In my current work-in-progress, I wanted to engineer a prison visit. Not so that I could describe the inside of HMP Wandsworth - my first-hand knowledge of the inside of a prison is about 20 years out of date, and I don't entirely trust tv documentaries - but simply so I could have my main character in a set place at a set time that would fit the context of the plot.
So I googled HMP Wandsworth. I didn't expect to find much, but there's a wealth of information as to how the prison visiting system works, right down to times it is "open". I suppose there are real people who want to go and visit their loved one and friends and find this sort of information useful. Then of course, there's Google Maps and the satellite view that shows you the buildings and roads, so you can place a person and estimate distance and travel time.
And London Undergound has convenient tube maps online. It's over 15 years since I worked in the capital, so while I used to be able to count stops in my sleep (and frequently did in the mornings), I can't quite remember the order of the stations anymore. So I can have my character taking a tube journey with some degree of realism, even though I live 200 miles away in rural Cheshire. If you are interested in the many and varied alternatives to the standard tube map, have a look here at the alternative guide to the London Undergound. Bizarre, but fascinating.
But meanwhile... Michael took the District Line into town and got off at Embankment. He dithered around the interchange for a good ten minutes, reading the local street maps, the tube maps – anything really to take his mind off what he was or wasn’t about to do. Then he went down to the Northern Line platform and got the first train southbound before he changed his mind. By Stockwell, his hands were shaking again and he desperately wanted to light up. By Clapham North, his knee was bouncing up and down so hard people were looking at him strangely, and at Clapham Common he had to get off the tube before he threw up. He stood on the platform, watching the train speed away and kept his lunch down by sheer willpower. Out on the street, he lit up a cigarette and stood on the edge of the common, realising that by getting off the tube too early, he now had a long walk.
And then we are back on Google Maps again for a walk across Wandsworth Common and up to the prison.
Of course nothing is ever straightforward, is it? Michael actually ends up in a naff café up near Euston station, not entirely by choice, but that sparks off a whole new storyline.