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Originally published Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Bellingham novelist Clyde Ford uses technology to help readers visualize book's settings

Local mystery writer Clyde Ford incorporates some novel use of technology in his latest book, "Precious Cargo." The book's Web site uses Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth to pinpoint locations in the novel, set in the San Juans and environs, to almost a micro level.

Seattle Times technology reporter

Virtually reading

Bellingham author Clyde Ford will demonstrate OnScene, the interactive Web application he built around Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Earth, at two Seattle readings today. It can also be viewed on the Web.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop: 117 Cherry St., noon.

Barnes & Noble: 2675 N.E. University Village St., 7:30 p.m.

On the Web:

Bellingham author Clyde Ford is tapping technology to keep his novels relevant to increasingly distracted audiences.

The former IBM systems engineer built a Web-based application for his latest book, "Precious Cargo," that allows readers to virtually visit the places in the story — a murder mystery set in the San Juan Islands and Inside Passage.

Ford, 56, will read from his book, published by Vanguard Press, and demonstrate the interactive-storytelling application at events in Seattle today.

"I wanted to do something special with the release of 'Precious Cargo' that would act as a bridge between the paper page and the digital age," Ford said. He's particularly interested in reaching younger readers, who are often "more literate in online technologies than in reading a book."

He centered his application, OnScene, on Microsoft Virtual Earth and Google Earth, free downloadable software that maps the world in two or three dimensions.

Once readers "virtually" fly to locations such as Lummi Island near Bellingham, and Eagle Harbor, they can explore further with background on local history and geography, live webcam views and readings by the author and other people.

Ford is also generating interest in his book with an online video trailer, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

Publishers and authors are looking for ways to keep their products relevant in the face of declining readership and spreading digital media.

A comprehensive National Endowment for the Arts study published last fall found significant declines in reading for pleasure in nearly every age group. More than half of middle- and high-school students reported watching television, instant messaging or using other media while reading.

Roger Cooper, publisher of Vanguard, said the book industry needs to adapt.

"The idea to make the book more interactive, more entertaining, more informative as you read, I think, is a real breakthrough in terms of keeping people looking at the book as something not part of their past but part of their future," Cooper said.

He said the book business is not going to disappear, but it will evolve into new forms. He cited new digital readers such as the Amazon Kindle.

Don Leu, professor of literacy and technology at University of Connecticut, is also bullish on the technology. Leu, who has worked with Ford, thinks OnScene has the potential to enable more of what literary theorists call the "lived-through" experience, typically associated with the most gripping books.

He can see the technology helping younger readers, too.

"OnScene works of literature will be especially powerful, and sought after, by adolescents who increasingly live in online worlds and by students who may struggle a bit more with reading," Leu said in an e-mail.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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