While taking a walk with my toddler recently I observed everything I could about my settings. Not because I am writing a book based in New Jersey, but rather what is different here than where my actual WIP takes place. Since my story takes place in a real town in West Texas I need facts. As I edit I need these things to refer back to, constantly.
During the summer of 2011 I spent several weeks in Texas visiting family and we took a day trip (very long one) out to San Angelo, Texas where I have based this particular WIP. Why did I chose San Angelo? I used to live there, once upon a long time ago. It's been a long while since I had been there, so off we went to see the different sights I had planned on including.
I wondered what was different, if any, for creating a fictitious setting. So I thought back to another manuscript for which I created a town along the Jersey Shore called ??. Although I created this particular town, I based it on a nearby town to where I live, one I think of as being perfect for this manuscript. So, I used what I could of that town to create my setting folder.
Here's a list of those things I found necessary to keep the setting realistic.
1) Map - They help keep different locations in perspective. Regardless of whether it is explained to the reader where certain places are, it is great for the writer to have a sense of where they are, what's around that location, how long it takes to get from one location to another, and so on. It is also helpful to describe sounds based on what is nearby. People hear different sounds based on different locations. Knowing what is nearby will help with sound.
2) Pictures - This helps when describing locations based on sight. I have tons from my trip to San Angelo. While I might not have many for my local site, I drive there regularly which makes it easy to describe.
3) Travel - I know this one is difficult, but if possible I like to have traveled to the location I am writing about. There are different feelings and sensations you get. Texas summers are vastly different from New Jersey summers. Likewise, the winters are extremely different as well.