Unless the plot of your romance absolutely demands a real-life locale, you’ll do yourself a favor by inventing your setting—but not out of whole cloth. For authenticity, it’s best to thoroughly research factual models for the fictional elements that you create.
For example, most of the action in my first novel, Ember from the Sun, takes place in the Pacific Northwest among a contemporary Native American tribe. I used as my model the Haida tribe who live on Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada). I studied the Haida Indians in depth, learning about their history, language, customs, religion, art, clothing, housing, and methods of fishing and whaling. I also researched the Queen Charlotte Islands’ flowers and trees, birds and mammals, topography and climate. Then, after two months of research, I named my fictitious tribe the Quanoot, and its imaginary homeland, Whaler Bay Island.
Studying the real tribe and its actual territory enabled me to enhance the novel with authentic particulars. For instance, the story included a scene in which modern Quanoot men build a war canoe by the ancient, traditional method of the Haida.
On the other hand, creating an imaginary tribe gave me the wiggle room to focus on the needs of my narrative without stressing about getting facts wrong, and I was free to invent a Quanoot legend that was central to my plot without feeling that I was appropriating a real people’s culture.
At first glance, it may seem that this advice mostly pertains for authors of historical romances, but it is at least as relevant for authors of contemporaries. Consider that while there are many readers who are experts on various historical periods, there are probably far more who know about whatever contemporary reality you plan to describe. They’ll be swift to notice errors of fact. Therefore, unless your story utterly requires an actual place, set it an apocryphal locale.
Let us say that your love story involves a hero who was once a logging crew foreman, but now he’s seeking employment because the logging industry has collapsed. For authenticity, find a real town that fits your story’s needs and use it as the pattern for your research. Read everything you can find about the town and the logging industry; study maps and nature guides; visit the area and interview loggers and the mayor, and so forth. But when your research is done, don’t write about the actual town; make up your own.
I’m currently researching a YA novel whose heroine is the Eastern Surfing Association Junior Women’s Champion. This is a case of writing what I know: I grew up in the surfer subculture in Melbourne Beach, Florida, and I once dated the current ESA Junior Women’s champion (back in the Pleistocene Era). I’m going to return to my favorite surf spots and interview surfers there and at the local surf shops. Nonetheless, I’m not going to set the novel in my real hometown. There are thousands of people living there now and some readers will balk at any detail I change or simply get wrong. But no one ever gets upset and slings a book across the room just because she suspects that such-and-such a town can’t be found on any map; so I’ll set my story in “Satellite Shores”—population zero, because the place does not exist.
The beauty of this research-and-switch method of creating fiction is that you can convey the genuine ambience of a real setting—Florida’s east coast, or an economically depressed logging town in Oregon—without trapping your plot in specifics. Remember the motto of tabloid journalists: “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”