A published author once told me that a scene with two lovers in the Sahara desert is very different to the same two people in the Arctic circle, even if the dialogue is identical. Because their surroundings will cause them to act differently, behave differently, and ultimately send the story in different directions.
Photo Courtesy of Rich Holman on Flickr
A good rule of thumb is that less is very much more when describing scenery. Ask yourself: what is the minimum I need for the reader to know in order for the scene to make sense to them? Does the reader really need to know that there's a family photo on the mantelpiece in the living room? Only if the photo will provide a juicy plot twist, or deepen the backstory of one of your more intriguing characters later on. If you're just descrbing it for the sake of it, or showing off how wonderful your prose is, then it's safe to say you should dispose of it.
Place is hugely important, whatever your genre. It may well be true that Historical Fiction is the classic example of where you need to get your facts right, and have descriptions of place that are particularly evocative of the era. But place is crucial in, say, Fantasy as well. Is your hero fighting a dragon on top of a volcanic mountain in a desolate landscape, or is he fighting it outside his local tavern? Again, whichever it is, it goes a long way in determining the direction your story is heading in. And that's why establishing place is very important.
A longer version of this blog post originally appeared in the Litopia Writers Community