When Is It Wrong to Use Real Place Names in Fiction?


Dear L.A. Scribe…
In most cases, real-name it. With public spaces like parks or neighborhoods, landmarks like The Beverly Hills Hotel, chains like Starbucks, getting real is a must-do when setting is essentially a character. I’m less gung-ho about real-naming small businesses or other more personal places if the setting involves uncomfortable fictional circumstances. A fictional assault in Starbucks is one thing; it’s very different in John Smith’s muffler shop. I worry about the impact on the people involved with those places. It seems invasive. Legally it’s unlikely there’ll be an issue, but fake names protect the innocent, as the saying goes. Do consider: While small places make for rich detail, they can be transitory, which dates a book. Are fake places wrong for your story? Then relocate to places you can comfortably real-name. The restaurant you cite sounds landmark enough, but why not ask? The owners will probably love having their place in a book. Advertising for them, promo event possibilities for you, fun for all!

Happy writing!
The Editor


  1. Fascinating topic!

    Many years ago I remember hearing an author tell how she asked QFC (grocery in Seattle) if she could use their name. Because her character was investigating a murdered body found in their dumpster, they said no.

    • Robert Crais writes tons of mysteries based in LA. People who grew up in that area love seeing these place (large and small) mentioned. The thing is, if you use a place (city) you have to be super accurate or the folks there will call you out.

      • For many readers, it’s great fun to see a place you know in a story, and then accuracy surely matters. I’ve just finished reading a story set in my home city that includes scenes at my rival high school. Fun!

    • I believe that. Just the idea of such a scenario set in your store can be unsettling. Others might find it fun to have their store be a part of a murder whodunit.

  2. What if you use names of actual ancient locations for a fictional world, even though the actual real-world location has nothing to do with the fictional one? For example, The Great Pyramids name is used, but they are not real world pyramids, and the entire setting of the story is obvious fiction/fantasy.

    • I don’t see a problem with that within a fictional setting. Presumably the alteration will make sense within the logic of that fictional world you’ve created.

    • Absolutely. (And now I’m imagining what fun you could have setting a scene at Big Ben. It’s an amazing location for all kinds of great stories.)

  3. Dear editor,
    Can people sue if names closely resembling their names and the names of places are used in a fictional setting imagining that they are the ones being written about? Thanks!

  4. I am wondering if location like hospitals, funeral homes, things like there is there a liability in using real names? or is it better to make up your own, even though you are writing on factual events.

    • While hospitals are private institutions, they aren’t likely to be problematic as named settings in fiction. If it’s a factual event, their participation is part of official public record — but they are in their rights to litigate what they might feel is undue negative portrayal. That would be something to consult a publishing attorney about. Understand that anyone can sue, causing an author to spend money on legal defense, even if the case doesn’t appear strong to you. You must decide if you want to take that chance, consulting attorneys as needed.

  5. I am writing a novel about a women who opened her home to servicemen during World War 2. She had both American and British pilots who were training here. I am using letters written by those servicemen to her over the length of the war. Can I use real names of the characters in telling this story? The letters were donated to the local historical society and are available for anyone to read, so I assume they are public “property.” I want to use everyone’s real names. Is this legal?

    • Assuming seems a risky path with this particular case. They are private people… yet their letters are in a public library… did the writers donate the letters to the library or did the recipients, which could matter…. Too many questions/details that might matter in a big way. I’d check with a publishing attorney on this one. Remember that anyone can sue even if they don’t ultimately have a case, and that would put you through time, money, and stress no matter the outcome. Spending some money up front to get legal weigh-in could give you peace of mind, at the least, or protect you in a bigger way in a worst case scenario.

  6. What about things like Fire Stations?
    I’d like to put my fire fighter hero in a specific Boston Fire station (Engine 33/Ladder 15). Not using the fire station or its crew in any disparaging light.
    That said, “up for interpretation” I guess is the sexual orientation of a character…If I have a gay fire fighter at that station… am I up for some trouble?

  7. I’d like to use a fictional version of a real communications center in a real city. Some of the police precincts and fire companies would be real, but not the focus of the plot. Nobody is portrayed in a bad way, but I know of some cities pursuing people using police and fire logos on tee shirts and such. Is it okay to use real police and fire departments?

  8. In my novel I’ve mentioned a drive thru called ‘Fried Chicken Shack,’ where the protagonist makes a derogatory remark about his meal. I’ve researched the business name and there are many restaurants and takeaways using the name ‘Chicken Shack,’ so I’m assuming that I can get away with this as it’s not referring to any business in particular. However, I’m a little concerned that the larger restaurant chain called ‘Chicken Shack,’ based in the USA might see it as identifying one of their own restaurants. I can’t see a business anywhere specifically called ‘Fried Chicken Shack,’ but some advice might be useful before I go to publish. I live in the UK and the novel is set in the UK, by the way, although I’m not sure if that makes any difference. Thanks

  9. What if I was to reference a fictitious name who once played high level sport for a real and still active team, but has now through misfortune, turned to criminal behaviour of the worst level. What are the obligations to the team he played for?

