I happen to think setting is very, very important.
Some writers don't. I'll know within a chapter, usually, whether or not the author cares about setting. And even if the story itself turns out to be compelling and enjoyable, overall something will feel generic and flat about it. It's missing the magic of place.
When it comes to storytelling, place is vital. It is the gold that cradles the jewel of the story. It creates an ambience. It reflects a mood, or theme. It provides resonance, and a sense of three dimensions. It evokes emotion. It molds the characters, and influences their paths through the plot. Setting can even be a character in its own right.
The Lord of the Rings stands out as a great work in part because of the magic of place. Imagine if Tolkien had made do with generic trees instead of the great golden Mallorn that housed the Elves, or the brooding, menacing Huorn that came to life to wreak vengeance on the Orcs; or if he'd used generic mountains and tunnels instead of malicious Caradhas and the abandoned glories of Khazad-Dum. LOTR is an extreme example of the setting taking on an almost sentient (well, at times truly sentient) role, but all good books use landscape to add dimension to the story, to give it depth and texture. To make it real. Characters, and the stories that grow from their travails, don't exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by the time in which they live, by culture, and by the land itself.
The latter has been a particular source of inspiration in my own writing: places I've read about, seen photos of, or best of all, traveled to. Because when I'm there, I see and hear and smell things that no text or photo can adequately convey. I can experience the place's own true magic, which is made up of not just physical elements, but also of the resonance of history.
Thus it was that a visit to Hadrian's Wall completely changed the direction of a story idea I'd been brooding on. The wall that ended up in chapter one does not resemble Hadrian's barrier as it now stands (old gray stone worn down to chest height), nor is the landscape precisely the same (the landscape around the real wall is amazing in itself: rolling hills cascading down from the north, cresting abruptly like breaking waves across the breadth of England--with the crumbling wall perched like foam at the glassy lip of the deluge), but what I carried away from it was the symbolic sense of the wall as a divider, not just of geography, but of culture and history. What if the wall in my story was like the Iron Curtain of post-war Europe, a barrier so absolute that one side languished and diminished, cut off from the rest of the world, while the other side prospered? Separated like chemicals in a glow stick, inert until the glass breaks and they rush together in an explosion of light. So in chapter one I introduce two characters, one from each side of the Wall, and when they meet, the thin glass that insulates one culture from another shatters. The physical wall remains intact, but the cultural wall is breached and there's no putting it back the way it was.
That's one part of the story. Another part, which is the main focus of this first volume, required another setting, something far away, something alien from the forests and vales and cold high mountains surrounding the Wall.
The Grand Canyon gave me the seed of this new setting, which I designed to be not quite so vast or deep or inhospitable as the real Canyon, but with all of its beauty and mystery and a good bit of its danger. The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde showed me how people could live in such a canyon, though the rifts supporting the dwellings in my creation are far larger and deeper, and the homes and villages built there are more sophisticated, as is the culture.
And then I came upon a photograph of a slot canyon in Arizona called Antelope Canyon, where the soft sandstone had been sculpted by flashfloods to resemble golden waves. That gave me an idea for a place in the story that later turned out to be a vital plot element: the stone river. Long after I wrote about it, I toured Antelope Canyon myself, both the upper and lower canyons (the blog photos were taken at that time). I've never seen a more magical (and photogenic) place--the light paints an astonishing palette of colors on the canyon walls: every shade of gold, luminous orange, russet, dimming to purple-black in the deepest parts. In formation, the canyon was exactly as I had written about it. I made the colors different--since my version was once an actual, underground river that was hardened into stone, it is shaded gray and blue and green, and there are fish trapped in it. And it is entirely enclosed. But the fantastical shapes of the stone and the mystical aura of the place are much as I had imagined them.
Below are a few of my settings; each location is a place I have visited.
Spanning the narrow waist between the seas was the northern boundary: the Wall—creation of their enemy, the outer limit of their cage. Still partially muffled under a tattered blanket of river mist, it undulated across low hills like the weathered spine of some monstrous creature. Riordan both marveled at the skill of the men who had built it and nourished a bone-deep hatred for it. For nearly two hundred years, the Cuhlnari had been trapped behind it to grow weak and diminished, while the conquering Keldians waxed fat and numerous on stolen land. (Hadrian's Wall--northern England)
They stood in the midst of an underground ocean. He could think of no other word to describe what he saw: pale stone that lapped around and over them in frozen waves, fluted and rumpled and delicately curled, as though the ripples and currents of the sea had been petrified into a silent dance. He reached up and touched a breaker that arced over him, by all appearances stilled at the moment of cresting. It was like touching ice, but ice that was as dry as ancient bone.
But Yakoba unexpectedly answered, "The stone river was made by my people. But very long ago." He settled the straps of his pack across his shoulders and started forward along a thread-like passage that disappeared around the lip of a wave. The startling brilliance of his light bleached the stone to stark white and tossed back knife-edged shadows. ...
Faintly, through the fur on his coat, he could feel the stone bleeding cold against his back. A knob of something protruded against one shoulder. He twisted around to look and met the bulbous eyes of a fish staring at him.
