My earlier ramble/rant about the setting in my own story made me realise that it’s a good premise for a post in general: The Importance of Setting.
Broadly speaking: it’s not important. The microcosmic world of Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a perfect example. A reflection of society as a whole, the same themes could have been shared in a cut-throat office building or a generic overlook of a whole community. While I’m choosing to set my “past” segments in the late 12th century, I should be able to write the same conversation between the same characters in any time, place, or galaxy, and still have their relationship develop along a similar path.
Consistency, however, is crucial. Unless your character gets abducted from 12th century England into outer-space, the setting should be predictable. Fictional world or otherwise, once you make the rules, you have to stick by them. For more on this particular subject, please read the wise words of author Muffy Morrigan on World Building.
Moving from the general to the specific, the same rules hold true. Setting the scene is important, but you shouldn’t include anything that isn’t relevant. If you try to include too many details about, for example, the room your character is in, then you take away from the description as a whole. The reader will get lost in the colour of the divan with the purple upholstery and gold fringes. Unless it’s a commentary on the host’s interesting taste, then specific, intricate details aren’t necessary.
In a lot of cases, readers prefer to develop ideas for themselves about what a particular scene might look like. I try to allow them the courtesy of doing that, by pointing out the general lay of the land, or what’s important for the scene. Sometimes it’s nice to go a little overboard and describe a whole room, and you know what? Go for it. It’s fun to know what’s in a writer’s head. It’s just important to remember that we’re not living in early the 19th century with Dickens getting paid by the word, leading to 35 volume serials that enter into the minutest details about the various blend of colours in the tertiary character’s wallpaper choice.
Everything in moderation.