Exploring the art of prose


Map Research

I will confess: I like maps. I like understanding where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. And I love Google and/or Apple Maps. The satellite view, the street view, directions, walking distance, the whole thing. I can (and do) spend hours revisiting places I have been and imagining places that are new to me.

Once, when I was trying to remember the layout of a cemetery that I knew as a teenager, I zoomed in on the satellite view, only to realize that the image was captured as a funeral procession was underway. The line of cars wound its way from the street to the plot. A mile and a half of cars. (Yes, I calculated the distance from the first to the last car.) And, yes, that image made its way into my fiction.

As much as Google Maps is helpful for remembering details of a place you know, it’s also great to learn about new places, especially if you can’t visit in person. Nothing, of course, can compare to actually visiting a location. But so often we’re not able to do that. How far is it to the ocean from where your characters live? Do houses in that neighborhood have garages? Where is the nearest bodega from that fifth-floor walk-up?

Maps can be helpful, too, to get a sense of a neighborhood, even if your characters live in a fictional space. This is especially true if your fiction is taking place in a locale far different from those that you know.

Sometimes, you can even go into restaurants or stores on street view. Does that restaurant where your characters are meeting for dinner have votive candles on the tables? If the table is by the window, what would they see outside?


  1. If you have a scene in a story where a character is walking down a real street, go to street view and take the same route as the character. Do you notice anything that you didn’t realize when you wrote the scene? Are there any unique details that you might be able to include in the scene?
  2. Choose a location and click on a building. Zoom in on the satellite view and then use the street view. Begin a scene by describing the building from the point-of-view of a person who has just moved to town and is walking down the street for the first time. Then describe the building from the point-of-view of someone who lives or works there. How can you use those different descriptions to build a story?
  3. For a writing prompt, choose a place you’ve never been. Zoom in and, in street view, walk around a block or down a street. Pick a detail that you saw on your walk—that somehow speaks to the place— and write a scene, focusing on that detail.

by Laura Spence-Ash