Writing About Real Places in Fiction

By Cindi Myers

Cindy Myers_MountainbetweenReal people, places and events often spark story ideas. If you’re going to “write what you know,” setting seems a good place to start. Writing a book set in a real town makes research easy, and it gives you an interesting marketing hook. People like to read about places they know. A real-life setting for your story anchors your fiction in reality, and adds another dimension to your story. Stephen White’s suspense novels would be different books if they were set in Los Angeles instead of Denver and Boulder, and Anne Rice’s vampire tales would have a different flavor if they took place in Washington, D.C. instead of New Orleans.

Basing your story in a real town also has drawbacks. People in the town may think your characters are based on them or their friends. If you say anything negative about a business, or some other aspect of the town, you risk offending people. The smaller the town, the greater the problem may be.

I once wrote a series of five romances set in Crested Butte, Colorado. One of them, The Right Mr. Wrong, was nominated for a Rita award. I did a signing in Crested Butte and got some good coverage in the local paper. If anyone disliked my take on the town, I never heard about it, and overall, it was a good experience. I hope I made some people want to visit this fun, beautiful place.

If you decide to use a real place in your fiction, make sure you know it well. Double-check street and place names. I keep a map near my desk and refer to it often. I also take lots of photographs and refer to these to help me describe places accurately. If you’re going to have something awful happen in the book, such as a murder, or even a disastrous dinner, make up a business name instead of risking raising the ire of a real place.

But maybe you want to sidestep the whole problem of a real person being offended (maybe even enough to file a lawsuit). So you decide to make up a town. Even if you do this, basing your fictional setting on a real place can help you create a stronger sense of reality. You can describe actual places, but give them new names. Shift things around to better suit your plot. Keep the flavor, but spice it up a little.

I’m currently writing a women’s fiction series set in the fictional Colorado mountain town of Eureka. Eureka is based on a trio of real towns: Ridgway, Ouray, and Silverton. I use local traditions, highways and some place names. I’ve changed the names of local businesses and features. For instance, in my books, Red Mountain Pass is Black Mountain Pass. I’ve provided enough clues in the books that people who are familiar with that part of Colorado recognize the area, and they’ve had fun trying to pick out the real places in the book from ones I’ve made up.

I could have set my books in one of the real towns, but I chose not to for a few reasons. First, we have a house in Ridgway and hope to live there full-time when my husband retires. Not every character in this series is nice. The librarian, Cassie Wynock, is pretty unpleasant at times. The book is sort of like the old television series “Northern Exposure” and the quirky, not always pleasant characters might offend overly-touchy folks. Instead of risking that, I made up a town. The name Eureka, comes from a ghost town in the area.

I also wanted to use the geographic features of several towns. The second book in the series, The Mountain Between Us, which was just released, has the town snowed in, the passes on either side of the town blocked by a blizzard – as happens in Silverton from time to time. But the street layout is more similar to Ridgway.

By basing my fictional town on a real place, I ground the story in reality, but have the freedom to make up things as needed.

Whether you choose to write about a real place or a fictional one, drawing inspiration from real settings can help you create a vivid world your readers will want to visit again and again.

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Cindi Myers
Cindi Myers is the author of the Eureka series, including The View From Here, which won the 2013 Colorado Book Award for genre fiction, and The Mountain Between Us, just released. Find out more about her and her books at her websites Cindi Myers and Cindy Myers Books.

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About Patricia Stoltey

Patricia grew up on a farm in central Illinois so naturally had to use the old farm in her first mystery. The second Sylvia and Willie tale takes place near and in the little touristy gold mining town of Oatman, Arizona. Patricia's third novel, a standalone suspense called Dead Wrong, is scheduled for release November 2014. Visit her blog at http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com.

6 thoughts on “Writing About Real Places in Fiction

  1. Julie Luek

    I love our area and the rich setting and character opportunity it can provide. Mountain towns can be unique fodder! (Living in Gunnison, I’m quite sure the “Buttians” didn’t mind at all. They take pride in their eclectic setting!)

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  2. Patricia Stoltey

    Thanks for being our guest today, Cindi. I like to use real places as my settings, too. In my first, I renamed my Illinois home town. My friends and relatives recognized it anyway. In my second, I used real places because they’re touristy locations and no one would mind the publicity. I did not use real names for the hotel and gold mine where bodies were found because few businesses want that kind of attention. I like reading novels where settings are important to the story and almost become one of the characters.

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  3. Dean K Miller

    I wrestled with this question (real town, real place vs. real place made-up-town) for a while in my WIP. Decided to use places but fictionalized names and some businesses, local college, etc. But used a historical event/happening that is real to kick off the story. Sometimes I think locals will still try to decipher who-is-who, etc., but I didn’t want it to be historical fiction and miss certain details.

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  4. JP McKinney

    Thanks. Waumeka, Wisconsin is the fictional setting in my novel, “Charlie’s Angle.” Somewhere I thought I had read that it’s dangerous to use real places (I think it was Stephen King who said that – not sure). Anyhow, Waumeka is a combination of several towns I know well in WI. I have a map of Chippewa Falls on my bulletin board and used the general street layout of the town but changed street names, etc. I hardly know Chippewa Falls, so it really isn’t there, except for the general layout. It seems to have worked. Several readers in Wisconsin have identified with various aspects of Waumeka. Thanks for the post. Wish I had read it a few years ago. :)

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  5. Julie Kazimer

    Great post, Cindi. I love using a real town, but fictionalizing it. It helps me stay grounded. I also like researching places I’ve never been.

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