Andrew Bardin Williams is an author and technologist who strives to provide readers a sense of place in his fiction writing, using real-world locations (a laundromat, a café, a public square) to create setting, build tension and develop character.
That led him to create the interactive website Placing Literature, a crowdsourcing site that maps literary scenes that take place in real locations.
The reader or author can map a scene from their favorite novel or explore the literature of a place using PlacingLiterature.com’s search feature.
As an author, Williams’ novel Learning to Haight was named a finalist for the 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Award in literary fiction. He is currently working on his second novel, Polk Gulch.
Scroll down for a complete transcript of the interview or click the Play button below to listen to the interview now. And don’t forget to leave a comment to let us know what you thought of this interview!
Andrew Bardin Williams Transcript
Tim Knox: Hey friends, welcome back to Interviewing Authors. You know, every now and then we like to stray off the path here and rather than interviewing authors we interview folks that are bringing authors tools that they can use to increase their readership, get readers involved in what they’re doing, promote their books and just make the entire experience a little more interesting. That’s the kind of guest we have today.
He’s no longer writing books; he is the founder of the website called PlacingLiterature.com.
Now if you haven’t heard of it, just a fascinating website. You can actually go there and map a scene from a novel using Google Maps and Andrew’s software, Placing Literature – where your book meets the map.
I’m going to do this with my book. You can go over there and actually map scenes. For example, my book takes place in Los Angeles. I can go there and using Google Maps actually map scenes through the book. You can do this with historical novels. You just got to go over to the website because I am not doing it justice.
So it’s PlacingLiterature.com. Our interview today is with Andrew Bardin Wililams, the young man who came up with this amazing idea. It’s a great interview, a great tool that you should use. Check it out. So here’s Andrew Bardin Williams, the founder of PlacingLiterature.com on today’s Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Andrew, welcome to the program.
Andrew Williams: Hi, Tim. Thank you very much for having me.
Tim Knox: Great having you here. We are here today to talk about your website, a wonderful website, called Placing Literature – where your book meets the map. Now before we get into that, tell us a little bit about you.
Andrew Williams: Well I am an author. I published a novel about two years ago called Learning to Haight – Haight as in Haight-Ashbury for those of you who want to look it up on Amazon. While I was doing marketing for my book I actually created a Google Maps of all the places that I wrote about. The book takes place obviously in San Francisco and, you know, I just wanted to create a map with all the places from the book.
Tim Knox: How did you come up with that? That’s such a novel, fantastic idea. How did you come up with that idea?
Andrew Williams: Yeah well everyone loves place, you know. It’s one thing to read about a vampire cat but it’s another to read about a vampire cat that’s scavenging around your neighborhood. It just makes it that much more personal and that much more interesting to read. So in my own writing I tend to use real locations just to give the reader that sort of connection. I wanted to kind of draw that parallel between the fictional place in my book and the real place in San Francisco. So that’s how I created that map.
Tim Knox: So you really did this to give the reader the experience of actually going and seeing the places that you were writing about.
Andrew Williams: Exactly.
Tim Knox: What a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?
Andrew Williams: It’s funny because there are a lot of maps out there that do something similar to this but no one has really collected all of that information in one place. You can go and you can find a map of Sherlock Holmes locations or Eat, Pray, Love or authors sometimes do it for their own individual books but no one has really kind of put that all together in one central location and that’s what Placing Literature is really all about.
Tim Knox: That’s incredibly cool. Let’s go back to when you wrote your book and you created the maps. Was that really a point of interest for folks? When they would come and want to read more about your book or order your book, once they saw that map thing that had to be pretty fascinating.
Andrew Williams: It was. I was actually really surprised about it. Within a couple of days of me putting the map up I had about 1,000 views, which is quite amazing for a self-published book. So it really made me think that I had something here and I wondered why other authors hadn’t been doing that. So that’s kind of where the idea for Placing Literature came about.
Tim Knox: I think the appeal – and this is just speaking on my own as an author and as a reader – is I know when I read books sometimes if they’re describing the place in my head I start drawing pictures, you know what I mean? I start thinking, wow, this looks like this and this looks like this. So having a website where readers can go and actually look at these locations and see them, it turns the book into a visual medium doesn’t it?
