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The story I'm writing takes place in the USA. I have a huge problem as my protagonist is crossing states and needs to end up at a place where a lot of things have to come together. Like there need to be parks/woods all around, there needs to be a tiny place with lots of diners and some 9-13 miles away needs to come another place that has to have a rather quiet neighborhood somewhere rather close to a bigger city, it has to have a rather deep creek running through the place and needs rail tracks. And all this set in a very specific way.

Now, I've spent endless hours on google Maps and sometimes I find a place that fits good to one of these aspects, but not all of them.

But I also don't know how to create fictional places - how do I come up with a name, can I just throw in a random name? Does it matter that it would also mean that maybe railways follow a somewhat different path? I've tracked them on google maps and it's so tedious, they end in a deadend so often too. It's just really frustrating work to do.

All in all, I'm not familiar with making up places. I really don't know how to attack that or even feel okay with it. Is it really okay to make all this up, even if a railway fan would know that there are no tracks in that area?

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    You could also use a real place but change the things that don't match the story you want to tell, a kind of parallel universe approach. You are the writer, you are writing your world! Nov 14, 2022 at 9:28

4 Answers 4

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Yes, absolutely, don't worry about Railway fans.

You make places up by "pastiche". They don't have to actually exist, in fact it is better if you invent small towns and features that don't exist, so you don't offend any real people in real places.

Stephen King makes up small towns in Maine, all fictional. In fact many stories are set in Castle Rock, Maine, an entirely fictional town. Everyone in Maine knows Castle Rock is not real, but (because King grew up in Maine) it is a realistically "Maine" town, and the residents of Maine and politicians of Maine are happy and read his books. And none of them want their town singled out as the setting for all kinds of murder, mayhem, hauntings and monsters. https://screenrant.com/stephen-king-every-castle-rock-story/

Invent your towns, parks, rivers and railroads, set them someplace you know well enough to describe well, and leave it at that. When we are reading fiction we don't mind fiction.

If your setting and distances are crucial to the plot, if you must have a railroad, just make sure it is a plausible railroad line; it has (or once had) some purpose. Which you can also just make up. A gold or silver mine that's tapped out now, perhaps. Many towns were founded on rivers, for obvious trade and resource reasons. Throw in a farming town. Throw in some woods, or an abandoned mine, or a dry riverbed.

You don't have to justify this stuff in great detail, just a throwaway line or comment is enough. Give it a paragraph if that is what it needs; have one character question why it's there, and an old-timer deliver your plausible explanation.

Making it up is actually better than a real setting; even inside a real city. Authors make up streets and locations inside of New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles all the time. Specifically to avoid naming a real location and perhaps giving it negative attention.

p.s. It is also an "insurance policy", in case some atrocity or disaster occurs in a real-world place where you set your story. You don't want your fiction to be associated with something you had no control over. In your fictional town, the only atrocities and disasters are the ones you write. And if you need to, you can blow up the courthouse!

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    Most stuff you don't even have to justify with a throw away line. "The dusty city at the border of Texas and Ohio lay brooding in the afternoon heat, fenced in on one side by the mighty river, on the other side by the old railway line." You may want to make sure if Texas and Ohio share a border because probably many of your readers will know that and it's a pretty big thing, but nobody cares if there is a river or a railway line on that border, those are everywhere.
    – lidar
    Nov 12, 2022 at 22:26
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    To emphasize how typical it is for authors to make up locations, here are a few more fictional places from books you might've heard of. (1) Stanton, Kansas, the fictional town where Not Without Laughter takes place. Based on Lawrence, Kansas, the real town where Langston Hughes grew up (www2.ljworld.com/news/2002/feb/03/not_without_laughter). (2) Isla Nublar, the fictional island near Costa Rica where Jurassic Park was built. (3) Idaville, the fictional US town where Encyclopedia Brown lives.
    – Vectornaut
    Nov 13, 2022 at 20:29
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    (4) East Egg and West Egg, the fictional New York City neighborhoods where The Great Gatsby takes place. Inspired by two real neighborhoods, Great Neck and Manhasset Neck, that F. Scott Fitzgerald knew growing up (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Gatsby#Writing_and_production). (5) Green Lake, Texas, the fictional village whose history is explored in Holes.
    – Vectornaut
    Nov 13, 2022 at 20:30
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    Another famous fictional place is Arkham, Massachusetts, the setting for many HP Lovecraft stories. It's the site of the equally fictional Miskatonic University. He portrays a plausible New England environment because he is from there and did plenty of research to make sure his communities feel like old New England settlements and not Jersey Shore fishing hamlets or Alaskan oil towns. Nov 15, 2022 at 2:53
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    @DanSheppard I forgot that one; in Harry Potter, King's Cross Station is a real place, but the Platform 9 3/4 cannot exist: Platforms 9 and 10 are in a separate building from the main station and are separated by two intervening tracks. For the film, the brick roof-support arches between platforms 4 and 5 were redressed by the film crew and used to represent a brick wall that does not exist between the real platforms 9 and 10. I presume JK Rowling did this intentionally, because she did not want any children running headlong into a brick wall.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 15, 2022 at 11:12
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Here are more examples of fictional story locations.

