Vivid settings add a sense of reality to your work and some settings can almost be a character in your story. In a novel you can introduce several places, but in a short story it's better to stick to one or two.
You may wish to use real places as your setting, in which case a some people will read your book to remember a place they have known or to enjoy a new exotic setting. When using a real life setting, especially when your story is set in the recent past, there is a danger that the reader will remember things differently to you. If so, be prepared for cross letters or indignant reviews.
When writing about a real setting in the more distant past, if it is out of living memory you have to treat it as you would a fictional setting and introduce the place at that time to your reader, putting in clothes, smells, garbage in the streets and horse-drawn vehicles etc. You need to do your research and include buildings and trades that were present at that time.
Strangers and Angels is my Victorian Murder Mystery, which will be published later this year. It is set in Gosport in 1850. I had great fun imagining a winter journey on the Floating Bridge, the great chain-propelled ferry that conveyed passengers between Gosport and Portsmouth. Its modern successor was still around when my husband was a child. Unfortunately, by the time I moved to Hampshire it had been abandoned.
The ferry was not crowded. The Victualling Yard had not yet turned out and, since Portsmouth had gained their own railway, there were fewer consignments of goods travelling by train to Gosport and across on the Floating Bridge to stock Portsmouth's shops.
Few people chose to travel across the harbour for pleasure in December at dusk, so Molly's wish that they would not meet any of Lady Adelaide's acquaintances seemed likely to come true.
She found a secluded, sheltered corner and sat down. She felt cold and tired. The Floating Bridge would never seem quite so much fun again.
Or maybe it would if she could see it through Kemal's eyes. She loved the lively interest with which he prowled the deck, clearly considering how the mechanics of the ferry worked, as, with a creak and clanking of the giant chains and the throb of the two great steam engines, they chugged away from the shore.
The need for historical plausibility doesn't mean you cannot insert places or features that were not in the original town, as long as they could have been there. In Strangers and Angels I invented a cooper's yard that had never existed and the well-to-do tradesman's house that adjoined it. I placed it in an appropriate location, the Weevil district of Gosport, not far from the Royal Clarence Yard.
In the narrow hallway Mrs Dorrington set down her valise and turned to take the basket from Adelaide. "If you'd like to go into the parlour, Molly will kindle the fire. I'll bring refreshments as soon as I've brought the kettle to boil. Molly, is the range still alight?"
"Yes Grandmama, but damped down, the way Pa left it this morning."
"Please, I'd rather go to the kitchen with you." Adelaide could not endure the thought of sitting alone in the chilly formal room.
Mrs Dorrington's finely arched eyebrows lifted. "As you wish, Lady Adelaide."
Adelaide wished Mrs Dorrington would not mention her name and rank whenever she spoke to her. She wondered if it was deliberate; a reminder of her position and the folly of stepping out of it. Then Mrs Dorrington smiled at her. It was a warm smile, with a sparkle of mischief that reminded Adelaide of Molly.
"Please sit down." She ushered Adelaide to a chair beside the scrubbed, pine table.
As she spoke she looked appraisingly around her small domain. Adelaide thought she should be pleased, everything looked spotlessly clean; on the softwood dresser, pale from years of scrubbing, copper jelly moulds gleamed and the white dinner plates were neatly stacked.
"I was here yesterday, Grandmama. I tidied up and made sure Sally had scrubbed the kitchen floor," said Molly, her tone still uncharacteristically meek.
Of course, whatever genre you are writing in, there is no reason why you cannot invent your own places, but remember to give your setting some memorable features and names that tie in with the time and location you are writing about. Sometimes it is easier to use some features of a real place in a suitable location that you are familiar with and then give it your own twist. For my two contemporary police procedurals, The Terminal Velocity of Cats and About the Children, I created two fictional towns, Ledleigh and Saltern, but situated them on the south-coast of England. I was so successful with Ledleigh that Charlie Cochrane (author of the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries) made a very good guess at the area I had in my mind. Strangely, the features I created, such as the deserted, derelict houses in Bridge Road (The Terminal Velocity of Cats) and Stone Park, an everyday public park that could not escape its sinister history (About the Children) became so real that I could give anybody an in-depth guided tour.
These descriptions of Stone Park appear in the first chapter of About the Children, along with a quote from the First World War poet, Isaac Rosenberg. (I can have a literate cop if I want one.)
They stripped off their scene of crimes’ protective suits. They'd need to put on fresh suits before they entered the other crime scene to avoid cross-contamination.
He paused a moment to consider the position of the Children's Assault Course in relation to other features in the park. On three sides the playground was bordered by undergrowth and sheltering trees. Within easy reach there were two exits, one leading through allotments, the other onto a quiet, residential road. Three hundred yards away, over to the west, he could see the grey shimmer of the lake.
Five years ago, this park had been the scene of the first serious assault he'd investigated, when he'd returned to Saltern as SIO of a new hand-picked Serious Crimes Team. Stone Park had always had a strange reputation... and a strange feeling. Like there was something under the surface; something cruel. Sunlight pierced the grey clouds, briefly bathing the park in pale light. 'The darkness crumbles away – it is the same old druid Time as ever.'....
….Then he strode across to the second crime scene, a formal garden bordered by a wide circle of seats. The paving slabs were creamy white, except where they were strewn with autumn leaves. A patch of brighter colour caught his gaze. Someone had lost a scarf. It was delicate, rainbow-beaded and woven in silver thread.
The vivid strands had filled with blood and, as Tyler looked, the outline of the scarf lost definition. Before his tired eyes the sparkling shapes transformed into a grotesque mosaic, the symbol of some primitive sacrifice.
Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy create their own worlds all the time, but they still have to maintain consistency within their worlds and make them come alive. Often they do this by inventing Future World parallels with things we are familiar with, so that their worlds are more accessible. Writers of distant history often use the same skills as SF and Fantasy writers.
When bringing your settings alive for the reader, whether in the past, present or future, it's important to use the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and that other less tangible sense, the'feel' of a place. You must build upon what most readers know about everyday places then add the twists of individuality that make your settings unique and memorable.