On Google Street View, and maps, and why they matter

Some of my favorite books in all the world have, in their frontmatter, a map of the places described in the text. I hold out hope that maybe one day mine might do the same; it is a peculiar kind of intimacy, a visual understanding between author and reader — now you have this place in your head, as it is in mine, we share an awareness of place and landscape, of objects in space. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — all of them preface the story with the setting.

Maps have a lot of psychological resonance: they represent a way for humans to describe their surroundings and, in doing so, to claim some kind of ownership and sovereignty. The arc of modern history can be seen in the successive changes in our maps of the world, through the movement of borders and the names that come and go. An alien civilization could piece together a very great deal about humanity by simply going through our maps.

I have said that I could not write the things I write without the enormous felicity of being able to see the places I am using to tell my story, without having to physically travel there. Google Maps allowed me to work out where my characters would be going and what routes they would take; Google Street View made it possible for me to see what they would be seeing on the way. With GSV I could see into the British Museum and the Palais Garnier in enormous depth and detail, all from the comfort of home. I didn’t even have to put on pants, let alone shell out huge sums for plane tickets and request access to parts of buildings that aren’t open to the public. When research is this easy and accessible, it seems irresponsible not to do it.

The number of hours I spent clicking my way through London and Paris and New York for the Greta series was not recorded, but it’s a lot, and perhaps a third of the information I racked up ever made it into the books themselves. There was one memorable sequence wherein I had to do a bunch of research to track down the actual location of a house I’d seen on an image search and find it on GSV, along with ancient gelatin-silver photographs of the interior from the Museum of the City of New York, which took most of an afternoon. Cross-referencing surface images of Paris with the old maps of the catacombs in order to find a plausible location for Corvin’s lair near enough to the Palais Garnier required some effort (and a lot of layering maps on top of one another via Photoshop). There is a whole chunk of text that never made it into Strange Practice explaining Stephen Halethorpe’s route through London’s sewers from Crouch End south toward the deep-level shelter, which was exhaustively researched via a) online “draining” forums for sewer exploration enthusiasts and b) a 1930s-era London Council map of the sewer system. I’m still proud of that one, even if it was very definitely Too Much Information.

After Strange Practice and Dreadful Company were finished, I went through and marked all the significant locations on two maps, one for each book, and because I want to give readers that shared sense of place and setting I have now uploaded these to my Administrative Ephemera page. I hope they give people as much pleasure as they gave me in the making. For Grave Importance — well, the map is rather larger and less precise, but I may do it anyway, because it is fun. And because it does, in fact, matter.