In a recent debate on a writers’ forum the question was asked whether you had to actually have visited a place to use it as a setting for a novel. My answer to this is both yes and no.
YES if the place is well known, such as London, and many of your readers are expected to have been there or read other books set there. I won’t say ‘seen movies set there’ as TV and film often use places far removed from the location of the plot to double as the setting. They will also play fast and loose with geography to fit the pace (car chases often do this if you watch too closely).
It is very important if the setting is almost a character in itself, such as Cephalonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Intimate knowledge becomes essential, which is why I worked so hard at getting the feel of Guernsey right in Glint of Light on Broken Glass. It is also why many ‘locals’ dislike books set in the islands by people who have been here only briefly, if ever; they miss the essence of the place. The Flint books were enhanced by my being very familiar with York, Kent, London and Hadrian’s Wall.
NO You can get away with glibly setting something ‘in London’ if you just mean tourist London or a non-specific suburb where detail on the ground is not important. I had Flint visit Glastonbury and Bath in Lady in the Lake, even though I’ve never made it to either. I also set much of the action for Byron’s Shadow in Nauplion, which I planned to visit before completing the book but only made the trip a decade later. I had been to many other places in Greece and researched carefully so ‘my’ Nauplion is not so different from the ‘real’ one I finally visited, although both exist in my mind. The Greek dig is an amalgam of my digging experience elsewhere on the continent – it was hot and tiring everywhere.
Of course none of your readers will have been to first century Rome, which is helpful to writers of historical fiction such as Lindsey Davis who haven’t been there either. A dedicated historical novelist can out-research most of the audience then only faces the challenge of making this long-lost world live and breathe. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have even more freedom, but possibly even more challenge. Not only has the writer not been there, but the place does not exist – or at least not in the form portrayed. This is where a writer such as Tolkien needs skill to make us feel we are walking under the shadows of Mirkwood or struggling into the Misty Mountains. It helps if the writer uses familiar references, such as a hilltop castle, so the reader can start to imagine this made-up world. Writers of alt-history and steampunk novels invert this idea so that our familiar world is twisted into something that does not exist.
In the end it is that cliché ‘sense of place’. Without overdosing on adjective and purple prose, the writer must make the setting feel real. If the readers have never been to Samarkand, Deadwood or Westeros, they must end the book feeling as though they have.