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?

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