Real Fictional Locations   17 comments

Do you use real or fictional cities in your writing? How do you incorporate them into the story?


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A Cautionary Tale

There’s something to be said for skipping some world-building, but authors generally need to be more careful when they use real locations in a work of fiction.

There was a book written in the 1970s about Fairbanks during the TransAlaska Pipeline construction boom. It wasn’t a very good book, but I was forced to read it as an assignment in an Alaska Literature summer course I took for extra credit. I wanted to graduate in four years but the University of Alaska tried to foist a 9th semester on me by saying one of my English credits didn’t qualify because…reasons. So I took a correspondence course because I had a life to get to.

This book, which I don’t remember the name of, supposedly described places in my hometown, and it got a LOT wrong. The writer supposedly lived in Fairbanks during the TAPS, but I’d bet he didn’t spend a lot of time here. So I’ve always been leery of using real locations, other than Fairbanks, Seattle (where I’ve spent a lot of time), or Manchester New Hampshire (where I’ve also spent a fair bit of time) as locations in my books because it’s offputting when authors get stuff wrong about your town. One of my favorite mystery novelists Phyllis A Whitney admitted at the start of a book that she’d moved some locations around in a novel for plot flow and that’s great. I’m sure the people of Charleston SC appreciated her honesty, but what if I get something inadvertently wrong and a reader goes to that location trying to find it.

Nope, I prefer not to do that.

Real as a Foundation for Fiction

But I do use real communities as the settings for my books. I just don’t identify them that way. For example, the town of Emmaus in Transformation Project is based on two real towns. One is my mother’s hometown in North Dakota. Some of the people in the town (renamed) and some of the buildings are borrowed from that location, transported by fictional magic to Kansas, where I use the statistical data of a Kansas town in that general location to tell me what highways run by it, whether they have natural gas or a nuclear plant nearby, and what the weather is like at different times of the year. What flight trajectory would you take if you were taking off from this town? What crops grow well there? I drove through that town 30 years ago. It seemed like a nice place, but I don’t think the residents would appreciate if I took liberties with their town in my fictional book. So it’s called Emmaus, Kansas, which is a very fictional town with some basis in reality.

I did the same thing in What If Wasn’t series. I picked a town where I wanted to situate the story. I’ve been there — once–15 years ago or so. I spent an afternoon. That’s not enough to say I really know the town. I use the town as a template for the fictional town in the novel series, but I feel much freer to take liberties because it’s not really that town. It’s Port Mallory, New York, and it only exists in my books.

Someday, I do plan to finish the story I’ve been noodling with that is set more or less in Fairbanks. But I don’t know for sure that I will identify it as such. Yes, I’m intimately familiar with this town, but the fact is I might need to make adjustments for plot flow and I’d rather not make a muddle of my hometown.

17 responses to “Real Fictional Locations

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  1. Fiction is fiction, and readers of such work should realize these stories aren’t true. In case they don’t, I’ve included disclaimers in my novels to that effect, saying that any reference to a real person or place is strictly coincidental. Many authors take liberties with location.

    I was disoriented when I first read one of Craig Johnson’s novels in his Longmire series, set in a fictional town modeled after Buffalo, Wyoming, located about thirty miles south of Sheridan, where I live. I now understand why he turned that area’s geography on its head.

    I’ve also taken liberties with place in my novels. In tomorrow’s post on the subject, I give one example of such a stretching of the truth, and you’ll see why when you read the post. I don’t think authors should have to worry about this.


  2. The topic is fascinating to me because I wrote a story in 2014 about a fictional Bering Strait Bridge. Fairbanks is where they built a new capital city for the new Alaska Republic, but I didn’t touch the existing town, opting instead to create a new federal district.

    I also had a “Battle of Anchorage,” again mainly driven by geography. Since the story is set in the future, I gave myself a bit of liberty.

    Shalom Township and the Big Diomede Service Plaza are totally made up, as is the now gateway town of Wales. I had a lot of fun with the geography and hopefully didn’t offend anyone in Alaska. I sure didn’t mean to.

    Anyway, the 500 mile road to Nome, a longtime fascination of mine, is built in the story — as is quite a bit more in Siberia. That is my fantasy world and it was a lot of fun to create.


