Why would novelists want to disguise their locations?

One of the great things about writing contemporary or near-contemporary fiction is that if you want to write about a real place you can probably either visit it in person or check it out on the internet. The disadvantage is, that if you can check a place out so can your readers.

Google Maps is a great invention for the novelist as it allows you to visit practically anywhere in the world remotely without leaving your desk. As David Nicholls wrote in The Guardian in May, it takes only a few clicks of a mouse to get inside a railway station or to visit a street. Need to know the train times? Check out the online timetables. Need to know what a street actually looks like? Position yourself on Google Maps and turn the street view. Need to know the distance between one town and the next? You no longer have to drive it because you can use a website to calculate the distance for you. Why experience a road or train journey when someone else has probably done the trip, made a video and put it up on Youtube?

The problem is that if you the novelist can do you research on line, your readers can check your facts online as well. Get a detail wrong and some pedant out there will be itching to let you know either via your social media pages or your friendly online bookseller.

A novelist might want to disguise the location of their work for the above reason. If the author invents a place or is not too specific as to the wherabouts they they have more flexibility in their descriptions. It does not really matter than bus 22 does not go along the High Street but actually goes on the road behind. It is the author’s world and not the real world.

Emma Darwin in This Itch of Writing gives a few answers such as it is fun making up new places, it is safer to be anonymous and you can play around with timelines and distances. Disguising a location or inventing a location gives the location back to the novelist – they own it because it is their world. In a novelists world a pub and a launderette can sit side by side because that is the world the novelist wants the story to inhabit.

However, there are some downsides to changing place names and creating new places. One is that a name conjurs up memories and associations. I set my novel “Living with the Enemy” in Riga precisely because I have places and events I associate with the city. Had a created a city of my own with the same events the story might have lost some of its power because the city and its history is part of the story. Similarly, my new novel is set in Tallinn precisely because anyone who has been there will recognise the places and may know the stories behind them. I can describe the streets in great detail but if the reader has been they will have the experience to match the description.

Emma Darwin suggests the posibility of using real places and real maps but placing fictional places on them as a solution. This is great if you want to use a real place because you have a mental image of it but want to make the place work for you. In my book “Jam, Jerusalem and Java” the village I have set the story in is real but since I have given it a fictituous name I have felt happy adding shops and creating events which do not actually happen there as well as using locations and events which do.

On the question as to whether it is worth visiting the place where your novel is set, for me the answer is YES! I spent an entire day last summer travelling the road from Tallinn to Narva just so I could experience the journey and the places. My Narva and my Tallinn may have fictional places in them but the rest of the descriptions are of true places (sometimes renamed). I feel more confident writing about them because I know them and have a confidence I would not have had I just researched the trip on the Internet.