Real vs. Fictional Story Settings

If you want to stir up a discussion among fiction authors, ask them which is better: real or fictional story settings.

Recently I witnessed this topic trend on one of my loops for historical novelists. Talk about a lively discussion. I’ve seen only one other subject generate as many comments–one I’ll be covering in an upcoming post, so you’ll have to wait. 🙂

There are pros and cons for novelists who use real settings as well as those who use fictional settings.

One group of novelists prefers to use fictional settings. They enjoy the ease of being able to layout towns and cities to fit their stories. Their choice, however, can disappoint readers who like to travel to real places in the stories they read.

Another group of novelists prefers to use real settings in their stories and enjoys bringing them to life for readers. They believe it adds authenticity and serves to introduce readers to places they might not see otherwise. A downside is that a writer using a real place must do considerable research, which takes time.

Rock Wall in El Dorado, California

Where do I fall? I love reading stories that transport me to real towns of the past. As a writer, I love making actual places come to life in a reader’s mind. Since I thrive on research, this works well for me.

My challenge is choosing which interesting facts to work into my stories of the many I discover. I don’t want to include historical information unless it adds to the story. Who wants to read a novel that reminds her of a history text?

Historic Church in El Dorado, California

My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, takes place in the historic Gold Rush-era town of El Dorado. No surprise there, right? 🙂

Since the small community is only five miles from where I live, I was able to visit many times. In addition, I visited the El Dorado County Historical Museum where the knowledgeable volunteers in the research room answered my questions and helped me locate photographs of the town as it appeared in the 1870s.

• • •

If you’re a novelist, do you use real places or create your own towns?

What is your preference as a reader? Real or historical settings?

Do your preferences change if the story is a contemporary?

Can you think of authors who do a great job with setting?


About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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14 Responses to Real vs. Fictional Story Settings

  1. Jelzmar says:

    It depends. If it is set in the ‘real world’ or our world, then I like to do a little research and have the place be real. If I’m writing a fantasy, I like creating a new world. Though I would still base it on a picture or a place in the real world, so that I can have a good idea of what it might smell, feel, sound and look like. So, I guess, I lean more to the real world.

    Although, if I was to write a horror I would make everything up, because I wouldn’t want to taint the area with my story.

  2. Char Chaffin says:

    Interesting topic, Keli. For my stories, I tend to make the towns up. I usually write contemporary small-town life, and it’s fun to pick a state, then place a small town in that state. I do research for the region, make sure I know famous nearby landmarks and have the right flora and fauna for the area. I’ve also traveled through every state in the Union plus Mexico and Canada, which helps me a great deal. And I’ve lived in seven states, myself. But my towns are almost always fictional.

    As for authors who do it well, I am consistently impressed by Nora Roberts who more often than not will create a town for her novels. I remember when I read ‘Carnal Innocence,’ I truly felt as if I were in the town of Innocence, Mississippi because her settings and descriptions were so vivid and real. That’s the kind of impression I’d want to leave with a reader –


  3. Because I’m not the most detailed person, I like to use fictional based on real that way if I make a mistake it’s okay. 😉 But my book coming out is set in a real town and I’m hoping, hoping there are no mistakes. *cross fingers*

  4. Beth Vogt says:

    My debut novel is set in the real world–actually it’s set in my world, where I’m living right now: Colorado Springs. And then my heroine jaunts off to Estes Park. (She has good reason–it’s not exactly a fun jaunt.)
    But even in the real world of the Springs and Estes Park, I fictionalized just a bit. I added a made-up-in-my-mind bookstore based on one I’d visited in Estes Park, but now it’s for sale.
    So I like a little of this and that: Doing the research to get the real life setting right and then throwing a dash of my imaginings “What if I added this?”

  5. Erica Vetsch says:

    I’ve used both fictional and real settings, and I see the benefits to both. I guess I go where the story takes me. Duluth, MN or Dodge City, KS, Martin City, CO (Based on Leadville) or Money Creek, ID (Based on a conglomeration of western frontier towns.) I’m currently working on a series of novellas set in a fictional Wyoming Territory cattle town/range, but the I’m off to craft a story in the inhospitable high desert of Needles, CA.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I prefer real settings for historical fiction. Love the thought of actually ~ being there.

  7. Thought provoking post, Keli. My work is all centered around the five boroughs of NYC and it’s surrounding subs. I venture to the Mid-Hudson Valley of Dutchess County where I spent many summers. It is not only what I know and love, it is what I find fascinating about people who live and come to New York. Also, the historic elements are everywhere we look from an ancient forrest, to Indian caves, a wild life preserve and falcons who live in the steeple of Riverside Church. In fact I can have my cake and eat it with frosting when I decide which part of NY or which aspect of her people to write about.

    I love historic fiction and delight in the details authors use because I can appreciate how much research they do in order to tell the tale.

    Then there are series of “make believe” places like Charlaine Harris’s Stackhouse series, now True Blood on HBO. I also love the sci-fi elements Nora Roberts added to her JD Robb “In Death” series with a futuristic NYC … taking the familiar and giving it a twist. It is no wonder this subject generated so much “chat” with your group. It did with one of mine as well.

    I only do the places I know, but I love to read it all 🙂

  8. candidkerry says:

    My book is contemporary set in a real setting, so I was careful to use landmarks and add touches to the book that make it authentic. As a reader, I’m not picky about settings, but I do consider it a plus to read about a real place and learn new stuff. 🙂

    In some cases, a wonderful setting can become just as much of a beloved character. Prince Edward Island, from Anne of Green Gables, is a great example. I definitely want to visit that area of Canada someday. Also, the Ozark Mountains, where one of my favorite childhood books, Where the Red Fern Grows, was set, is a place I’d love to visit.

    Great post! Intriguing thoughts and ideas.

  9. I love to read stories that make me believe the place is real, whether it is or not. What I’m saying is that setting is important to me as a reader. I like to be transported to another city or town or environment and feel that I’m “there”.

  10. Alica says:

    So far I’ve used mostly real places- but I don’t go so far as to know street names and such. But in my new book the place will be real but I’m adding to it.

  11. As a reader, I do enjoy reading about actual places. But as a writer, I always create a fictional town (and mention the actual towns it is near!). Most of the stories I’ve written so far have been set in my home state of Georgia, but I’m thinking later on I’d enjoy a different state for my setting (and it would be a great reason for a “research trip”). 🙂

  12. Martina Bedregal Calderón says:

    My stories ar mostly settled in real places, some of them in a historical setting (in the past), but my characters are fiction. And talking about fiction – I am just writing a science fiction story, for first time in my life, playing in the future (in 2065) and for first time written in English (my native toungue is german). It is good fun, although the story is kind of scary, for you have the freedom to think about how our planet and mankind may exist in the future after an almost invasion of evil aliens and sharing this world now with a friendly ET race who helped mankind to survive the former invasion…. hehe.

  13. I’ve done both. My debut novel is set in a fictional town in Iowa, loosely based off a nearby small town. I like having the freedom. But right now, I’m writing a story set in Minneapolis. I’ve decided it’s much easier, for me as a writer, to write fictional. 🙂

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