Ask any realtor the three things that sell a house and they'll tell you exactly that — location, location, location. Exactly how does that relate to writing? To write about something with some authority, the author usually draws on experience. Exactly how does a writer describe a Martian landscape? That is called imagination and science blended together hand-in-hand to enrapture the reader. Otherwise, the writer draws on experience, the been-there, done-that knowledge.
Imagine having never been to Paris or visited the Eiffel Tower. You have only seen a picture and talked to one person who left France about twenty years ago. As a writer, you might be able to pull off a perfect scene but if you truly want to immerse the reader in the locale, you'll need more than a beret, bagel and bicycle to give that great French experience.
Today, the internet has blossomed into a wonderful explosion of experiences. Research can take you to a small bistro or cafe on some Rue de Whatever and you can not only hear the ambiance of the locale, but also watch a video and experience what the moment has to offer (Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jQ5sdfT_10). Of course, you won't be able to truly smell the place, but if it is a Parisian cafe, the scents should be common to any other bistros to which you can visit and expound.
Back to the Eiffel Tower — there are videos of the elevator ride (Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Ine0AprAY) which allows to understand the scope of the experience which you, the writer, can then convey to your reading audience. Imagine showing the experience of traveling up the elevators to the top and watching the world expand before you. Rather than stating I rode the elevator to the top you can write As the elevator lifted upward, we continued to pass landing after landing of the steps for those who wished to walk. Paris continued to spread out as more and more of it became visible. Notice the difference?
In my novel, 2012: Timeline Apocalypse, one reader told me he enjoyed my descriptions so much he felt compelled to take his family to Palenque for vacation. He sent me pictures of them at some of the locations in my book and said I was "spot on" for many. Truth? I've never been there. I used the internet and local library for research. BUT, in my defense, while I was in the Navy, I went through the Panama Canal, circa 1966 and was totally amazed at the jungle and yes, partially hidden natives with spears. Since the jungle and natives were less than 20-30 feet from the edge of the ship at times, we were told to stay inside for our own protection. An open porthole was my view out to this mysterious and wonderful world. I used my experience and interwove it with my research for that particular story.
A friend of mine wrote a story that takes place in Washington, DC and I enjoyed it as the characters moved through the streets I recognized. I knew the locations being detailed and the story was truly alive for me until … She had the character being chased through Union Station. I rode a train to work every day for several years and walked through Union Station, its corridors, massive open spaces, stores and restaurants constantly since my office was across the street. A simple "her heels clicked on the linoleum…" tripped me out of the story. The Union Station floor is marble. Period.
My novel, Three Steps: The Journeys of Ayrold has scenes that occur on Connecticut Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. It describes locales around the Woodley Park Metro station. I worked in the area and even took the time to visit, at that time, the Sheraton Hotel, which stood stately atop the hill there. The scene was written as my experience including the elevator ride, talking to the concierge and even visiting the floor where my one character resided. I noted the decor including the pictures, furniture, windows and even hallways so I could add my mark of mysticism to the tale yet reveal the reality. One of my beta-readers recognized the taco restaurant I described — imagine our surprise, we both worked a few blocks from each other at that time. By describing the locale of the period, I have locked a segment of history into my book.
Even imaginary locations must reside within the confines of reality. Consider the Martian landscape. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his John Carter of Mars series and used the knowledge of the time to immerse his readers in the tales about the happenings on a far-away world. In his novels, water channels were deep within canyons or hidden in caverns. He used Mars' light gravity to create his character's abilities and also to design that world's possible flight capabilities.
Imaginary locales don't need to be alien. A writer can create a small, rural community or a metropolitan city any place desired. Consider Metropolis or Gotham City. Both are fictional, but are supposedly based on real locations. In fact, my latest novel, The Secret Voice takes place in NW Ohio. The towns and villages I named are fictional but based on real locations. By using a real location, I was able to know what I needed and where it was positioned within the community and that community within the local area.
When writing, remember, location is important. A writer must know where s/he is placing the character. Nothing worse than having a location 20 miles away and being able to bike there in ten minutes. Most rural communities, small-town America, don't have skyscrapers. It's all about location, location, location.