The Danger In Place Names

Reality is part of what makes good fiction work. From literature of place to a post-apocalyptic view of a well known city, those little details can be part of what really drives a piece of fiction home.

Or... it can be what completely pulls the reader out.

I was recently reading a book set in Ohio, my stomping grounds. I've been here my whole life, and while I can't say I know everything about it, I do know what kinds of trees are here, what wildlife you can expect in certain parts of the state - and also what simply wouldn't be there. I know the lay of the land - literally. From the Appachian foothills in the south to the flat plains in my part of the state, I have a pretty good general idea of what Ohio looks like, where.

So when the character in the book I was reading encountered a toll road in a part of the state where there simply isn't one (it's not hard to spot - there's only one), I was completely taken out the book. Was there a toll road I didn't know about?

A quick Google search told me that no, there wasn't. And while I can't claim that it ruined the book for me (it certainly didn't), what it did do was put a speed bump in my way. I was jolted right out of the story, the narrative was broken, the fictional world I'd invested in shattered based on a simple mistake.

And that's what it is - an easy, simple mistake. I've made more than a few in my own books, so I'm not faulting the author. What I did take from this experience was the solidifying of something I've suspected for a long time... it's just easier to make shit up.

I usually set my novels in fictional towns, the generalities are covered - regional area, state, etc. - but I tend to avoid specifically stating a town or city where my characters are... and this is exactly why. I want my readers to stay invested in the world I've built around them, which is a fictional one. When what I'm trying to paint for them doesn't jive with what they know as fact, it throws a wrench in the very tenuous spell that fiction weaves.

This is personal opinion, and there are great - and true - arguments for using real settings in your fiction. If that's what you prefer to write, I completely support that.

Just make sure you know where the toll roads are.