There is a long tradition of placing fictional locations in novels that are otherwise realistic. This has been done across a wide range of genres. Towns, lakes, mountains have been created and dropped into areas that are otherwise real. Even countries, such as the Graustark of ‘The Prisoner of Zenda.’ There are — as with most things — advantages and drawbacks to this.
The greatest drawback is that the places are obviously unreal (unless they are recognizable as actual spots that have been renamed and disguised). This can strain belief for some readers. But then, the characters are not real people, as well, so why shouldn’t locations be the same? I have littered the Florida of my fiction with towns and such that do not actually exist. Many, admittedly, are based (however loosely) on real places. You are not going to find Cully Beach or Tamarind on any map. This was done primarily to give me some leeway in depicting the characters who live in those places.
I was faced with a decision on this sort of thing in my latest, “The Dictator’s Children” (out in May). Although I strove for authenticity through most of the novel, depicting Florida and Cuba in 1948, I chose to create a completely fictional Central American nation as the origin of the deposed (and dead) dictator of the title. If I had placed him in a real country it would have been historically inaccurate. Does this make the whole thing less realistic? Yes, of course it does — but it serves the story.
I do not actually name the nation in the book, though the capital city, ‘Montellano,’ pops up in a few places. The description of the countryside is fairly generic Central American; there are resemblances to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras. But it is none of these. Naturally, I did name it in my notes, even if I did not share that name. It is a good writing practice to know such things.
This was a major decision because it affects any future novels featuring my ‘Wilk’ protagonist, a Polish ex-pat who adventures through the Twentieth Century. Most of the projects I have envisioned for him are grounded in historical fact, but now I feel less need to set them amid completely real locations and events. I am aiming for authenticity, not historical accuracy.
So Montellano exists in the temperate central plateau of my fictional nation, and Wilk does visit the city, drinks the fine coffee grown in the lands that lie around it, visits the mines in the surrounding mountains. I have striven to make it as real a fictional location as possible, just as I would in my fantasy novels. I shall leave it to my readers to believe or disbelieve.