I am writing a fantasy book based in the present day New Orleans, LA area and I was wondering how authors create real setting homes for their fictional characters. I've tried putting my fictional characters in houses I find on real estate sites, where the house is for sale but then the house is sold. So, I was wondering how to create an actual home for my characters permanently.
I'm not sure a fictional character needs a real house. Even if the address is specified, interior and even exterior details can be different. You might find particularly fanatic readers asking awkward questions (for example turning up at 221B Baker Street and saying "Show me John's room"), but even if they find differences they're likely to see that as evidence of their superior knowledge rather than a problem.
A fictional character can live in a fictional house. This can be based on a real place, or you could create a wholly fictional address and refer to real places to locate it in a specific part of town.
You could refer to a real address, but when the book becomes a bestseller the people who live there might be annoyed by visitors. I suppose a way round this is to buy the house yourself, but there are not going to be many writers who could afford that.
The idea of using a fictional address for a fictional character is well established. Coming back to the earlier example, Wikipedia tells me "At the time the Holmes stories were published, addresses in Baker Street did not go as high as 221.".
Is the exact address really relevant for the story?
Choosing a real location has several disadvantages:
- It could lead to harassment for whoever really lives there now or in the future
- It limits your storytelling. Do you need the home to be across the street of a store for fishing supplies next to an ice cream parlor for your plot to work? With a fictional location you can just decide they are there.
You can usually just describe it like "an apartment in [suburb] with view of [landmark] within walking distance of [location]". That's usually more than enough to establish the character. The "New Orleans, LA area" is huge. Even someone who lives there won't be familiar with every building there. Nobody will notice if the specific combination of details you've attributed to the location doesn't actually match any real location as long as it is conceivable that there is such a location.
All you need to make sure is that the description of the house is plausible for the setting you've chosen. For example: "He was an office clerk who lived in a house with a garden in Manhattan, New York" isn't plausible, because everyone knows there are no houses with gardens in Manhattan. Reading that will stretch everyone's suspension of disbelieve. But move that house out to Hempstead, and it becomes plausible again. Avoiding such obvious contradictions is why researching the place where your story is supposed to take place is important.
Find the city, neighborhood, and street you want. Make up a number that is not ON that street. For example, pick an address that is between two existing addresses: On each side of my street, numeric addresses progress by fours (e.g. 19,23,27 on one side, 18,22,26 on the other), so half of all numbers are unused: There is no address ending in 20 or 21 in that example, and will not ever be. There is also no address ending in 00, 01, or 02, and no final two digits greater than 45.
So in your story, everything is real but the number is fake, so nobody can visit that address.
But you can describe the street, neighborhood and city with real life as the example.
If you want inspiration on the interior or exterior of a character's home, then there's no reason you can't use homes that are for sale for inspiration. If the problem is simply that those web pages are only available while the home is actually for sale, then save the images and any other relevant details to your own computer for future reference. As long as you don't use them directly, but rather only to draw inspiration from, it's unlikely (but not impossible; IANAL) that anyone will call you out on doing so.
Alternatively, for a starting point, consider your characters. What would their dwellings probably be like? What choices would they likely make? Start with a generic outline, and add bits and pieces that fit your characters. Are they living in the woods, in an open area, or in the middle of a city? Single-family house or apartment in a large complex? Someone who lives in the countryside in a cold climate is likely to have a fireplace, and possibly a wood cooking stove, which need to go in particular places relative to the structure of the house (because they need direct attachments to the chimney). Again in cold climates and in the northern hemisphere, there are typically more windows facing the south than the north in order to catch the warmth of the sun. The rest of the home would be laid out around those things. Then consider the kinds of decoration (more or less) they'd have; is the character a bookworm who'd have every inch of every wall covered in bookcases, or are they an artist or photographer who would be having their works on display, or are they farmers who want to overlook their fields or nearby pastures, or what? Do they work from home, and if so, what kind of workplace do they have? These kinds of things will also influence the kind of home they would prefer.
And of course, no building stands forever. So no matter what you do, sooner or later it will either be torn down, or torn down and replaced with something else. It is likely to be remodeled a handful of times in the meantime, and may well get a fresh coat of paint more often than that, possibly in different colors depending on the owner's or tenant's preferences. It's very likely that nearby buildings will undergo something similar as well.
Setting a real address for a fictional character's home is at best risky, as has been discussed by others already. One way around this could be to simply place the house at, say, an intersection between roads that don't intersect, but never actually specifying an address. (Short of people who live in the neighborhood and hard-core fans who will scrutinize every detail, it's unlikely that people will realize this.) Another is to use a known invalid address, but in that case you have to make sure that it stays invalid. (For example, what would happen if a single lot is split in two? What happens when a street is elongenated?)