The sitcom The Goldburgs is set in Jenkintown, PA. As far as I know there are no exterior shots of real Jenkintown buildings in any scenes.

Here is a link to a discussion of the fictional location of the fictional school attended by the Goldburg children in the show. One post mentions the palm trees seen in some exterior shots. Not very Pennsylvania looking.

https://moviechat.org/tt2712740/The-Goldbergs/5e72ccca4aa8cf5df568a490/Where-do-they-go-to-school

I am a fan of western movies and tv shows and I have often commented on the fictional geography of westerns in the pages for those westerns at that web site.

I have an idea for a story set in the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877. There were a few big battles in the war, but it fizzled out with negotiations. I expect that a lot of Americans were disappointed that it didn't end with a bang, with an Armagededon like battle where the Sioux and Cheyenne were crushed.

So in my story there will be such an armageddon like battle. In early August 1876, the army of General Terry, mostly inflanty, marched south along Rosebud Creek, while the army of General Crook, mostly cavalry, rode north along Rosebud Creek, hoping to crush the hostiles between them. But when they met, there were no Sioux, since they had moved to the east to avoid being trapped.

So I need to rearrange the geography so the Sioux can't simply ride away from the oncoming armies.

In the movie Only the Valiant (1951) based on the 1943 novel by Charles Marquis Warren, the Apaches in New Mexicon under Tucsos want to attack Fort Winston in the Jornado del Muerto Desert and massacre the soldiers and civilian refugees there. But there is a totally fictional mountain range, the Flinthead Mountains, in their way, with only one pass, which is blocked by Fort Invincible. Tucsos destroys Fort Invincible. The protagonist, Captain Lance, takes a small detail of men to the ruins of Fort Invincible to try to hold back the Apaches until reinforcments can arrive.

So I guess I can make up some imaginary geography for my story. There are the real Wolf mountains in the region and in the 1870s the imaginary Panther Mountains were believed to be in the region.

So I will have the Rosebud Creek pass through the fictional Panther Mountains in a narrow valley. General Terry's army will pass south throught the valley and meet the Sioux to the South. Outnumbered by the Sioux, Terry will retreat north to a few miles up the narrow valley, where it is narrow enough to for his men to hold the entire width against the Sioux attacks. And the Sioux will be attacking Terry's line of battle when General Crook's army arrives from the south, and so the Sioux will be too far into the canyon to avoid being trapped between Crook and Terry's men.

And that is what writers can do with their geography. They can rearrange mountains, rivers, plains, valleys, villages, cities, streets, etc. the way they want them, so long as they use fictional names for some or all of the places so that no natives of a real place will find anything to be insulted about.

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I would say it depends. The U.S. is a big place and surprisingly as you move away from the coasts. If it's a major city, you're best bet is to look at the city as they have very different characters too them (The two largest cities are sort of night and day: NYC is filled with tall sky scrapers while Los Angeles has very high rises and is mostly low-rise (The reason for this is New York City, when it was developing, had little space so built up. L.A. was essentially in a desert and had space to spread out... and it also annexed many smaller towns into it by dint of the fact that it had water that the other towns needed to grow.).

That said, there are plenty of places that would reasonably meet those characterization. Diners are everywhere in the United States (though as a whole, they tend to be more nostalgia theme restaurants evoking the mid-century modern aesthetics and cater to families and especially the family breakfast crowd more than a working class eating establishment. Most road trip dining tends to sprout up within visible distance of the main interstate or limited access highway road and tends to have a plethora of gas stations, fast-food restaurants, and hotels.

Train Tracks are common though I should point out that most trains in the Modern U.S. are going to be freight trains. Commuter rail is available, but is not all that favored. Intercity rail is typically an East Coast thing and when it the service is limited West of Chicago (During the 19th century, Travel from Chicago to points east was easily done by the Eerie Canal, so trains heading west tended to originate from Chicago. Taking the Canal East would put you in New York City, which had rail connections anywhere along the east coast. The South, which was poorly industrialized, had very few rail lines.). One major reason for the lack of intercity service is that most Railroads in the U.S. are privately owned and freight is much more lucrative to Passenger rail.

You'll have to have to do some explaining as to what you want by "Creek" which, depending on where in the world you are, means something different. In the U.K. it tends to mean "A salt or tidal marsh" while in the U.S. it's similar to a Stream or Brook (Except according to Wikipedia, in New England and Maryland, which use the U.K definition, though having grown up in Maryland, I've never heard it in that way. Generally, I've understood Stream, Creek, and Brook to be the same thing.). Generally, any of those are not navigable water ways (meaning boat traffic is not happening) and deep is relative (if there are bends to a a stream/creek/brook, you can expect depths to vary, with the deepest parts being on the outside curving of the bend, while the shallow parts are on the inside bend.). While there is no defined depth, as a general rule a stream handles more water than a creek, which in turn handles more than a brook. Generally, its assumed adults will be able to stand at any point in a creek.

