Category: | Research

Google Maps Street View: An Awesome Writing Tool

Google Street View Writing Tool
Before I jump into this week’s post, I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who gave an opinion on last week’s post. Your feedback is so helpful. It’s looking like the orange background is going to win it, but I’ll let you know when I make my final decision. Okay… onward!

Today I want to share a brilliant new writing tool I discovered while working on my novel: Google Maps Street View. It’s so obvious I’m kind of embarrassed that it took me so long to take advantage of it.

Using Google Maps to “See” a Place

Around page 98, my main character drives through a small town outside of Barstow. In editing, I realized that I didn’t really illustrate the scene very well. I couldn’t, because I had never been there, and therefore had no concrete details to share about it. Then it occurred to me – I don’t have to go there.

I pulled up the town on Google Maps, chose a corner that made sense for my scene to take place on and dragged the little yellow man into place to get the street view. So awesome. It was all tall signs and squat buildings in dusty shades. I “rolled” down the street a bit to see how the road slowly transitioned from sun-bleached town to lonely desert. There were two traffic signals.

A Word of Caution

Researching a place this way, I couldn’t smell the air, or notice how the people interact. I couldn’t feel the heat of the day on my face. I couldn’t hear the whistle of a train in the distance. There’s a lot you can’t get from “walking” down a street virtually, but if you’re just looking for a detail or two to set a scene, it’s amazing.

That said, I would never have used this trick for getting to know the main setting of my story. If I had tried to portray an ostrich farm without actually going to one, the story would have surly rung hollow. Because it’s those precise details (the heat, the train whistle) that make a reader feel like their with their narrator in the world of the story.

Also, I think it’s one of the biggest perks of being a writer that you can go anywhere and investigate anything in the name of research. Show me a writer who hasn’t worried about the FBI scanning their browser history and I’ll show you someone who writers boring stories.

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Novel Update

I’ve been blogging a lot about things other than my novel lately, so it seems it’s time for an update. For anyone who hasn’t been following along, I’m working on a novel about an ostrich farmer. Her name is Tallulah Jones. She inherits the farm from her grandfather when he passes away. This much has remained constant, but every other detail of the story has changed, then changed again, then changed again. I’ve been working on this bitch for about 7 years. And when I say “working on” I mean actually working on. Some writers talk about working on their novel, and then write a few pages when they feel inspired. I don’t believe in inspiration.

I get up almost every morning at 5am to write before my kids wake up. I have been working my ass off, and so it is with no small amount of frustration that I admit that I am 7 years in and going back to my outline. But that is the truth.

These days, I cling to the hope that with each draft I am getting closer to the core of what this story is, and with each passing year I am becoming a better writer. I must be getting better. The idea that I could do something so consistently for so long and not get better is too upsetting to even consider.

The other thing that gives me hope is that this new outline is actually not entirely new. I simply decided to start the story sooner. The beginning of my last draft will now be the mid-point, and starting so much earlier, I have a lot more room to develop the characters. I like the story more and more, even as I become increasing sick of working on it.

So that’s the haps on the novel. I have a writing retreat planned for Labor Day weekend. I’m hoping to have the outline nailed down before that, and to start drafting then. I’m hoping that I can keep 50,000 words of the old draft (might be optimistic), and I’m shooting for about 100,000 words total. I write 500 words a morning, so that’s 100 mornings. Six mornings a week is 16 weeks. With any luck, I might just finish a draft before the end of the year.

Of course, holidays and junk always get in the way, but if I can stay focused on the goal, I think I could do it.
I’ll keep you posted.

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Layers of History at the Mission San Carlos

For those of you who don’t know me, let me begin today’s post by saying that I am a big lover of Northern California. I grew up in Sonoma County, on the edge of wine country, and as soon as I got my driver’s license I spent full days driving all over, exploring every deserted road and back country highway. I took my little CVCC hatch-back down roads it was really never meant to travel. I even recently wrote a book on Northern California for a travel series called Guide For the Eyes. With any luck that will be coming out soon.

Anyway, I love, love, love Northern California and this last weekend, I happened to be visiting family up there for Easter.

My next novel, which is coming along slowly but surely, opens in 1784 at the Mission San Carlos. So this last Saturday, while were within driving distance, Daniel and I loaded the kids into my in-law’s minivan and made the hour and a half trip to see the place in person.

