Real Settings vs Fictional Settings

One of the important choices a novelist needs to make is whether to use a real or invented setting in a book. When this comes up, I envy science fiction or fantasy writers. Heck, just set the story on a made-up planet! Sure, you have to keep track of the rules you created to be sure your world stays consistent, but nobody is going to write to tell you that you didn’t describe the place accurately.

That can (and does) happen when you choose a real place as a setting. You may get readers commenting that there’s no way your character can drive from Main Street to Oak Boulevard in ten minutes, or that the turnoff to the waterfall is not at milepost 85. And if you mention a real business in your setting, you should check to make sure the owners don’t object to the corpse you’ve placed in their building, or they may complain that you damaged their reputation.

On the other hand, fictional locations can get you into trouble, too. My setting for Endangered was an invented park in Utah. One reviewer wrote “Fantastic descriptions! I can’t wait to visit Heritage National Monument.” Kind of embarrassing, when the setting doesn’t really exist.

So, I tend to compromise, using a real place for inspiration, then giving it a fictional name. (“No, I did not say the killer worked at Burger King, I said he worked at Burger Kingdom.” “Sure, in The Only Witness, the location of the gorilla compound may seem a lot like Ellensburg, Washington, but look again, those gorillas are in Evansburg.”)

Then, to make the issue more complex, setting includes not only place, but also time. And over time, things change. Now that I’ve been published for more than a decade, I’ve run into this time problem a lot. I recently read a good article ( that described four distinct time frames that will affect a book: author time (when the work was originally written or published), narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story), plot time (when the action depicted takes place); and reader time (when a reader reads the work)

Ack! None of my books is historical, so each story is set in the “present,” and I’ve run into this time-tangle on multiple occasions. When I wrote Endangered , I did my best to incorporate state-of-the-art technology so my character could blog from the backcountry. Now all those gadgets are out of date. When I wrote my novel Backcountry, I was attending weekly country line dance lessons, and I set a pivotal scene in the dance club, convinced that this would help advertise the place. Around two weeks after that book was published, the club was sold and the name changed. Thanks to Covid, that club is now out of business. So much for using a real place for authenticity.

I also smack into this issue of author time vs reader time as a reader. I’ll be reading along and think, wow, this author is ignorant about recent events, then look at the copyright page to find that the book was published a decade ago. I hope my readers do that instead of choosing to believe that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

As a writer of suspense, I often run into problems with plot time in real settings. In my novel Undercurrents, those who are familiar with the Galapagos Islands may realize that there’s no way my character can get from this island to that one in only a few hours, but hey, I needed her to do that. It’s hard to maintain tension with a lot of travel time between islands, unless there’s a murderer on the boat.

My most recent Sam Westin mystery, Borderland, takes place along the Arizona-Mexico border wall. Sure, there’s a wall there now, but will there be a decade from now? This setting stuff is tricky.

3 thoughts on “Real Settings vs Fictional Settings

  1. My two newest books are set in real locations, but I made a fictional casino and in the case of the county where I grew up, I changed the names of the towns and all the businesses and people. In the beginning of the books, I state what I have done and why.


  2. You’ve described the problem well. I’ve avoided using real places for the reasons you give, and choose a place I know well but rename it. I can add buildings, etc., as I need, and no one can tell me I missed a turn on the highway or made a mistake on a building’s height. Fun post.

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  3. My Tempe series is set in a place like where I live but renamed and moved up into the mountains a 1,000 feet, but sometimes I use a real place. The RBPD series is fictional but in a real place along the California close. We are writing fiction, so I believe we can do what we want.

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