Real-world settings are commonplace in fiction and poetry alike for a good reason. They’re familiar to us, and we don’t have to spend hours developing different cultural rules or government systems.
But as simple as they may be to use, there are still numerous ways you can get it wrong. It all boils down to whether you did your research well enough to convince a reader that this is how a place looks or feels.
Of course, there is no wrong answer to whether you should choose a location you’ve been to or not. There are many different ways to approach this, but first, let’s dive into the pitfalls of using a real-world setting.
The Issue with Using Real-World Settings
There is one significant downside to using a real-world place as the backdrop to your narrative. It is the fact that people live there, and they expect you to get things right.
For example, when you establish your setting somewhere well known, you can’t change too many things. Landmarks, popular attractions, etc., will need to remain in place because people expect them to be there. And if you get it wrong, someone will call you out for it.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t make some changes. You have creative license to do so, but you need to take the culture and vibe of that place into effect.
For example, NYC has a lively club and bar scene that is constantly in flux. So, if you want your story to have a lot of bar action in it, you may create one in an area that consistently has new bars.
The second issue with real-world settings is that it can be hard to portray somewhere you’ve never been. Research can only get you so far, especially if you don’t do it properly.
Can You Use Real-World Places, Buildings, etc., in Your Story?
How to Write a Book Now has a great article that explains it is okay to use real-world places, products, and buildings in your book. What matters is how you use them.
For example, don’t say anything defamatory about a corporation or its products, misrepresenting them, or misspelling their names. The same thing goes for human beings.
Big cities are pretty standard in novels, but smaller communities may need to be changed or fictionalized to avoid offending anyone currently living in them. But that’s up to you to decide.
Most of this comes down to you deciding if you want to open yourself up for a lawsuit or not. For those of you pursuing traditional publishing, this isn’t as much of an issue because the publisher’s law team will most likely walk things back to protect you and the publisher.
Here are some other things to read to help you find a solution that’s right for you:
Writing Tips for Real-World World-building
It would be best to consider world-building aspects when creating a setting centered in a real-world place. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you develop the background to your new story:
Visit the location.
The best thing you can do when it comes to creating a sense of place in your novel is to visit the place itself if you can. Why? Because it is the only way to immerse yourself in the culture and sensory details of that place.
And all of those things go into making a real-world place alive to your readers. They count on those small details to connect with the location.
Let’s take Alberta as an example. The two major cities are vastly different from one another.
Edmonton is “the city of champions” because of its consecutive championship wins in the CFL and NHL in the 1980s. They are the home of the West Edmonton Mall and legislature buildings for the province. Jasper is the closest national park to the city at four hours away.
Calgary is affectionately called Cowtown because it sits amid numerous beef farms. It is home to the Calgary Stampede and the province’s oil and gas industry. Banff is the closest national park two hours away, and numerous regional parks are within a short drive away.
Calgarians and Edmontonians do not like each other’s cities (with few exceptions) and believe that one city is better than the other. (Calgary is more invested in the feud than Edmonton.) Calgary usually “gets things first,” and Edmonton copies Calgary. (This is why Edmonton has Jasper.)
However, they leave this amicable “animosity” to the playing field, sparking the legendary “Battle of Alberta” contests. Unless it comes to football, they put aside our feelings to ban together against Saskatchewan because their fans suck.
This is not something you would catch a feel for unless you did your research, visited for a time, or knew someone from either city.
Or do your research.
Research everything about a place, especially if you’ve never been there. It adds authentic touches down the line.
Research becomes especially important when you’re writing about times gone by, such as a historical novel. The best place to look for this type of information is to read literature from that time, go to the museum, watch documentaries, or talk to someone who lived through it.
Please pay particular attention to small details because it’s the little things that can make a world come alive or draw a reader further into your story.
Think about why you want to set your story there and not somewhere closer to home.
As writers, we set our stories in familiar places, such as New York, London, or Paris, because they are well-known. And we play on particular associations with those places as part of our themes, etc.
Using one place over another because of these associations is a bit lazy if you think about it. You’re choosing to work with a place for one reason only, and that’s to skirt the research aspect of writing your book.
I’m also not saying this is wrong. You can use places like the bayou for its associations with the supernatural and otherworldly, but question why you are using that instead of something closer to home.
This is where that write what you know advice comes in. It’ll be easier for you to write about a place that you know and then researching local history and legends than it would be to research a place you don’t know.
Why? Because you’ll miss all of the sensory details that make a place come alive for your readers—Delia Owens in Where the Crawdads Sing is a perfect example of this. You can tell Owens has been in the bayous through her descriptions of them.
Use Google Maps.
You can do a virtual walk-through of the space to give you a sense of what is there and what isn’t. It’s an excellent resource if you can’t get to a chosen location. Google Maps even has a feature called Treks which allows you to explore places that Street View doesn’t let you.
Use the five senses in your descriptions.
We primarily rely on our sense of sight and hearing to pull our readers into a story. However, we should also include those other senses, like touch, taste, and smell.
I don’t know about you, but I usually take a big breath of fresh air when I get off a plane somewhere. And immediately, my skin registers how the air feels on my skin and my tongue as I take that breath. I might sniff the air to get the lay of the land as well.
Those feelings will also pull you into a story as they do a place. It makes a character react to their environment differently. And let me assure you, my body has different reactions when I step off a plane in Hawaii in the winter than in Canada.
Whether it’s the streets of New York City or Hogwarts in Harry Potter, the setting creates a believable world for the characters to pursue their goals. It’s the backdrop to all that happens in your story, and it must not be under-researched, especially if you’re using a real place.
But if you do your due diligence and research it properly, you should be fine. And if you need to blend a little fiction in with the factual, then that’s okay too. Just remember, moderation is your friend here.
Are any of your stories set in or inspired by a real-world location? Do you have any other tips or suggestions to add? Anything you disagree with?
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.