Andrew Williams: Yeah, I think that’s a great way of putting it. If you’re reading a book that takes place in a Starbucks coffee shop you know exactly what that Starbucks coffee shop look like and it just makes that scene in your head much more vivid and much more real.
Tim Knox: So you did this for your own book. How did it become the website, PlacingLiterature.com? What was the progress of you creating that Google Map to launching the website?
Andrew Williams: Yeah so it actually happened really organically. My sister-in-law, my brother’s wife, is a geographer and over Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner we would come together and talk about our lives and our careers. We found ourselves talking about place a lot. She would talk about place in the context of geography and I would talk about place in the context of setting and writing and things like that. We realized that there was a lot of overlap there. So we heard about a grant opportunity with the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, who had a program called Reintegrate where they matched up an artist and a scientist to do a project together. She being a social scientist and me being an artist we decided to apply for it. We got it and they gave us some money to study this connection. She lives in Wisconsin. I live in New Haven, Connecticut so we really needed an online tool to collect this great place information that we were getting.
So basically what we did is we hired a friend of mine; his name is Steve Young. He’s an engineer in San Francisco. He used to work for Google. We hired him to basically just write this internal tool for us, to build this tool. He built this fantastic website and as soon as we saw it we knew that we had something that we had to take public. We had to turn it into a crowdsourcing tool. So after we finished our research we launched the website publicly at the Arts & Ideas Festival at Yale. We just put it out there. We did just a little bit of PR and it actually went pretty viral there for awhile. Carl Zimmer, he’s the science reporter for the New York Times. He’s a big Sherlock Holmes fan and he heard about the site and tweeted it out to his 250,000 followers. It just snowballed from there. We got mentions in the New Yorker, the Paris Review. CNET did an article about us, Media Bistro, the Huffington Post. You name it. All these great publications were talking about us. We just got a lot of traffic and people realized that it’s a great idea. Here we are less than a year later and users from all over the world have plotted almost 2,000 scenes for us. It’s just been incredible the amount of attention and response that we’re getting.
Tim Knox: Explain how this works exactly. You mentioned crowdsourcing, which is kind of one of those new buzz words. What is crowdsourcing?
Andrew Williams: Yeah, crowdsourcing is asking people out there in the interwebs to create data for us. So basically anyone with a Google login can come to our website and map a scene from a book that they’re reading, a book that they’ve written, a place that they’ve been that they know takes place in a book. Really we are encouraging people to just keep us in mind as you’re reading books and if you recognize a place come to our website and map it for us. Then other people can take that information and they can take walking tours of cities or they can go visit the places from their favorite novels or their favorite authors. You can also discover other authors by place. Let’s say that you’re going to Paris or something and before you go to Paris you want to read a book that takes place there. Well you come to our site, zoom in on Paris and there are dozens of books that take place around the city. Likewise, if you are a big fan of D.E. Johnson who writes crime novels that take place in Detroit you can go to Detroit and you can see other crime novels that take place in that area. So really there’s so many different ways that people can use our data. Really what we want to do is just be that central clearing house, that central location for this type of literary data.
Tim Knox: So just as an example, if I went to the website PlacingLiterature.com, I click on the ‘map a scene from a novel’, it brings up the Google Map and then I can click on any location and if there is data there about a specific location – for example I clicked on Atlanta and of course Gone with the Wind popped up, that sort of thing – it will tell me what novels have taken place in those areas and then I can just keep clicking and learn more about them.
Andrew Williams: Exactly. That’s exactly how someone would come to our site and use it.
Tim Knox: What a fantastic idea. I really like it. I just want to go play with this a little bit. I think it’s fascinating that your users are helping you really build this database. How is this being received by the authors?
Andrew Williams: The authors love it. I mentioned before author discovery by location. No one has done this before. No one has created a database of books and authors that are related to each other by location. You can imagine what we can do with this information in the future, make recommendations. For example, if you map Gone with the Wind maybe you would be interested in Hugh Howey’s book, Wool, that also takes place in Atlanta. We can do recommendation engines, we can do reviews and ratings and things like that. Authors love it because it sells books.
Tim Knox: I think it’s also a great marketing tool. That’s one of the things we talk about on this program a lot is how as authors you’ve got to learn how to market your work. You’ve probably met authors that think once they have the book written their work is done, but on the contrary you have to come up with really creative ways to market your work in order to just get noticed. I think this is a good tool to do that.