    • I have a coworker who is assigned to make legs of that real highway happen. He got about 35 miles built from Tofty to Tanana a few years ago. A mining company and the Iditarod race maintain an RS2477 trail between Ruby and Galena that will be incorporated into the road if it is every built, but of course, he has to somehow get a road from Tanana to Ruby permitted before he can even do that. He’s young, so it’s possible he’ll see that within his career.


  3. I just finished a 1984 Edgar Award winner I’d never heard of by Ross Thomas. Who, turns out, was born in my home town. To which he returns, but never names for the novel. But he nails the streets and landmarks and history, many renamed but obvious to a local and effective for anyone else. I did the same thing, without knowing Ross’s work, in 2015. Most of my other stuff is generic. If it’s Taos or LA or Vegas I can say that without going whole hog on details. As for world building, that’s someone else’s bag. “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” – Elmore Leonard. Give the reader enough to get it. The more we explain it, the less real it becomes. Look at Hollywood. Feel good movie about Wisconsin. Ever seen a Palm lined street in suburban Wisconsin?


  4. There is nothing more off-putting than to read about a place you know. And find that it’s wrong.


    • Yeah. The book wasn’t that well-written to begin with, but it had so many location errors that kept throwing me out of the narrative. The one primary example I remember was that he called Second Avenue “2 Street” which was a pipeline workers’ nickname for our then-notorious stretch of bars and prostitutes. That was fine, but then he carried the naming through to other streets – Third Avenue became “3 Street”, etc. He had a long-time Alaskan call Mount Denali “Mt. McKinley” even though to the locals it’s always been Denali (at least since I was a kid). The naming of the mountain is one of the things that makes you a “real” Alaskan. He consistently mispelled the main river going through town, rendering the Chena into the “China”. And I was never able to verify it, but the book’s cover claimed it was a NY Times bestseller. I don’t mind vague references or even highly fictionalized versions (like Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace), but if you’re going to base a book on a specific location, at least get the street names and rivers correct.

      I have a work in progress based in Fairbanks, but so much of old Fairbanks kept bleeding through that I finally ended up relocating the story to a fictional town supposedly next door to Fairbanks. So far, my local betas haven’t objected. They say it’s plausible. The town of Chena was real a hundred years ago and they could see it still be there if conditions had been slightly different. And by making it a bedroom community, it allows me to use locations in Fairbanks that really exist as a ground to reality.


    • And towns are always changing. I’ve been gone from my hometown for close to fifty years and it’s a whole different place.


  5. Yes, whichever real town you write about, there’s always somebody who has read your book and who has lived in that particular town and knows all there is to know about it. I prefer using fictitious names for cities/towns.


  6. That combination of real and fictional is really a good way to go in many stories. @samanthabwriter from
    Balancing Act


    • Good fiction always has one foot in reality — at least for me.


      • James Michener’s novel ‘Space’ has one fictional place I have a hard time with: FREMONT

        “Fremont, in the novel “Space” by James A. Michener. This fictional state is located roughly along the land along the border between Kansas and Nebraska, and is meant to stand for the American midwest in general. Named for 19th century explorer & politician John Charles Fremont.”

        I’m totally fine with an imaginary town in Kansas, but a whole state, I have a hard time with that.

        Michener knows his stuff when it comes to spaceflight though. My favorite part is where he uses driving a jeep to illustrate to Claggert the complexity of rendezvous.

        I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, save for Michener’s didacticism about evolution vs creation. I would have preferred he left the wonder of Apollo 8 and Buzz Aldrin celebrating communion on the lunar surface as testimony to man’s yearning spirit — a spirit which I have clearly observed in scientists — but I understand his need to express his distancing from his Quaker upbringing.

        I have no problem with an apocryphal Apollo 18 mission ‘to the dark side,’ in fact, had the budget people not decided we’d met Kennedy’s goal and said “let’s get on with the space station,” I have no doubt the missions would have grown wilder and crazier.

        And someone will eventually die up there. There is risk in spaceflight. NASA made it look routine, but it was not.

        Michener got that.


      • Maybe I’ll have to give Michener another try. He blew it with “Alaska” for me — a LONG time ago and I haven’t read him since, but yours is a good recommendation.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I couldn’t get through “Alaska” by Michener either.


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