For the most part, I love Google Maps. I use it all the time when I want to find out where the nearest (fill in the blank) is, and I've put together a lot of practical maps for my own use: public transit in New London, yarn stores in all the towns I've visited, opera houses, things to do in nearby cities, Italian groceries, and on and on.
Thanks in part to Franco Moretti's work on literary geography and distant reading, I've also been playing with Google Maps as a way to visualize literary settings and look for patterns that might not be obvious without taking geography into consideration. I've been making, for example, a map of places in the stories of my favorite ghost-story author, M.R. James. (Here's a link, if you're curious. It's still a work in progress.) It's been interesting for me to see James's predilection for setting stories on the east coast of England represented in visual form. Eventually I want to see how James's settings compare with other ghost story writers' settings. I don't have a particular conclusion that I'm chasing at this point; I'm just interested in what a map can make visible.
Some of James's stories are very easy to place: Burnstow in "'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" as James himself remarked in the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is a fictionalized version of Felixstowe, and Seaburgh in "A Warning to the Curious" is Aldeburgh (better known as the setting of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which makes two reasons why I want to go there someday). "Casting the Runes" takes place partly in an unnamed London suburb but also in the British Museum and on a train to Dover.
But others are trickier: fictional country houses in unidentified counties, fictional cathedral towns, stories without a definite setting at all, other than somewhere in England. And that's where I start to want a different kind of mapping tool. Google Maps is very good for pinpointing exact locations: a building, a street address, an intersection. Which is excellent if you want to find the nearest laundromat or public park, but less useful if you want to indicate a non-specific location, like "somewhere in Brooklyn,"* or (in the case of James's story "Lost Hearts") a country house "in the heart of Lincolnshire." What you want is a map that can include fuzzy locations—an entire city, a county, a region. This isn't something that Google does very well (yet), but if we ever develop a tool for literary mapping, the fuzzy location feature would be invaluable for those vague or fictionalized but sort-of-placeable settings that crop up in fiction.
Ideally, I'd like a fuzzy mapping tool that could also visualize literary spaces that aren't geographically specified at all: the street layout of imaginary towns, shifts back and forth between city and country or between house and wilderness, the expanding and contracting spaces of Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" or Keats's odes. But that's probably a long way off. For starters, I'd like to see something that can graphically represent both a Henry James character's Washington Square address and an M.R. James character's indeterminate destination: "I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them."**
* I've been noticing this with Google's H1N1 flu map. The dots evidently don't correspond to particular addresses, but they look like they do, if you zoom in. Which is rather misleading. Fuzzy locations get more confusing when you can zoom in as far as you can with a tool like Google Maps.
** From the opening paragraphs of "A View from a Hill."