Second to characters, the world is what generally catches a reader’s interest in a story, assuming it’s done well. The world affects the characters and outline (at least to some extent), so it shouldn’t be neglected.
Now, I speak as a speculative fiction writer, so all of my stories take place in worlds that are at least somewhat fictionalized (even my contemporary stories don’t adhere to specific real-life places most of the time), but this is at least somewhat applicable to all settings.
Find out what’s important to the story
When you’re writing a novel over a longer amount of time you can develop all the details of your world, but when you have a limited amount of time to prepare before a draft you’ll want to start by asking what you need to know about your world for this story. Does your story take place in the palace of your main country? Find out what nobility is like in your world. Are you writing about pirates roaming the open seas in 18th century England? Look up the fashion and how pirates were treated in that time period. Start with what you know you’ll need and then expand from there.
Find out what makes the setting stand out
Find out what makes your setting unique and find a way to spotlight that. If your country is known for its jewelry and fashion, make sure that comes through in the story. If you’re writing a story set in ’50s America, keep in mind the fashion, the cars, and the racial issues. Graceling by Kristin Cashore does a good job of this with the Lienid rings and jewelry, as an example. I want to read the rest of the trilogy if only to learn more about the world it takes place in.
Find out what your characters think of the setting
Has your character lived here all their life? What do they take for granted? How do they respond when they realize there’s something there than they didn’t know about before? (For instance, the other day my aunt and I were talking about the things around town that we hadn’t seen before despite having lived here for ten years.) Or maybe your character is visiting for the first time, or even moving there, and has no idea what to think of the different customs or a different climate. Your character’s perception of the world will affect how the reader perceives the world. It can also be interesting if the character perceives the world much differently than it really is.
Details mean a lot
Similar to the “what makes the setting stand out” point, details can really make a world come to life. Examples that immediately come to mind are the Lienid jewelry in Graceling and the memory scars in Colors of Fear by Hannah Heath. Little details that make the world seem different from our own like that immediately make the reader thirst for more. We want to know more about the world and how these little things came to be and how they tie in with the larger picture. We want to know. So go to what makes the setting stand out and see if you can come up with a couple of details like that that you can sprinkle throughout the story that tie in with the bigger picture.
Want more on how to develop a world? Check out my resource round-up here!