When I'm dreaming up a novel -- especially an historical one -- the place where my characters will live and interact is almost a character within itself. I have used real places and places I've invented. Either way, research and attention to detail is involved.
While I don't like to spend paragraph upon paragraph describing a street, a house, or land and other terrain, it's imperative that I set the scene so that my readers get a sense of "place," "time," and "season." The year and/or era when something happens in a novel should dictate how characters view the world and their circumstances.
The novel I'm writing now is set in Texas a few years after the Civil War. To give you an idea of a novelist's "groundwork" when it comes to setting and time, I have spent at least 20 hours reading about Texas after the war ended. I wanted to become familiar with the different factions and feelings swirling in the area because it was a time of upheaval and fractured alliances. It was also a period of extreme hatred for many people. The Confederacy had lost the war and most Southerners were bitter and experiencing a sense of denial, much as one would after a death, for the country they had known was gone. Many of them were simply refusing to give it a proper burial.
Through my research of "place" and "time," I found different motivations for characters. The Civil War affected everyone -- but in vastly different ways. The struggles they faced following the war were almost as traumatic as the war itself. As I created my character studies and profiles, I put myself in their shoes so that I could see the world from their perspective.
The look of a place requires pages and pages of notes. If I'm using a real town or location, I try to go to that place (for contemporary novels) and experience it first-hand. For historical settings, I do extensive research about the topography and the history of the towns and cities I'm using for the book. Writing about actual places can be tricky. For instance, one doesn't want to mention a hotel in the winter 1876 St. Louis that burned down in the spring that year. And don't think readers won't notice. Someone always does!
Even towns or places I create have to be mapped out so that I have a solid image of them that doesn't waver and confuse the reader. In my current novel, THROUGH HIS HEART, I created a town called Cotton, Missouri.
First, I Googled that name to be sure there wasn't a Cotton, Missouri. Then I set it in the boot heel of the state, which is an area I'm quite familiar with since it's where I was born and much of my extended family still lives there. It was easy for me to draw from my memory of how the land looks, the weather, the buildings, and how the people of that region sound. I used one of the small towns I have frequented as a twin for Cotton. Even "pretend" places must be described. Street names and businesses need to be mentioned to lend veracity. This helps readers to imagine them and feel comfortable in them.
The balancing act is to tell enough about a setting to allow readers to snuggle into it, but not so much that they start skipping paragraphs to "get back to the good part" of the book. I like to dribble it in. It's always better if the point-of-view character is experiencing the setting and interacting with it. For example, which descriptive passage seems more engaging to you:
#1 The land was mostly flat, which made it good for cattle to graze on. Copses of trees here and there rovided umbrellas of shade and a stream meandered along the far west corner of the ranch. An outcropping of hills along the northeast border sheltered coyotes, cougars, and a few wolves, just to make life more interesting and challenging. It was good land. Land worth dying for.
#2 Brady stared across the land where he and his brothers had raced horses, chased rogue bulls, and rounded up stubborn heifers to keep them from becoming prey to coyotes and other varmints. He could almost hear their laughter echoing from the outcropping of hills in the distance. A wistful smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he recalled lazy afternoons lying in the shade of spreading elm branches or cooling off in the stream that ran along the far west border. He and his brothers had worked hard, but they'd played just as hard. This ranch had been their whole world. It was good land. But was it worth dying for? The smile vanished as the pain of loss twisted his gut and tore at his heart. He'd gladly let the damn Yankees take it if it meant he could ride away from it with his brothers by his side, full of life and laughter once again.
In the second example, the setting is woven into the character of Brady. We experience it with him and it's more than just a description. It's emotional and gives insight to him. If snow covered the area he was surveying, it would evoke a completely different feeling for the reader. That's why it's also important to determine what time of year to set a book in and to remember that not every day is sunny or cold.
Where your characters are, why they're there, and what they think of adds depth to a novel. Too much of it and your readers get bogged down, but give them too little and they feel displaced and rootless. As it is so often with writing, finding the balance is the challenge and the reward.