Tim Knox: Yeah, absolutely. You either get it or you don’t, right? People who get it really recognize that this is a great marketing tool for authors. In fact, we started an author spotlight program back in November I think was the first month that we did it. Each month we highlight two authors, one traditionally published author and one independently published author. We highlight them on our homepage and over the course of the month that author maps the scenes of their novels as well as the book that has inspired them. Recently people have been challenging their fans to map their books for them. For example, right now we have Brian Freeman, who writes a lot of books that take place in Minnesota. He went to Twitter and he challenged his fans to map all the scenes from his books over the course of the month. That’s just one way that Brian is able to engage with his readers. It’s not just he wrote this book and he puts it out there and it’s a one-way street. He’s actually getting them to interact with his fiction and this new, interesting way through mapping. Like I said, we’re the only one who’s doing this right now and authors recognize that. We’re getting requests from agents and publishers and authors to be included in this program. So what we’re having to do is schedule people months in advance but also to just tell people just start mapping. You don’t have to be an author spotlight and be highlighted on our homepage. Just start mapping the scenes of your book, tell your fans about it, your readers, get them to go onto the site and then start tweeting out those places that you’re mapping to your fans. It’s just another way to engage with those people.
Tim Knox: My novel, Angel of Mercy, takes place in Los Angeles. I’m in Alabama, which is a far cry and a hell of a plane trip to get there but I did a lot of my research using Google Maps. This was a year or so ago. I didn’t really know about your website then. I found it to be a really invaluable tool. If I’m describing my character driving down the highway on the coast there, it was really handy to have that as a reference. I think this is something that… I’m going to go on here and map my book.
Andrew Williams: Oh good, excellent.
Tim Knox: I think it’s something that’s really fun to do and I think you really hit the nail on the head. It’s a great way to interact with readers. It’s a great way to get them involved and get them actually working for you and hoping you promote your book, right?
Andrew Williams: Yeah, absolutely.
Tim Knox: What do you guys have planned for this? You can go on now and map a scene. Anything coming down the pipe? Any new things that we need to know about?
Andrew Williams: Yeah we actually just launched two literary collections where we worked with Espais Escrits, which is an organization in Barcelona that promotes Catalan novels and poems, and also the State Library of Queensland, Australia. We work with them to map all of the books that take place in that state in Australia. So we have these collections that have been highlighted on our homepage. We’re really looking to create more collections. There are libraries all over the world who have this type of information and it’d be great to collect that and put it into one location and kind of have these virtual libraries, excuse the pun, of this location based literary information centered around a certain theme or location.
Tim Knox: I think another thing to note is this is very geographic but you can also go back and map scenes from books in the past. For example, I spoke with Sandra Gulland this morning and she writes she calls it biographical historical fiction that takes place in France around the time of Josephine Bonaparte. So you could actually go on here and take that book and map it in modern day what actually was happening in the book 300-400 years ago, right?
Andrew Williams: Oh sure, absolutely. You know, places change but places are always there. Buildings get knocked down, streets move, shorelines moves now as well.
Tim Knox: They do nowadays.
Andrew Williams: But, you know, those places always exist and in fact one of the genres that really works well for us is historical fiction. Those are fictional stories that take place around real events and real places. Those places still exist. For example, our author spotlight next month is actually Bianca Turetsky, who writes the Fashionista series, a young adult series. Her books take place in Ancient Egypt, in Renaissance France, during the Revolutionary War. She uses place very effectively to kind of give her historical fiction that much more realism.
Tim Knox: I love the idea. If I’m an author and I want to get involved, tell us the website is PlacingLiterature.com and I can just go there and start mapping my book and encouraging my readers to do the same.
Andrew Williams: Absolutely. We’re also on Facebook at facebook.com/placingliterature and our Twitter handle is @PlacingLit.
Tim Knox: Andrew, this is fascinating. I’m going to spend the rest of the day playing on your website.
Andrew Williams: Excellent. Thank you very much, Tim.
Tim Knox: The website again is PlacingLiterature.com. You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll put a link directly off of the interview. Andrew, this is good stuff. Do keep us up to date on anything that goes on and anything we can do to help you send traffic your way, we’ll certainly do it.
Andrew Williams: Absolutely. Well thanks very much, Tim. I really appreciate it.