Someone in one of my writers’ groups asked an interesting question the other day. “Do you use real locations in your fiction, or make them up?”
My short answer was: yes, I do.
The longer answer is more complicated because every story is different and every author is different. However, there are some general principles that apply to each variation. So let’s look at them.
Using real locations.
The primary benefit to using real locations in fiction is that it immediately increases the realism of the story. It does not matter how fantastic the story, it will seem more realistic because the locations and landmarks are real. It also makes the writer’s work a bit easier because she only needs to describe the existing places, rather than create them from scratch.
In addition, many readers (myself included) truly enjoy reading a work that takes place in familiar locations. It is a great selling point.
The primary drawback to using real locations as the setting for fiction is that you run the very real risk of offending someone associated with that location. For instance, if you have someone running a narcotics ring out of the back of the neighborhood Starbucks, the Starbucks Corporation might take objection to that. Or if you describe an existing house, or business in a less than flattering manner, the owner may not appreciate it. That also goes for entire neighborhoods, or towns.
Another drawback to using real locations is that of accuracy. If you are setting your story in a real place, you had better be familiar with how it looks and feels. Nothing breaks the illusion of reality quicker than setting your story in a real location and getting the descriptions wrong.
This method is most often used in historical fiction and political/military thrillers, where realism and particular locations are of the utmost importance. (A story about the battle of Gettysburg pretty much has to be set in and around Gettysburg and the descriptions need to be historically accurate. The same goes for the President of the U.S. in the Oval Office).
Fictional locations based on real ones
The primary advantage to this method is that it combines the added realism of using real locations with the creative freedom of totally fictional locations. The author uses key landmarks from the location as background, but creates most of the details, often changing names of existing business and streets, disguising them, or changing their locations.
Another advantage to this method is that by only loosely basing his descriptions on existing places, the author gives himself a defense should someone take offense at a depiction and seek legal redress. (yes, it can and does happen).
The main disadvantage to this method is that it takes considerably more work to create the fictional venues the author needs and blend them seamlessly into a real, existing background.
A good example of this method are the legal thrillers of Phillip Margolin. Usually set in and around the Portland, Oregon area, closer inspection reveals Portland and it’s landmarks are merely background. All his specific locations are purely fictional.
Totally fictional locations
The primary advantage of this method is that the author has total control over everything about the location: how the place looks, it’s mood, social status, and history. The author can’t get a description wrong because she’s the only person who knows it. No one will be offended by anything described (in theory, people can be offended by anything) because no one but the author has anything invested.
The biggest disadvantage to creating locations completely from scratch is the fact that it can be a lot of work. Not only do you have to create a believable set of characters the readers can empathize with and a functioning plot, but now you have to create an entire portion of the world, along with all that entails. It’s a lot of work creating it and a lot of work ensuring everything stays consistent throughout the story.
Probably the most well-known example of this method is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. To a lesser degree of complexity, Stephen King used it in creating his Castle Rock area of Maine, with the fictional towns of Derry and Salem’s Lot, for example. As you can see, it is most often used in the fantasy and horror genres, but can be used in any.
Now to return to the original question. Which method do I use in my fiction? Again, the answer is “yes.” In my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, the setting is fictional, but based on a real town. Names are changed, but residents tell me they have no trouble recognizing the descriptions. However, the novel I am currently revising/editing is set in a completely fictional town on a fictional island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Why? Because it was easier to completely make up the town, its environment, and history, than to do the research I felt I’d need to do to make it realistic. (Plus, some really bad things happen there.)
In short, I think it truly depends on the story which method is used.
What do you think?