Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories
Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "How much should I reveal of my antagonist's intentions?"

Changing places: (when) should you disguise the place you're writing about?

Anxious aspiring novelists post questions on forums: Are they allowed to use a real village for their story? If they make one up, will people not like the story? Are they allowed to change the name of a street in Manchester? Are they allowed to create an extra island for Hong Kong? Regular Itch-readers won't be surprised that my first reaction is that it's not a matter of "allowing". Your story? Your rules. 

Coming at it from the reviewer's side, Stuart Kelly, in The Guardian, has also been asking why novelists disguise real locations, and it's a good question. Some answers:

- Because you don't want this story to be read narrowly as being "about" a certain place. We may map North & South's Milton onto Gaskell's Manchester, but she isn't about to let the industrialists and philanthropists of Newcastle, Birmingham and Glasgow off the hook. As Kelly says, "Places that aren't anywhere can be everywhere".

- He also suggests, "It's a kind of sly joke". As I was exploring in As My Granny Used to Say, in-jokes are fun. Those of us who know Birmingham and its University get together with David Lodge to enjoy his satirical portrait of Rummidge in Changing PlacesSmall World, and Nice Work: this is both everyone's everywhere, and our somewhere.

- It's safer to be anonymous. You can't libel a place, so this probably only applies to small communities, where you want to go on meeting your neighbour's eye, and not be shunned in the pub (although Dublin wasn't too thrilled with Joyce's picture of it, apparently). But if the real town you name has few solicitors or drama societies, the fact that your incompetent lawyer or murderous artistic director has a different name might not protect you from a libel suit. 

- You can have fun with made-up names to create connections, suit themes, or make jokes. If neither Splott nor Tiger Bay is a name to suit your story, dream up a name that is.

- It's a bit harder, with real places, to get away with putting extra docks or castles where you need them. The argument with yourself about whether you're "allowed" to do that (which is really about whether it will wreck the reader's involvement) is deeply tedious.

- For the novelist struggling to with her plot-engineering, it can be essential. Need to get by horse from Chatsworth in Derbyshire to catch a slave-ship before it leaves Liverpool? Only got two hours to spare for it without your plot falling apart? You could say, "Do they know or care in Peoria that it's seventy miles, mostly through the aptly-named Peak District? Just do it." But when you're dealing with great houses and great ports, quite a lot of people do know.

The thing is, I said "your story, your rules" but, except in speculative fiction (and even then, sometimes) we choose to set our stories in a recognisable world. Our contract with the reader is based not on the historian's principles of provable and probable, but the fictioneer's: possible and verisimilar. Anything which is impossible and un-life-like enough that a reader just can't or won't to go along with it breaks that contract. So pick up Chatsworth Hall, rename it Worthschat House, and plonk it down somewhere more convenient. Just make sure you don't assume there was a bridge over the Mersey then, where there is one now: from Hannibal at the Rubicon to Montgomery at the Maas, history has been chiefly shaped by where you could cross a river without getting drowned - or getting stuck in a traffic jam.

Obviously, "impossible" will vary from reader to reader, not just in what they do and don't know, but also in how much it affects them. Some readers will happily read a campus comedy about Russian oligarchs buying up the magnificent medieval Camford University college by college, knowing perfectly well that England has only two such universities, and this is neither; others will not - or simply cannot - suspend their disbelief for long enough to stay in the "fictional dream" created by reading as if this were true. Readers may not even notice that it's this which is making them feel restless and un-involved. They just won't pick the book up again.

So when you start inventing, changing or disguising things, you may lose as well as gain:

- You yourself may find it harder to imagine that university in its full, glorious detail, from scratch, than if you were writing the real thing. You can take a real place, of course, and just change the name, but you will still lose out on the next point:

- With real places, a name can to convey a whole lot of atmosphere, as well as geography and practicalities, without you having to solemnly build the world. Soho. SoHo, come to that. The Gorbals. The Mani. Bristol Docks. Lindisfarne. Athens. Ayers Rock. The Giudecca Canal. Windermere. And the Subway, the Metro, the Tube all have their own smell, waiting to lure the reader into signing up to the contract.

- You can work with the connotations of a real place in even more fascinating ways: think how much Death in Venice or all the other Venice books (including du Maurier's Don't Look Now, Unsworth's Stone Virgin and Donna Leon's crime novels) would lose if they were - well - not set in Venice. The reader's "Venice of the mind" is part of how the stories work on us. If you use invented places, you'll have to give the reader much more help: worldbuilding becomes part of your job.

- The "non-fiction hook" of your novel can't be the place and so, if you care about selling it, you'll have to find something else concrete and known to the reader, as an answer to, "What's this about and why will anyone want to read it?"

So where does that leave you with your decision? It's worth having a look at some of what your favourite authors change, assuming you know the ground they're writing about. If not, it can be hard to find out. As I've just written in Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction

One author saying, "I have taken some liberties with details" might mean she’s moved a real historical gunsmith’s workshop from one real street in 17th Century Padua to the next real street along; another author might say the same about having slotted an extra President in between James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and an extra battle into the American Civil War.

But in the end you're going to have to take responsibility for your own decisions. All I can really say is, it depends. Mind you, my mathematical sister might say that there's an algorithm: a formula combining a) how widely-known the real place is, b) what you want to do with it, and c) how important it is to the story. 

- There are, we'd all agree, some things you can't change. London is on the Thames. Australia is in the southern hemisphere. There is no mountain in the Rockies as high as Mount Everest. Start changing those and you're heading towards Speculative Fiction.

- There are, we'd all agree, some things you can change: very few people who know that a novel is fiction will balk at a fictitious street in a real city, or a fictitious village, even in a county they know. You then have the choice of picking a real village, re-naming it, and tweaking it if you need to, or opening up a mental space in the county and building a new village there. Most of us actually do a bit of both, depending on the needs of the story. Mind you, just as basing a story-house on a real house means you go on remembering if you can see the spare-room door from the top of the stairs (useful for those alibi-busting climaxes), deciding where on a real map your fictional factory sits will help with getting travel times, points of the compass and angles of the sun consistent.

- It's the in-between things which are trickier. Do you invent a new London Borough or a new canal in St Petersburg? Do you rename Ullswater, or Kanchenjunga? I can't tell you, sorry. But I hope that you do now have a few more ways to think about it.