A while back, I was writing a scene set in New York, and it was no good. I’d put in all these little details I’d actually seen in New York myself, and I’d used the internet to double check everything I remembered, and made heavy use of Google Maps… but it still didn’t seem like New York. I couldn’t figure out why.
Then it hit me. New York City isn’t just a collection of details—even carefully-chosen, evocative details. It’s a feeling. And that feeling is different from person to person. It’s a completely different place for my brother (who lives there and loves it) than it is for me (who only visits and is a bit of a country mouse). The same street might be vibrant and exciting to one person, overwhelming and intimidating to another, or full of daily nuisance and utility to a third.
What I needed to capture wasn’t some quintessential, factual, accurate New York. I needed to evoke how New York felt to that particular character at that particular time.
Here’s another example. I like fantasy, and one setting piece you see all the time in fantasy is the Market Scene. We’re going to the market, or riding through the market in a new city, and now we must stop and tell you all the sounds, sights, and smells of the market. There will be people, food odors, and nasty odors. There will be garbage and various exciting things to buy (though we’re actually not going to stop and buy them right now). There will be yelling and maybe a scuffle somewhere.
Far too often, all these markets blend together into one generic ur-market, no matter how lovingly the author describes the exotic spices in the air. And that’s because they’re trying to describe the market from some neutral, external perspective.
Nobody just goes to a market and looks around passively and drinks in the sights, right? If you’re trying to pass through because you don’t know the city well enough to avoid a high-traffic area on your way to the castle, you’re not going to be sniffing the air and admiring the colorful costumes, you’re going to be cussing about the crowds. If you’re scared and running from the authorities, you’re going to see everything in terms of hazard or safety: witnesses, cover, distractions. If you’re a little kid, you’re going to fixate on this one marionette at a toy-seller’s booth and not think about anything else until someone drags you away kicking and screaming.
I’ve often heard the excellent writing advice that you should select details to describe based on what your character would notice, since how they see the world tells us a lot about them. The converse is also true: you can only truly show us a place when you show it through the eyes of a character, with all the emotions and associations that character invests in it.