Using Real Locations in Fiction
If a writer is creating a space opera on the edges of the Coaxilian Nebula in a galaxy next door, then it is up to the writer to create all the locations out of whole cloth. If one is writing a story about a dude running from zombies in Louisville, Kentucky, that’s a completely different situation. Do you use real locations in the story or make them all up?
The answer is, it depends. If you are talking about a giant corporation like Disney, it might be wise to make up a similar amusement park that isn’t named Disneyland, or even Smisneyland. Disney is super concerned with how their brand is portrayed and not above using all the lawyers in the land to tell you firmly to stop it.
What about smaller corporations? It is perfectly legal to use actual corporations in one’s fiction, if there is no hint of slander or libel. What exactly does that mean? Do you have a favorite shoe repair shop that you want to use when your heroine breaks a heel? If she’s going to walk in and have a positive experience and get a nicely repaired heel, then go for it. If you plan to have a surly worker, a bad repair, or murder someone browsing the wares, then you will want to make up the name of that repair shop.
Basically, if you are using a business and anything negative is going to happen there, make up the name and other specifics. That is the only safe way to go about it unless one wants to contact the business in question and get permission in writing before you publish that story, Murder at Burger King.
That brings up another issue. While it may be fine to have that happy customer eating a non-poisonous lunch at a real restaurant, it is not okay to have the title of your book be “Happy Lunch at Burger King.” Restaurant names are often trademarked, which means you can’t have it in the title of your book without written permission.
The disclaimer found in all fiction, the one that says “people and events in this book are fictitious or used fictitiously,” ought to be enough, legally speaking, to protect you, but in practice, it isn’t. A writer could create a more extensive disclaimer, but even that is not a complete protection from lawsuits.
Now, if we are talking about public places, it is different. I imagine there are exactly one bazillion stories published that use Central Park for something nefarious. A public place is not a business entity in its own right, and the city of New York is not likely to sue you for The Rabid Wombat Murders of Central Park.”
As a general rule, public places and things like city and state names are fine to use in fiction.
I lived in Louisville, Kentucky for about twenty years. Most of my books are set there. I love to sprinkle them with real places and have characters eat at my favorite restaurants. It makes me feel a little less homesick. I almost made a mistake in my first novel. I had an employee of an actual business doing something that put a customer in danger. An alert beta reader caught the issue, and I was able to change the business to a fake name.
Use real places in your work, but use caution when doing so. When in doubt, consult a lawyer, get written permission, or change it to a fake place.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. If one needs legal advice on how one uses actual locations in a work of fiction, one should contact a lawyer. The above are simply a few general guidelines.