Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Should You Use a Real-Life Setting for Your Story?

Speculative authors don’t give a second thought to creating settings out of thin air. They create whole planets when their stories demand them. But even authors writing within the confines of the “real world” are sometimes confronted with the choice to use an existing setting or make one up. This setting can be something as relatively miniscule as a made-up restaurant within a real town, or it could be an entire city. But the question, of course, is how do you decide when a made-up setting would be preferable to a real-life setting? And if you do utilize a made-up setting, how do you pull it off convincingly?

Let’s consider an example. Pulitzer-winning author Edna Ferber’s final novel Ice Palace takes place in pre-statehood Alaska in the 1950s. The real-life Alaskan setting is vital to the story’s plot. The book couldn’t conceivably have taken place anywhere else, and it’s very obvious that Ferber did her research and layered her setting with a wealth of realistic details. However, within this real-life setting, she chose to use the made-up sub-setting of the supposedly prominent city of Baranof, which she created entirely out of thin air for her own purposes.

So why did she do this—and how did she pull it off? I suspect Ferber chose to create Baranof for the same reason I created the town of Hangtree in my historical western A Man Called Outlaw. Namely, she wanted the freedom to depart from the facts wherever it would benefit her story. Had she set the story in Juneau or Sitka, she would have been bound to historical fact. However, she obviously understood that for the make-believe setting to work, she had to make it just as convincing and realistic as any real-life town. She researched real Alaskan cities and composited them into her make-believe one to keep readers from ever having a reason to suspend their disbelief.
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share


  1. Good post. It reminds me of Smilla's Sense of Snow and how crucial the setting was to that story.

  2. Obvious advantages of using a "real" setting definitely include climate, geography, some culture, e.g., the "Old West," and so on. It enables us to give an immediate sense of reality and identification to our readers.

    Now, toss in your ficticious whatever over that. It could be a conglomeration of all the small towns you've lived in or visited, that hospital on the hill and what have you.

    Now you have 80% of your worldbuilding done, with known background "rules" and can concentrate on building _your_ fictional world on top of that.

  3. @Phy: Setting is an easy facet of storytelling to overlook. So many stories get away with just a backdrop, but (as speculative authors, in particular, are aware) a good setting can become a character in its own right.

    @Bruce: Bingo! Really, even when our settings are intended to be 100% real, they're always going to have a little make-believe imposed over them, since 1) we won't be able to remember all the details with perfect accuracy and 2) we're writing fictitious characters into the setting which automatically pushes it a few inches into the twilight zone.

  4. Good thoughts here. My book is set in a real life place, but I think this post has me re-thinking a few aspects of that...we'll see how it ends up!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  5. Combining real-life settings with make-believe ones is my favorite strategy. It gives me the best of both worlds!

  6. I enjoy this blog so much! My first novel, SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS, is set in a small Southern town. Completely made up! I chose the fictitious route for all of the reasons you list. Also, I live in a small Southern town and didn't want the inevitable comparisons by friends, foes, and family.

  7. I rarely use real cities for my stories. In sci-fi it's practically a given, but even my Coalition stories take place in a fictional Rapid City (clearly not the S.D. one), and my last story took place in fictional Lake Ryan National Park. I'm especially proud of inventing Quartzstone Caverns, based loosely on all the caverns I've ever toured.

    The only time a real city appears in my books is as a passing reference only.

    ~ VT

  8. @Molly: So glad you're enjoying the blog! One of the reasons I often choose to use a made-up setting in an otherwise realistic book is that covers me from making any accidental factual errors about a real-life setting.

    @Victor: That's one of the reasons speculative fiction is so much fun. The options for the settings are wide open.

  9. Good post. This is always a question in my mind. If you use a real place, sometimes that can win you a lot of readers who love that place. However, you will get email about place-related errors you make. So like most authors, I made up a fictional location within a real one for my new mystery ENDANGERED. I made up the fictional Heritage National Monument in Utah, and combined various features from real parks to create it. But I learned that has its own dangers, because a reader who won an advance copy wrote me that she couldn't wait to visit Heritage National Monument. ACK!

  10. If your setting was so convincing that readers thought it was real, I'd say you were doing something right! Just take the compliment and run. ;)

  11. In both of my books, I used real life settings because they were both based on my own experiences. However, one day I would like to create my own world.

  12. The setting in my book is a real place, which helps me bring it to life based on my own experiences and memories of it (also, lots of photos and videos to help, since it's far away from me), but I've used a fictitious town name, so that I can add details for plot's sake and not worry about being nonfactual.