July 20, 2020

Setting a Story in an Actual Place

DiAnn Mills        @diannmills

Setting a story in an actual place sounds like a reliable way to ensure a writer’s credibility. Readers are onboard when a writer is successful in delivering reality no matter the genre. Many of our favorite movies and TV shows are set in actual places, and the technique draws us into the film.

I remember a visit to Hawaii and watching the filming of a segment of Hawaii Five-0. My mind whirled with the sights and sounds, rooting me into the experience. Consider the number of times countries and other large cities are the focal points of books and films.

But before we climb on board the train of our favorite location and assign our characters to an address, take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of setting a story in an actual place.


  • · The writer might not the need to travel far from home or could enjoy visiting a favorite spot  while researching for a novel. He/she can take photos, recreate sensory perception, and record exactly where story events take place.

  • · The writer develops an understanding of the locale’s culture.

  • · The writer arranges interviews with real people who may have experienced a happening or career in the story.

  • · The writer envisions an unfolding story with documented research.

  • · The writer establishes believability to promote the story at publication.


  • · The writer faces criticism for staging a crime or inappropriate behavior in a setting that may damage an area’s reputation.

  • · The writer alarms residents by establishing a crime or stating a criminal resides where others may live.

  • · The writer encounters a lawsuit because an individual or a business wants payment for their contribution to the story.

  • · The writer discovers he/she is denied returning to a favorite spot because of something derogatory written.

  • · The writer may be limited by the setting to create an unforgettable story

Weaving Advantages and Disadvantages into a Powerful Story

Consider all the advantages of using an actual place as a story setting, then address the disadvantages and turn them into positives.

Avoid alarming residents or business owners of a potential crime by providing real addresses where events occur. Fictionalize an address within the real setting that eliminates any criticism.

Approach the chamber of commerce with questions about the community. Libraries are another excellent resource. The local law enforcement department, security personnel, media coordinators are your friends. If an interview is necessary, ask one of them to arrange it.

Understand the project is a work of fiction. Never use a person’s actual name unless the person is seen in a positive light. Even those persons who are nefarious need not look worse than already depicted. This applies to real places too. Stating a real business, apartment building, park, etc. is dangerous and could line up the writer for problems. An exception to this would be an act of nature.

Create an exciting story that encourages readers to visit the setting, but not chase them away. If your story involves an actual setting, use it to add credibility to your work.

What are your thoughts about using an actual setting?

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn believes every breath of life is someone’s story, so why not capture those moments and create a thrilling adventure? Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is the director of The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Conference, and the Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. 
Visit DiAnn Mills at


  1. And that's why I have fictional towns, except when I place one in my home town. But since I don't write crime stories, I'm not in the same position. lol

  2. Thanks, Ane - Right! Who wants to think a horrible crime took place next door? :)

  3. DiAnn thank you so much for your post today. I always learn so much from your post. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us.
    I can't wait to read this book, where tomorrow leads.

  4. After writing two series set in actual places (Memphis and Natchez) I'll be ready to make up a setting the next time around.:-) But there are advantages--I grew up in Memphis so I had a basic knowledge of the city, and then I loved getting to know Natchez, Mississippi. Great post.

  5. I never have a murder committed in an actual commercial establishment. One way around that, it to stick an imaginary business into the setting (and that is always noted in the front). I use both real and made-up places. The story sometimes tells you what the setting should be. Good post, thanks!