Can You Write About Real Places?

Recently I’ve been seeing emails where the topic is the following question: Can I Use Real Places?

The answers (as they should be) have been “Yes,” “No,” and “It depends.” It depends on what real places (Disney is very protective of its Trademark and anything to do with its products or theme parks.) and what happens in those real places. (McDonalds is not going to look favorably on a shootout in one of its restaurants—even though it happened once—or a patron dying after taking a bite of a Big Mac.)

That said, unless you are writing a story where everything is fictional (setting and time period), chances are your characters are going to see/think/or travel to some place that we, as readers, are familiar with. In fact, often it’s the familiar objects and references in a story that make readers “believe” the story is real.

Giving the appearance in a story that the characters are living and moving about in a real world, similar to what we know, is known as Verisimilitude.

I like that word. It almost sounds like its definition. Very similar to.

(ver i si mil i tude, noun 1. The appearance of being true or real. “The detail gives the novel some verisimilitude.” synonyms: realism, believability, plausibility, authenticity, credibility, lifelikeness.

In May of 2013 I wrote a blog on verisimilitude. http://marissoule.com/verisimilitude/ In that blog I give several examples of how adding detail to your writing can help make it come alive.

In all of my romances, mysteries, and suspense novels I have included real towns and cities, along with real hospitals, businesses, and restaurants. In each case the reference was casual and nothing terrible happened in those locations. In my suspense (ECHOES OF TERROR) being released by FiveStar/Gale/Cengage next March, I mention several real RV camps, restaurants, and shops around Skagway, Alaska, and several scenes take place in the police department. (Which I was allowed to tour while there.)

FiveStar’s contract department has an excellent form for helping an author know what can be included without written permission and what can’t. Here are some examples:

Using names of real public places. If owned by an individual and not necessarily owned by the town, government, etc, you must have written permission to involve them in a plot that would impact them in a negative way.
Use of a name of a public place, even though it isn’t a business, may require permission. Many tourist attractions are businesses so they’re not always free to use as a part of the story line just because they’re open to the public. Check before you use it.
Permission isn’t needed to include bodies of water, states, countries, bridges, train stations, airports, city or state parks, city or state beaches, or highways that are major throughways that no one lives on like Interstate Routes.
Mentioning the name of a real business place in passing is okay to use without permission, as long as it’s not portrayed in a false or negative light.
Don’t try loosely disguising names, products or companies. If it’s obvious which business you’re referring to, it can still lead to a law suit. (And make sure you check to see if that fictitious business name you created isn’t attached to a real business somewhere.)

I knew a couple who put together a cute book of photos of their dog on a Harley Davidson in front of different scenic locations. I warned them not to publish it without getting permission from Harley Davidson. Sadly, Harley Davidson refused permission. Could they have published it without asking and gotten away with it? Nowadays, I doubt it.

Save yourselves some grief. If you plan on using a real business or anything that’s trademarked as more than a passing mention in your book, make sure you get permission first. Otherwise, come up with a fictitious name.

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16 Responses to Can You Write About Real Places?

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    Very good blog. I know that I have used my hometown in my books and even some places but I did change the names.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Most of the readers of my “Crow” books who live around Climax, Michigan, know Climax is the model for Zenith. But by using a fictitious name, I can move businesses and streets around without upsetting everyone.

  2. Enid says:

    You can use Dville or Woodland anytime…I give my permission! By the way, check out our local Woodland Stroll Through History. Some lovely homes open this year, as usual. Dville is having an enormous …for there…brew fest in a week. Wish you were closer…….

  3. As usual, what you have written is very helpful. Thanks so much.

  4. ann bennett says:

    Such a shame about the dog and Harley pictures, that is something new I have just learned.
    I’m making up locales. I have been drawing a map for some of them more to keep it straight for when I pause and then continue with the project.
    Film folks look at it as an opportunity for product placement fees. It is a shame writers can’t do that too. Especially since everything seems stacked against them getting paid for their work.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Good comment, Ann. I was rather surprised the Harley company refused to give permission. They were nice pictures. Nothing negative, unless they felt the dog wasn’t macho enough for their product. And maybe if the couple had approached the company first something could have been worked out. Who knows.

  5. Terry Odell says:

    I had to fight with Five Star to be allowed to have my characters stop at Denny’s for a cup of coffee. By naming that easily recognized chain, one word takes care of lots of unnecessary description. I had to ask Denny’s for permission (and they laughed that I would take the time, but were pleased to allow it.) I also had to get permission to mention Knob Creek bourbon in a scene. Other issues arose because their legal department doesn’t’ know enough about what their authors are writing about. They wanted me to explain what a Glock was, but I think most mystery readers know (or could tell from context.)

    I’m publishing indie now, but my editor (who was with Five Star) will still flag things she thinks might create problems.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Terry, I also have had to change the names of places I’ve used in my Five Star mysteries. What surprised me was when they didn’t say anything when I had a character pick up some Bell’s beer. I have a feeling, at least at the time, that the contract department (in Maine) didn’t know how popular Bell’s beer is here in Michigan or they might have asked me to get permission. Since my son is friends with the owner of the company, I wasn’t too worried, and I did send them a copy of the book so they wouldn’t be taken by surprise if someone mentioned it. (No one ever said anything.)

  6. Carole Price says:

    In my Shakespeare series I use an interview room in the Livermore police station (real place). With the permission of the police chief and a letter from city hall attorney (I sent to Five Star) I had permission as long as I didn’t say anything derogatory about the department or city.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      That’s interesting, Carole. For the second book in my P.J. Benson Mystery series (As the Crow Flies) I was lucky to have a friend working for Kalamazoo Public Safety. She arranged for me to have an interview with two detectives who helped explain how a senile elderly person of interest would be interviewed. They even took me on a tour of the interview room and the viewing room. Five Star never requested any permission slip. I did thank the detectives for their help in the acknowledgment.

  7. Lucy Kubash says:

    I almost always make up towns and the names of businesses, although they are set in specific places (the Grand Tetons, Smoky Mountains, western Michigan). I just feel safer using fictitious names, plus then if I do want to have a fight scene in the bar, I don’t have to worry I’ve affended anyone. I also like that word, verisimilitude!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      I agree, Lucy. If you’re going to have a fight or anything that a business might construe as negative, it’s best to make that business or location fictitious.

  8. I also had to be careful for Five Star, changing names that it wasn’t really necessary to change.

    Your advice is sound and helpful.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Jacqueline. Yes, I must agree. Five Star has been really picky about business names, but I remember with one of my Silhouette romances I wanted to use Oprah Winfrey’s name. My editor told me to change the name, that Oprah had more money and lawyers than I had. So I changed the name.