The thing that struck me immediately upon arrival was that the place is not a museum. I mean, it is, in many respects, but it is also an active place of worship. They were rehearsing their Easter services when we arrived and as we strolled around the grounds I was struck over and over by the fact that the place is nothing if not layer upon layer of history.

mission San carlos

Chatting with a docent I learned that many of the walls are, deep underneath the white wash and layers of adobe, the original brick and rock of the first construction, but it’s impossible to tell from looking how old any one thing is. I had been hoping to get a sense of what things would have been like back in the 1700’s but it’s just not that simple.

For instance, they have rebuilt Father Junipero Serra’s living quarters, and in looking through the bars at the room, it is easy to believe that it looked much the same 200 years ago, but just outside the door is the entrance to the gift shop – presumably NOT there in Serra’s time.

Mission San carlos junipero serra

The square the mission is built around has a cross erected where the church was officially first founded, so you know you’re standing on a spot of deep historical significance, but is that the same cross that appears in the old drawings? Does a wooden cross stand for hundreds of years? Or is it replaced as it degenerates over time?

Mission San carlos

There is a tiny little graveyard that was created in memory of the native people who lived and died at the mission, but nowhere on the signage for this lovely little site, with its twenty or so graves, do they mention the hundreds of Native Americans who actually died at the mission. There is likewise very little mention of the exceedingly hard lives they lived under the leadership of the church. I’ve been doing a lot of research on the topic and I always have to check my sources, as I have noticed significant differences in reports made by those sympathetic to the church, and those seeking to relay an accurate historical rendering of events.

Mission San Carlos Native

When we left the mission, we drove down to the ocean. I wanted to see what the coast line looked like right there. I have read many accounts of where and how ships would set anchor, and I wanted to get a sense of what it would have been like to arrive in the bay, see the short beach leading to twenty-foot cliffs and the rolling hills beyond. What a thing that must have been.

Mission San Carlos

I don’t know how much of this will make it into the novel. It’s not historical fiction. It’s a love story. But it’s important to understand the setting, even if few of the details ever actually appear in the prose.

All I can say for sure right now is that I am very much in love with this story. I look forward to working on it every night as I set my alarm. How lucky am I?

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Warm air, jet fuel, cigarette smoke and plumerias.

I didn’t post on Monday. I was busy drinking maitais by the pool in Hawaii. Okay, well, in truth, I was busy chasing the kiddos around the pool, which was even more fun, and I did sneak in a maitai or two.

I was ready for a little vacation. We went to a resort just outside Honolulu with my husband’s mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, cousin, and my mom. Here are a few photos (which you have already seen if you follow my Instagram feed).

April Davila April Davila April Davila




It was perfect, but I didn’t blog about it while we were there because I always feel like blogging about being on vacation is like inviting people to rob you.

But now that we’re back I can say – it was lovely.

More than that, it got the juices of my deep deep memory flowing, and as a good little writer nerd,  I’m proud to say, I did my fifteen minutes of writing every day and then some. I wrote almost exclusively about memories of other places, of the times in my life that I have lived on other, much less resort-like, islands. The smell of that thick warm air, jet fuel, cigarette smoke and plumerias kept transporting me, even as I loaded car seats in and out of rentals, to times I almost never think of anymore.

For two summers, when I was thirteen and then again when I was fourteen, my sister and I went to live with my dad on a small island in the south pacific called Kwajalein (here’s a map of roughly where our home was – if it had an address I don’t remember it). My dad, a retired Marine captain, was managing the airport there at the time. In my memory it is such a magical place. We went SCUBA diving every day. There were no cars on the island except for official military vehicles. The place was overrun with kids – military brats whose parents worked all day. We had such a blast. The air was hot and sticky, and our double wide had a plumeria tree growing over the top of it, and there was no air conditioning so the smell of plumeria wafted through the windows all day. I think I did keep a journal back then, but even if I could find it, it would probably just be full of gushing about Brad, the lifegaurd at the pool. Brad.

Then there were the four months I lived on the much drier, even even less populated, South Caicos, at the School for Field Studies. I studied fishery management and went SCUBA diving every day. I went on a date with a very large, local man named Ganger. He took me to the only restaurant in town – Aunt May’s – the carrots were delicious. My classmates and I took our tests under water with pencils on slates. We drank a lot of rum. We stopped whatever we were doing at sunset and gathered to watch the spectacular show.

These are the memories that came up for me in Hawaii. It’s amazing how scents take us back. I wonder if I’ll ever actually go back to those places. They are so remote, it’s hard to imagine. The whole thing has me feeling pretty nostalgic. I suppose there are stories in these memories, but for now they are just notes in my journal, to be mined at some future date.


