Most writers have the ability to know a place intimately after spending just a little bit of time there. This is the gift that allows writers to make a setting come alive for a place they have maybe only visited once. Even when not trying to, a writer is always observing and taking note of the impressions thing make upon them. It's a blessing an a curse in many ways.
I just returned home from spending three days in Brooklyn. This was the longest period of time I've stayed in NYC since I moved out over five years ago. I never lived in Brooklyn though. I spent ten years in Manhattan and I think I went to Brooklyn maybe ten times in those years. Though part of the same city, these two places are very different. There's a tension to Manhattan that eases once one crosses the East River. Sure, some it lingers. It has to, being so woven into the character of NYC, but it's not all consuming the way it can be on the island. The fact that it was once separate, a city swallowed by another, is a big part of what gives the two places such different vibes. Different vibes tell different stories.
When I visit a place, even for only a few hours or simply driving through, I'm always kind of auditioning it as a setting for a story. I feel it out and see what type of story the place evokes for me and then judge to see if that's the kind of story I want to tell or it matches up with any I've had floating around. I'm like a one-man Olympic committee only without the promise of billions of dollars. Recent winners have been L.A., London, Oxford, San Fran, Maplecrest, Great Barrington. Will Brooklyn be next?
Probably not...it didn't fit any of the stories that are currently running through my head. But down the road, I thought it would make for a great modern Mary Poppins. I'll put that one in my pipe and hold onto it for down the lane apiece.
But that's basically how I go about setting my books. I match the mood of my story with a setting that has a similar feel to me. I'm sure there's other writers who have a much more practical way of going about this.