How to Decide if You Should Use a Real-Life Setting in Your Story

How to Decide if You Should Use a Real-Life Setting in Your Story

If you’re a speculative author, you probably don’t give a second thought to creating settings out of thin air. We create whole planets when our stories demand them. But even authors writing within the confines of the “real world” are sometimes confronted with the choice to use an existing setting or make one up. This setting can be something as relatively minuscule as a made-up restaurant within a real town, or it could be an entire city. But the question, of course, is how do you decide when a made-up setting would be preferable, or when you should use a real-life setting in your story? And if you do utilize a made-up setting, how do you pull it off convincingly?

Ice Palace by Edna Ferber (affiliate link)

Let’s consider an example. Pulitzer-winning author Edna Ferber’s final novel Ice Palace takes place in pre-statehood Alaska in the 1950s. The real-life Alaskan setting is vital to the story’s plot. The book couldn’t conceivably have taken place anywhere else, and it’s very obvious that Ferber did her research and layered her setting with a wealth of realistic details. However, within this real-life setting, she chose to use the made-up sub-setting of the supposedly prominent city of Baranof, which she created entirely out of thin air for her own purposes.

So why did she do this—and how did she pull it off? I suspect Ferber chose to create Baranof for the same reason I created the town of Hangtree in my historical western A Man Called Outlaw. Namely, she wanted the freedom to depart from the facts wherever doing so would benefit her story.

Had she set the story in Juneau or Sitka, she would have been bound to historical fact. However, she obviously understood that for the make-believe setting to work, she had to make it just as convincing and realistic as any real-life town. She researched real Alaskan cities and composited them into her make-believe one to keep readers from ever having a reason to suspend their disbelief.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you used a real-life setting in your story—or a made-up one? Tell me in the comments!

How to Decide if You Should Use a Real-Life Setting in Your Story

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Mic Meguiar says

    It seems all your posts on the AuthorCulture site only allows access to “invited readers.” I would love to read these older posts as I find all your articles very informative. Hope you don’t mind me asking for your assistance to access them!

  2. For my novel where Jung treats Hitler. I used existing locations in Austria, including one I liked because of the name: Schattenberg. My latest book takes place largely in Zaragoza, Spain. Four others are/will be set in imaginary cities. It’s fun to make up foreign words and names.

  3. In my novel, Merry Friggin’ Christmas: An Edgy Christmas Comedy, the story takes place mostly in Manhattan and Jersey City. Some places, like the bars and clubs in Manhattan are completely fictional. But the churches were all real. When I visited St. Nicholas church in Jersey City, I discovered a mural on the side of a building that I could only have found by being there and which fit perfectly in the story.

    I took some liberties with reality to fit the plot, however. You will have to read my book and go to Jersey City to discover my sleight-of-hand. This magician is not giving up his secrets.

    I prefer to make up places to stay out of reality checks. My other novel, When the Wood Is Dry: An Edgy Catholic Thriller, takes place in an imaginary town in Northern California. It’s easier when it’s completely imaginary.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, one of the reasons I enjoy writing fantasy is that it gives me a lot more leeway with “the facts.”

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