Obviously, we all live somewhere. Be that in the middle of a city, the outskirts of a town or in the middle of the countryside, either isolated or perhaps in a little hamlet. So, why not use that setting in your writing? Just go out, soak up the atmosphere. Listen, really listen. Do birds make sounds? Are there lots of shouting kids, or is it quieter in a more elderly area? Look around: what colour is the sky? At night? Are there lots of bus stops? Even the littlest thing can make it seem the most realistic to your readers. Even if most of the place you live in is grass or gravel! – note it. It’s ideal if you’re writing somewhere where you live, because you can just go out if you need inspiration.
Okay, perhaps you hate it, and don’t want to write about. Fair enough. There are other places you can use in your settings.
If you’re on holiday, and you find somewhere you love, why not write about? It’d be perfect, no? Just remember that no where is idyllic, and people who live there probably hate it too! But note the same things as you did for your own hometown. Have a look down some narrow alleys where your MC might walk down to get home, for example. See what the weather is like. If you’re not there all year round, can you talk to some locals? Eat in a local cuisine shop, visit museums, shops, see where your MC might work or go to school. Yes, it sounds very long-winded and difficult, but it’ll be key in convincing your readers about the realism of a place.
If you’re writing a setting of somewhere you can’t get to, why not look it up online? Use Google Earth’s awesome Street View feature. It’s actually pretty cool, and quite interesting. Look for weather news, go on the country’s main news website, you could even find some books based in that area, even if they’re non-fiction (probably especially, actually). Check out the wildlife online. Ask people who’ve been there, if you can find anyone.
And obviously, if you’re writing about a fantastical world or an alternate universe, things are going to be a little different, but you could always try and find somewhere as close to our world as possible, like New Zealand for Lord of the Rings. If you can’t, though, at least try and think of the same things as you’d notice if you were in the place for real – wildlife, the smell of the air, the language or many languages spoken, if people interact in the street or if people only leave their homes if they have somewhere to go.
The setting is so incredibly important in writing, and yet it is often overlooked. You could even try drawing a map and plotting out everything. Perhaps just writing notes, or finding pictures (try Pinterest).
Good luck with your settings! Don’t overlook them, and make sure you’ve done all you can. If you can get to your ideal setting and stay for as long as you can, do it! It’ll benefit you greatly.