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OstrichLand USA

OstrichLandOften, when I tell people in Los Angeles that I’m working on a novel set on a ostrich farm, they ask me if I have been to visit the ostriches up in Santa Barbara. Well, up until yesterday, I hadn’t.

I had been wanting to go for a while and yesterday, it occurred to Daniel and me, that it was a rare free day – nothing on the calendar at all. So we decided, on a whim, to take the whole family on the fairly long drive up to Solvang, California to visit OstrichLand USA (I’m not kidding – that’s the actual name of the place).

It was really interesting to see a totally different kind of ostrich farming. If you follow along here, you know that I’ve done most of the research for my book at the OK Corral ostrich farm in Oro Grande, out in the Mojave. It’s is a working ostrich farm, where birds are raised for meat and eggs.

Ostrichland is a totally different type of place. It is much more a tourist attraction. Their birds live long happy lives roaming free across an enormous, verdant piece of land. For a few bucks you can feed them, up close and personal (see the video below), if they feel like coming to the fence for a snack. There was a line of people waiting to shell out money to spend a little time with the birds. It is so much a roadside attraction that Ostrichland doesn’t even slaughter its birds. In fact, I noticed in the gift shop that the ostrich jerky they sell comes from the OK Corral.

In terms of research, I drove away from the experience really glad that I had started (all those years ago) by visiting the OK Corral. Ostrichland is great (and if you get a chance, you should absolutely stop by for a visit and feed the birds), but I want to tell a more gritty story, one that is just better suited to the harsh desert farm.

Still, as I wrap up what is likely the last (or next to last) draft of the book, it’s nice to know that I’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in the research department. Nobody can accuse me of not having done my homework.

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Dirty Jobs, OK Corral Style

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t really shared much of my research for this novel that I’m working so hard on, and that is a crazy shame, because ostriches are awesome.

The place I learned most everything I know about ostriches was at the OK Corral Ostrich Farm. The proprietor, Doug Osborne, was super gracious. He walked me all around the farm, and told me about the birds, the business, and the farm. He really seemed to care about each and every one of those long-legged beasts. He also had chickens, and emu, and and three roosters, including one that was more aggressive than any dog I’ve ever come across – it chased me back into my car when I first arrived. I had to sit there like an idiot waiting for Doug to come rescue me.

A few months later, I took him to lunch and he let me pick his brain for all kinds of details. The OK Corral has been a remarkable resource to me over the past five years.

So I thought I’d share a segment from the show “Dirty Jobs,” in the episode that they spend a day on the farm with Doug. It’s great, and I feel like it gives a real sense of how intimidating the birds can be.


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What My Characters Drive

I spent the wee hours this morning figuring out what cars my characters all drive. It seems like a silly thing. I almost felt like I was wasting precious writing time, browsing the internet for images of various cars, but the truth is, these little details matter.

This bit of research was prompted by the realization that every time a vehicle comes up in my story I write either “car” or “truck” and leave it at that. The truth is, I don’t care about cars (or trucks) and so any details beyond that seem unnecessary, but really, for most of my characters, what they drive actually says a fair amount about them.

My main character, for example. She lives on a farm. She drives a truck. As of this morning, I know that it’s a white, 1998 Toyota Tacoma truck. It’s a real work horse, but it’s getting older. It’s white because it sits in the desert sun all day – if it were black or blue it would get so hot she would burn herself on it. It’s old because she can’t afford a new one.

Her boyfriend, on the other hand, lives in town. He thinks he’s a tough guy, but really he’s the kind of guy who buys an SUV and then never washes it so that it appears that he takes it off road, but he never does. Ford Escape for him.

My villain gets a red Dodge Ram. A big old thing that looks like it wants to eat other trucks.

I made a word doc and pulled an image off Google for each of my character’s vehicles. I may likely never need to refer to it. Really, it’s not like I’m going to go into all that much detail about the cars, even now that I know what they all look like, but it definitely helps me visualize a scene if the pieces in it are specific and real.

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Phone Phreak

Have you ever had the experience of talking with someone on the phone, and you both try to talk at once, and then you both stop to let the other one talk, and then there’s a weird pause before you both say “sorry, you go,” and things continue on like this for the duration of the call, to the point that you never feel like you hit a groove talking with that person, and after hanging up, you feel kind of wrong?

You were probably talking to me.

