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First of all, It's set in the real world, in modern-day or near-future Washington State. The first issue is that I've never actually lived there, I'm actually from the Midwest. But hopefully with some research and appropriate vaguery this won't be a problem. The larger issue with this is that it's limiting in how specific I can be in terms of setting. Some more context: It takes place at a university not far from the western coastline, with park trails leading out to the coast on the western side. My investigations have led me to conclude that there really isn't a place in the state of Washington that is really like this, which is fine, since I can just make it a fictional location. But the first concern here is that people familiar with the area, even vaguely, would be able to tell that I clearly don't know what I'm talking about in terms of geography. I can't easily imagine the same about something set where I live, since the geography in the American Midwest is not difficult to get right. How much does geographical accuracy matter in a story with a fictional real-world setting? Even if there aren't any references to specific locations (other than the state), is it an issue when there's an obvious disconnect with reality, or can suspension of disbelief smooth things over as long as it doesn't really matter exactly where it takes place?
A second, less involved question: Place names? I haven't named any of the locations, referring to them generically (university, park, city). Should I consider inventing names for these? I'd like to connect the story even further to reality by using real-world locations the way the Science Adventure games do, but I'm fairly certain that's not really an option. Does having a fake name for the fake city and school serve a similar purpose to using a real location, i.e. giving a sense of realism and connection to the story, or is it mostly just fluff, since it's not really important to the story? My instinct says that having named locations would help cement the setting more firmly and make it feel more "real" to the reader, but coming up with names after the fact wouldn't really do much to accomplish that, since they wouldn't have that identity when writing it. If I write the whole story, then come up with names like "Wilson Cape", "Strand-Kent University", or "the city of Poole", it's just a facelift, and it wouldn't make them seem any more real than if I called everything "Buttfart". Maybe this is just me overthinking things, but I'm a bit curious as to what other people think of this.
Anything other discussion relating to inventing a fictional location for a real-world setting is also welcome.
Many television series and books use fictional cities in real states and countries. Cabot Cove, Maine in the television series 'Murder She Wrote' is fictional. Almost all of the small northern Scottish towns in M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth novels are fictional.
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So my point is that it's especially entertaining for people who live in Akihabara to see these facets of their daily lives in the story, which makes it extra fun for them. If you read a story set in your hometown that referenced things that only you knew about, you'd probably think the same thing. And it's also fascinating for people unfamiliar with the location to learn about all the small cultural differences, too.
Personally, I prefer to go with fictional locations set in real places (i.e. a fictional cruise ship in San Francisco). It gives you more room to be creative with things like the structures of buildings, important landmarks, historical events and figures, etc. Also, in your case, the fact that the geography doesn't quite match up might actually make your world seem a little more interesting and mysterious ("there aren't a lot of park trails on the western coastline around here"). So I'd refrain from making any direct references to real things unless I really know what I'm talking about.
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This kind of solution usually means adapting or keeping representative details of the geographic region you rely on, such as the climate or the typical architecture, but leaving out the most identifying details such as the city name, the state, or even the specific year in which the story is set. Of course you can use fictional names too to grant more believability to the story, or alternatively, reveal them very late into the storyline, so that they seem very natural and not so important altogether.
I think this sort of solution is very common in regular novels? With varying levels of realism —some novels making very obvious references to real regions, others obfuscating the locations on which they're based. I'd say it's common in VNs too, though I feel like the usage of drawn backgrounds lends itself more to completely fictional settings with less real-life anchoring. On the other hand, photographic backgrounds lend themselves really well to this kind of play (I wrote a bit about this process in my current project if you're interested!). The typical example would be the Hinamizawa village in Higurashi When They Cry being largely based on the very real village of Shirakawa.
Anyway, it's not a clear-cut solution, but something to consider! Being purposefully vague but still relying on reality is a very common and useful device, and you can take it in many different directions. And I do think that if you make some amount of explicit references to local cultures, some amount of research and care is very important!
Edit: Was still writing while you posted, Kinjo, and just realised we had the same idea, ahaha. I guess it's really potent?
What I'd suggest is to cut to the bone of why you're basing it in Washington: what aspect of the Washington coast feeds your narrative? What does your setting require, in a practical sense? Is there an actual beach you can walk on? Does it involve the busy shipping lanes of Puget Sound? Is it a remote, dense forest, falling away to a narrow, rocky shore? Once you parse what you are "seeing" for the setting, then you can do searches for what stretches loosely line up with those needs. Find the rough area on a map, look up tourist and National Park / Fish and Wildlife websites that detail the flora and fauna, the things to do; check the local towns on Wikipedia to see what the demographics, history, climate, and architecture are like in that place. This way, you can get a very distinct sense of space, make sure it serves your story, and avoid errors that would be disruptive (adding in a river or mountain where there isn't one, referencing a beach when the coast is too rocky, etc).
