent in the floppy hat seemed just right. Plus, in all this research, I’d stumbled across the fact that Wye and Crundale are hotspots for rare English meadow butterflies. I imagined the gay walker in the photo as an amateur lepidopterist, and the character at the pub, David, was born.

I could go on and on about this chapter – actually I already have – so I’ll cut it short and just say that the whole experience generated a lot of writers luck. The butterfly thing matched with a mention I’d made in the book already; one of the streets in Wye had the same spooky name as a local Brixton lane; I’ve already mentioned the chalk carving: the whole thing just flowed and I wrote at top speed for two days. By the time I got my characters back home to London they, and I, were exhausted and the chapter’s ending – the sparks I’d hoped might be there – they just fell in to place naturally.

So to sum it up – and I’d like to hear what you think on this too – I reckon writing from internet research is dangerous.

For one thing, the internet doesn’t smell (except maybe if you pick that crud out of your mousewheel; I’m not sniffing that – and you shouldn’t either). It doesn’t have breezes or seasons, or move between dawn and dusk – there’s just one constant, backlit ever-day. In short, it’s not tactile in the ways I think you should draw on when writing. And on top of that, the experiences you do have are through someone else. You experience via someone else’s words, camera, website, Google-van, satellite, whatever – seeing things in a way they’ve been seen before – and I think you risk that derivative quality creeping into your writing.

Yet I like how my chapter came out.

And hell, the internet is incredibly powerful – you can get a street view of almost any place in the world, for crying out loud, without spending your life savings flying round the world researching like a ‘real’ writer. So I think that as a literary research tool, it’s here to stay.

But I think it’s crucial that when you use these tools you blend the things you gather with real experiences you’ve had –things that you’ve smelled, seen and thought – or you risk it coming out as flat and flavourless as a scene from Simms.

What do you think?

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