TRANSLATION How to travel the world of your characters

Like a lot of us, and especially translators, I love travelling (not the travelling part ... the being-there part) and it’s one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic. My sister felt the same way. She loves to drive around and take back roads and explore, and although you can still do that, the experience isn’t the same without being able to browse in a little roadside shop or stop for cake somewhere along the way. So for the past few months, she has been travelling virtually once a week – taking road trips to places she’s never been, and posting the photos.

Boreens in Ireland, precipitous roads on the islands of Greece, winding streets of old cities in the Czech Republic, mission cathedrals and Toltec ruins in Mexico, even castles in Japan – you can get the feel of many places just by zooming in with Google Earth and Google Maps. (You can also see your own home, and even count the steps to your front door. Spooky, and not always agreeable.)

Wakayama Castle, Japan. The ghostly person is a result of Google's anonymizing software

You might consider using these tools the next time you need a bit of atmosphere for your story. If your character needs to know her way around Paris or Rome, you can “walk” the streets virtually, see what she would see, right down to the rubbish bins, street signs, children playing, dogs running and local shops.

Even historical books can be researched with Google Maps or Google Earth. The chances are that, somewhere, there is a place that still looks like the one in your story.

Saalburg reconstructed Roman frontier fort near Frankfurt-am-Main

With Google, you can also explore the geography of the area, both with a satellite view and a panoramic view. Here, for example, is the reconstructed Roman frontier fort of Saalburg in the Taunus, Germany. By zooming out, you can see the surrounding landscape and notice how the fort is on a line of hills that once marked the northern reach of the Roman empire.

Thanks to millions of amateur photographers who have added their own photos, you can see inside thousands of notable buildings as well. For example, the Mumbai City Museum:

There are limits to what you can see. In China, for example, because of Chinese government hostility to Google, Google Earth has only satellite photos, road maps, and individual photographers’ pictures. 

Street view is accessible by clicking on the little icon of a person at the bottom right. When you do that, all the streets the Google Car has filmed show up in blue. When a place has not been filmed, but local photographers have uploaded photos, you will see the places they have photographed as blue circles, which you can visit.

Douala, Cameroon, where the only street-view photos are by photographers, as indicated by the blue circles

But there is a surprising number of places that have been visited by the Google Car. For example, you can drive through a village in remote eastern Greenland ...

Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland

... climb Mount Fuji or Ben Nevis (whoa. No idea it was so crowded up there). As you can see, sometimes the Google Car is a person with a video camera. The little white arrows in the snow, below, indicate that you can go in either direction and the photo will advance. You can also turn completely through 365º in panorama.

At the top of Ben Nevis

Clamber around the ruins of Angkor Wat …

walk through the medieval streets of Carcassonne and Mont-Saint-Michel …

Main street of Mont-Saint-Michel

In Mont-Saint-Michel the camera even goes up narrow pedestrian streets and climbs steps.

La Grande Rue in Mont-Saint-Michel, which has been a tourist attraction since the Middle Ages

Inner moat of Carcassonne

Or see Venice from the water. The 
Google Car” there is a canal boat. 

If you see a clock icon on Street View (it is in the black box at the top left), that means you can use the Time Travel feature to see how the same place looked in recent years, from 2007 onward. 

Brixton, London in 2020

The same place in 2008

As time goes by, this feature will become more useful to writers – an agent once told a SCBWI conference that “historical fiction” refers to anything more than twenty years old!

If you like Google Maps and Google Earth, you can upgrade to Google Earth Pro, which is free. Google asks if it may collect your data, which they say is anonymized. You can opt out. Take this with a large grain of salt. This allows you to make maps, and even layer them. This can be handy if you’re writing about a journey. Warning: Google Earth can take up more than 200 MB on your hard drive. You can also use it just in your browser.

It’s honestly very addictive. Remember, there is a time to stop researching and start writing!

* All images sourced from Google Maps or Google Earth.


Julie Sullivan is stuck at home with two cats, a grumpy husband and three constantly hungry former children.

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