If you write fiction, Google Maps is your friend!
Let’s say you’re from Toronto, but the novel you’re writing takes place in Detroit. You don’t have the time or the money to travel to Detroit right now. Besides, you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. The setting for your story is an “urban prairie” type of neighborhood, but you aren’t sure where it is in real life, or even if it exists at all. Google Maps can help you find the right place.
You can begin by going to maps.google.com and typing “Detroit” in the search window. Take a random Street View tour of the city until you find a neighborhood that speaks to you. (Listening to music will greatly enhance this experience.) Or you might start with some information you gleaned from earlier research and use that as a starting point. For example, if you’ve read some articles about the old Packard Plant and want your characters to live near there, begin your search at the plant and “wander” around its vicinity.
You can take these kinds of virtual tours of places all over the world. I once spent hours clicking my way around the Peace Line in Belfast. I wasn’t writing a story about that city, but I’d read a lot about it and wanted to see it for myself. It was an educational and deeply moving experience. No, it isn’t the same as a real visit, but it gave me a perspective that you can’t get from still photographs or from TV. When you take a Google Maps virtual tour, you can stay in one place as long as you like and focus on whatever captures your imagination. Maybe it’s an ornate cathedral, maybe it’s a dingy little corner store. Maybe it’s a house that gives you bad vibes and will therefore make a great home for a fictional murderer. (Don’t include the exact address of this home in your book!) Maybe you’re on a country road between two tiny towns, and your virtual tour makes you realize how alone your character feels. You can also get lost and end up somewhere unexpected.
Of course, a Google Maps tour isn’t as helpful if your story takes place before 2007 or so. The Detroit of 1868– or even 1968– doesn’t look like what you see on Google Maps. But you can still tour your location and compare it to photographs or illustrations that date back to your story’s time period.
Google Maps also doesn’t work if you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction story. You can’t (yet) take a virtual tour of Mars. When I wrote Time Trip: A Dinosaur Musical, I couldn’t go to the International Science Center in the year 2121, or to the river where my Cretaceous crocodiles lived. Even when your story is set in the real world, you still need to use your imagination. Your setting may be real, but what happens there is up to you.