He flinched. It was a fish, but one made of stone, alabaster white, with gaping mouth and blind, bulging eyes. He could see fins and tail and arching body trapped in the translucent rock, but the head protruded, as though the creature tried to leap free. A bead of moisture slipped across the rigid slats of its gills and dripped on Riordan's hand.
He looked up to track the runnel of water to its source and saw droplets springing through tiny pores in the rock, as if the stone wept—or was melting from within.
An answering sweat trickled down his sides like liquid frost. He remembered the fish-like shapes he'd seen earlier. This stone river whose bed he walked was not some fanciful road carved out of rock, but an actual river, somehow captured in its underground rush to the sea and forced into unnatural stillness. And the path they so carelessly trod through frozen currents was no more than a dark artery of air submerged in the torrent. (Antelope Canyon--Page, Arizona)
Entranced, chilled, she watched as the selyf sank into the shadowed deeps of the canyon. The sun, poised like a live coal on the far rim, sparked a stray glint from his aureate eyes and gold from the wing tips. He dropped lower to blend with the shadows on the canyon floor, moving through them like a fish through water, floating in and out of patches of dusk. Then he was lost to her sight, drowned in the advancing tide of twilight.
It was rare to see a selyf so close, rare that any of their number descended from their halls of ice in the Urtz mountains and ventured into the hot dry lands of mortal men. Once, in her great-grandmother's time, a selyf had taken the form of a man and stolen away the Headman's third sister to be his wife.
Or so the story went.
She cast a final look into the spreading darkness below. The sun's dying light painted the upper canyon walls and the tips of thrusting stone spires with lambent strokes of bronze and sulfur, layered with cooler swathes of amethyst and gray. Far below, the river shone faintly through the dusk like a curving silver wire. (The Grand Canyon--Arizona)
The first rift not only had the prestige of being high up in the Lur, but was also the most spacious—a wide, gaping mouth splitting the eastern face of the canyon, with a massive ledge like an outthrust lower lip. The rift shelved deeply into the canyon wall, providing ample room for the dwellings of the Headman, his wives, servants, and concubines, while its floor jutted nearly as far outward over the canyon. With each successive generation, improvements and innovations were added. The natural cavern behind what was now the Second Wife's house had been traditionally used to store wine. One of the Headman's ancestors, who desired concealed storage for his private collection of rare vintages, had enlarged the dark warren of crevices behind the cavern. It was in one of these rooms that Saree had taken refuge when she arrived, exhausted and frightened, ten days ago. (Mesa Verde--Colorado)
To the east, towering cliffs slipped past, alive with nesting birds and darkly pocked with caves. (The coast of Cornwall)
Beyond the hills, the Temple buildings were clearly visible, as pristine and fragile as a scattering of eggshell in their nest of pine and spruce. (The whitewashed little villages of the Alpajarra mountains in southern Spain)
After so long in darkness, the sudden brilliance stabbed knives at his eyes. He struggled to sit up. Spots swarmed in front of him like glowflies, and he blinked away tears, squinting.
Not glowflies. The fire had become a herd of spitting, furious flames that hopped and snapped and scattered on swift hot feet to every corner of the cavern. Which was huge—a domed chamber where fangs grew from floor and ceiling, sometimes joined at the tips to form needle-waisted columns. Great draperies of stone hung in frozen grace, and where flame skirmished with shadow behind them, he saw that the stone was as delicate and translucent as human skin. (Carlsbad Caverns--New Mexico)
On the fifth day, they descended into a long valley that cut a lush crescent between two mountains and was dotted with small lakes that glinted in the sun like wafers of polished steel. Scattered herds of antelope grazed the golden autumn grass, their stubby black tails flickering constantly as they twitched at flies. Taliyr called an early halt so the men could hunt, and they made camp against the foot of a mountain at the valley's southern end, near a pool wreathed in thin mist.
Alazne left Espe to badger Akil into helping with the women's tent, and approached the pool. Odd rock formations scalloped the shore, slick and pale, like shelves of ice around a pond in early winter, while the pool itself was shallow and its muddy bottom layered in color—gold, jade, turquoise, and rich brown. She realized that the vapor clinging to the pool was not mist but steam, smelling of brimstone and something else that bit at her nostrils. It drifted against her face, damply warm and pungent, leaving her skin cold again as the moisture evaporated. She knelt and tentatively dipped one finger in the water.
It was startlingly hot. She jerked her finger back and stared into the depths of the pool with amazement, wondering where a fire was hidden that could heat water like this. (Yellowstone Park)
The keep lay in shattered pieces across the hump of a mountain, like a beast that died where it fell, with the forest growing around and through its bones. (Wildschloss, an abandoned robber-baron's castle in Liechtenstein)
The city of Sharal crowned the bones of its own ancestors like an ivory diadem on a corpse. Underneath, the remains of its elders were stacked one upon another, skeletal apartments and alleys, gardens and ghettoes, forgotten by all except criminals, ghosts, and homeless scavengers like Lir. ... They traveled down, into places where the accumulated weight of the layered cities seemed to press the air right out of the lungs. Lir carried a supply of oil and wicks for her lamp and zealously guarded its flame. A few previous explorers had left their bones along the way like posted warnings. (Rome's ancient, buried undercity)
(All of the above excerpts are from The Knife-Giver, except for the last one, which is taken from "Dragon's Eye.")