I’ve been thinking about this topic again and I should add some stuff. It’s not enough to take your visual experiences, deconstruct them and rebuild them into what you need for the setting of your story. As important as that is, you need to do more. You remember a lot more than the places you’ve been from your childhood on. You remember people, you remember personalities, attitudes, expressions, language. All those things are grist to the mill.
Settings built out of bits of what you’ve seen are only there in your story to provide a background for your characters, and your characters are built out of the people you’ve observed or read about or interacted with, partly anyway. The rest are built out of something somewhere in your head, from a place I don’t know and can’t find. Nor, apparently, can anyone else. Somerset Maugham is reported to have said that there are three rules for writing novels, unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
Setting is a kind of stage on which your characters act out whatever you need them to do. But setting is more than that. Setting is a kind of symbolic language with which you make visible your character’s emotions, thoughts, attitudes. Think about it: how do you make anger visible to a reader? Sure, there’s what you character says, how he looks (part of setting), and the actions he takes, but there’s also the natural world, the world external to your character. You wouldn’t express your character’s anger by placing him in a park at midday with a blue sky overhead filled with fluffy white clouds and a nice yellow sun because that sort of idea defeats your purpose. You’d make the setting reflect symbolically the emotion you’re after (think Edgar Allan Poe). You need to reach inside the experience, find its heart, and pour that on the page through the setting and your character.
What does setting consist of? Your character’s dress, physiognomy, body type, the natural world you build around him or the human world of cities, houses, rooms, streets, farms, fields, meadows, and so on. How is it used? To reinforce and make visible to a reader the inner life of your character.
Here’s what Sue Grafton’s characters said in one of her novels, U is for Undertow. “…. your life and your experiences are the wellspring. You want to write, you have to tell me how the world looks from your perspective. You have to absorb and deconstruct reality and then reassemble it from the inside out…. Writing’s hard. It’s a skill you attain by practicing. You don’t just dash off good work in your off-hours. You can’t be half-hearted. It takes time…. You have to sit down and write. As much as you can. Every day of your life. Does any of this make sense?”
“Well, it will…. The trick is to get out of your own way and let the light shine through.”
And others talking about writing said these things.
“…. inspiration is a sort of spontaneous combustion- The oily rags of the head and heart.” Stanley Elkin
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Christopher Isherwood
Keep moving, keep looking, keep absorbing, let the world around you flow into that reservoir in your head so you can dip into it to build what you need as you write.