I hate the phone. Something about not being able to see a person’s face causes me to miss ever single stupid little cue as to when I’m supposed to talk, and when I’m supposed to shut up. My girlfriends all keep in touch with each other via phone, having long phone conversations about their lives, but the ones who have known me the longest don’t call – they know I’m a total spaz on the phone and that if they want to keep in touch they really have to either come visit or write me an email (surprise, I’m best at written correspondence).

So when I have freelance assignments that require me to do a lot of phone interviews I tend to procrastinate. I have a job right now that is actually really interesting. I get to talk to a bunch of city officials about their work and compile it all into a narrative article, but getting over my aversion to phone actually took some serious emotional bolstering. Picture me chanting “you are not a spaz,” a few times before dialing.

Of course, this is not the first project I’ve ever had to do interviews for, so I am getting better. I’ve learned to state my questions clearly, then just shut up and wait for an answer. I squash the urge to jump in and explain myself further if they haven’t answered in two seconds, and to just be patient, and let them speak. I am friendly and don’t waste their time with a lot of chatter, and ultimately, the feedback I’ve gotten from clients has been good, but it’s a battle every time.

Why on Earth has the transporter not been invented yet? Seriously, it’s the 21st century. I would gladly change out of my pajamas and do my makeup to pop on up to San Francisco for an interview, if it could be done Star Trek style: Beam Me Up. Sure, there’s a lot of potential for disaster–my molecules being scattered to the atmosphere, or whatnot–but at least I wouldn’t have to talk on the damn phone.


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Writing Against Injustice

Words can be powerful things. They can also amount to a sneeze – possibly infectious, but ultimately forgotten in a minute.

This is where my frustration with writing comes in.

Let me back up. A few months ago I got a bullsh*t parking ticket. It said I was parked on some street I never heard of (that apparently has a 2 hour limit), when in fact, at the time, my car was in front of my house. I called to protest the ticket, and they guy took down my complaint as “not parked in 2 hour limit spot.” So the powers that be reviewed my case and determined that where I was supposedly parked was in fact a 2 hour limit and the ticket stood. Rather than take half a day to go downtown and contest it in person I just paid the damn thing and moved on.

Then, last month I got another ticket for parking in a two hour spot. I was there for 20 minutes. Long enough to park, walk down the hill, get an ice cream with my daughter and walk back. So again I called to contest. I made sure they repeated what they wrote as my reason for objecting to the fine before hanging up, and then, two days later, I got a letter saying “On the basis of your ‘statement of facts’ there is insufficient evidence to dismiss your citation.” I called again to ask how they came to this conclusion (and so quickly!) and the woman said she didn’t know, but that I could bring whatever evidence I have to a hearing and protest in person.

Evidence. Right. Like I kept a receipt for the ice cream I had a month ago. And even if I did, it wouldn’t prove how long I was parked in that spot. I would have had to take a photo of my car, with my watch (if I owned one) in the image as I left the car and then again when I returned, just IN CASE I got a ticket. I totally have time for that kind of thing.

Anyway. I was curious, so I googled “bogus parking ticket Los Angeles,” and found this article, posted by NBCLA about the 17,000 parking tickets that were written at broken parking meters.

Now, I’ll admit, it isn’t the most moving of articles. It’s not even very well written. Perhaps this is why the words are so sneeze-like, evaporating as soon as they hit the internet. Or maybe it’s that we’re all so tired of dealing with government bs that we just pay the bogus tickets and move on (like I did the first time), considering it a donation to our distressed municipal coffers.For whatever reason, those words affected NO change whatsoever. Aaaa-chooooo.

It seems to me the city is likely making a fortune on these tickets. It’s hard not to think that maybe if I wrote something about this–if I investigated a little and shared my findings–that I could bring down this vile injustice. Of course, I might also waste a week of my valuable time and end up with an expose that no one wants to publish.

Until they, too, get a bullsh*t parking ticket (or two).

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Ostrich Races Here I Come

On Friday morning I am flying to Arizona for the Ostrich Festival taking place this weekend in Chandler.

I am so excited. In addition to the races, there is also an ostrich parade, and a whole mess of other events such as stunt shows and petting zoos. I’m not exactly sure how many of these are ostrich focused, but I can’t wait to find out.

My hope is to soak up as much ostrich culture as I can. I want to know if there are slang words people use for ostriches. How does one get into ostrich racing? What are the finer details of racing or even just raising ostriches? Why would one want to race an ostrich?

I am so curious. I feel like a kid on Christmas eve.
If anyone out there is, by any chance, attending the festival, please let me know. I would love to meet up and talk some shop.

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