From Homer’s Odyssey, writers from Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac have created haunting travel literature that can take the reader across the Ionian Sea, aboard a raft down the muddy Mississippi River, or on a a walk down a narrow, dimly lit lane in Greenwich. Town.
a brilliant writer transposes extraordinary landscapes seamlessly from eye to page, framing believable settings for their characters and events – often the result of detailed research documented in their trusty travelogues.
Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s road trip across America with the birth of his poodle Travel with Charley (1962), while 007 author Ian Fleming recounted his globe-trotting adventures in Thrilling cities (1963). Agatha Christie, author of Death on the Nile (1937), put his desire to travel at the center of his novels.
When writing Murder on the Orient Express (1934), she spent long periods in Room 411 of Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel recording train routes while connecting with the sights, sounds and scents of the city.
As she said of traveling and writing, “You go from one life to another. You are yourself, but a different me. The new self is unfettered by all the hundreds of spider webs and threads that cocoon you in everyday domestic life.
We asked five fiction writers to tell us about their muse of travel – the destinations that inspired their stories and their lasting appeal, and the emotional connection between discovering new frontiers and the inspiration that comes from it.
Vanessa O’Loughlin (pseudonyms Sam Blake and Vanessa Fox)
I caught up with detective novelist O’Loughlin just before she left for Paris to research details about her current work.
“Travel is an integral part of my creative process. I am inspired by the place, but also by the people I meet. I’m very curious and, like Maeve Binchy, I listen to all kinds of conversations,” she said.
While her books are mostly set in Ireland, she often creates stark contrasts in her novels by shifting her literary focus to a new setting. The genesis for The dark room (2021) was an unexpected moment in Cornwall, where she vacations every year.
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“I was sitting by Frenchman’s Creek, with the ruin that would end up in the Hare’s Landing estate in West Cork, just across the river. The image of a girl jogging along the beach with a German Shepherd chasing her came to mind and I had to find out who she was and what she was doing there.
Speaking of settings, she says, “It’s the influence they have on character and story, from a dreary rural landscape or a wild beach to a gritty cityscape. Look at me (2020) is set in Dublin, New York, and London, and started when I started chatting with someone in line for a plane.
“For me, the places where chance encounters can happen are where stories meet. I love St Pancras Station for this reason.
It is this chance of travel that can lead to a character in its own right: “A journey in the subway delivered Brioni O’Brien, the protagonist of my last book, remember my name. When a girl with bright pink hair jumped out just as the doors were closing – light bulb moment. It was as if she had jumped into the story that I was preparing at the time.
With travel restrictions eased, O’Loughlin plans to start moving again.
“Next week, I’m going to Paris to explore an idea that’s been bothering me for a while…”
Novelist and short story writer O’Connell is slow to move from his northern corner of the beautiful Iveragh Peninsula in southern County Kerry, preferring to work on his craft at his desk instead.
“Travel has sometimes been perceived as a distraction, even though this apparent ