As a writer who really gets into the imagery, I prefer to use places that I've been for my settings. That way, I can really describe what I saw, heard, felt, and even smelled. Now, with that said, it doesn't mean that I don't use fictional names for those places...just to give the story a little charm.
For example, my Possum Creek series which includes Coming Home and A Home For Dixie and the upcoming Home Safe is a fictional town in the Smoky Mountain foothills close to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The reason that I chose this setting is because I absolutely LOVE that area and have been there several times. In fact, one of these days I hope to be able to buy my very own mountainside cabin as a hideaway from the world. I love the scent of the mountains with the mountain laurel, red bud trees in the spring, rhododendron, the fragrance of falling leaves and wood fires from the chimneys of the cabins. There's nothing quite like smoke on the mountains and the bold colors of autumn foliage or the smell of horses as you ride out on a frosty autumn morning.
In my stand alone contemporary romance Yesterday's Promises, the setting is in the hills of Kentucky which is also another favorite place for me to go. Up until last year, I had a dear friend who lived down there and when day to day life got to be too much I knew I could go down there and just hide away and enjoy the peace and quiet that sitting in a rocker on the front porch can bring. You have the beautiful thoroughbred horses in the pasture land along interstate 75 and the barn quilts that grace the age old barns. There are small towns with friendly people. Alas, now when I want to visit my friend all I have to do is walk down the road a piece and my visits to Kentucky since then have been for business or book signings.
My Sisters series which includes Blessed Be takes place at a fictional lakeside town in the northern Midwest. This town is truly fictional and was a little bit more difficult to add imagery, but I did manage to drum up some of my memories of being at the lake in northern Indiana when I was a young girl for writing this series.
Of course, my all time favorite setting--especially for paranormal--is the Crescent City. There's nothing like the steamy seductive setting of New Orleans with its wealth of history. Haunted history. The ghosts of time gone by in the form of pirates, plantation owners, voodoo priests and priestess, ship captains, and the illustrious prostitutes that wandered up and down the streets of the French Quarter. Smoky blues and feisty jazz...sidewalk artists and street performers...mule drawn carriages and streetcars...The city in itself breathes romance and seduction.
Along with my own knowledge of the locations that I use for settings off my romance novels, I also do a ton of research. That is especially true when I use the actual city as the setting because I want to make sure that if a reader from the city or region can be able to relate to the accuracy of locations and history. Now, do I research ahead of time? Of course not! I'm not a plotter or a planner...I'm a fly by the seat of my pantser. My stories take form as I go so when I need to accurately depict a location or a bit of history I don't know I end up flipping open the browser and Googling what I need to know. I've looked at maps in the middle of the night and read about horrific histories over lunch. My end goal...to make sure that my readers are engaged in every minute detail of my stories!
So, it's all about location...for more about how romance writers pick their settings go see what Carrie Elks has to say on her blog at http://www.carrieelks.com