Chances are pretty good that if you’re writing a novel, things have to happen somewhere, right? Maybe your protagonists never leave the building. Maybe it’s some unnamed location, simply The Town, or The City. But inevitably, most writers will be faced with a decision: use a real town/city, or make one up.
I’ve used both techniques in my writing, so, let’s unpack some of the things you’ll want to take into consideration. And, a word of warning, I’m a bit of an urban planning geek. I love cities and small towns, how they work, and their unique character. I find it can be a character in its own right every bit as important as the other support characters in your story.
If you’re using a real location, it helps if you’re familiar with that location. While not entirely necessary (I mean, Stephanie Meyer set the Twilight novels in Forks, Washington without having set foot there and she did okay for herself), doing so presents some challenges. Either you fabricate locations within that town (restaurants, shops, schools, etc.), fake the sensory details of existing locations, or you go light on the sensory details. The first run the risk of pulling people out of the story if they’re familiar with that town, while the third runs the risk of making it difficult for the reader to really engage. Sensory details are huge. It’s important to ground your characters.
You can fix some of that with research, but honestly no amount of research is going capture the entire location you’re writing in. Take for example Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, Chandler’s Big Sleep, Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and Tim Powers Expiration Date. All of these are set in Los Angels, yet none are the same Los Angels. It helps that they’re set in one of the most chimerical of American cities. But ultimately by reading these books, we’re seeing the city through the eyes of the author and their protagonists. The city speaks to them, and through them to us, in very different ways. Ultimately, none is more “accurate” than the other.
So, why use real towns or cities at all? Well, the short answer is that you can tap into a city’s mythology, draw story ideas from it’s history and public perception, and use what people already know or think they know for a kind of literary shorthand. This literary shorthand lets you skimp a bit on certain aspects of the world building for expediency, and conversely, you can play against that for some interesting results. That makes using a real city very attractive.
As for towns, honestly, I’m not sure why you’d want to use a real town.
Here’s the thing. I have a difficult time understanding what benefit you have using a real small town that most people don’t know at all and some people know REALLY well (i.e. the locals), vs. a small town where you have total control over what does and doesn’t belong there. Take for example, what was really gained by setting Twilight in Forks that couldn’t have been done setting it in a fictional town? Stephen King has been writing stories set in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, for decades and it doesn’t seem to have hurt him any.
Creating a town doesn’t have to be that difficult. It’s like a larger scale version of dropping a fictional school in a real city. First, you need somewhere that fits geographically/culturally with where you want to set your story. Pick a bigger landmark nearby, like “A short drive up the coast to Boston” if you want to ground it even further. All we really knew about the location of Sunnydale from seven seasons of Buffy was that it was somewhere near Los Angeles. You don’t have to sketch it in street by street. Think about the scenes in your book. Where do you want them to be? Fight in a bar? Create a bar broadcloth or transpose your favorite, name it whatever you want, and drop it in. Just keep it consistent and keep notes.
Take a good look at sample towns, because there tends to be a similar pattern. The downtown core tends to be along a few blocks a main street for a spine with businesses spread out a block in either direction of that spine with residential beyond that, easy walking distance to most things. Building towns and neighborhoods with cars in mind was something that stared really taking off post WWII which brought us suburbs with newer, tract home style developments and destination shopping centers with big parking lots. (If the hows, whys, etc. of urban planning interest you in the slightest or you just want an excellent look into why cities and towns look the way they do, I heartily suggest you find Urban Design Since 1945: A Global Perspective by David Grahme Shane at your library. It has become a crucial writing reference for me since discovering it.)
Consider why everyone is living there. Is there some kind of industry? A college or a tourism feature? Is it a ranching/farming town, or is it a coastal fishing town? Is it a former mining town that has gotten a second life as an artist community? Did it grow as a stop along a rail line making it something of a regional shipping hub, or did it grow as a waystation along a highway that started to dry up when the interstate went in a few miles away? Make it your own, but consider why people are there and not somewhere else.
I know. It sounds like a lot of work. Especially when you consider that much of this detail could just be for you, a behind the scene look so you know how things work and where things happen. Ideally you won’t be dropping in multi-page descriptions of the local coffeehouse. But if it’s a key location and you’ve done your work, you can drop in a sentence about it here and there and make it feel real. Honestly, I can’t emphasize enough the value of having a notebook handy with you at all times. When I’m in a new place that I think is cool, I’ve been known to jot down a few sensory details about what I like: the floral print on the vinyl tablecloths, the lighting over the bar, the neon sign in the parking lot. These little details can slot into your fictional locations and make them feel more real because the details themselves are real–even if the location is fake.
And the truth is you’re going to be doing a lot of work either way: researching and trying to capture a real place or making a place that perfectly suits your story. Ultimately, you’re the best judge of how you want to spend that time.