The Shining Ones · Writing

Tweaking Reality: Should you rename locations in your novel?

Last time we looked at the art of morphing the reality of real locations to suit your story. Sometimes reality gets in the way and it’s easier to make stuff up. Creating fictional locations means you can ignore the facts and get on with the business of telling the story – which is the whole point, after all.

But what happens if you want to use a real location and make significant changes? Too much deviation from reality could annoy your readers and pull them out of the story. Or perhaps you want to use a real location but in a negative way. You don’t want to upset the locals or the owners of a business and end up getting sued for defamation.

Writers usually get around this by including a disclaimer at the start of a book – more of a statement of the obvious. Here’s mine:

“This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events, or to real persons, living or dead (or imaginary), is purely coincidental.”

Still, it pays to be careful. There are several locations in my novel that I’ve based on real places, and I’ve either changed the name or not mentioned it. People familiar with these places would probably be able to work out where they are, and that’s why you have the disclaimer.

For example, two of the characters in The Shining Ones live at the top of a high rise in Byker. I chose Grafton House as the perfect spot. But that block doesn’t have balconies – and I needed a balcony.

Grafton House, balcony free zone

I could have found a different block of flats, but it needed to be in Byker and in a place with views over the entire city. To deal with the problem I renamed the building Albion Court and gave it balconies.

The real building also has a bench outside the front entrance, which I needed for Ethne to sit on, but there’s no burnt out car. And there are no barricades blocking the surrounding roads either. At least, not yet!

The bench where Ethne sits after getting herself knocked out in a fight…

Nobody is likely to get annoyed with me adding balconies to a block of flats, so I might have got away with not renaming the building. But there is one location in the book that I had to rename because bad things happen there and I didn’t want to cause problems for myself or the owners of the building concerned.

I needed a secret location for my genetics laboratory where the questionable activities take place. It had to be somewhere in the north-east and it had to be a castle. There are loads of old castles dotted around this area, many of them in ruins, so it wasn’t too hard to find the perfect candidate.

This is where we run into spoiler territory so I have to be careful what I say. Anyone familiar with the area would be able to work out exactly where the castle is based on the context in the story, even though I renamed it. You could probably identify it just using a map.

So it wasn’t enough to just change the name of the building. I also changed the name of the owner of the castle and haven’t included any of its real history – which is a shame because it’s quite interesting. I’d love to be able to tell you more and show you a picture, but…you’ll just have to read the book and figure it out for yourself!

There’s another well-known and easily identifiable location in the book. It’s not used in a negative way, but even so, I didn’t use its name. I needed a remote cottage somewhere in Northumberland. Again, there are loads to choose from, but I needed one that overlooked the sea facing east. The obvious choice was this:

My not so secret secluded cottage in Northumberland

Although I didn’t name the cottage in the book, the description makes it clear exactly where it is:

“The secluded cottage was nestled behind a grass bank and overlooked slabs of craggy rocks that tilted into the sea. A cove of sand curved to the south, while to the north, the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle blurred into the sky with the gathering storm. Waves exploded over the rocks, hailing spray against the low wall running around the front of the cottage. The chimney pots stood stark against the smudge of dusk, like tank gun barrels aimed straight up in a standoff with God.”

No prizes for guessing this is the Bathing House in Howick, built by Earl Grey – he of the tea – so his kids could go swimming. It’s available as a holiday cottage for hire now. The reality in the book is quite different but it shouldn’t cause any problems. Unless the owners take issue with a pigeon spraying rainwater over the curtains just before morphing into human form…

Finally, you might want to make up a name because it fits better with your story, perhaps on a symbolic level. For example, there’s one name I changed because I didn’t want the book to be connected with the real life location.

When I first wrote the story, I made up a café called The Happy Chip. I didn’t bother to check whether it was a real place, I just picked the first name that came into my head. Obviously, that was a problem because somebody else had had the same idea.

Later, when I was double checking the manuscript, I looked it up, and sure enough – there’s a real Happy Chip in Newcastle. Unfortunately it also has a dodgy reputation so I didn’t want to use it in my story. I didn’t think Ethne would go to such an establishment for her breakfast. So I changed the name of the café to The Broken Cup.

This name was better, not just because there’s no Broken Cup café in Newcastle, but because it works on a symbolic level too. There are gnostic themes in the book and the idea of a broken cup links to the Breaking of the Vessels in the Kabbalah. More on that another time.

In the meantime, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!

Image: Bathing House

2 thoughts on “Tweaking Reality: Should you rename locations in your novel?

  1. Very interesting, Jes. I expect you know Virginia Woolf changed the location of places and the names of real people she wrote about. But she did it in a kind of odd way – the Isle of Skye for Cornwall and so on.

    Liked by 1 person


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