Setting is more than just the backdrop of a story. Setting can help define the genre the of the piece. It can be used to create conflict, add tension or set a mood in the story. The setting might determine many of the types of characters that will appear in the story and influence the actions of those characters. A vividly described setting will help bring the story alive for the reader.
Choosing a setting from the past will place your writing in the historical fiction genre and allow you to explore lives and events from some time ago. Stories with historical settings can be a vehicle for describing the past, but they can also be used to create create an allegory with the contemporary world. Playwright Arthur Miller did this with "The Crucible." On the surface, the story is set during the Salem witch trials of the 1600s, but Miller was also describing the anti-communist witch hunts of his contemporary 1950s. Choose settings your reader can picture based on background knowledge, like Miller's colonial New England, ancient Rome or Victorian London.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Taking your story well into the future, off to another planet or into an imaginary realm will free you of the need to research realistic details when you describe the setting of the story. Delving into these genres opens up a writer's imagination and creativity when painting a word picture of the sky, the ground, the color of rain and the smell of the soil. Anything can happen in a Harry Potter's Hogwarts or in the dystopian world of the Hunger Games. It's all a matter of how much you as the writer are willing to ask you reader to suspend disbelief.
A writer with an eye for detail and the ability to describe his surroundings has a distinct advantage when placing a story in a contemporary setting for a narrative. Contemporary settings work well for realistic fiction, but they can also be used for mysteries, romances and even horror tales. Writing teachers often advise students to pick settings with which they are familiar. Write about your town, your neighborhood or your school, for example. If you chose a realistic or contemporary setting you don't know, then you will need to do adequate research to create believable detail.
Mood and Tension
You don't always need to begin a narrative by picking a setting. When you know the genre you want to write in and the mood you want to create, the setting may come naturally. Many settings conjure an atmosphere that helps create the tension in the story. Describe for the reader an ancient manor house on the moors during a rain storm, a tropical island shrouded in a nearly impenetrable mist or a park on a breezy spring day and you have already not only created setting but you have also established mood and you may have taken steps toward foreshadowing events that are still to come.
Setting and Conflict
Jack London used setting to create the conflict in stories like "To Build a Fire," in which a man struggles to avoid freezing to death in Northern Alaska. If you want to create in your story in which your protagonist battles the elements, then that will guide your choice for a setting. Think about the type of conditions you want your character to cope with and the possible complications that you can work into the plot. Whether you want your character floating in shark infested waters or stranded on the top of a mountain, do your research to find weather conditions and the wildlife your character will encounter in a struggle for survival.