A useful thing to have as a Writer, and especially a Writer of speculative fiction.
In I See, Therefore I Write I talked about the utility of observation for the Writer in general; but in Fantasy, and its red-headed stepchild, Science Fiction, scenes occur in places that exist only in the Writer's mind. Now I know that the ability to see places which do not exist in the real world, to smell fragrances which occur only in thought, or to hear sounds of no measurable frequency, is to the world at large, and to Pubbers in particular, yet more proof that Writers are HBOP.
Writers of Mystery, Romance, Chick Lit, Thrillers, etc., place their stories oftentimes in either recognizable or known exotic locales for specific reasons; setting produces its own magnetic or repulsive action on the characters, gives its own pleasures, dangers, and opportunities, and has its own particular colors and flavors.
All this is true for the Writer of Fantasy - except that the Place wherein the story is cocooned is not remembered from real life experience and observation, but from dreams, visions, or a good case of fish poisoning (Never eat any Barracuda over four feet long, or one not caught in the open sea). No, Place in Fantasy has its untimely birth in the fevered brain of the Writer.
And Fantasy writers take this very seriously indeed, as witness the many articles, workshops, and books sections on the Art of World-Building in the genre community. Aside from the thorny theological questions raised in the sheer impudence of building a world from scratch, there are many practical and thematic issues involved, such as race, religion, technology, gender (or lack thereof), and language of the inhabitants; flora, fauna, geology, climate, and geography of the Place; and Special Rules, if there any, in reference to any and all magic, powers, weapons, or the like. The mind reels.
But, as in all good Writing, the setting, world-building, or Place may be as important as the characters, and receive as much attention. For the setting not only draws the reader in, mesmerizes them, and drowns them in the fictional dream, buts casts the same spell upon the characters. Indeed, setting may be regarded in some stories as a character.
Different Places and settings cast different spells upon the readers and characters. Some are Holy; as Joseph Campbell once said, 'Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.' Some are in some sense familiar; woods, deserts, seas. Some are Evil; Gorgoroth, the castle of Jadis, Exham Priory. Some are Home; Hobbiton, the Beavers' Dam, The Burrow. Then there are the special Places, the Places to which journeys are made, and from which we return; but I am getting ahead of myself.
Even Places that seem ordinary and commonplace may produce the most magical effects...
All Places do not affect readers in the same way, either. I talked about spending a night in the Bush two posts ago. Would you like to do that? Could you remain still while crabs crawled across your knees as you sat cross-legged for hours? Or fish all day out of sight of land in swells eight feet deep, in water so blue it makes sapphires envious?
Just as characters in fiction may be ordinary, but archetypical, so setting may be mundane, yet primal.
Once we leave our front door, as Bilbo once remarked, the Road beyond may take us anywhere, anywhere at all, on dangerous journeys fraught with the the most horrific hardships, or delightful voyages filled with tears of happiness. Or both.
Because Fantasy Writing must take us Some Where, and into Some Time. It matters not Where, or When, so long as the story is served by the Where and When. It must take us from our comfortable chair or bed to a mysterious mythical magical Place, where we meet strange and wonderful people and animals (or people who are animals, whatever), and from which we return reluctantly. We go Some Where Else, and then we come back.
Further In, and Higher Up, we follow Reepicheep's lead...