As an author whose first love is mystery/suspense, I keep scenery description to a minimum. Thus the imagery I include on the page has to carry a lot of impact. While the locale doesn’t have to be Rio de Janeiro exciting, any setting information must be pertinent to the plot and more than “just a little” interesting.
I don’t typically set contemporary stories in a place I’ve never been. Why? Because when it comes to scenery, I need to “feel” the location before I can write about the place. Sure, I could easily Google any place on Earth. There are millions of pictures, videos, and detailed descriptions; all the information a writer could want. Only you can’t smell a JPEG. Nor can you can’t sense the hustle and bustle of a city by reading a street map. I can get into my character’s head without ever meeting her, but I need to actually plant my feet in the place she lives to portray the setting vividly.
Even when I set a scene in a place I’ve visited before, I like to return to the scene of the crime. For example, when I decided to have my heroine experience a scary encounter on Chimney Rock in North Carolina, I took a hike—literally. I absorbed the details and incorporated the majestic views into the scene:
She hobbled outside and across the wooden walkway, heading toward the clear-span bridge leading to the chimney. The scent of pine intertwined with pure, fresh air rushed into her lungs and displaced her wooziness. The spectacle of the mountain backlit with bright blue skies almost made her forgot she had to get in the same elevator for her return trip.
There’s more to the story—plot. I spotted a shadowy figure in the Opera Box (a ledge in the side of the mountain) that inspired another scene. I also discovered a really cool niche—perfect for hiding the body in my next book.
Do I ever use fictional places in my contemporary stories? Absolutely. In my upcoming Holiday novella, The Christmas Tree Wars, the town of Merryvale does not exist—not to my knowledge anyway. Still, it isn’t really fictional.
I incorporated parts of Concord, MA, Burlington, VT, and a little of three North Carolina towns--Concord, Asheville, and Boone--to create my fictional backdrop.
For my non-contemporary novels, I do make up places. My fantasy novels are set on a different planet. I haven't been there. Honestly. J