By Charlotte Bennardo

When setting a story in a location we are not very familiar with, the best thing would be to go to that place to absorb the culture, take note of the architecture, listen to the language, and talk to the populace.

Ah, if only.

My co-authored YA novel, Blonde OPS, takes place in Italy. Rome, to be exact. I have never been to Rome, and neither had my co-author. (It's on the bucket list.) So even if I browsed through travelogues, I'd only get a smattering of the information I needed. And, the publisher would have laughed hysterically if we suggested a 'working' trip to Rome. So actually going to Rome was not an option.

Many authors are faced with this dilemma. Sure, you can ask around, see if someone has been there, knows things about the place, but it's not the same as being there. Human memory isn't the best; it is selective, and discards things it doesn't deem important enough to remember although as many criminal trials have proven, it's the little details that can make or break a case/story.

Thankfully, by starting with a travelogue, we could pick out landmarks we wanted to use in our story. Complete histories, addresses, guided tour information, and even a picture gave us a good start. But, a picture is flat. How could we walk down a cobbled street to see a small cafe, with basil pots in the windows, and hidden alcoves with weathered statues?

By traveling with Google Earth. When I give workshops and presentations on research tools for writers, Google Earth is one of my favorites. In Blonde OPS, there are car chases, sightseeing on a scooter, a romantic walk through the back streets, and ancient hidden staircases. By putting in an address, Google Earth lets you 'walk' down the street via GPS in virtual reality.  I saw the blooming spice pots. I saw the uneven stone cobbles. I saw twisty, narrow streets. A fan who read the book said she felt like she was actually in Rome, meandering the streets, or standing in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square. Others, who've actually been to Rome, have said, "I know that place!" Even though we made up hotel names where spy action/kidnappings/etc. take place, the main thoroughfares exist. I spent so much time 'traveling' with Google Earth, it sometimes felt like I'd been there. And that's when you know you've nailed it.

If you want to get a feel for a place before traveling, or when you can't travel, book your ticket via Google Earth, and let your mouse guide you.


  1. I love this post Charlotte! Thanks for the tip about Google Earth.

  2. I love this. But now I hope you can go to non-Google Rome someday soon!

  3. The perfect solution, Charlotte. Thanks.

  4. What a fantastic resource! I've never used Google Earth, but I will now.


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