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

in General fiction/Promotion by

Dear Editor…

If I’m trying to make Los Angeles like a main character in my novel, can I use real names of places in Los Angeles or should I use fake names? There are some autobiographical undertones to this story and there’s a restaurant that I wanted to use. It’s been open for eight or nine decades and has multiple locations….but maybe I should give it a fictional name?

L.A. Scribe

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.

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