Recently, I've been working on a near-future sf short story. For this story, I needed the name and location of a small town in central Asia. The plot required that the inhabitants of this town belong to a sufficiently small ethnic group for their origin to be identified by their genes. And the town had to be remote enough for no one to notice if its population disappeared pretty much overnight.
I was explaining my dilemma to a friend, and he said, "Why don't you just make one up?"
Fifteen years ago, I'd have had no choice. The town would have to be invented. And if my invented details were a little implausible, it's extremely unlikely anyone would ever notice.
Now, I can use the Web. I can go hunting in Wikipedia, or on Google Maps. Not to mention using online translation tools to read web sites in other languages. I can find a real town to use in my story. And, if I'm lucky, I might even be able to find photographs taken in that town. So when the protagonist of my story visits it, I'll be able to describe the town as it actually is.
I explained this to my friend, and he said, "You could still make one up."
Well, yes. I could. But that's not the point. Science fiction is not about making it up as you go along. If I invent an alien planet, that planet is still subject to the laws of physics - so no breathable atmospheres at 1013.25 millibars on a planet with the same density as Earth but half the diameter. If I set a story on a moon of Saturn (as I have done), then I want it to be as close as possible to the real life moon of Saturn. I have in the past searched the NASA web site for artists' impressions of Saturn's moons - just to learn the angle at which Saturn's rings will appear to a person stood on the surface of a particular moon.
And yet probably no one would ever notice if I got it wrong. The same is true for that central Asian town. Who actually cares if it's real or not?
It's important to me that the details of a story are right at every level. Even if it's fantasy. Or space opera.
And I now have a powerful tool on my desk which allows me to get the details right: the Web.
So if you'll excuse me, I have some research to do...