I’m currently writing a book which is set on a mythical island somewhere in the South Pacific. (Albatross is the working title of the novel). I want the island to be large enough for the islanders to be self-sufficient, but small enough so the rest of the world would leave them alone. I need the climate to be pleasant enough so that daily life is not a struggle. It would be better if there were no indigenous mammals (for various plot reasons.)
Before the internet, such a setting would probably have been impossible without the author either visiting somewhere similar, or spending hours in libraries doing research. Nowadays we just hit Google images or Google earth and find somewhere suitable. Brilliant. Don’t even have to leave your chair. But of course readers also know a lot more than they used to and are unlikely to put up with vague generalisations or to accept the creation of unlikely places to suit plot. I’m midway through reading Gulliver’s Travels, a fabulous book which stands the test of time, but the idea that you could sail around the Atlantic and suddenly find a 3,000 mile island that no-one had noticed before, certainly stretches incredulity.
But in how much detail do you need to describe your setting? Obviously as the author you need to know about the place, but does the reader need or want to know? I’ve just finished reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set in Africa (on which Apocalypse Now is based). Lots of descriptions of jungle and river, certainly atmospheric, and the novel is about how the setting creates this heart of darkness, but I did find myself occasionally wanting to skip the long descriptive passages. It made sense, when he was writing, to include long descriptions, but the modern reader doesn’t really need this. Anyone who has ever seen a film, watched TV or looked at a photograph can instantly be transported to a place with a few words. In Conrad’s day, this was not possible.
Perhaps in a modern novel, description simply exists to do other jobs, such as creating mood or advancing plot. While you do need a setting to allow the characters to be located somewhere, it can be created in a single sentence. After that, is there any need to describe place, just for the sake of it?