Silly q: Can you use real town names in your novel?

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jbyeok123

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So yeah. Just wondering. Can we use real town names in our novel? Like… popular small towns? Joshua Tree, Santa Ynez, Ojai, or anything like that… in a paranormal romance where there are werewolves and a little… murder here and there? And then change something about the neighborhood, like maybe there’s street food now when in real life there’s no street food?

This might be a silly question. But I’m just curious. I heard somewhere that it’s better to use my own fantasy town name if I don’t want to get in trouble. But like, I listed some fantasy townnames and I really don’t like them.
 

Nether

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I'm not a lawyer or anything, but I'm not sure why you couldn't. Granted, some decisions stemming from that choice might be iffier -- such as if you refer to the mayor (or first-selectman) only by the title, at which point it could possibly be construed as a jab at the real person holding the office.

But like, I listed some fantasy townnames and I really don’t like them.

The other option is just taking an existing town name and adding something to it, or associating it with a different state/country/etc.
 
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Hello, and welcome to AW! - you accidentally posted this thread twice so I’ll ask a mod to merge or remove the other one.

Anyway on to your question - yes, you can absolutely use real town names in your stories. Larger cities are named in stories all the time. Writers tend to be a little more cautious with names of small towns, not for liability reasons, but because smaller towns tend to have fewer landmarks and it can be harder to anonymize a small town and harder to tweak its details to serve the needs of your story. It’s common to see a fictional small town that is heavily based on a real one, in the same location, etc. rather than a literal real setting in a small town.

Do you read much? A question like this makes me wonder, because someone who reads broadly would likely have figured out the answer on their own. Reading widely is a really important part of strengthening your skills as a writer, so if it’s not something you do much of now, I hope you can make it a priority for yourself!

:e2coffee:
 

Brigid Barry

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Public places are public, so yes. And you can do what the Simpsons did and pick a town name that occurs all over the country if you want.

You start running into issues when you use real companies or real people in a libelous way, or using private people as characters. George W. Bush is a public person, your next door neighbor is not.

Edit: typo correction
 
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Paul Lamb

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You certainly can, though you need to be careful what you say about them and their residents. If you say something unkind (and untruthful) about a character or a shop or such, and there is a counterpart in the real city that seems similar, you might have a libel lawsuit on your hands. If you say the mayor is crazy, for example, or the ice cream shop has been closed for health code violations, you will have problems. But if you make up a wholly new person/place/thing (and show some effort into making sure it will not be confused with a real person/place/thing) then you can be as creative as you want.

In the novel I'm working on, I make reference to an actual tiny town in rural Missouri. But only because the campers may go into the town to get supplies (cigars from the gas station). That's oblique enuf to remove any concerns. (And I've seen this same town referenced in a similar way in a best seller of a few years back.)

Good luck with your work!
 
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Woollybear

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So yeah. Just wondering. Can we use real town names in our novel? Like… popular small towns? Joshua Tree, Santa Ynez, Ojai, or anything like that… in a paranormal romance where there are werewolves and a little… murder here and there? And then change something about the neighborhood, like maybe there’s street food now when in real life there’s no street food?

This might be a silly question. But I’m just curious. I heard somewhere that it’s better to use my own fantasy town name if I don’t want to get in trouble. But like, I listed some fantasy townnames and I really don’t like them.
The mystery series Sue Grafton wrote was set in/near Santa Theresa, which many readers recognized as a fictionalized version of the real life Santa Barbara.

Some authors change the name, like this, because they want to use the town but not exactly.
 

Brightdreamer

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As others have said, yes, you can use real locations in your fiction (so long as you're not being libelous - like, saying everyone in X-Town is a psychopathic puppy-kicker...)

That said, if you're going to use a real location, be sure to do your homework and get it right, because there's a reasonable-to-high probability someone familiar with that location will read your work and notice if you mess it up. (That's one incentive to use a not-quite-that-place-but-inspired-by fictional location; people in Portland will be able to tell if you mess up Portland, but fictional "Port Bay" can be "Mostly Portland but not, so if I want downtown moved two miles upriver and the city to have been founded by renegade frontier duck farmers instead of the actual founders, I can do that and nobody can tell me I'm wrong"...)
 

DeleyanLee

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As long as you're treating the place with respect and any specific real business you mention is in a positive light, I don't see what's wrong with it. I'm writing a fantasy police procedure set in Pittsburgh and have referenced several local businesses and institutions (all positively). I actually chatted with the manager of one of those businesses (a restaurant) and he was THRILLED to have the mention. There was even some chatting about having a book signing party there, should that day ever come.

Honestly, it's like anything else named: Play fair, don't do anything you're not willing to get sued over, and be true to your story.
 

Brigid Barry

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Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think a municipality can sue an author for setting a book there. Otherwise I'm sure LA and NYC would have been having FITS over all the murders and mayhem constantly taking place there in works of fiction.
 
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Woollybear

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I've also seen plenty of libelous treatment of dead folks in historical fiction, and I even asked a trade-published author once, and she said with the disclaimer up front ("any similarity to real ... blah blah blah ... is a coincidence") it's OK.

Imagine needing to paint Auschwitz in a flattering light. That'd be nonsense. So, my opinion is to write it however you like to serve the story best and then check with someone like a lawyer before publishing.
 

Paul Lamb

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I've also seen plenty of libelous treatment of dead folks in historical fiction, and I even asked a trade-published author once, and she said with the disclaimer up front ("any similarity to real ... blah blah blah ... is a coincidence") it's OK.

Imagine needing to paint Auschwitz in a flattering light. That'd be nonsense. So, my opinion is to write it however you like to serve the story best and then check with someone like a lawyer before publishing.
Well, if a person is dead, they can't be libeled according to the law.
 
