I think most fiction focuses on uncomfortable settings because that's interesting. —N. K. Jemisin
Early in my career, I had an idea for a book about two girls who get trapped in a fantasy novel and accidentally kill the heroine in the first chapter. (She turns to glass and they knock her over. Oops!) One of them has already read the book and knows that the heroine gets her heart’s desire at the end, so the two girls agree to do their best to follow the original plot so that they can wish to get home.
I wanted it to be a combination female buddy-movie story and a sendup of some of the most famous fantasy novels ever written. When I came up with the idea, I was delighted by it. This book is going to be hilarious, I thought. It’ll practically write itself!
It did not write itself.
When I sat down to tackle the book, I realized that I had no idea what should happen. Either in the plot of the “original” book (the nonexistent Queen of Twilight) that the girls were trying to follow, or in the accidental new story that they were creating (The Wizard, The Witch, and Two Girls From Jersey) as they stumbled across the fantasy land to make their wish.
I didn’t know where to begin. After a few false starts, I realized that I needed the one thing that all good fantasy books have: a map.
How did a map help?
I drew the fictional land of Galma and the route the girls were supposed to take....along with the route they ended up taking. Once I had the map, it was easy to see the kind of problems they would encounter, the people they might meet, and the trouble they could get into.
These days, I don’t always draw a map, but I do always make sure to explore my main settings before I launch into a first draft, because settings reveal opportunities for things to happen.
Observe settings to understand how your character may react in that environment
The key to observing settings is to ask where the “hotspots” are. By this, I mean that it is hot with opportunities for emotional response from the characters and the reader. In a bedroom, there might be a beloved object that holds a secret. In a neighborhood, there might be a neighbor who is constantly angry, or welcoming, or reclusive. In a store, there might be something that someone covets. N.K. Jamieson is right—good settings are often uncomfortable because that discomfort causes the characters to react.
In Bookflow, settings are located under the Characters+ tab. When you create a new character, there’s a drop-down menu to mark what type of character it is, which includes place. That’s because settings have a personality. Characters interact with them and vice versa.