'You really disappointed me,' the woman said, clutching a copy of A Single to Rome for me to sign. I gave a nervous smile, pen frozen in hand.
'Yes,' she continued. 'I'm going to Rome next month and I was really looking forward to visiting the Tea Museum, and then I read that you made it up. I'm really disappointed.'
Using public spaces and buildings as backdrops to a novel are a definite plus for most people, and all my books are set in real places. Smaller places, like individual cafes or private houses are different; I might use a real place, but not name it, or disguise it in some way. I know Rome well having been a student there and have visited many times subsequently, so when I was writing A Single to Rome it was easy for me to take my characters about the city but I couldn't write about the goings on of fictional characters running a real museum without expecting to be sued for libel. Plus, at the time of writing the first draft I didn't know whether the house Shelley lived in when he stayed in Rome was still standing.
The Tea Museum was completely fictional right from the start, from the contents to the layout. When you think about it, Rome's not an obvious place for one, but that's neither here not there. After the first draft I went back to Rome to check and discovered that Shelley's house was still there, and re-wrote the layout so the interior fitted the windows I could see from the exterior. I have no idea if in reality it looks anything like my layout inside (the building has been converted to offices so it would be unlikely), but it seems very real to me. I could take you up the staircase, I know what is in each cabinet of each room in every floor. I know how the light comes in through the windows, I know where there's a creak in the floorboards. I know what Olivia's office looks like, although we never go there in the book.
So I'm sorry the lady was disappointed when she discovered that the museum doesn't exist, and has never done so. But I'm also pleased I managed to make it as real for her as it is for me.