Friday, July 31, 2015

Smelling the seaweed on Google Earth

The RSPB reserve at Aberlady Bay

In case you didn't know it already, Google Earth is a fabulous thing.

What an amazing gift Google has given to writers everywhere. We can cruise down the Champs Elysées, The Strand or Broadway. We can study doorways of burger joints and pizza parlors in Melbourne or Naples, look at statues on courthouses in Buenos Aires, posters on theaters in Rome and read neon signs in shopping malls in Flagstaff AZ if we want to. We can check the color of the central bulb-roof on the Kremlin, check the height of the royal balcony on the front of Buckingham Palace and even (I’ve just been astonished to discover) find out how many steps, slopes and passages you have to negotiate to walk the Great Wall of China.

Cromarty Harbor
My Google wanderings have been rather smaller in scale though. Over the last few years, I have spent hours wandering around two small Scottish seaside towns – Cromarty, up in the north on the Black Isle, and Aberlady in East Lothian, near Edinburgh – to get vital information about life in those towns for the two novels I have been writing. In the past, writers could only pore over maps to see how far their character’s house was from the police station or the school in a distant town. I had the indulgence of being able to do that walk myself, all while sitting in a café in Houston, Texas.

When I began to write my first novel, With Cowries at her Throat, I had never been to Cromarty. I had driven up the A9 through Inverness en route to the north coast, but had never taken the right turn just past the Kessock Bridge which would have taken me across the Black Isle. I had visited Aberlady a few times as a child as it was much closer to home, but once I decided to set my second novel there, I realized I could remember very little of the village. Hence the hours I spent wandering (or is it scrolling) around the villages, stopped by Google Earth only when I wanted to trespass onto private land.

So it was a strange experience a week or so ago, when I was back in Scotland on a family vacation, to drive through Aberlady for the first time in perhaps thirty years and feel like I had been there only last month. The streets were so familiar that it was almost like I was in my own book. I knew where the church was, the school, the grocery store and the hotel. I could point out to my kids the wide green where I had set my VE Day picnic, and which of the white-washed cottages on Sea Wynd belonged to Mrs Murray, the teacher.

The same had happened to me when we visited Cromarty a couple of years ago. I knew the town so well that I could walk from the harbor straight to Fergus’s house, and when we got there, I really had to control myself not to ring the doorbell so I could say hello to him and his Grandma. Gladly, sense prevailed and we walked away. I doubt the people living in that particularly beautiful house would have taken kindly to me knocking.

The Hundred Steps in Cromarty
However, there was one huge difference between my virtual Cromarty and Aberlady wanderings and my real ones, and that was the sensory overload I got from being in the real place.  My virtual towns looked just like they do in real life, but all I could smell was coffee and cheese paninis, and feel a chill from an overactive air-conditioning system. The real Cromarty smelled of fishing boats, seaweed and fresh baking bread . And as I walked the Hundred Steps up the South Sutor, the scents changed to those of the wild garlic, the rich loam of decaying logs and of the dank moisture trapped under bowing branches.

In the real Aberlady, I could feel the pale warmth of the early sun on my face, all the while fighting to keep my chilled fingers moving so I could adjust the settings on my camera and binoculars (and yes, it was that cold in mid-July). By the time we had walked through the churchyard, the Sea Green, the RSPB bird reserve and over the golf courses at Craigielaw and Kilspindie (which sit on the piece of land I have purloined for Jock Anderson’s farm), the movement in the air had grown from a breeze to a positive bluster, making me pull my hair out of my eyes and back into a ponytail in order to see anything at all, not something I have had to do sitting in Barnes & Noble café very often.

The grass around the golf courses was luscious and soft under my feet, but Coffin Lane was stony and narrow. I also learned that when you walk, as my characters Lorna and Iris do, at low tide alongside the Peffer Burn as it threads its shimmering way across Aberlady Bay and out into the Firth of Forth, you are not walking on sandy gravel with pebbles strewn around, but on sucking mud flats, dotted with worm casts and shells. Good to know. Better go and change that bit right now.

The Peffer Burn early one morning

As we walked, I could suddenly taste the salt on the air in a way that I never could in my virtual Aberlady, though I must say, the millionaire’s shortbread and tablet from the Gosford Bothy Farm Shop tasted every bit as sweet and delicious as my drooling mouth told me it would be when I saw the shop’s sign as I cruised down Google's version of the A198 out of Aberlady.

So while I cannot recommend Google Earth enough to you other writers who need to research fine details of distant places for their books, I would also remind you that discovering a place by sight is only part of your research. Discovering it by smell, touch, taste and sound is a whole different matter entirely.