People say you should write what you know. I tend to follow that advice by default, since the main contributor to my writer’s block is always my fear of sounding stupid, and there’s no quicker way to look stupid than making up the facts you don’t know and putting them in a book.
The trouble is, the things that fiction writers need to know usually aren’t the things you can find on Wikipedia. When you search the internet, the first things that come up about a place are historical and geographical facts about it, not what it would actually be like to go there yourself. But the whole point of fiction is to make someone feel as if they were in another place, either in the characters’ shoes or close to them, so if your characters live in (insert name of really cool location that you’ve never been to here), getting a grip on the story environment can be rough.
It would be great if I could actually go everywhere I write about, but given my resources that’s probably not going to work out. But, I do like to use the next best thing when possible. It’s called Google Street View.
Today, for example, I wanted to go to Stonehenge, so I looked up its location and got a good look at it from A334 on Google street view, which gave me a better idea than the Wikipedia photographs of what it was actually like to be there. The famous photographs tend not to show the tourists. After that, just for fun, I clicked around in street view and “drove” East, several miles past Amesbury.
Of course, if I really think about it, the idea of just anybody being able to look at anything with a few clicks is a little bit alarming, but as a writer, I love this tool, because it lets me pick out the minor details that make another place stand out, details that I might get wrong if I just went on hearsay. When I write about a person who goes where I’ve never been, I still have an idea of what it looks like to be there, so I’m not just pushing a character through some misty unknown, constantly worrying that I’ll say something inaccurate. It’s a major confidence booster.