It's important for writers to do the proper amount of research to present information knowledgeably, and I'm a huge advocate of it, but today I learned a valuable lesson: there's a dark side to it. Storytellers can be a little too diligent in their efforts to keep their work accurate...and end up doing themselves, and innocent parties, a whole lot of harm. I've talked about the importance of setting before, but it's worth looking at the issue from another angle. Sometimes, writing a real location into your work can go very, very poorly.
Location Writing Gone Bad
Another writer actually called my attention to this, and his post was great, but I'm so fascinated by the topic I thought I'd go a little deeper.
Lots of writers use real locations in their books. Stephenie Meyer famously used the real town of Forks, Washington, which happily embraced the Twilight phenomenon. There are numerous tours of the town, which is routinely assaulted by eager teenagers throughout the tourist season (Forks now has a tourist season). You can watch numerous documentaries and featurettes about the real-world Forks, which looks just as Meyer promised it would and sits exactly where she wrote that it was. You can even see Bella's truck if you go to the right place.
But it doesn't always work out so well. Anne Rice ended her iconic Vampire Chronicles, and her character Lestat, in front of an old, abandoned building in New Orleans. But the building didn't stay abandoned. A few months after Rice released the last novel in the series, the property was purchased and turned into a restaurant. Reportedly, Anne Rice was none too pleased when the owner of the building embraced the notion that a famous vampire was living in his building.
It's not at all the worst-case scenario, but it took another writer to point out the possibility to me. Some books become so wildly popular, towns create tours of various places mentioned in the pages. That's all well and good when the associations are positive -- but what about when they're not?
When Innocent Parties Get Hurt
Thanks to Google maps and the rest of the Internet, any writer can create believable fiction about any real place. You can go to travel sites and find famous landmarks and hotspots; you can even use your computer to move down to street level and get a real look at the locations you use. This is a wonderful tool for writing...and a dangerous one.
Suppose you mention an actual street address in your work (the home of your killer, the domicile of your victim, the place where your character actually lives) and fans start to visit it? It's not at all outside the realm of possibility -- just ask anyone in Forks. Real people may actually live in that home, and they never asked to become a famous stop on self-driven fan book tours. They may feel harassed and uncomfortable inside their own homes, and you may have unwittingly ruined their personal lives.
That's bad enough for certain, but things could still go one step further: you might get sued. The homeowners could easily file harassment charges against you, and I'm not a lawyer but I'm sure a clever one could dream up several other charges as well.
It's important to be accurate and realistic in your work...but only up to a point. Don't use real homes with real people living in them; and if you do, don't provide real addresses. Specifics are good, but too many could be your undoing. What's the old saying about having just enough rope to hang yourself?
Don't let yourself get so caught up in your own fiction world that you forget the real one exists, too, and you won't have to worry about wrecking people's lives or bringing severe legal trouble down on your own shoulders.