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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Google Earth: A Versatile New Tool for the Historical Novelist

Last week, I needed to know precisely how far Robert the Bruce sailed from the Isle of Arran and what the Turnberry coast may have looked like during his invasion of the Scot mainland in 1307.

Once upon a time, I would have wasted valuable time driving to the library to search gazetteers with rulers and pore through guidebooks for photos of the southern Ayrshire coast. But after attending a demonstration on the capabilities of Google Earth by fellow author Paul Madison at a recent Los Angeles Chapter meeting of the Historical Novel Society, I accomplished the task in just minutes while sitting at my computer at home.

Most of us have played with Google Earth to zoom in on overhead shots of houses for fun. But as Paul demonstrated to our amazement, the uses of the program have expanded dramatically. Offering two examples—the ruins at Pompeii and a Roman battlefield in Syria–he dropped our jaws by flying us like a bird through and around several three-dimensional reconstructions of the sites.

The magic, in a nutshell, works like this: Modern visitors to the locations download their photos to Google Earth, and the program extrapolates these offerings into a realistic depiction of the selected place. Various angles are then made available, including street level, ground level, and touring-movement mode.

The program can even spur new historical interpretations. In his demonstration, Paul explained how, after measuring the terrain on the Google Earth download, he discovered that an account of a Roman retreat could not have followed the route described in accounts left from that time.

In addition to measurements, other uses for the new tools in the Google Earth program are legion. The historian or novelist can now zoom in on specific areas of a battlefield and find the outlines of lost bridges, ruins, or encampments. The “dials” on the program can also be manipulated and set to follow, on the computer screen, the routes across the terrain that armies would have taken on charges or retreats. Parallelograms and other figures can be drawn over the screen shot of the location to indicate troop or camp locations.

This ability to make a real-time visitation of historical sites has exciting potential for digital books. Imagine yourself reading a description of the siege of Constantinople or the slow climb up the slope of Cemetery Ridge during Pickett’s Charge. With a quick click of a hyperlink, you may soon be able to toggle back and forth from the written description to the real-time movement over the reconstructed terrain.