When I taught Creative Writing to teenagers, they were a fountain of questions, kind of reminds me of my four-year-old now. But instead of the dreaded “why?” question, it was always “how?” How do I do this, or that, or make the impossible believable?
One of their questions was: Could they use a real place in their fictional world?
The short answer is yes. If you want to use a real place in your fiction no one can stop you. The long answer is yes. A real place adds authenticity and a sense of reality to your setting, but you have to be careful.
Readers may be willing to suspend belief on a one-hundred foot Godzilla terrorizing the city and create all sorts of havoc. They may be willing to believe aliens can rise up from the ground and use humans for plant fertilizer in their attempts to transform Earth into a more habitable place. Or even enjoy monsters ripping a bloody path through a backwater town. But if the small town lane is mislabeled or the High School isn’t where it’s suppose to be in real life, there are readers who will know it and call you out on it.
Readers have certain expectations, and while they may allow you to get away with fictional events and monsters, their minds will immediately contradict something it knows is not true. Locals will complain when you don’t do a place justice or respect their town. So be sure to do your research and make the layout of the town as accurate as possible.
Larger cities will be more forgiving if you add a building for your detective to work out of or street for your librarian to live in because most readers will simply accept it as one they haven’t noticed. That might not be as possible in smaller communities. A made-up street is more noticeable.
Now if you want to write about a place you’ve never been and it’s just not possible to for you to stay there, either for a short visit or any extended time, then you’ll need to find resources that will allow you visit the place in your mind.
The Internet and the library can help. You’ll want to look for pictures, narratives, websites, webshots of the area that will give you a feel for the setting without actually traveling to the location. Good luck with your settings.