Writing Craft

Real vs. Fictitious Settings

Today’s guest post is from our client Mindy Obenhaus. She is a three-time Carol Award nominee who writes contemporary romance. Mindy is passionate about touching readers with biblical truths in an entertaining, and sometimes adventurous, manner. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking and spending time with her grandchildren at her Texas ranch. Learn more at www.MindyObenhaus.com.



Setting is an integral part of any story. Done well, it can become another character. But choosing your setting can be a challenge. Is it a real place or one that only lives in your head?

Me? All of my books have been set in the real town of Ouray, Colorado. However, there are others who find real places too restricting. So how do you decide?

Fictitious settings are limitless, while real settings have confines.

While this is true, there are pros and cons to both.

Fictional locations still need to be created and grounded in a real sense of place. This includes landmarks, gathering places, history, dialect, and weather. What grounds your setting? Do people meet at the local coffee shop or the stable? When they want a soda, do they reach for a “pop” or a “coke?” Do shops and restaurants stay open late, or do the streets roll up at sunset? And be sure to keep notes of all of those details. Especially if you’re writing a series. You don’t want your courthouse in one location in book one and then describe it differently in book three.

In real locations, most of those things are already decided for you. However, they can also create limitations. Case in point: my setting of Ouray. It’s a tiny town with one grocery store, a hardware store, no drive-through restaurants; and nothing is open 24 hours. It’s also 30 minutes to the nearest fast-food restaurant, supercenter, home improvement store, and hospital. These are all things that need to be kept in mind while I’m writing.

Yet while these limitations may force the author to be more creative, the good news is that they can also create conflict for our characters. If a baby wakes up at midnight with a fever and there’s no Tylenol in the house, what do they do? Or if your self-reliant heroine has a flat tire on her motorcycle and needs a plug to fix it but the hardware store is all out, she may be forced to ask our hero, the one man she does not want help from, to help her out.

Create fictitious places in a real setting.

Using a real setting in your book doesn’t mean you have to be rigid. Granted, Ouray would not be Ouray if it were not enveloped by mountains. And there are a few places in town that are fixtures, but that doesn’t mean I can’t create fictitious places in and around the area. I might give an existing shop or restaurant a different name or make it a different business altogether. Mountain settings can be a combination of more than one place. Or I can create a fictitious ranch set just outside of town. The key is believability, something that also holds true for fictional settings. You can create whatever you want; but if it doesn’t hold true with the character of your setting, readers aren’t going to buy it.

Work with your setting, not against it.

Whether real or fictitious, consider what’s unique about your setting. Are there any jobs or hobbies that might grow organically out of it? What about a town’s history and the legacy left behind?

I learned this when I was writing my first book. I knew that something potentially dangerous had to happen to one of my characters. I researched diseases and ailments until I was blue in the face before I finally decided what would be wrong with them. But when I told my husband, he said, “Well, that’s silly. Why not use your setting?”

Talk about a “duh” moment. Here I was trying to contrive something when I could have that danger grow organically out of my setting, which, in the end, made a much stronger story.

Think about how you can put your setting to work for you.

Take the time to get to know your setting.

Whether your setting is real or fictitious, you owe it to yourself and your readers to learn everything you can about it. What makes it special? If it’s a real place, how do locals view things versus how visitors see them? Learn what they might do or where they might go.

Setting is an important part of any story and can be a powerful tool. With a little thought and planning of your fictitious location or research and exploration of someplace real, you can make the most of your setting, putting it to work for you in ways you might never have imagined. And in the end, your story will be better for it.


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