IS YOUR PLACE SETTING REAL? SITES/LOCATIONS
It’s one thing to write about a city or a country. You can be vague or specific, depending on how much detail you want to dazzle your readers with. Nobody can sue you for that. However, when you start delving into specific sites or locations, step carefully. The big reason I bring this up is two words: Private property!
The one glaring example that has affected me personally is in my upcoming novel (someday), Palmdale Gold. The story revolves around a sag pond that sits in the rift zone of the San Andreas fault. Because this pond has never dried up and is deeper than it should be for its size, it has been called bottomless. Over the decades, many legends and fantastic stories have emerged about this bottomless lake. Along with it is a wealth of science and reality. I couldn’t help but be intrigued with it. Since I grew up in Palmdale, these stories and my personal fear of the lake when I was a little kid were fertile ground for what was to become the third novel in my Gold series.
Things hummed right along as I wrote my novel until it came time to add in the reality. All of my big dreams along with my super-fantastic story came to a screeching halt when I discovered the lake was privately owned. The hours-upon-hours of reconnaissance and interviews (not to mention all that writing) could have been for nothing, but I wasn’t going to give up such a great story idea that easy.
During my research, I became friends with the caretaker of the lake and he put me in contact with the owner. I called him and we talked about my novel. I asked if I could use it in the story. Unfortunately, he was not comfortable with it as he did not want the lake publicized. I can understand that. It’s a good thing I asked. If I had used the real lake without checking the facts, I could have opened myself up for lawsuits and a lot of grief. Did that stop me from finishing Palmdale Gold? NOT! I changed the name and location of the lake to a piece of public land where I couldn’t be sued. Simple. Unless the reader actually lives in Palmdale, they would never know the difference. Palmdale residents will have to suffice with a disclaimer at the beginning of the book. My real hope is that the lake will be bought by a conservancy organization and made public land. If that happens, I can relocate and rename the lake the way it should be.
On a more minor note, in my first adventure/thriller novel, Lusitania Gold, Detach (the hero of the Gold series) and his crew dive on the wreck of the luxury liner Lusitania, sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland on May 7, 1915. The problem with this one is not that the liner itself is privately owned, but the salvage rights to it are. An American named Greg Beemis from Colorado owns the salvage rights. Because of how the plot goes, though Detach and the crew are going to attempt to steal something from the ship, they never remove anything from the wreck located at that spot. As far as permissions in the story line, I keep that all vague.
If you are going to use a real place setting, check first! If it’s a hotel, it is, of course, privately owned. You must go through their legal department. The simple fix is to make up a hotel name and make the address vague. If you are going to use a real park within a town, make sure the park is public. If you are going to use a specific house or museum in a town or city, make sure it is a public house or museum. That’s where research is critical. Don’t leave yourself open to legal problems.
Not that I wanted to add another worry to your plate but…