Google maps is great, but there is no substitute for actually being there. That was my lesson this past week.

A few weeks ago, my husband told me he needed to be in London for a conference for a few days and asked if I wanted to join him. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity–honestly, who wouldn’t? It turned out to be more expensive to buy a ticket than I had thought, but I quickly decided I would make a research trip of it. And when I decide I’m going to do a research trip, I can tell you—I did not look at almost anything without there being some connection to my books or the time period in which I write.

I spent three absolutely wonderful days exploring Regency London, if only in my imagination as I explored 21st century London. I went to Fortnum & Mason (which has been in business since the early 17th century), Hatchard’s bookstore (in business since the late 17th century), and walked the streets of Mayfair (tallying up to 7 miles a day for all three days!). I took well over a hundred pictures of houses, streets, and alleyways as I searched for the exact location of where a particular character’s house could be.

The point of all this is that while I thought I could imagine the place in my head through pictures others had posted online and by studying both Google maps and a map of early 18th century London, I still had a completely wrong picture. I thought I could easily put my character in an alley across the street from this character’s house. Well, guess what? There are very few alleys in Mayfair! There are a couple of narrow streets that once led to the mews (stables), but no real alleyways. I thought my hero could sit on a bench in the square across from my heroine’s house, but there are only a few squares in Mayfair (the big famous ones: Berkeley, Grosvenor, and Hanover) and her family wouldn’t be so wealthy as to be able to afford a house there. He’s going to have to watch her house from somewhere else!

In other words, I’m going to be doing some serious rewriting tomorrow!

But even more than the geography, I got to see at least the outside of the houses my characters live in (for the inside I am going to have to rely on others’ historical research since there were no public tours of the inside of a typical Mayfair home). I got to walk their neighborhood and see exactly how far it was to go places. I now know that it was an easy walk from Mayfair to Covent Garden (which my hero does in one scene in my novel). I know that it was probably a five to ten-minute carriage ride from my heroine’s house to Bond Street, where she would purchase a new gown or maybe up to fifteen minutes to Piccadilly to go to Hatchard’s.

I got a feel for the area, despite all the modernization and construction going on—and that was priceless. I got to understand how it felt to walk those streets and could see exactly what and wasn’t there, something you just don’t get on Google maps (or not easily).

Even if you set your novel in some place entirely of your own creation, even just walking the streets of some place similar could be inspiring and help you to visualize your setting. Getting a feel for a place, actually being there—there is no substitute.

I would have loved to have been able to go back in time for a couple of days (despite the inconveniences of lack of sanitation) to experience real Regency London, but I did the next best thing and I highly recommend that—if at all possible—you do the same for wherever you set your book. There is absolutely nothing like being there!