Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I got asked a question the other day - someone wanted to know if it was okay to use a real town, with real places and real people, in a work of fiction.

Well, yes, it is.

But if you are going to use real stuff, you need to get it right. Here are a few hints.

SETTINGS: Real places can lend a lot of verisimilitude to a fictional work. I used to live in Pasadena, CA and I loved seeing landmarks in print. Wow, I thought, they're on the corner of Del Mar and California! What a thrill! These characters are in my town!

But wait - Del Mar and California run parallel - there is no corner of those two streets. The irritation I felt was out of proportion to the booboo, and it made me want to put the book down. A simple drive-by - or look-see at a map - would have fixed it. The author lost credibility with me in that instant.

If you are setting your story in a real place, it's okay to make up the details: Smokey Joe's Bar and Grill might be a figment of your imagination. Your characters may live in buildings that don't really exist in the real town. They might work at fictional shops, factories, offices or clinics, or eat at fictional taco stands or drink in fictional hotel bars. They might shop in real stores, though. They might pull into the real gas station or the real dry cleaners or the real post office.

So how do you know what to make fictional and when to use the real thing?

If you are using a real town for your setting, use just enough detail to set the mood. You don't need to describe every single thing, but there should be something about this place - a mood, a season, its geographical position or history - that makes you want to set something there in the first place. So be accurate geographically and with any major landmarks. If you use real streets, be familiar with them and know where they go. Know which neighborhoods are residential and which are commercial or deserted or where the wharf is. Know why you want to use it as a setting.

If you use real stores or businesses, remember they are your background, not your story. Don't bad mouth real businesses. If your character has a bad experience in a store or diner or somewhere, make it fictional. You don't want to libel anyone's business. Your fictional story does not depend on absolute reality of setting, so only use it as a seasoning.

PEOPLE: What about using real people in your fiction? Can you do this? Well, yes.

Public and historical figures may be used in your fiction. Keep in mind that these were/are real people and as such, may be used for mood. But be careful - you do not want hordes of lawyers screwing up your story.

You may mention public figures: "Mayor Quimby's office was in the historic City Hall, and the Mayor was strolling the gardens. He was an imposing figure and he waved to us as we passed." No problem there. "He eyed my companion and I suddenly remembered all the gossip about his sex-offender status." Okay, not so good. Don't malign public figures as they can sue you.

You may mention celebrities: "We hoped to see Brad Pitt, but all we got were glimpses of Dr. Phil and Scarlett Johanssen." "I thought it was Melanie, but it turned out to be Cher walking a small dog." Watch what you say - a lot of celebrities make a lot of money by suing folks who print inaccurate or awful stuff about them. If you need to be mean, make up a celeb.

Historic figures: Okay, here you have much more leeway as most of these folks are dead. The dead can't sue you for libel. You can have them in lots of situations, by name.

TRADEMARKS & CORPORATIONS: In the movies, this is known as product placement. It's tricky!

If the product must be named - Coke ™ instead of cola, Kleenex ™ instead of tissue, you gotta use that little trademark symbol and use the product name correctly. If you refer to companies, use their corporate names correctly and watch what you or your characters say about them. If you need to crash a plane, poison a town or expose a scandal, use a fictional company. If you attribute unsavory things to a real company, they can sue you.

And keep in mind the world changes. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? Pan Am was the carrier. Uh, Pan Am is long gone.

So, you can use reality in your fiction to help make it believable. I love reading stories set in places I know, with reality sprinkled in liberally in the form of real cars and real foods and other real stuff. It gives me a connection with the characters and the story. But your writing needs to be so good that everything in your story can be made up and still make me suspend my disbelief for the whole satisfying experience.

I look forward to reading your story - but don't have anyone meeting on the corner of Del Mar and California in Pasadena, okay?


The irrigation ditches, drying up from the weeks of high temperatures and drought, and choked with duckweed, but still providing a weird sanctuary for the few remaining water birds.

The new glass in our clerestory windows - it's so clean!

The chocolate cake at the local fast food joint. Heaven!


Sonnjea B said...

I remember once reading a book set in Irvine, while I was attending UC Irvine. I was so excited to recognize places until about halfway through the book, the author referred to the UC Irvine football team. UCI doesn't have a football team. I was so irked, I quit reading the book. I know it was fiction and she could make up whatever she wanted, but there was nothing in the story that required a football team, so her offhand mention of it just told me she hadn't done her research very well.

December/Stacia said...

I used Miami/Ft. Lauderdale for my vampire books, because I lived there for twelve years (and still lived there when I started the first vamp novel.)

But the UF stuff, I haven't identified the city. I've modeled it on a few of them, taking bits and pieces from each, but until I can make a trip and set one I'd rather it just be The City. Maybe that's a cop-out, but it worked for me.

Bernita said...

And google - the neat name you thought up for that imaginary pub might actually exist, only a couple of blocks over.

Kate Thornton said...

sonnjea b - yes, that's exactly the sort of thing that takes me out of the story.

stacia - I like "The City" - it could be anywhere!

Bernita - I always google pubs. Ya never know when you might need a drink.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yes, the annoyance is definitely out of proportion to the error when you catch one. And I am also tickled to read about a place with which I am familiar.

Whereever I travel, I take photos, get maps and tourist info so I can use it some day.

December/Stacia said...

Kate, someone found my blog by Googling "Kate Thornton sexy pictures".

Is there something you want to share with us?

Kate Thornton said...

HAHA! That's funny! There's a Kate Thornton in Britain who is young, evidently mentally challenged and part of some television & rock star world - her pics are all over the net! She's known fot being a "presenter" (TV hostess) and for some pretty embarassing behaviour. I should go in and co9rrect all the Wikipedia crap about her to include me - after all, I was here first!

December/Stacia said...

Of COURSE. I remember now.