Where your story takes place should have an enormous impact on the writing. It determines the boundaries of your world, the limits of what’s on those pages you’ve written. Whether your story spans an entire continent of creatures or bursts with conflict and resolution within a single library, the setting determines the rest of your story. In a way, your world is a character.
Take time to introduce your setting like you would a main character. The Hazel Wood wouldn’t be nearly as magical had Melissa Albert skipped over the gorgeous details of New York City and the mysterious, fairytale wood. An Ember in the Ashes would be void of soul if we knew nothing of the freeing yet cruel desert and the cold, violent heart of Blackcliff Academy. Don’t even get me started on Lord of the Rings.
Integrate place into the language of your narrative.
This means going the extra mile for your readers. It means deeply understanding your world to the point your metaphors, similes, hyperboles, and other figurative language in the narrative reflect elements of your particular setting.
Example from “The Shetland Saint”
This short story of mine takes place in the Shetland Islands in the early 1600s. The Wulver lives on Noss, a small island off the east coast of Bressay (which is today a nature reserve). Bressay rests between Noss and Lerwick. Lerwick was a popular site for fishing and trade as Dutch ships would come to Bressay Sound for herring each summer.
I researched the climate, vegetation, and animals of this specific place, and I wove that into my narrative. Here are some examples:
Then the woman scrambles, fast as a herring in summer. >>> reference to herring fishing
The rest set their dogs, blades, and muskets on me. >>> ties into weapons of that age
An archaic emotion—fury—rocks me, ramming into my core like the white-capped waves below. >>> nod to their cliff location & cold northern sea
My insides clench the same way they do when I cradle the broken wings of puffins and gannets. >>> reference to bird species on Noss
Details like these make your story stand out.
Plenty of us can fake it through a story, sharing random details here and there on a vague, generic landscape. That works for some readers. Others want to feel enveloped by a real, researched environment, to be transported to that place. Readers can tell when you know your story inside and out.