After seven days of incessant bombardment, at exactly 3:06am on June 7, 1917, it got very quiet in the trenches along Flanders’ Messines Ridge. “Perfect stillness,” wrote one soldier. “Perfect stillness.” The silence was so profound birds could be heard singing in the night. It spooked soldiers on both sides.
Four minutes later that stillness ended abruptly. From Hill 60 on the north to Factory Farm on the south, nineteen mines went up in spectacular synchronicity. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosive rent the earth along an eight-mile front, instantly killing thousands of German soldiers. The pillars of fire inspired awe in all who witnessed them.
If you were writing about this event you main sources would be books, newspapers, and Internet sites. But what if you wanted to know what Flanders looks like? Is it flat, hilly, urban, rural? What about the roads and railways?
Is there a way to visualize the topography of the Flanders front and the positions of those nineteen mines?
British Army WWI “trench maps” would be a starting point. They show great detail; even show the zig-zaggy trench positions. But these maps cover tiny quadrants, and it would take a dozen or more to cover the ground of that awesome ring of fire. Stanford’s, a wonderful map store in London, sells individual trench maps for $5.00. Are you willing to spend $60 or more, plus freight? Is there another way?
Yes. And it’s much closer at hand: Google Earth.
This tool was first introduced by Google early this century. It is essentially a vast collection of satellite images, aerial photographs, and GIS (Geographic Information System) 3D data that covers the entire globe.
Google Earth vs. Google Maps
Google Maps is essentially a digital road map application, and is accessible on any browser (https://maps.google.com). Its default map features some very basic topographic relief, and as you zoom in, shows considerable road detail, including street names. It has a complete directions module that will tell you how to get from point A to point B (and, C, D, E, etc., too, if you want). For a growing number of areas, by pointing on the “Satellite” box on the upper right, then clicking “Terrain” you can intensify the relief details to get a pretty clear idea of the lay of the land. And by zooming in with this mode you can see contour lines and their elevations, just like on a USGS topo map—a useful feature. The latest iteration of Google Maps lets you display Google Earth imagery, but you cannot access any of the topographic tools. In a later post we’ll discuss researching with Google Maps in more detail, as Google has just added a bunch of new, useful features.
Google Earth is the application that we’ll be studying in the next two installments. It’s a standalone imaging program (that you need to download and install—easy and free, find it here: http://www.google.com/earth/index.html). Earth can be map-like, but its real value to a researcher or writer lies in providing accurate visual images (aerial and otherwise) of particular locations, including roads, buildings, landmarks, trails, fence lines, copses, terrain, elevations, and much more. For the purposes of this post we’ll concentrate on Google Earth.
The Eight Features of Google Earth That are of Most Use to Writers
• Provides a general geographic overview.
• Has collections of location photographs uploaded by Google Earth users and embedded into the topo images.
• Allows you to set a placemark by dropping a pin on a point and identifying it with a label.
• Street View lets you hop in one of Google’s photo cars and drive through cities, towns, villages, fields, and mountains, with 360° panoramic views.
• The ability to accurately measure distances between points.
• The ability to measure elevations (though less accurately than horizontal planes).
• The ability to draw your own pathways.
• The ability to find a location using only latitude and longitude (helpful at sea).
How does all this imagery help a writer?
Before we attack Flanders, let’s shift briefly to a different continent. Say your key nonfiction subject grew up in Redwood City, California—a place you’ve never visited. Using Google Earth you can find out what the town and its environs look like. Have a street address? Type it in and find her house. Hop into Street View and drive down his road. Check out her school, his favorite playground, where dad worked.
Writing fiction? You can do exactly the same thing. Choose a neighborhood, a specific house you think is just right for your protagonist, the school you want him to go to, the playground you want her to play at. You can accurately visualize the relationship that the mountains and the bay have with the town—then wax eloquently about the scene.
The next Finding Stuff post is going to be chock-a-block full of stuff on how to do all this, so stay tuned for our Google Earth visual visit to the fields of Flanders.
*Important Note: When you download Google Earth the default setting will concurrently download Google’s Chrome and make it your default web browser—unless you tell it not to. Be sure to uncheck the two boxes on the “Terms of Service” page. If you don’t, Chrome will be the devil to get rid of.