For me as a writer, the word 'setting' has four letters. It's a dirty word to me - I've always preferred developing characters over setting, and for a long time I tried to cheat my way through actually placing stories in the world.
But now I'm trying to face my writing weaknesses, and setting is a big one for me. There are really only two options when it comes to setting: a real place, or a fictional place. I'll discuss fictional places first.
Some folks believe fantasy writers have it easy when it comes to setting, since a lot of fantasy takes place in a made-up world. The fact is, it's neither easy nor necessarily made up - quite a bit of urban fantasy is set in the real world. But we're talking fictional places for now, so I'll say that world-building is a tough job to get right. The writer has to create a place from scratch, and make it believable enough for readers to think they could be there with the characters.
Same goes for creating fictional towns and cities for non-fantasy. Ask any writer who's made up a town, and they'll probably be able to tell you the lay of the place, who lives where, what's going through the gossip vines, and a myriad details you'll never read about in the actual stories. It's all part of world-building, and it's not a simple matter of saying, "I'll just use New York City, and call it Gotham instead."
Then, there's setting a story in a real place. Here's where writing what you know might be a good place to start - if you set your story in a place you know, whether you've lived there or visited extensively, you'll be able to capture that all-important sense of place.
But what if you want to set your story somewhere in the real world that you've never been? Well, in that case, you've got some work ahead of you. Here are some tips to help you get that "Oh, I've been there!" vibe for your real world settings:
* Do some research. Look up as much information as you can about the town, and the surrounding area. Don't forget to find out things like terrain and geography, climate, typical housing types, and population demographics.
* Google is your friend. Download Google Earth and zoom in on the area you're setting your story in - it will give you real-time photographic maps, right down to the houses, trees, and swimming pools. It's kinda creepy, especially if you look up your address and realize anyone can look at your house online. Here's mine:
* Talk to people who actually live in the area. You don't have to go through the phone book and call random strangers. You can look for people located in your setting through directories for Blogger, LiveJournal and MySpace, and e-mail them. Usually, if you tell a stranger you're writing a book and want to interview them for it, they're more than happy to talk to you. Come up with a list of interview questions and get as many different viewpoints of the area as you can.
Setting encompasses a lot more than street names and weather. If you want to write great fiction, it's important not to neglect your setting. Happy writing!