Thursday, June 13, 2013

Just the Facts, Ma’am

At some point while writing a novel, the author has to decide whether to use real cities, real streets, real places, and real things. I’ve often thought it would be fun to create a whole new world such as fantasy or science fiction writers have to do. But since I’m not ready to embark on that journey yet, I just need to decide how much of the real world to use.
My books are set in San Diego with streets and buildings that many people recognize. I think that was a wise choice as I often receive comments from readers who have visited my city and they tell me how fun it was to read about places they had frequented. I make every attempt to describe these settings accurately. On occasion, I need a restaurant or some other building that requires a different exit, different lighting, or whatever. When that happens, I choose to make up the whole setting rather than distort the real one. I have one such restaurant in my first book, but most of my places are very real. All the other restaurants are genuine, the courthouses are genuine, and the streets and highways are all real.
My “legal” mind says “don’t distort the facts.” But then I remember I’m writing fiction. Hello. I’ve already made up a whole book, what difference does it make if I make up a set of stairs, or an information desk, or another exit? I realize, of course, that many people wouldn’t know the difference, but what if they do?
What do you do as an author? Do you use real places? If so, are the details accurate? As a reader, which would you prefer, or does it even matter? 

Teresa Burrell
Author, Attorney, Advocate


  1. Teresa, I've done it both ways, and in my mind the jury's still out (if you'll excuse the legal language). For my first novel, I used a fictitious town that was an amalgam of the small town in which I grew up and the slightly larger one where I went to college. For my second, I made the setting the city (Dallas) and the medical school/hospitals (Southwestern Medical Center) with which I was most familiar. I've gone back and forth since, and although a fictitious city is an easier choice--I can say anything I want about it without readers saying, "No, you made an error"--I've had lots of readers say they like a real setting. Ah, well. You can't please everyone.

    1. So true. When you used Dallas, did you have any "fake" places within the city?

  2. My books are set in Aspen Falls, Colorado. You won't find it on any map because it's fictional—which, by the way, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. ;-) However, it's between Aspen and Snowmass, and in my first book a trip to Denver was called for. Readers loved reading about landmarks and places they recognized, but I had the freedom of creating what I needed without issue in Aspen Falls.

  3. Some times I wish I had made my own city but either way, you have different issues to deal with.

    Peg, I'm amazed at how often I get remarks regarding the landmarks. Readers seem to like the familiarity.

  4. I set my stories in Eugene, my real hometown, and I use real places most of the time. I occasionally mix in fictional businesses or change the name of a real place to either 1) make the story work, or 2) protect myself from a lawsuit. I love the flexibility of fiction!

  5. I think you've got a good thing going setting your novels in an attractive city like San Diego that people like to visit (I love it there!) so using familiar landmarks is a great idea. Then, in my opinion, invent the odd restaurant or other venue to suit your story (and avoid lawsuits, as LJ says!) and change exits, staircases, etc. It IS fiction, after all, and you can always put some kind of disclaimer at the front of the book!

  6. I've written my novels both ways, but I prefer fictional towns. Much like my characters, I can make them bend in whichever way I d like. Using a real town can be a drag. It adds restraints, and really, who needs those? Right?

  7. The story! It all depends on the story. Some stories must be set in a real city; others must be set in a fictionalized town. My characters tell me where they live.

    When they've lived in a real city - two novels are set in New Orleans - like you, Teresa, I had a building (restaurant, home, synagogue) for parts of the action, and use real landmarks either for identification (and yes, readers like that 'I know that place' feeling). Of course, action takes place in real places, too, like courthouses.

    If the setting is in the past - my latest is in the 50's - research and accuracy are both easier and harder: easier for the broad elements (thanks to the web) and harder for the smaller ones.

    Setting also dates a story. That's also a strategic choice. Holmes belongs in late 19th/early 20th century London. Miss Marple belongs in an English village somewhen.

    A good question. (And making up fantasy worlds is not easy, either.) Thanks.

  8. I have to give fantasy writers an extra pat on the back, David. It would seem it would be like writing two novels, creating the world and creating the story. But I have to admit, it would be a fun place to go. . .

  9. Two of my romantic suspense novels are set in fictional versions of the real town of Socorro and Riodoso, New Mexico. I don't name the towns because I wanted to be able to be flexible but residents would probably recognize the places. Whispers In The Dark is also set at a fictional version of a real place, Hovenweep National Monument in the Four Corners region. My current work in progress is set in the real town of Jemez Springs, New Mexico, and it's called that, but most of the action takes place at a fictional art camp outside of town.

  10. I write whodunits about Santa Monica in one series and use local landmarks, and am considering using the names and identities of real people (politicians) I knew there who are now dead. I like reality.

    Then just last week Santa Monica pops up in the news. The Real World intrudes with a mass shooting. Crime fiction suddenly seemed like a very guilty pleasure.

  11. My protagonist (second installment coming up) lives in a fictional metropolis that could be anywhere in the world. I like to see where this leads me; we come from a world where every author has his background (be it Maine for King and a lot of London for Le Carré and so forth), but with the audiences becoming increasingly global (some Hollywood blockbusters now make more money in the rest of the world than they do in the U.S.) it remains to be seen what location audiences will prefer. I may even add some Oriental and African and East-European stuff to my fictional metropolis. This goes for names too; I plan to keep it an international mix. Soon there'l be a generation that is no longer strongly attached to our standard locations of old — Los Angeles and New York, mainly.


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