Have you ever been told to “write what you know?” Is so, you’re not alone. It’s one the first things that I remember being told. When you’re starting out as a writer, I agree that you should stick with things that you’re familiar with. If you’ve lived only in rural towns, don’t get ahead of yourself and write a story set in Tokyo.
But, as a writer becomes more familiar in the realm of writing, that advice changed from “write what you know,” to “know what you write.” If you want to set a story in Tokyo, go right ahead. BUT, do your homework. Yes, living in the city would help gather sensory details and visuals, but thanks for the internet, it’s not a have-to. You are one Google search away from Tokyo.
If you want to set a story in a fantasy world, it helps to have a real location in mind. In my Devil’s Blood series, I loosely based Belle City on St. Louis with tastes of Chicago. I’ve been to both cities and each time I’ve taken pictures for reference. What does it smell like? What’s the color scheme? How is the modern mixed with industrial? For St. Louis, I loved the old river city vibe. For Chicago, it was the big-city bustle.
In your fantasy story, what real location comes close? You can pick as many as you’d like. If you can, visit that real location. What plants grow there? What kind of people live there? What’s the culture like? What’s the food like? Do they have taboos and stigmas? What kind of religion is there? What’s the air smell like? What sounds happen at night?
These questions can help you enrich your story’s world. Now, maybe you’ve got the imagination of a hundred people and don’t think you need to visit or research. That’s fine, too. After all, it’s your story that you’re writing.
I believe that research is important. You don’t have to be an expert to write a story with cowboys, or horses, or a police investigation, but it’s best to have as much information at your fingertips as possible. Nothing dispels the magic of a crime novel than cheesy or wrong police proceeding.