You’re neither blind nor stupid, I’m sure, so I’ll dispense with the usual cliched triple repetition of the word. Writing it once will suffice.
Whether it’s a poem, short story, or novel, the setting of a piece of writing is paramount. Character and Plot are significant cornerstones of writing, but Character and Plot without Setting become meaningless. You could have the most attractive 50-year-old grizzled cop with obligatory tragic backstory in the world; you could have a compelling serial killer, the newest twisted motivations and psychological methods, the best cross-town car chases and parking lot shootouts; and it would all be for nothing without a good setting.
Setting tells the reader where these interesting characters are rooted: where the villains are plotting their dastardly plots, what hometown the hero is from, where they’ve chosen to work and play. A basic setting can give away the genre; it can separate High Fantasy from Urban Fantasy (I’ll give you a clue: forest or city?). A more detailed setting can do wonders for the mood; it can tell the reader whether your forest is a sunshine-filled glade brimming with singing elves or a dark overgrown tanglewood.
Not having a location means your characters are performing in a white box. Setting anchors your story. It doesn’t have to be described down to the paint chips on the windowsills, but it does have to be more than just “a house.” Is it an abandoned shed out in the middle of nowhere? A busy city apartment? What country is it in? What time period? What does it feel like, smell like, what can you hear? Detailing the setting adds depth to your writing, makes your reader believe for a moment that they’re really there.
And then you have the choice of using a fictional location or a real location, or some combination of the two.
For example, in the first two books in The Christchurch Chronicles series, my characters travel down Lake Tekapo (a real place) and into the Tekapo Canal (see the picture above; also a real place, albeit somewhat modified for the purposes of my story) in a solar-powered hydro-pod (completely fictional, to the best of my knowledge). Basing fictional events in a largely real place allowed me to research the location, checking river names and compass points so that the events of that scene could conceivably happen in that place to those people in the future.
The level of realism to use when drawing from real locations depends on the situation and the writer. In real life, the Tekapo Canal flows out of the south end of Lake Tekapo; if I’d said in that scene that it flowed out of the east side, it would be a breach of reality that would throw anyone familiar with the area right out of the book.
If I’d used a fictional lake, I could have made the canal flow out of any side of it that I liked, and it wouldn’t have mattered. But because I was basing that scene on a real location, I needed to get the details right. Get the details wrong and your readers laugh at you and put the book down; get them right and it enhances the depth of experience to no end. The wrong details will leave the experts shaking their heads and the amateurs believing false information; the right details teach them as much about the world as any paragraph in a high-school textbook.
Setting enriches the writing, informs the reader, and helps you as the writer to see the world you’ve made. How do you pick settings? Do you prefer real-world locations or fictional ones?