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I am a beginner to writing, so not sure exactly how to base the book I've started to write. I want it to be a real cozy romantic book where the characters kind of live in a cobble stoned village with more of countryside feel. They attend a university which is in a historic oldish building like a smaller Cambridge/Oxford style building. I feel more comfortable making the location up but I don't know if that will be intriguing to the reader in comparison to it being a real place. None of the locations I've researched really fit. I'm not sure what to do and need some advice.

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A fictional setting is fine, many of the stories I write have entirely fictional settings.

Even a fictional town in the real world, in a real State or Country or whatever, is fine. And the movies and TV do this all the time, they call a town "Blue Valley" or whatever, which doesn't exist, but in the story has all the buildings and venues the author needs. You want a bowling alley, it has one, you want a race track, it has one, you want farms outside the town, no problem.

Heck, if you want to be close to Chicago, or within driving distance of Cambridge, feel free.

Make it up. The only thing I'd caution is, in a made up town, don't claim it is famous for something, and make sure the name doesn't already exist. All the same rules about not breaking immersion. It is easy enough to believe in your town, but not so much if you claim basketball was invented there, or Edison was born there, or whatever.

And if you set it in some State like New Mexico, or Southern California, or East Texas, do your research and make sure your story references to landscape, weather, politics, etc are consistent and believable to people familiar with that State.

You can set your fictional university town in a region where you have actually lived; so you are writing what you know about the culture, weather, landscape, politics, etc.

Keep it historically not noteworthy!

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    I chuckled at your fictional Blue Valley there is a little in joke among Action Movie writers and fans (Especially 80s action films) of the fictional nation of Val Verde, which is a small Caribbean nation (usually an island but occasionally part of the Caribbean Coast of South America or a nation south of Mexico. The name translates into "Green Valley" in almost every language in the region which helps not only with not making the bad guys part of a foreign release market, but can preserve language barriers by translating the residents into another language where the name works.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 16:41
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A real setting is fine. Lots of stories place fictional characters and events in real places. If worldbuilding isn't your thing, using a real place, especially one you know well, can give you a setting that is detailed and real

Of course you need to be careful. If you use a real place you might upset some of the real inhabitants. If, for example, you have a fictional vicar who is a liar and a crook, the real vicar might suppose you are casting aspersions.

If you use a real place in name only, that can also cause problems. If you talk about the "cobbled street leading to the Red Lion pub in Finstock", it might seem odd, since there are no cobbled streets in Finstock, and the name of the local pub is The Plough. It is usually better to take a place you know well, or at least research it properly.

If you do use a real location, this can also leave you cramped if you want some feature that the location doesn't offer. If your story requires the lovers to meet at a hotel in the village - you're stymied if there is no hotel.

But with care, a real location can help you quickly get into what really matters: your characters and the plot. Joyce didn't feel the need to create an imaginary city for Bloom to wander around, the real Dublin provided the ideal backdrop.

And there is a halfway option: using a made-up name for a place that is mostly real, or a pastiche of real places.
There are lots of examples in classic literature:from Swift's Mildendo (which is a fictionalised and fantastic forms of London) or the fictional Wuthering Heights, set in the real North Yorks moors, and possibly based on a real Hill farm.

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  • One of the most famous goofs of a real life setting is Kings Cross Station in London in the Harry Potter setting. The location for the Hogwarts Express's famous Platform 9 and three quarters being a hidden entrance in the barriers between platform 9 and 10 is impossible because not only is the barrier not there in real life, but the two Platforms are separated by their respective tracks (9 and 8 are joined as are 10 and 11). Its been attributed to Rowling thinking of another London train station where the platforms 9 and 10 are joined and confused the names and layouts.
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 19:38
  • On the other hand, many of her locations are pastiches: Little Whinging is a sterotypical London suburb, Godric's Hollow is a based on any number of west-country villages. But she still used real places (London for example)
    – James K
    Commented Oct 31, 2022 at 19:47
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    Generally I find I want something urban, I will use a real city... If I want something suburban or rural, I'll use a fictional town. The benefit of the later two is they can be as big or as small as needed.
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 1, 2022 at 11:22
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Use real, fictional or anywhere in-between.

  • You can develop the atmosphere of a real locality, for example craggy, stormy Cornish coast with isolated villages and scary moors. Note that you have to describe everything to the reader because they may have no idea what say Cornwall is like. This is relatively easy to do if you know a bit.
  • Then you can invent fictional scene settings. You have the luxury of taking some place(s) you know about, taking the bits you want, and concentrating on what matters.
  • A fun thing is using area-related issues to impact the characters. eg. "No buses on a Sunday but a nice old boy gave me a lift." Doing this connects characters to their environment to make them more real. Especially strangers who have trouble getting used to something nobody else notices.
  • Mostly what makes a place 'real' to the reader is oddity and atmosphere. Try to disguise cliches. Instead of telling us 'quaint cobbled streets' show us the noise and trouble of horses walking on the cobbles.
  • If you're worried about upsetting the inhabitants in general then mix street names from one place with landmarks of another.

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