The town names on my layout are not those of real places in this area, and are chosen to represent a Chumash (Indian) place name and a Spanish place name, together with a typical settler-named town. These are, respectively, Shumala, Santa Rosalia, and Ballard. (As I noted, there is a small, unincorporated town named Ballard in the Santa Ynez Valley, but none of its features are represented on my layout.) These names are part of capturing the flavor of this part of California.
The branch is envisioned to diverge from the SP main line between Oceano and Callender, at the junction I’ve named Shumala, and extends to Santa Rosalia at the mouth of the Santa Maria River. Here’s a sketch map, adapted from the SP division map:
My response to Robert Simpson included the comment that I originally got this idea from the common practice in England of making small layouts to be imaginary branches of well-known railroads (the Great Western, the London & North Eastern, etc.), so that locomotives, structures and other prominent characteristics have a familiar look. (I will, for example, build a model of SP’s iconic CS-22 depot for Santa Rosalia.) Then, if the typical scenic characteristics of the chosen area are also reproduced, an impression of realism is created, even though the specifics of the track layout and building locations are not those of any real town.
Another part of capturing the regional flavor is the selection of shippers and consignees for the layout. On my layout, agriculture is represented by four packing houses, dominated by vegetable production, along with a stock pen and a sugar beet loader at Shumala, and a winery at Ballard. Each town has at least one bulk oil dealer, all chosen to represent western oil companies of 1953 (Union Oil, Associated, Standard of California, and Richfield). Planned for Santa Rosalia are a small fish cannery and a kelp products company. Other representative businesses are a dried bean warehouse, a wholesale grocer, and a district garage for the California Division of Highways (a predecessor of today’s CalTrans).
Whether one considers this to be “proto-freelancing” or devises some other term, I think its main feature is the desire to model operations of a particular railroad, and a particular geographic area, rather than to model a specific place or town. As in all model railroading, I think the primary requirement is to use typical and plausible model components, avoiding the surprising and unusual, to create the impression of a believable place and time. I think time is as important as place, though I won’t explore here the problems of era identity, but obviously consistent choices of motor vehicles, advertising signs, and company names all help to create a sense of the time modeled.