Being able to say your town is on The Peninsula, Long Beach, or Puget Sound can help root your setting-- but unless you know the city or town well, and the story will only work in that city/town, I would personally avoid using a more specific real world location, because (as Kinjo points out above) you're likely to make mistakes, and even without doing anything factually wrong, you can miss the way a town operates and feels entirely if you haven't been there to experience it.
My two cents, as far as your questions go: I'd pick a real-world locale as described above, but create your own town, and name it. Something I do is look for town names in the area, and see what they're based on: much of the time, they'll reference either common plants, local industry, or geographical features. Washington has places named Port Orchard, Oak Harbor, North Bend, and, in a very literal case, Ocean Shores. Even if you're going back and doing it after the fact, having a name for your setting grounds it for the reader, and using the template set by the local area will help make it feel more like a real place that exists.
I personally think the best way to encourage a reader to suspend disbelief is by making your world believable down to the studs-- if you're worried about it feeling real, turn on the interrogation lamp, and subject your setting to a heavy round of logical questioning. You reference a university: most of the time, nearby towns and industry crop up that cater to students and faculty. Does your town reflect this? Universities also tend to be located close to a focus: a remote, heavily forested coast isn't necessarily going to be a logical spot for business, law, or a great agricultural school, but the forestry management courses might be world-renowned. What drew your characters to this school? Not everything has to be in the story, but that awareness will help inform your writing (and bring up holes in the plot that might need mended!). If there are gaps in logic that can't be fixed (business school in the middle of nowhere), make a note that it's something remarkable, and have a character call it out! Your town, the university, all of it is real for your characters, and the reader will be seeing the world through their eyes, after all: the more you treat it as a real place, the more willing a reader will be to gloss over small errors and see it the way your character does. If it isn't super distinct for your characters, however, there's nothing to fill those gaps in perception.
All that said, it sounds like you have a clear idea of what your setting looks and feels like; I wouldn't worry too much about the real world, as long as you have the narrative details down pat. And, since I just now connected that the story draft posted a few days ago is you-- I haven't gotten too deeply into it, but I will say that as someone who attended a small university in the Pacific Northwest, I was able to read that location into the story beginning with ease, so I say claim it fearlessly! Also, the basement tunnels at my school were DEFINITELY haunted.
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I whole-heartedly apologize for how long it is. I'm fully aware that reading 50,000+ words written by an internet stranger is an act of complete charity, so I appreciate that as well!
Here's the thing I've noticed, regarding Washington, having lived here for around 15 years. It has a /geography/ as well as a culture, and that geography impacts the culture _enormously_ on a daily basis in ways that don't much make it into guidebooks. Sure, we have Puget Sound, but the lake (Lake Washington) and the mountain (Mt. Rainier on sunny days) both impact traffic patterns. Bellevue's rapid growth. The stupid toll lanes on the freeway. The Seahawks. People who don't know the area think 'coffee' and 'music' and 'Puget Sound' and _possibly_ they're aware how insane everybody here is about getting outdoors during nice weather and hiking and stuff. And they _might_ be aware of how enormous the trees are, how we're constantly fighting a battle against a primeval forest that is ready to _take over_ again. About the blackberries and the bindweed. About how perfectly crisp and clean the air is after it rains -- but it rains a lot less than people think. (It's overcast a lot. It's damp often. Actual real rain? New York State gets more.) The Seattle area, home of Amazon and Nintendo America and Microsoft, has more cats and dogs than children -- and our shelters haven't put down any adoptable animals in a long time. The rescues here actually import them from less fortunate regions.
Anyhow... a story set in the local area that doesn't mention some of the above in some fashion just.... hurts my ability to enjoy the story, a lot.
That said, I have zero problem with you setting something in a small university town up the coast that you've invented. Just go whole hog and give the town some flavor of its own. Give it a factory that it's famous for as well as the school. And do name stuff. You don't have to be ostentatious about using the names, but knowing them and using them when appropriate will do a lot.
Hell, add a new island to the Sound and set it there. The islands are little worlds of their own anyhow....
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But beyond all the other good advice, if you're going to create a location, really think about the whys.
Seattle-ites are super excited about sunny weather (and go outdoors constantly when we get it) in a way people from Los Angles aren't because it's dark and gloomy here so often that it feels like a treat. (Esp. for a rare day in, say, February.) People in the SF Bay Area take weather for granted as they can literally drive 10 miles and go from cloudy and cool to hot and sunny.
You're unlikely to have a fishery in the Sonora desert. (Or a bunch of lumberjacks.) Small rural communities tend to be more close knit and insular than large cities for the obvious reasons. (Trust me, moving as a single person to a small town in the South is an...interesting experience.)
There clearly are a LOT of details that differ even between fairly similar locations (the culture in New York, Seattle, and Chicago are all very different despite that they're all big cities in the US). But keeping some sense as to how things are different can really help a story feel real. (e.g. people *do* act very differently in a booming college town than in a town founded for a coal mine that has sense gone out of business)
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