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Tocotin

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Imagine needing to paint Auschwitz in a flattering light.
If you mean the Auschwitz concentration camp, that would probably come under Holocaust denial and be punishable by law in several countries.

But if you mean the nearby town of Oświęcim (German name: Auschwitz), then it's totally possible. It's an old and beautiful town. With a tragic history.

I'm sorry for the derail.

:troll
 

Elenitsa

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I have stories happening in places all over the world, most of them existing. Besides my native Bucharest, there are places in Greece (Thessaloniki, for example, or a few towns which now are in Turkey, but in 1804, when my story happens, were, albeit Ottoman Empire, populated by Greeks until 1923), in Italy (including Genoa and Venice), in France (Marseilles especially), US (St Louis and some surrounding towns, like Venice, IL, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Nogales AZ and its Mexican twin) and some others...

Libellous details? Well, there are plenty officially mentioned in the biographies of the Chouteaux founders of St Louis, so if I added a few more machinations, which might have remained out of chronicles, it does not count... As long as I let them die when the chronicles said, and have their official functions as per the chronicles.

But I also have small towns or villages made up (or used names of villages existing in that period, but which disappeared later).

I have a Newton somewhere in the mountains in US (I forgot now the name of the mountains, I had studied them on the map when I wrote the novel, many years ago, something with Saint Francis if I remember well, but that was only mentioned in passing a few times, not a main place), written so as a mistake from the surveyors from an intended New Town lacking imagination. It is now a national park on a big area and all that was before was flooded, so... of course, the town even if existed with that name in mid 1800s (but it did not!) it is no longer there.
 

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As far as I am concerned, you can use town names all you want. I have a novel set in Ketchikan, Alaska, which is a real place. If you're going to use a real place though, you need to get the research exact. Google Maps is my best friend.
 
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Al X.

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In my opinion, the only way you can get away with using a fake place name is if you use a really small, obscure town that nobody knows about. But, I mean, then why not just use the real name of a really small, obscure town that nobody knows about. You can't get away with using a fake major metropolitan area without losing credibility. You can avoid the issue by keeping it generic and not naming the place, but that's only going to work if the place isn't central to the story itself.

I grew up in many different places around the world, and visited many more, so I have no shortage of places to use that I can't describe in detail from first hand experience. But, as previously mentioned, Google, and Google Maps, are your friends and it isn't that hard to do enough research to be credible. Vagueness is also a powerful tool to offset the unknown.
 
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MaeZe

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Lots of novels use real names of places. But beware if you are not familiar with the places. It bugs me that Twilight's author had little clue what Forks, La Push, and hiking in the Olympic Rainforest are really like. :p

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, on the other hand, took place in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, (when they were Earthbound) and it worked fine for me. When it's a big city it's easier to get away with locating a story there.
 
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Brightdreamer

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In my opinion, the only way you can get away with using a fake place name is if you use a really small, obscure town that nobody knows about. But, I mean, then why not just use the real name of a really small, obscure town that nobody knows about. You can't get away with using a fake major metropolitan area without losing credibility. You can avoid the issue by keeping it generic and not naming the place, but that's only going to work if the place isn't central to the story itself.
Newford, the invented city central to many books of popular author Charles de Lint, would like a word about whether a "fake major metropolitan area" loses credibility...

And Gotham City, the not-quite-NYC of Batman and the DC comics universe...

And Metropolis (Superman et al.)...

And Sunnydale (of Buffy fame)...

And Castle Rock and Derry, Maine (Stephen King)...

Et cetera...

Also, a note about using Google Maps alone to research a real-world setting: it's often easy for a local to tell if the writer has "been there" or not. There are personalities to neighborhoods, local sayings and habits and bits of culture, that don't show up on a map. If possible, try to find local papers or other stuff written by boots-on-ground people to figure out what actually being in the city (and what actually being in the parts of the city one is writing about) is like.
 

Ashigara

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I do. I guess so long as you're not insulting the place, culture or people, people will likely be like, 'cool whatever.' Hell, they might find the inclusion part of the charm.

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AliensInCardiff

I heard somewhere that it’s better to use my own fantasy town name if I don’t want to get in trouble. But like, I listed some fantasy townnames and I really don’t like them.
in a paranormal romance where there are werewolves and a little… murder here and there?

Reminds me of Riverdale. Going on a tangent, that TV series, season 2 and especially season 3 onwards, is literal insanity.
 

Al X.

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Newford, the invented city central to many books of popular author Charles de Lint, would like a word about whether a "fake major metropolitan area" loses credibility...

And Gotham City, the not-quite-NYC of Batman and the DC comics universe...

And Metropolis (Superman et al.)...

And Sunnydale (of Buffy fame)...

And Castle Rock and Derry, Maine (Stephen King)...

Et cetera...

Also, a note about using Google Maps alone to research a real-world setting: it's often easy for a local to tell if the writer has "been there" or not. There are personalities to neighborhoods, local sayings and habits and bits of culture, that don't show up on a map. If possible, try to find local papers or other stuff written by boots-on-ground people to figure out what actually being in the city (and what actually being in the parts of the city one is writing about) is like.

Fair point, but that is to a large degree genre specific. We know Gotham City is fake but on the other hand we go in to comic characters with the understanding that the basic premise in itself is way out there. Can't comment on the others due to a lack of familiarity, but for the most part my genre (action adventure) demands some modicum of realism and historical accuracy. If Ken Follett for example, were to have his character conduct an assassination at the top of a skyscraper in Cityopolis, his book is likely going to get tossed to the side. I would.