fictional places, or real places?

I’m working on a story right now that takes place mostly in the Pacific Northwest. I am currently using a mix of fictional locations and real locations, but am debating making all of the locations real.

Is there a compelling reason to use fictional locations? Is there a compelling reason to use real locations?

A compelling reason to use real places is that people who know them will kinda like it, and it saves you from having to make stuff up. A reason not to is that if you, say, depict the owner of a specific address as being some kind of criminal etc, you may receive legally menacing correspondence, although your real vulnerability to litigation is probably slight. That, and the possibility that someone will annoy you by protesting, “But Elm St. doesn’t run east/west” or something like that. But, sad to say, it seems like very little fiction gets that degree of readerly attention these days.

Thanks for that input. If I were setting things in the modern day, I would do enough research to know which way Elm St. runs, cause stuff like that drives me nuts! This is the latter half of the 19th century so I don’t think that aspect would run into that much scrutiny, though there are other aspects that may well run into that level of scrutiny.

But the more I’m thinking about it the more I think I’m going to replace my fictitious places with real places.

In a way, the historical setting makes it worse because then you get the history buffs out looking for errors. Personally, I always object less to certain kinds of factual historical errors less than to the kind of anachronisms that most historical novelists indulge in, like single middle-class women walking around on the streets by themselves in early 19th century cities and that sort of thing.

I’d say Laura’s right, a historical novel is actually more likely to bring out the nitpickers than a contemporary one :wink:

The thing is, unless there’s a real, compelling reason to use one or the other, you can just mix and match all you like. Unless you’re selling the novel as a thoroughly accurate and researched piece that presents a real depiction of the area, readers will expect there to be made-up stuff in there. So you can go all-real, all-fictional, or a combination of the two; so long as it’s a good story, most readers won’t care.

221b Baker Street never really existed, you know :wink:

Thank you both for your input. Much appreciated, and I am worried slightly about the history buffs. We’ll see how it all shakes out. I do care about accuracy. It’s one of my peeves when I read things I know to be false, especially when I know a little research would have resolved the issue. I AM having difficulties with some simple things though. Social mores of the time period is one I believe I have a relatively good handle on, but other things like “How far can a man and his horse travel in a day?” are causing me all sorts of grief!

Surely that requires one horse, one day, and a little bit more research :laughing:

How long is a piece of string? It depends on the terrain, the horse, the rider, the baggage and the weather. An unencumbered expert rider with a great horse, riding flat in clement weather, could do 50+ miles a day*. An overweight rider carrying sackfuls of equipment, riding a nag over a mountain in a blizzard, would be lucky to do 5 :wink:

*Edit to add: though doing this for more than one day would probably kill the horse…

I guess my motorcycle doesn’t count!

Not sure my backside could take a day in the saddle though.

Please do the research to get this right. Horses that behave like motor vehicles are one of the pet peeves of many fantasy and historical readers.

Fortunately, help is available: … how_detail


I would say it’s important to be specific. Being specific adds authenticity.

You can transplant details, your imagination is very good at it already. Think about a dream you’ve had - the specific details can be very accurate, it’s just that the context isn’t right. There is no rule saying you can’t write about a bar you went to in one city, but put it in another city.

Factual accuracy can be a VERY useful tool in achieving a sense of authenticity, but it’s by no means the be all and end all.

If your places FEEL authentic, then really, how important does the factual accuracy have to be. Bare in mind, as a fiction writer, people aren’t likely to say “Well, this isn’t verified because such and such” or whatever.

I hope this helps.

On the travel front, make sure you think about the entire party. For example, a single horse/rider might make 15-20 miles in a casual 2-3 hours over moderate terrain, but if they are part of a caravan, the wagons will be luck to make 3-5 miles over the same terrain in the same time. If there are no large wagons (only healthy men/boys or carts) then you might actually be able to cover more ground over the same terrain in the same time.

Also remember to rest in your trip. Faster moving groups will rest briefly and frequently at regular intervals. Slower groups will rest less frequently but for longer periods. This is of those things that drives me nuts. Oxen running 10 miles and hour for 10 hours straight with a buckboard full of an entire house. With a load that size (close to a ton and a half) the oxen would not even get to 10 mph let alone go 10 hours with no rest.

And this is why I plan to set in fictional world with variable gravity. Too many rules in this world.

One example I’ve always admired is the series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter.)

He fictionalized New York City in a way that let him rework the city as needed (thus not dating the novels too quickly) but captured all the flavor and personalities of the different boroughs.

You might ask yourself what your locations are doing for you. In a historical novel, the little details of how the people lived are important, but I find such things easier to put in a fictional city (I love the shoes women wear, for instance, but to talk about the different kinds, my Western town might get board sidewalks faster than a real town might.)

But if you don’t want to waste brainpower on building your own city, and like the research, just working within real boundaries can free up your skills for other areas.

I guess it comes down to which is more important for your particular story; recreating the time, or the place.

There are several 100 mile horse rides.
Here is just one.

These are trained horses, examined by vets along the way so it is a fair test. If It was the milk cart horse it would be bad news.

I do wonder if you could whip a horse unto its own death, good for sagas but not for reality.
That said my knowledge of willing horses is limited.


Wow. That’s one hell of a ride!

Real places give you an easier path for a reader to identify with the surroundings.

Fictional Places give you more flexibility with the surroundings.

You can make real places fictional but you can’t make fictional places real.