I am writing a thriller novel set in St. Louis a lot of the important scenes occur at a university. I am familiar with the city because I live close to it but I don't think I know enough about the university of St. Louis (Or any of the other Universities in St. Louis) in particular to use it as the actual setting and I already know also some of the parking rules and housing arrangements don't fit with the plot as it would impede some of the events from happening. I am a stickler for details and god forbid my details being off ruin it for some one who actually knows the university on more than a superficial level. I am contemplating either keeping SLU's location and pasting a university of my creation in the void or carving out a place for a fictional university with in the city. Which method do you think would be the most satisfying fictional arrangement for a reader who actually lives in St. Louis? I'm just looking for some helpful thoughts.

  • I'm adding a fictional university of my own devising loosely based on my experiences of real universities because a) I want to be able to deviate from reality as I want and b) it's probably simpler from a legal standpoint than writing about a real place
    – GordonM
    Aug 11, 2017 at 10:50

7 Answers 7


My opinion is that it's better not to invent new things unless you need them for your story.

For a thriller genre, as I understand, it is important to be anchored in reality, and the more real places and names you use, the better.

Look at Dan Brown, for example. He takes the most prominent landmarks and adds a layer of fiction to them. And he takes a lot of liberty to "redesign" existing buildings and whole cities that it would create a better story. And, in my opinion, this works. Some people, who are familiar with settings, may scoff: "Of course there is no secret passage there!". But most readers would be more like: "Oh my gosh, there is a secret passage there!"

If Dan Brown invented fictional Louvre, or fictional Vatican for his books, that would have been a completely different stories. I daresay those books might not be selling at all. But by carefully mixing facts and fiction, he achieved a major success.


All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. So sayeth the Bard, and he should know.

No story is set in a real place. It is set on a stage created by the author, a stage designed carefully for the convenience of the author's plot. It may share names and physical features with some real place, but no real place is ever entirely convenient for telling the story that the author wants to tell.

It the real university in the real town on which you have based the details of your stage had parking regulations that are inconvenient for your plot, then give your stage university the parking regulations you need.

Is it possible that that detail will ruin you story for some particularly anal employee of the University of St. Louis parking patrol? Maybe, though if it is a good story they will probably soldier on anyway. But the vast majority of your reader (if you write a book that is good enough to get a vast number of readers) will tacitly understand that your stage is not the real city or the real university, and, in any case, will not have the USL parking regulations in the front of their minds when they are reading your book.

If it really bugs you, though, you can do what some historical novelists do when they combine two naval battles into one or put their hero's division in the thick of two different battles when the real division was present at neither: you write a confessional end note for your book that outlines exactly where you have transgressed. This will blunt the teeth of the anal SLU parking patrol person and salve your own conscience.


If you replace the real university with your own creation, a reader who knows the city is likely to treat it as a fictional "facade" of the real uni. They may fill in the gaps in your descriptions with what they know about the place, not just as regards the geography of the place, but its organization, status, ideals etc. They may also think you are making a "disclaimer" against being associated with the institution, for example as protection against accusations of libel.

If this is an effect you are happy with, and sticking true to the topography of the city is important to you, such a method would work.

If, however, you would like to create the university from scratch and avoid any associations with the existing school, it would be better to locate it somewhere else in the city. Just remember, that such associations are likely to go well beyond the geographical/architectural.


In say, a historical novel, you insert fictitious characters into real life events. A similar dynamic is at work here; you can insert fictitious "settings" into real life places.

St. Louis is a "place," and a real life one at that. Nevertheless, it will have numerous amenities, restaurants, athletic facilities, universities, and the like.

Some of these kinds of amenities will be "settings" for your novel. Your characters will be fictitious. You need to create the best settings for your characters. You could use "real" ones, but if you don't know them well enough, they will not be the best. So create fictitious ones that you know well because your characters deserve the best. Just make sure that these settings are typical of St. Louis; unless you are dealing with a transplanted New York deli, don't have it serve bagels, New York style.


I get that way myself sometimes. I think we all do. I once used a building throughout the whole book, only to discover that my character lived on the tenth floor and most of the tale took place on the ninth and tenth floors of a build that was only eight stories high. I considered tossing the entire book and starting on something new. But then I decided if anybody noticed, they could email me and I would explain how the top two floors fell off in a tornado a few years ago. I could even feign surprise that he hadn't heard about it on the news.


I'd replace the existing university myself it gives you a solid location but you can set your own rules.

  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review Jul 31, 2017 at 10:18
  • @LaurenIpsum How does it not answer the question? The Question is would it be better to A. keep the location of SLU and put in a fictional university or B. carve out a space in the city for a new fictional university. I've said A.
    – Ash
    Jul 31, 2017 at 12:47

I'd say who cares beyond the University students and staff. Most fictions fudge it somehow. I would say it matters if and only if the building in question is instantly recognizable to a general audience. I was once writing a scene that had a chase sequence through the White House grounds and I had a floor of the building in the window next to my word processor, but that's my exception and I only did it because its so Iconic if I got it wrong, someone would point it out. I'm a stickler for details too, but I've found even with fictional places, the location in my head will look nothing like the one in the film.

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