It so happens I'd been inching my way toward a chapter in which my main character, Willa, enters a frontier village, hardly more than a hamlet really, one she knew well as a child. I've known this chapter was coming for weeks now, had taken down a few notes about the village, who might be living there, what sort of buildings it might boast, but the setting remained stubbornly amorphous. Finally, in desperation, I grabbed a scrap of paper and a pencil and started drawing a map. It came out very crude, and in laughable scale. There are looping lines for a creek and a river and the main track, little squares for cabins and trade shops. Sets of lines for garden plots.
With this crude map in hand, I lay down on the floor by my desk and walked through the village in my mind. Not only did the physical aspects of the terrain and various structures at last come clear, but the people in them; a shopkeeper and his ancient Irish mother (and most of their life story!), a blacksmith, the miller, a cooper, various farmers and no-good layabouts lounging in store/tavern. I saw where half the old village had been burned by the British and Joseph Brant during the War, places new structures now stand, which old structures survived the razing unscathed or partially burned, where the footpaths lead, where the creek can be forded, in what direction lay key outlying farmsteads... and on and on. All from a rough pencil sketch.
Finally knowing what the tiny village included helped me know in what direction to do further research, like just what sort of grist mill such a village might have, so I can add in bits of description as Willa sees it again for the first time in twelve years. Or a lifetime, which is how it feels to her.
Having trouble establishing a setting? Try a map. I've never needed one before, but in this case it worked its magic.
photo by ixycreativity/flickr