I'm setting this year's NaNo novel in the Tempe and Phoenix areas of Arizona. (I needed an artsy district for one of my characters and Tempe's Mill Avenue bubbled up in the back of my brain.)
|Madison St. Phoenix, AZ|
I spent over seven years in the Phoenix area, so I'm familiar with the ambiance: the hustle and bustle of the people and the traffic, the oppressiveness of the summer heat, the pleasant chill of winter, the sights and scents and sounds of the dessert city.
What I'm not as familiar with (it's been almost 10 years since I set foot in Phoenix) is the exact location of certain places, the orientation of streets, how far it would be to travel from this point to that.
Enter Google Maps.
With a little research (studio and condo possibilities in the Mill Avenue area plus a place in downtown Phoenix where an old, abandoned, but not yet condemned, hotel wouldn't be out of place) I was able to come up with the general area in which my story takes place.
Long live the Internet age.
Even if you're not familiar with where your story occurs, don't let that stop you from experimenting. It's easy enough to run through Wiki articles on various cities to determine things like climate, native plants and animals, industries, etc. And using Google Maps can help you fill in some of the mundane details until you can get secondhand knowledge from someone who lives in the area or (even better) experience the location for yourself.
Do you set your stories in places you've visited or lived? Do you prefer real settings or towns/cities that you've made up?