Making the readers of your story or article feel comfortably immersed in the localities you are writing about can be a difficult task. When placed in real-world locales, a writer can easily place too much emphasis on street names, local businesses, or the history of the area. Too much research material and extraneous detail can create more confusion for the reader than clarity of sight for imagining the place setting.
Without overburdening the narrative with too much detail, one still needs to find the proper balance to help the reader feel they have just walked out their door and into the new location and feel they are actually there. It is the “feel” of a place, be it Main Street, a local hangout, or an historical landmark, that needs to be emphasized, much more than the history of the place unless a part of that history is an integral element of the plot. Think more of the sounds a person might hear in this location. If it is a crowded street, the chatter of passers-by and the rumble of traffic will help set the mood better than knowing which street corner your characters are standing on.
The sense of smell can come into play. Is the air sea-salty, desert arid? What vegetation would be in the area to perfume the air or would an open-air market be around to fill the nose with the smell of exotic spices? Even a modern suburban locale may be made more real by the smell of an outdoor barbeque than a description of the uniformity of the buildings and whether there are fenced in yards or open spaces. These things, too, will still help make the area real to the reader, but it is the ambiance that can better convey a sense of place for the reader of a story.
While it is the job of the writer to fill in enough detail that the reader can visualize their surroundings, too much detail will merely bog down the story unless they are necessary to the plot. A prime example is William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” where he tells of all the bits left out of his grandfather’s readings when he was a child.
In order to get a feel for a place you have never been, you will have to do research. In this modern age, the Internet is the most excellent tool you could have for this purpose. As well as written descriptions of a location, you can find photographs and video that can give the writer a first-person feel for the sights and sounds that can be experienced. Once you have become familiar with this ambiance, it is easier to pick out what parts will most effectively relay the mood of your story to the reader.
Don’t fear making use of certain common factors that are stereotypical of a specific locale. Your reader will be familiar with the bustle of a busy downtown street for example and will not need more than a brief mention of the impatient rumbling of the hurried traffic to have their own experience of the noise and smells to fill in the details. Be careful, however, that you don’t fall too deeply into cliche. Just because you are by the ocean doesn’t mean all you have to mention is the salt-smelling breeze. Those who have never left their inland homes may not realize that fragrant breeze can also be interpreted as “fishy.”
A good story is intended to convey the greatest meaning with the fewest words. Practice at being able to describe widely varied locations effectively. This will give your reader a greater “presence” in the locale without greatly distracting them from the plot and action of the story as it unfolds around them.