You might also want to expand your search terms to include "Run" for another term (It's an archaic word for stream or river that is frequently used on the East Coast).

As for naming fictional towns, U.S. locations tend to have a wide range of names. At a state level, only 15 states have a European origin to their name, with Latin having 7 states, English and Spanish tying for second with 5 a piece, and French having three State Names.

The vast bulk of known origins are derived from local Native languages and some no one knows. Locally, names were often derived from either locations from Europe that they were named after. Take a location in Europe, stick a "New" in front of it, and there you have a name. You don't even have to add "New" as Texas has Paris. And Maryland has a "Germantown." States known for Industrial bases tend to have a lot of places named after central European towns (It helps that German is the most common ethnicity in the United States by population.).

Other locations tend to get named after geological features (Especially in the West) or people (Maryland was named for Queen Mary (yes the Bloody One. It was a Catholic colony, so they were honoring the Catholic Queen of England.), and we have Washington (the city and the state).). Nods to Christopher Columbus are common throughout the Americas (Note that in the U.S. the Second Vowel in words derived from Columbus is always "U." If it's spelt "Colombia", it's the South American nation. There are plenty of locations named either Columbus or Columbia in the U.S.). In terms of Presidents, Lincoln and Washington are generally common, though Jefferson, Reagan, and Kennedy get places named after them. Andrew Jackson might have some places named after him, but he's largely lost consideration as a noteworthy president these days. Roosevelt might have some place names as the name is shared by two different presidents and both were of different political parties, so it's easy to name something after Roosevelt and not say which Roosevelt is being honored (that said, Teddy Roosevelt tends to be less divisive among Americans as FDR, who some Republicans still have problems with. Also coincidentally, 6 of these Presidents are famous for having been shot at with various successes from the shooter (Lincoln and Kennedy died from their wounds. Reagan was joking with his surgeons, Teddy Roosevelt proceed to give a long speech prior to seeking medical treatment after being shot, and Andrew Jackson had both guns misfire after the gunman pointed them in his face and pulled the triggers... and then proceeded to beat the assassin so bad with his cane, that his body guards had to pull Jackson off of the man to save his life. You know, in case your wondering what's a POTUS got to do to get a town named after him.).

Other towns are named after professions that are at the center of the town being set up. (Towns ending with "Mill" tend to have major Mills. Company towns were also a big thing and tended to take their name from the company.

One curiosity of the Civil War was the naming of the battle fields. Many of the Battles were given different names by the Union and Confederacy. The Union (being a more Urban population) named them after the nearest geological feature, usually rivers or streams. The Confederates (being a more rural population) named them after the nearest town. (The First Battle of Bull Run and The First Battle of Manassas are names for an early Civil War Battle that took place along the Bull Run (A stream) near the town of Manassas, Virginia.).

In the South West, Califorina, Texas, and Florida tend to have names that are Spanish in origin and follow the same general rules (named for geographic features, or people, with a high degree of Catholic Saints than the rest of the U.S.).

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  • There's also Washington University, Washington (the university, how sportswriters would refer to it), George Washington University, "Washington State" and "Washington state." Nov 15, 2022 at 20:28
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Making things up gives you a freedom that can be useful, as detailed in Amadeus' answer.

On the other hand, using a real place adds a unique reality for readers who know that place.

A book that I read some time ago took place in my home town. One plot point was that one character made an anonymous phone call from a phone booth. The person called realized there was only one phone booth still operating in town so set out to stalk it.

And I knew that phone booth! Later action moved all over town and I knew most of the places. I loved that!

There are some downsides though.

The first is that you cannot change places to fit the plot. Adding a railway in a place the reader knew there isn't one would rudely tear them out of their recognition bliss and they would probably stop reading.

You would need to change the plot to fit the place. That sounds bad, but basically just means you need to decide on the place before you write.

The second is that you should know the place well. Looking up a place on Google Streetview really isn't enough. Otherwise the locals you want to please will not be pleased at all.

The third is that you have to be careful not to indicate any real people with your characters. Even if the names doesn't match, people will be quick to say "He is obviously writing about me, and calling me a murderer!" Don't go there, in fact stay far far away from any danger of that.

In the book I mentioned, there was a high-level executive in a company was rather similar to a real company. I suspect there was a person or two there who didn't feel comfortable. Nobody complained in public though.

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  • I've seen scriptwriters make up Street names in New York City that don't exist, and Subway stops that don't exist. You can set a story in a real place, and use some real settings, but have your characters live in named places within a town or city that don't exist, or on streets that don't exist, or meet at street intersections that don't exist, etc. But you still want them to be able to go to Carnegie Hall, or the Empire State Building, or go to some Studio in Los Angeles, or to stay in Napa Valley or Vegas or Dallas in some fictional hotel.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 15, 2022 at 16:57

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