The setting(s) where the action(s) takes place in a novel is, I think, quite important.
In our day-to-day existence, we are quite conscious of where we are, and, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar place, we tend to look around, taking in our surroundings. We want to know and understand where we are.
For a writer, the challenge is to describe the setting sufficiently so that, to the reader, it seems plausible and real, but without so much detail as to be boring. Sometimes one ties to paint a word picture of the setting. Here, for example, (from Sin & Contrition) is Joseph Bishop’s study in the rectory at Central Presbyterian Church in New York:
The office looked south onto Sixty-Third Street, and the late morning sun streamed through the large windows, whose cream-coloured drapes had been pulled aside. The pastor’s desk faced the windows, and I was seated in one of three brown leather, upholstered arm chairs in front of him. Behind him, and covering the right-hand wall were over-flowing bookshelves – to the point where some newer acquisitions had to be content with being piled on the floor below. The left-hand wall was covered with framed photographs – mostly black and white, but a few in colour – they were, without exception, pictures of people of all ages and walks of life.
In other cases, it may be more appropriate to set the scene with sound descriptions. Here is the description of the butcher shop in Sicily (from Fishing in Foreign Seas):
The butcher shop was packed with people awaiting their turns. There were four butchers behind the counter, and it was noisy with the sounds of their shouted exchanges with customers and the ‘thwock’ ‘thwock’ of their cleavers hitting the huge cutting blocks.
Of course, it is easier as a writer to have ‘been there and done that’. The scenes in Sicily in Fishing in Foreign Seas reflect my personal experiences on the island. As a brief diversion, I would add that my wife and I are just back from Sicily, and one of my agenda items on the brief trip was to take the ferrovia circumetna (the narrow-gauge railroad around Mr. Etna). This would have given us the opportunity to see the lava flows, the wineries, the farms, the towns and the people who live at the base of Mt. Etna – all from the comfort of a moving seat. But it wasn’t to be. The only day available was a holiday, and the trains weren’t running.
It is not essential to have actually been to the setting being described in the novel, as long as: the setting is important to the story, and the reader will find it interesting, and the writer has researched the place well enough that readers who have been there will find the description accurate. For example, I have never been to a lingerie manufacturing plant in Taipei, but here is the one in Sin & Contrition:
The Blue Dragon warehouse fascinated Bettina as much as the production hall. Here, down the center of the room, and reaching floor to ceiling, were hundreds of storage cells. Larger cells, at one end, contained bolts of fabric. Smaller cells contained labels, herringbone, wires etc., but most of the cells were for the storage of completed lingerie. One side of the cells was the ‘production side’, where completed products were sent to storage and raw materials were withdrawn from storage. The opposite side was the ‘shipping/receiving side’ where raw materials were placed into storage and finished goods were withdrawn for shipment to customers. The warehouse was under computer control so that the basket of thirty-four B Precious Lady Pink Springtime bras would be automatically moved into cell BJ59, and the quantity automatically added to the stock level of that product.