When I first started writing my Birder Murder Mystery series, I wanted readers to feel like they were actually walking in the footsteps of my protagonist, so it was a logical choice for me to use real locations for book settings. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much readers enjoy books that take place in areas they know and how much those real places can shape what I write. Once I figured out that my real locations were one of the more powerful means of attracting readers, I began using real places as much as possible, not only for marketing later, but to provide me with inspiration for other pieces of my story.
As a result, I now take detailed notes of places I visit in the course of my book research. For instance, last January, I was researching McAllen, Texas, for my next murder mystery. Since friends had recommended I try the barbeque at Fat Daddy’s, I made sure I had lunch there one day. As I ate, I observed that large groups of National Guardsmen sat at many of the tables, which I also noted in my daily travel journal, along with descriptions of the patriotic posters and flags adorning the walls. When I developed my plot, I found that the soldiers I’d seen could play into my story in a critical juncture, so I wrote them in – something I never would have come up with if I hadn’t personally visited Fat Daddy’s. Now, when anyone from the area reads the book, they’ll immediately be able to say, “this author really was here!” and it gives me the instant credibility which every fiction writer craves to lure readers into the story.
Another big benefit of writing real places into your books is that some readers identify so much with a favorite place, they tend to talk about your book simply because of the setting. In one of my books, I used a small diner where one of my daughters waitressed years ago. Not only did it give the story a strong local connection, but once it was published, the diner owners prominently displayed the book, which delighted all their customers, who then told their friends that their favorite diner was in a book. By using the diner as a piece of my story, I also didn’t have to think twice about what that setting would look like, because all I had to do was describe what I saw.
Perhaps the best guideline I can provide about using real places in your fiction is the rule my publisher gave me: If you say nice things about a place, use the real name; if you want to be negative, make up a place. That should give you more readers and happier business owners (who will become your friends if they aren’t already!), and much less chance of getting sued.
Who knows? You might even get a sandwich named after you…