Take a Walk With Your Character: New Features on Google Earth

Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio
I've just spent the last week walking the streets of Palermo, Sicily. I've been window shopping along the avenues, taking in the fabulous architecture of the churches and cathedrals, and checked out the view of the Mediterranean from the shore.

And I haven't spent a penny.

For that matter, I haven't left my chair. I've been researching my next novel, a historical fantasy set in this ancient Sicilian city. My time and budget won't allow me to jet off to the Mediterranean just now, so Google Earth is my best friend. And the latest version (Google Earth 6) has bells and whistles I never expected.

You may dismiss this post as irrelevant, since you write science fiction, or historical fiction, or perhaps a tale set at the bottom of the ocean. Perhaps your story has fantastical buildings you'd never find on this planet. Don't click away yet. Google Earth has something for you, too.

First of all, Google Earth is a free download, so it's worthwhile to play around with until you decide if it's helpful to you. When it opens, a box will pop up with "start up tips". Don't close this box. It's your personal tour of the amazing tools just waiting to inspire you. Here's what I've had fun playing with so far.

Time Slider. Let's say your novel is set on the slopes of Mount Everest. You'll have Google Earth "fly" you to your location, but maybe your character is trapped on the mountain, watching the sun getting lower, and pondering his chances of survival. Never having been to Mount Everest, you may be at a loss as to how the sun sets (or rises) in relation to the mountain. Just use the time slider to watch dusk, dawn, shadows on the slopes--whatever you need.

Explore the Moon. Believe it or not, you, too, can land on the moon! Tour the landing sites of astronauts, zoom in on 3D models of space craft, and even watch video of moon landings.

Build your own city. Google Earth allows users to design their own buildings with Building Maker. You can place your creations anywhere on the planet. Maybe you're writing a dystopian novel set in a desert, and you can't find the buildings you've imagined. Create them yourself, set them in the Sahara, and you can "fly through" your imaginary city.

Don't forget the trees. The latest version of Google Earth has mapped out the location of specific trees in certain areas of the planet. You can even fly to the Amazon and "walk" through the rainforest, noting the particular trees all around you.

Time Travel. Let's say your novel is set in 1900s San Francisco. Once you "fly" to the location, if there are historical maps available for the area you choose, they'll be indicated by a historical imagery button. You can slide from the present all the way back through images of various time periods, even "walking the streets" of a particular era. This is amazingly helpful for historical fiction.

Are oceans your thing? Google Earth lets you fly over any ocean, or if you prefer, you can fly beneath the oceans surface, exploring the terrain at the bottom of the sea. A fantastic resource if you write about submarine travel, or imagine a civilization on the ocean floor.

Google Earth has much more that I haven't played with yet, but it's a great (and cheap!) resource for writers working to make their settings come alive.

Would Google Earth help you with your storyworld?


  1. Google Earth is a great idea for memoir too. You could use it to freshen up your memory.
    In 1990, I studied Italian and visited Sicily over a week-long break. I don't remember much about Palermo, because police and locals always told us to be careful. I recall being too afraid of crime to use my camera too. I loved Sicily overall. Ah, memories.

  2. How timely this is for me--not only for writing, but I have family members preparing to move overseas. I know I'll be using this to get a window into their world. Thanks so much!

  3. This sounds awesome, can't wait to try it! I didn't realize that Google Earth was so extensive. I've played around with Google Maps and was impressed by their Street View option, but it's only available in limited areas.

  4. Stacy: Memoir is a great idea--I hadn't thought of that. I'm so jealous you've been to Palermo! You didn't happen to see the Capuchin Catacombs, did you?

    Kenda: When my daughter took a trip to Brazil, I "flew" into her city with Google Earth. It made me feel much more connected.

    Krindon: I know you'll have fun with it. I may have to add to this post as I discover more features.


  5. Now that is cool! Thanks for that, Debbie. I'm off to go play in Google Earth!

  6. Stacy, when I first opened Google Earth after I downloaded the new version, a "tips" box popped up with a series of slides explaining the new features. I don't know if it will show up if you're updating a previous version, but maybe you can search the "help" section of the software. All the features are there, the tips just do a good job of highlighting and explaining them I hope you find them!




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