A few nights ago, I was pondering a geeky question. “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to visualize where all of our guests were coming from at The Day Job?” I didn’t want to map all of the full addresses. That would be way too much typing, too much detail, and probably a little creepy. But I could easily transcribe the zip codes from the bills that we print as a guest checks out. So I went looking for a tool that would let me feed a list of zip codes to it and provide a map. I didn’t mind typing a bunch of 5-digit numbers, but that was all the work I wanted to do.
Turns out there aren’t a lot of easy ways to do what I wanted that are free and simple.
Back in 2007, some friends asked us to create a site for their wedding; something that we begrudgingly agreed to do. Right around the same time, we attended a Google developer conference and got excited about the potential of leveraging Google APIs for both work-related and personal projects. The timing couldn’t have been better.
We put what we learned to use.
The parent company, InnovationGeo, has several other pretty cool tools, by the way. I signed up for a MapAList account (it’s free) and went to work.
The interface is very simple. Within about 15 minutes, I had my first map done, showing where the month’s guests had come from. It’s very customizable, and updates either automatically or manually. You can even do “heat maps,” to see concentrations better.
You can view the current version of this map here. I’m updating it every night I work, so you’ll see more and more pins on it.
How Does This Help Writers?
I realized I could do a lot more with MapAList. The original problem – how to map several locations – can also apply to writers. We might have half a dozen locations or more in our stories, and Google Maps makes it difficult to map a bunch of locations. You have use addresses or latitude/longitude locations, not just zip codes, and Google Maps will route you between all of them, so you’ll end up with a bunch of lines criss-crossing your map. Some of the routing can be amusing, though.
But MapAList makes it easy to plot points without figuring out how to get from A to B to C to E, and even lets you color-code your points. That can come in handy for categorizing your locations.
Here’s a map of the points of interest for The Sad Girl. It’s a normally functioning Google Map, so you can zoom in or out, drag it around, etc.
How did I create it? Pretty simply. You’ll need an account at MapAList, and one at Google. Both are free, and many people already have a Google account. Part of that account is free space at Google Drive. On the Drive section of your account, create a spreadsheet. You can name it anything. I used “Sad Girl Points of Interest.” Very creative, I know.
In that spreadsheet, name your columns. If you don’t name them yourself in the first row, Google passes a gobbledygook label to MapAList, and it’s a bit of a pain to figure out which column is which. If you have a full street address in mind, then label your columns Address, City, State, Zip. If you also need to use generic locations, add Lat and Long. Country is optional. You’ll only need it if you’re writing an international thriller. Finally, label one as Category.
The other fields are self-explanatory, but I wanted to give you an idea of what to do with this one. I chose four categories: LE, Home, Comm and Travel. I can label crime scene locations with LE, commercial places with Comm (Danny owns a store, remember), and the other two should be obvious.
Log in to MapAList and click on “Create.” You’ll see this screen. In Source Type, choose Google Spreadsheet, which should be your only choice.
Assuming you only have one worksheet, you’ll end up with at Step 1: Choose Map Source, and it should look something like this. If you have more than one spreadsheet on your Drive, the Select Spreadsheet dropdown will give a list of all of them.
The fields on Step 2a should automatically populate with the names of columns you used a couple of steps back.
In the lower part, Step 2b, you’ll select the Category column, which is the one that will help you color-coordinate your pins. Once you’ve done that, Apply the settings, and click Next. Step 3 is where the MapAList magic takes place, as it geocodes all of the places in your spreadsheet. Unless you’ve got a bunch of places, it should just take a few seconds.
Now comes the fun part. In Step 4: Configure Map, choose Advanced settings. In the first dropdown, select “Category.” For Comparison Value, type one of your categories. See how Criteria Description filled in by itself? Now click on the pin image, and choose a particular pin for this category. I chose blue for LE, for that “thin blue line.” The rest I chose randomly.
Finally, at Step 5: Save Map (and Optional Settings), you can tweak a couple of settings, like title, center of the map, and default zoom (3 is a little far out to me, but 4 crops out part of Washington state), among others. I’ll typically leave things at the default settings, figuring that the software knows better than I do how to set those.
So there you go: a handy way to visualize all of the locations in your novel. It wasn’t a critical thing to me, but it helps me to be able to look at this map occasionally. If you’ve got a Pinterest page, you can easily add a link to this map, for more goodies for your readers.
If you’ve got questions, post them in the comments and I’ll see if I can help you. Then go write something!