The March issue of The Writer has an interesting article about settings: "Make It Up--or Keep It Real?" Author Tanya Egan Gibson says, "Bringing fiction to life, in most cases, requires a blend of invention and fact...The real part of it makes the 'unreal' believable." She also ascribes to a caveat which I've read other places: impugning an actual place (of business) isn't the best way to win friends and influence people--and might get you into trouble!
The idea for The Face on Miss Fanny's Wall, recently contracted by Champagne Books, came from a visit to Ft. Smith's (Arkansas) Visitors Center, a restored 'social club' known as the 'Hello Bordello'. While I used the names of real geographical features--i.e. rivers--I changed the name and location of my fictional bordello since I invented a plethora of dangerous events occurring in and around it.
On the other hand, in The Showboat Affair, I carefully researched Houston, Texas, for authentic locations such as street names, neighborhoods, and restaurants--and when my characters went to Branson, I used an actual hotel, tourist attractions, names of shows, and 'The Branson Belle' (showboat)--but all with a positive spin. However, when Nick and Jean start home and run into trouble on the road, though I used the name of a real town, I made up the hotel where the trouble occurs.
Just this week, I visited two Civil War battle sites, as well as an antebellum home used by the 'Yankee invaders' as a headquarters, and all of those locations will find their way into a current WIP--but under fictional names and in another state. The Penelope Pembroke cozy mystery series I'm working on is situated in the fictional town of Amaryllis, Arkansas, somewhere near both Little Rock and Hot Springs.
I love the research aspect of writing, despite the fact that it can be tedious and time-consuming. Sometimes it's difficult to keep a 'real feel' while still disguising and/or fictionalizing a setting. But the challenge pays off in the end if readers not only identify with the characters but also with the world in which they live.
What kinds of settings do YOU use, and how do you craft them?