Location, location, location – that’s not only true for real estate, it’s true for fiction, too. The setting may be simply the backdrop for the story, or it may be a character. Think about Gone With the Wind. That book was set in the South – and it provided a beautiful backdrop for the story that simply would not have worked set in any other location. The setting is tied so closely to the story that there was no option for locating Scarlett anyplace else. Then there are stories like the Stephanie Plum series written by Janet Evanovich. Yes, the setting provides a nice backdrop and there are certain regional aspects to the story – but you could just as easily place Stephanie in another tight-knit community and the story would still essentially be the same.
Think about Lost. I know, it’s television, but the storytelling in that series was awesome (well, up until the finale)! I loved the way all the threads (characters) were woven together (plot) to create the tapestry that was Lost. In that series, the Island literally became a character in the show. It was a force to be reckoned with. That story would not have been the same set anywhere else.
I chose to set Denim & Diamonds in western Missouri, largely because I live in Missouri and am comfortable describing the area. It is essential that you know the location that you are writing about. You don’t absolutely positively have to have first hand knowledge, but it helps. I read a book a few years ago by an author who wrote about a woman’s travels as she was trying to outrun the mobsters after her. At one point, she was in Kansas City, Missouri. The author described her stepping onto her front porch and looking south to the mountains. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Missouri, but you sure don’t see mountains from your little bungalow in Kansas City. I was naive enough to think the author might want me to point out the error, in case she was writing a sequel. She emailed me back and pointed out that she had seen a map and the Ozark Mountains are clearly in the southern part of Missouri. So, she had (sort of) done her homework and looked at a map. But she was from the East coast where something in the southern part of the state could conceivably be within view of something in the center of the state. That ain’t the case in Missouri! And the Ozarks aren’t what most people think of as mountains.
There are resources available to help you make the location in your story realistic (I apologize – these links are not live yet due to a problem with my blog software, but you can cut & paste them into your browser until I get the issue resolved):
www.city-data.com/ – for basic information about a BUNCH of cities.
maps.google.com/ – for map information. Street view can be very useful for writers.
www.writerswrite.com/journal/nov98/keegan13.htm – Great article on creating the perfect setting.