There’s something to be said for taking a pen to a fresh notebook, or opening up a new document in Word, Scrivener, or your other electronic tool of choice. There’s an immeasurable degree of freedom present when you’re working with what’s empty, but your ideas and inspirations (and of course, whatever forced construction of a narrative that might be required) soon lead it into a potential story.
There’s often an idea that one should write what you know, which I definitely don’t agree with, but you ought to have a foundation to build upon. This then is more of a corollary to writing something that consumes you, that inspires you or otherwise pushes you onward. Yes, you need to write something that you care about – write something you’d love to read – but you also do need to have knowledge of what you’re writing.
This isn’t to say that you must know it innately. When it comes to writing a story set in your hometown, as opposed to a city on the other side of the world, your knowledge of the place is certainly going to lead to it feeling more real. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be exciting, or that the places you’ve experienced in your life will benefit your story.
If your approach to building the setting of your story is to use exploratory writing, then you may be comfortable enough to have the overall idea of places things will happen in, and allow the specifics to emerge as you write. I’ve done this for some stories, even when I wasn’t sure about the geography of the story, or where certain things were placed.
The general idea with exploratory writing is either to start in a small space and slowly move the focus back, or to begin with a general overview of the location and move into a tighter focus. It is about adding clarifying details in both approaches, and introducing specifics that set the location apart from what is generic. The troupe crossing through the mountains is very generic, but the addition of wilted conifers gives a sense of temperate and time of year, and the presence of absence of a road, the method of travel, abandoned structures or small cottages all add to the imagery that grounds the location as a real-enough place. Moving the other way, a dark wooden bedroom might could have a glimmer of moonlight bursting through a foggy window, while muffled revelry continues elsewhere, either because the bedroom is inside an inn, or because there’s a festival elsewhere in the seaside town.
Mapping out the locations and planning them in detail can also be useful, as instead of discovering the idiosyncrasies of the setting as you write, they’re already known to you. If the setting is one that either exists in the real world or has clear derivatives there, then you will need to research. Look at maps, read descriptions of the place, and find pictures. If it’s not somewhere you can go, see if it’s been portrayed in other media. As you do this, make notes about what stands out to you. You should also make notes, even in point-form, on what your own beliefs about the place. You need to have a clear sense of what you think. Aside from visuals, music or speech in the respective language can add a feel for the place, as would thinking about the texture of surfaces, or the smells and tastes that would be found there.
If you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, this is a little harder. We can’t easily jaunt up into space and experience it ourselves, but we do live on a very varied planet with a multitude of strange landscapes, and the many fictional worlds in literature, art, film, comics and video games do allow us to put our eyes into new places. Not all of the details are important, and not everything will make it in. Deciding that Building Delta of the Lantirean Colony on Gandar Prime has an air purifier system means you have a detail that may or may not be relevant to your story, but that adds to the depth. It also gives you the opportunity to use it in your story if the need arises. You could obviously use exploratory writing to also get to the same when the need arises. It’s all up to you.
Having some of this groundwork in advance means that it’s more likely the rules of your story will be consistent. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but whatever limits you’ve set in the fictional world need to be consistent.
It isn’t that you must know about what you’re writing, but that you ought to create knowledge of it. Research and planning go hand in hand, even if you’re inventing the details as you go. If you’re not a planner in the slightest, hopefully you have a memory able enough to retain all of the details you come up with. If not and you’d prefer to make it up as you write, take notes as well. Sometimes a map with named places is enough to give you a sense of each location, with the decision to name a place Antillo instead of Ardehlo gives it a different feel. Putting the details on to paper (or other) means that the feelings and thoughts you’ve associated with the place become more fixed. They’re not immutable, and you might feel as though your city in the desert might feel better in a cold, rainy forest. The important thing is knowing your world enough, or being confident that if pressed, you have an answer for any pertinent question.