Keeping real life out of my fiction is an ongoing challenge. A story without some authentic detail will feel thin and hollow, but a story with too much could offend readers who think they recognize themselves. I have a number of ways of coping with this problem.
In the Anita Ray series, I set much of the action in the resort Kovalam because it resembles a small town, with dozens of shops and lanes and visitors. The sheer size seems to neutralize curiosity. When I take the reader outside the tourist area, I make up villages and towns. In When Krishna Calls, I take the reader into a remote valley.
I recently created a small town for a new collection of short stories I've been writing. I did this so no one would be able to assume they knew where the town was located. To make the town distinctive, I created a map with streets and store locations, and described a topography that I hope is sufficiently different from any real place.
My characters have to live in apartments and houses, or at least somewhere, and if I come across a real place that I think will work well for a particular character I usually ask the owner if I can use it. Before Chief Joe Silva moved in with Gwen McDuffy, he lived in the downstairs apartment based on that of a friend of mine. His landlady lived upstairs. For the condo he and Gwen occupied, I used my grandmother's apartment, located in another state.
I exercise the same caution when creating characters. When I teach I often use this exercise: describe three people, one you know well, one you've seen but don't know, and one you make up entirely. The descriptions will be different, and will resonate on different levels with the reader, depending on the writer's intimacy with the individual described. Over the years I've found that the second character is usually the strongest, best imagined, because it includes both details to anchor the character and room for the writer's imagination.
Along with the physical description of a character comes the name. It is far too easy to pick one that sounds good, and later learn that it belongs to a real person (I made that mistake once). My main concern is to match the name to the personality, which means sometimes I use old biblical names (Ezekial) or something invented to signal that this character has a history (Pattern, as a first name). I have a few books I rely on, including Clues to our Family Names, by Lou Stein, and From Aaron to Zoe, by Daniel Avram Richman, which includes meanings as well as origins. I also use The Book of Indian Names, edited by Raja Ram Mehrotra. After I've made a choice, I check it with several local telephone books.
One of the best ways to get inside a character and create something rich and compelling is by describing that person traveling. How do they travel? By foot, bike, motorcycle, car, van, bus, train? What is the first choice? And what is the destination? In the new Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder, everyone seems to travel by boat if they can.
Like many other writers, I also note down unusual lines of dialogue or figures of speech. I once made a doctor wait while I finished writing down a conversation I'd overheard earlier in the day, when I didn't have paper and pen with me. If I can capture a particular manner of speech, I have the personality. But here again, I review it to make sure it's not something that will identify a particular person. Many people lisp, but fewer lisp, limp, and swear softly under their breath while stacking oranges in the grocery store.
Even when I make every effort to keep anyone I know out of my fiction, I still encounter the curious reader. I live near an art school, which I've visited several times for talks and exhibits. I even know a few of the teachers. I thought it would make an interesting setting, and set my second Mellingham mystery there. Double Take concerns the death of an older art student. To my surprise, one of the teachers, whom I knew slightly, mentioned at a party that she and her colleagues were trying to figure out who was who in the novel. I quickly reassured her that no one from the school was actually in the book.
When readers pick up one of my stories or novels, I want them to enjoy the story and not wonder who is real and who is fictional.