My computer started to show its age recently, stiffening up like Tin Man in the rain. I enjoy writing longhand – pen on paper has its own special feel for writers – but I soon realized that I missed more than the quickness of keyboarding.
I’ve come to depend on how technology brings the world to my desk.
1. World building
The concept of world building is most often associated with science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction, but all novels benefit from a strong sense of place. Visiting the locations in which we set our scenes helps us discover the details that make them distinctive. An in-person visit is ideal, but not always practical. Two shortcuts that I find especially useful are exploring “Street View” with the yellow Pegman on Google Maps and searching under “Images” on Google.
If you’re not acquainted with Pegman, he’s in the lower right corner of the Google Maps screen. Just drag and drop him to the spot you want to see. You can use the arrows on the side to rotate your view and arrows on the image itself to move forward, sometimes even inside. For my recent novel, I needed to find an isolated location in Idaho. After a couple of hours with Pegman, I came up with my setting and language: “An open sky and railway tracks, a Phillips 66 gas station, a string of power lines, some low concrete buildings, scrubby trees in the distance, a horizon so flat you could see nothing for miles. Desolate, like something in an old Hitchcock movie. A trap that didn’t need walls.” None of that came to me until I saw that place on the screen.
A search under “Images” unlocks a gold mine of photos from all over the planet. I wanted to see how Munich looked at night for a short story: no problem. I found hundreds of photos with just a few clicks. An exclusive nightclub in Chicago? I couldn’t have gotten past the bouncer in person, but countless partiers had helpfully uploaded their selfies with plenty of background content. The images on Street View are static, but the photos here can show a whole range of situations (different times of day, number of people, and so forth).
2. Capturing character
Years ago, a writing teacher advised me to keep a collection of faces from magazines for character studies and story prompts. I soon discovered that magazines take far too narrow a view of who merits a photo. Smart phones can help us collect faces from life. As long as you’re simply using them to inform your writing, and not for publication or commercial purposes, you’re allowed to take pictures of strangers in public. I’d advise discretion, but smart phones are good for that: you don’t stand out like someone with a 35 mm camera and telephoto lens.
In addition, you can use the video feature on your smart phone to catch conversations in public, such as on a bus where people might reasonably expect to be overheard. Transcribing how people actually speak to one another can help writers get a better feel for dialogue. Of course, in the end, you’ll want to use your own words. We’re talking about ways to inspire and grow your writing, not replace it.
Searching under “Images” can also help with finding characters and describing facial expressions. Not sure what happens to a woman’s face when she’s bored? Search “bored woman” under “Images” and you’ll see. You’ll still need to come up with original words to describe it, but at least you’ll have a concrete place to start.
3. Researching on the fly
All of us rely on our computers and smart phones for research these days. When was the last time you tackled the card catalogue at the library to read up on a topic for your book? Jonathan Franzen is known for working away from his computer, but many writers intersperse writing with quick searches, on everything from what is really meant by a panic attack to the right synonym for an overused word. My advice here is to open up a new window for research. Don’t be tempted by having tabs open to email or social media on the same screen. At the end of each session, you can save your research tabs as a group, by right-clicking one of the tabs and scrolling down to “Bookmark all tabs.” I’d also suggest turning off the push notifications for your email and other apps, so they don’t distract you. The trick, as always, is how to take advantage of technology without letting it undermine you.
Which brings me to a final caution: sometimes we all need to put convenience aside and unplug. To experience places in person, study faces with our own eyes, listen hard with nothing but our ears. How these things make us feel can be lost if we limit ourselves to a digital version of life. Technology may be able to bring the world to us, but we count on perceptive writers to step into the world.