Ask The Writer: Making up names for settings in fiction

How should you name the fictional places in your story?

Small Town
Photo by Sylvie Bouchard/Shutterstock

My story settings are similar to where I live, but I prefer to use fictional names. How do I go about making the names up?

Naming a place is a lot like naming a character: You want to find a name that’s realistic and somehow fitting. Charles Baxter’s fictional town Five Oaks, Michigan – a setting for many of his works, including the novels Shadow Play and Saul and Patsy – is a small, isolated place with cold winters and flat land. Though we won’t find it on an actual map, we could easily place it on one. It resembles many small Midwestern towns.

In that spirit, you might look for where your place would appear on a map. Look at the names of nearby places. Consider what sort of ideas and images those names evoke. Consider, too, the history of the area and how that history may have influenced the naming of places. Brainstorm names that work in that same vein. This approach can work for the naming of a town, as well as a neighborhood within a city, a county within a state, and could even apply to streets, transportation routes, and buildings.

—Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers Workshop.