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.
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.