One of the things I’ve noticed in reading (and writing) is that some settings aren’t done the justice they deserve. It’s especially noticeable in certain types of settings–have you ever noticed how the ocean in frequently described as salty in some way? And that deserts almost always have some sort of punishing sun or heat?
Part of that can be put down to the fact that not everyone has been to these kinds of settings and while research is great, it doesn’t replace actually being there. To get around that however, it helps to remember you are a writer. You don’t have to follow the same old routines everyone else has.
Exercise: try tapping into your basic senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Take a hundred words each and write down what it would be like to be there. You can try it out on describing your hometown or your current location first to help you get the hang of it. Remember to look beyond the obvious.
Sight is one of the most common senses to tap into since imagery goes hand in hand with writing. To mix it up, remember to consider how different it looks in the early morning versus the late evening, when the lighting conditions are similar.
Sound doesn’t just constitute voices, birds or the loud distracting noises. Think about the quieter sounds made by materials such as cloth or grass. How does the air sound when it’s moving? This can be a huge indicator of incoming weather and is a great foreshadowing tool.
Smell ties in with taste, but can be easier to handle. Some things have an easy smell to characterize such as a perfume or wet garbage. Other things can help tap into the hidden senses people have. Fear is a common thing to smell. Hot and cold both have distinct scents, but they’re hard to describe. Your characters might have different ways of describing the same thing.
Taste is one of the harder ones to handle. You don’t necessarily want your characters eating and drinking all the time, but those are two ways to help solidify the reality of the setting. (Side note: When characters are feeling blue or disappointed, it’s very common to make everything ‘taste like sawdust’. Be aware of that when writing.) Also take into consideration that smell affects taste–a strong odor might leave a faint taste behind.
Touch is engaged all the time. Not just when we’re holding something or manipulating it with our hands, but also when we’re walking. How does the ground feel under your feet, does it stand firm or cushion your steps? This is also a good place to describe temperature, but also to help characterize individuals. Someone with dry skin might notice the heat directly while someone else might be more inclined to feel sweaty.