Danielle's recent post on world building reminded me, probably unintentionally, of something I often think about when I hear people talk about world building: it's not just for people who write fantasy and sci-fi. Pretty much every world building discussion I've ever heard or read focuses on those genres, so writers of real-world fiction turn off or go elsewhere when the subject comes up. Although I understand why these discussions need to focus on genres that rely largely on made up worlds, they make many points that are important to writers who base their work in the here-and-now.
When it comes down to it, every work of fiction is set in a fantastical world, the world where the point-of-view characters live. A character's environment is more than just setting. It's also a part of the conflicts the character must resolve. This is because the character's environment is shaped, as is each of ours, by the characters own perceptions and experiences. Perceptions and experiences create a kind of personal fictional world that we each live in and believe to be real, but it's only real in our own personal way for each of us.
The same way that a space traveler who crash-lands on a strange planet must explore that planet and discover how he is going to interact with it, a fictional character whose car breaks down in Salt Lake City has to explore his world, or a student at a new school, or a woman in a new relationship, or a teenager whose parents won't let her go to the big dance with that boy, or whatever. Every character's story includes the way that character interacts with a world that seems to be against him achieving his goals.
While it's not necessary for a real-world author to figure out how the world's two moons affect the planet's gravity and tides, or which mountain pass is especially dangerous because dragons and trolls breed there, or what the world's currency system is, or any of the many things that must be decided to make an invented world feel real and believable, it is still necessary to invent your character's view of the world, and how that world affects the character. This requires many of the same skills required of the fantasy author.
So next time you find yourself in a discussion of world building, don't think of it as a good time to check your email or play Angry Birds. Listen. If you adapt what you hear to fit your own needs, you'll get useful information. That dragon-infested mountain pass is the area of the high school where the jocks and cheerleaders hang out, and your nerdy misfit character has to get through it to get to his girl who deserted the chess club in an attempt to somehow get the attention of the star halfback she's been crushing on. It might take some creative listening, but we're creative people.
Besides, sometimes if you turn it off for a while and do something else, you'll come back to Angry Birds and finally beat that stupid level you can't seem to get past.