    • “What are the obligations to the team he played for?” Do you mean YOUR obligations to the real-life team? Hmm, “criminal behavior of the worst sort” sounds like it could be perceived by a real-life team as a negative portrayal of their brand, and professional teams are very brand conscious. I can conceive of a large entity that already has legal representation initiating some some kind of cease and desist action, or object in some other way that would be a headache for you. Could be worth your time and money to consult with an attorney who specializes in literary/copyright law to gauge the risk of that story choice.

  10. Dear Editor,
    I am writing a novel set in Scotland and wanted to create a fictional town called Oban or Logan (close to a water fall). However, both are already existing towns in Scotland. Would it be okay to use the name Logan Falls, there is an existing town but not in Scotland in Pennsylvania, US?

    • I think Logan Falls sounds like a great idea. I wouldn’t worry about the Pennsylvania town — it’s a world away from your Scotland setting. Also, it seems to me that there’s a bonus for you in the fact that there is a Logan, Scotland: That means Logan Falls will have a Scottish ring to it. Wishing you great success with your story.

  11. I am currently staying at the Village at Palisades/Tahoe and wanted to used this place as part of the setting in my thriller. A character would be kidnapped from the ski slopes on Palisades/Tahoe or if that is not a good idea, I could make it somewhere nearby. I’d rather use the ski slopes though. Do you think it would be okay?

  12. I have a multitude of questions regarding this particular topic. My story is a mess and I want to recreate a real world- one that is mostly extinct- NYC in the 1970s, particularly the gay community in which my second character would be deeply immersed. I don’t want my story to be another “Dancer In the Dance” which seemed to exist to chronicle the every day lifestyle of gay men living in NY at that time. My story isn’t about the history of Brooklyn or the city, etc. For most of my writing I got used to just referring in general terms to everything but basing where the scenes are set on real places or inspired by the real ones i know about- collectively. This is mostly due to not having lived it and not necessarily knowing the historically “accurate”. I have been learning a lot of the years but still shy away from having my character(s) in real bars and stuff that actually existed- where people who were there and remember would easily be able to cross check if they read my story. They would have known the bartenders and staff and the crowds on different nights and stuff. I don’t and don’t necessarily need to know because these details don’t impact my story BUT in a situation where I wanted to plug in some factual location that had existed would it be OK to mention actual names of people who had worked there? Like I thought in the series The Deuce (and my story predates this series by about 20 years and it feels like many of my ideas were borrowed somehow…) they have a character who is an actor who is in a legendary early gay film called Boys In the Sand. Obviously this is a fictitious character who did not really appear on this real life film’s cast so I feel like this is such a gray area. Just like Titanic how the characters were fictional yet they included real life people who had been on the ship. What if I had my character be friends with a fictional bartender at a real life bar where this person never really existed or worked at? Is there any issue with using businesses that are closed? My main character is from Brooklyn and in his backstory his aunt and uncle had owned a small neighborhood delicatessen/luncheonette. I know the general history of the city and there were tons and tons of these and when I read a bio of a woman whose family had owned one, there was a fire in the building that one of the tenants upstairs caused- the building burned down and at that point the family decided to retire rather than rebuilding or reopening elsewhere. This works perfectly with the chronology of my character’s life and how he ends up “stuck” in the inner city after most of his family leaves. I would be concerned in using this scenario as inspiration for the fictitious location what if someone from that family read my story and considered the similarity? Lastly- housing. I never specify a real life location for my characters. I picture their imaginary homes in my head but they are made-up generic locations. I feel more and more driven to give my gay character a real address but his apartment in the city is also made up and based on imagination although i have since discovered real life places that closely resemble his and anyone reading the story might think I am copying off at least one notable person’s home in that part of the city but I created his residence from imagination. It just happened to be frighteningly on par. I have included through the story letters the two characters write back and forth and this is where it gets tricky because letters include addresses. I could make up an address but it would be easy to fact check and be like this place never existed at that location. That and phone numbers are hard, too. How do you deal with fictional phone numbers? These can be cited very often in real life dialogue– either getting into a cab and giving directions or whatever. I want to cite so many real life places that existed. A local ski slope that no longer exists… a couples resort in the Poconos that was well known but no longer there… etc. My characters often spend time at “the diner” and I have recently learned of a couple well known places that fit the profile of a place they would go. Do I use the real name or make one up? Etc etc.

  13. Dear editor, I am writing a contemporary romance novel. Should I mention where the story takes place or just add setting details as I go?

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