Monday, October 1, 2012

Internet Research Tools Create Convincing Settings

One of my favorite authors is Robert Ludlum. I hungrily consumed his Bourne Trilogy, fascinated not only by the skill with which the memory-addled agent dispatched the bad guys, but also with the exotic cocktail of places, sights, smells and sounds that he traveled to. And I remember thinking (Thirty years ago! What a memory!), how did Ludlum come up with the intricate descriptions of all these places? I reasoned that the only way he could have known was to have actually traveled and spent time in these countries and cultures himself.

The thought, at the time, filled me with despair. I knew that the likelihood I'd ever have of traveling to so many foreign lands was slim to none, which meant I'd be limited to writing what I knew: suburban small town life in Upstate New York. And the problem was that I didn't want to write about that. I wanted to write grand adventure stories that took me to faraway places like Ludlum's works did. But how?

Of course, at the time, Al Gore hadn't invented the internet yet (yes, I know: it was really Vinton Cerf who developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee who created HTML), so I could not conceive of a solution to my problem, which is today readily and easily solvable from the comfort of my den. 

My Jonathan Munro Adventures all occur in faraway, exotic places. The Lost Scrolls takes us from Michigan to Turkey and Syria. The Elixir of Life (due out in 2013) takes us to Bruges, Belgium (cryptically known as The Dead City). And I'm just starting to outline the next book in the series: The Music of the Spheres, which will lead us through Russia and the Ukraine. Future titles will take us into Egypt and Somalia, too. Other books I've written (or am writing) take me into the Adirondack Mountains; Washington D.C.; Jerusalem; Montana; Roswell, New Mexico; and Groom Lake, Nevada.

I live outside of Rochester, New York. I've never been out of the country, except a few times to Canada and once to the Bahamas. I may take a missions trip to the D.R. with my daughter sometime next year, but those plans are very tentative. And the farthest West I've ever been is my parent's home in Houston, Texas. 

Not only that, but the characters in my book speak in diverse languages. I've got English, French, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Arabic, Turkish, Greek and even Hebrew tossed in there. Okay, I admit I've studied Greek, and I took a semester of French in high school. But I can't honestly say I speak any language other than English.

So how on earth can I write convincingly about faraway places, peoples, and languages I've never studied?   The answer of course, is research. And the internet has made researching faraway places incredibly easy. What are the tools I use to put my readers in exotic lands?

The first and by far the most helpful tool is Google Earth. With its ability to zoom anywhere on the globe and descend into a view on the street, Google Earth makes it literally possible to drop in anywhere and take a look around. Additionally, I can explore vivid photographs from photo sharing sites such as Flickr, Panaromio and 360 Cities (A very useful tool) that can drop you in the middle of a high definition photograph.

Another incredibly useful tool is Youtube. Because it is global, I can access videos from around the world and listen in on the sounds or watch the pace of life in a different city. 

Since many of my locations are religious in nature, I have found Sacred Destinations to be an invaluable resource as well. Not only does it include high definition photographs, but the information contained gives insight into the history and significance of the various sites, as well as many useful maps and diagrams. 

Through the internet, I've gone into airports and tweaked timeline issues by examining the flight tables between different destinations, climbed aboard trains, and visited hotel rooms where my characters crash after a hard day on the run. Using Babylon online translation (and more recently, Google's own translator) I can convert one language into another at the click of a mouse, and transliterate different alphabets into English phonetics for easy insertion (I recommend converting back into English to compare the phrasing, as there often isn't a simple "word for word" translation possible). About the only thing I can't do from the comfort of my chair is figure out how a places smells. For that, I find people who've been there and often ask (Yes, seriously.). I've been given great information from people who write travel blogs, who are often more than happy to share their experiences with me. Missionaries have also proven an incalculable resource in this regard, as well as in filling in the gaps in my internet searches.

In short, I research everything. I pay attention to as much detail about a place as I do to the story's plot or to my characters' backgrounds and personalities. I aim to do as little fictionalizing as I can, aside from the story itself. Truly, the internet is a remarkable research tool, and the writer's absolute best resource for expanding your knowledge.
Frankly, I don't know how Ludlum ever wrote without it. 
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  1. The Matarese Circle remains one of the most thrilling books I've ever read. I really enjoyed watching CIA's Brandon Scofield reluctantly join forces with his then-nemesis, the Soviet KGB agent Vasili Taleniekov. In addition to all that, the Manchurian Candidate feel of the work (on steroids) turned into one elevated revelation after another.

    Ludlum wasn't my favorite thriller writer, however - that honor goes to Alistair MacLean, who wrote a more realistic thriller, which made the thrills all the more personal. His gambit in Fear Is The Key was literally breathtaking...

  2. A simple (simple - ha!) thing like using Google Earth to travel down a street in another country still amazes me.
    thanks Michael - great reminder to ratchet up the details.

  3. Thanks for the tips on new Internet tools. I didn't know about a couple of them. I write MG adventures, set in various exotic locations. I read up all about the places but then, as I keep telling myself any excuse is better than none, I just HAVE to go there. Next stop is Mexico!

  4. I never would've thought of YouTube for this. That's brilliant! You mentioned a couple I'm not familiar with and am now curious about. I'm ready to go cybertraveling.

  5. Great tips here. I've even found Google earth useful for reminding myself about places I HAVE been to. And I bet Google will one day in the not too distant future have the ability to listen to a street corner or location... we'll see.

  6. This reminded me of Zane Grey and J. T. Edson. Grey was a midwest/east coast dentist who had never traveled out west and yet became one of the most famous names in cowboy & western novels. Similarly Edson, was born in England, and never made it out West but created some of the most memorable characters in Western novels. He was an avid fan of Westerns however and probably learned a lot of the atmosphere and settings in his books from watching these movies.

  7. Well YouTube is a fascinating idea. Now why didn't I think of it. You're a genius! :)