real names in fiction

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


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