I've finally started my next novel, and I'm psyched. Thinking over possible settings, I'm tempted to use some real locales in upstate New York. The city of Troy is particularly rich in picturesque places - several sites have original Tiffany windows, and today I revisited Oakwood Cemetery for inspiration. Their crematoriuim has especially beautiful Tiffany stained glass and interior design. The capitol building in Albany is a fascinating place for a chase scene.

I note many mystery writers fictionalize just about everything about their settings. But my sense is that it's fine to use well known locations as long as I don't slander them. I change the names and details for restaurants, bars, funeral homes and other smaller, potentially more transitory establishments, and I'm going to rename my town and my lake. For Mood Swing, which is set in lower Manhattan, I described Tompkins Square Park, NYU and various streets and neighborhoods, but changed the identities of smaller establishments.

How do others handle real places - and for that matter, real people in the public eye?

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Julie, I have no problems with using actual locations. My new mystery, BLOODY HAM is set in Richmond, Surrey in England and while the story is centered around historic Ham House, the town's environment is featured. If you know and use a location it gives some solidity to a story and as long, as you say, no one or any location is slandered there is no problem. The first two mysteries in my series, CAPABLE OF MURDER and THE EMBROIDERED CORPSE also use a mixture of real and fictitious locations. All my characters are fictitious.
I think that once you decide to use a real city as your setting, you've made a commitment to be true to the city. Part of that is capturing the essence of the place -- what makes it what it is. That doesn't mean you don't create imagined locations within the city, but they should never distract from the sense of the place. Even if they're not real, they should feel like they fit. I think it's clearly prudent to avoid libelous comments about real places, but sometimes a seedy bar really is a seedy bar. Don't be afraid to say so!

There is a bestselling, well-regarded author who sets his novels in a real city, but literally makes up everything about them. Sometimes you can tell he's merged real locations by the way he names them, but often the places are so imagined they don't feel like they belong. For all practical purposes, the location is completely imaginary, so he would have been better served to give it a made up name as well. I know I feel thrown out of the story every time I go somewhere that I know is not only not real, but simply doesn't fit.

It doesn't always have to be real, but it does have to be genuine, I think. Otherwise, you might be better served to make up a place out of whole cloth. And then, of course, you control the whole identity!
I think Bill says it very well-- you make a commitment to be true to the place, just as you commit to the truth of your characters. I think it's general practice to fictionalize real places that turn out to be crime scenes; you don't want to use someone's actual home or real place of business for a bloody murder. That's just bad karma.

Janet Evanovich mixes real details of Trenton and its Chambersburg neighborhood in her books with fake streets and landmarks. I know what she's trying for but it puts me off sometimes.

In The World According to Garp, John Irving was clearly writing about Boston at times but never actually said so, which I found distracting. However, he said in a lecture at Bread Loaf many years ago that if he writes "Boston," you'll have your own ideas of what "Boston" is, and he'll lose you, even if just for a moment. He said he never wanted readers to step out of his fictional world.
I developing the Arizona locale for PAY HERE, I made reference to some real buildings and landmarks, but also created some buildings and businesses that were similar to local places, but with different names. I also created a fictional restaurant in Florence, Arizona, ("Cowboy Meat") that should be there, but isn't. I think that if you are setting an action in a private business that could reflect badly on the business, it's best to change the name. On the other hand, using recognizable public landmarks is a good way to orient your reader to the local scene.
I use 'em---course my settings are normally historical fiction. The fifties is my newest time frame. I believe that if you identify your novel as fictional, why not? I agree to not using small establishments.

I feel a reader would develop a closeness to knowing the location.

McBain's 87th Precinct Series would have felt better is had had just said New York. I've never been to Isola. Just didn't feel right...
My first series was in San Francisco, SFPD. So I used the real PD, the real offices inside the Hall of Justice. Many of the restaurants and bars are real, as are landmarks. After all, who hasn't seen a picture of San Francisco, or watched it in movies, or been there? But if I need to murder someone at a privately owned establishment, or I need a real jerk to work at one, I make up the business. I've made up fake towns with fake police departments in the outlying areas when I need to murder someone in another town and I need the cops to be real jerks. I have this thing (and it could be described as a fear ;-) of bad mouthing a real department, then knowing I have to drive thru that town in the future!

But I also want continuity, so if I have a fake establishment, I continue it throughout the series. My chain of banks has been robbed, had a manager murdered, and has nefarious connections to organized crime. They way I see it, why waste a good locale, so when I needed a bank in my new series, I carried it over.

So for me, if good stuff happens, use the real locale. If you're going to murder someone there, and you can't do it outside, make up the establishment.

As for real people, I try to stay away from those, and anything else that would date my books. (Sure some dating will come through, but if you go on about Brittany Spears shaving her head, and your book is still on the shelf ten years from now, or you finally make it big ten years from now, do you want to take the chance that anyone would understand who you're talking about?
Thanks, everyone, for the entertaining responses - you all seem to approach this issue more or less the way I do. Now it's on to page 1, Chapter One, which will begin with my protagonist's cell phone going off while she's skiing down a black diamond run on Jiminy Peak (rather than an invented ski area.) My favorite ski slope, because it's just 35 minutes from my home - refreshing to fantasize about as the day heats up! I never ski black diamond (i.e., expert) runs, though - that's where the fiction begins.

But if I decide to have someone pushed off a chair lift or frozen to death in the woods off the groomed trails, I'll probably give the ski area a new name.
For years I wrote a historical series set primarily in San Francisco in the early 1900s, with side trips to the Monterey area, to Utah's Mormon country, and to Boston -- the last being a return to my protagonist's home before she set out for SF in the first book. My greatest joy, aside from creating the characters, was the research that went into being able to be as accurate as possible as to the locations of streets and landmarks for the time. Ditto my last published book, a standalone set in and around Hilton Head SC during the Civil War. I lover real settings most of all, and I love maps in books -- though I will admit maps are a headache for the author because it's so hard for the various people concerned in the publication process to get the maps right.
I see nothing wrong with using real places in real cities. The only problem I see is if you happen to be writing a police procedural and you don't know the procedures of a given town. Every cop in town who read reads your work will know its not real and therefore not buy the rest of the story.

Jim Winter's comment about mixing and matching cities works too. There is not only a comfort level with using real places, you can add an extra dimension of verisimilitude that he reader may absorb and carry though the rest of the story.
I use real places in my stories but only if the places contribute background and atmosphere. I don't want the places to constrain my story-telling so if something critical happens there, I usually fictionalize the place in some way. What if my hero needs to escape out a back door but the real place has no back door? A friend was working on a novel set in our hometown and the central event in the novel took place in an important landmark in the town. I thought she should fictionalize the town and the landmard, but she wanted it to be exact. Because of some unfortunate events, that landmark is no longer there and her book remains unfinished. She could rewrite it, but her reason for using it in the book was her attachment to it. So my take is that critical locations should be fictional.


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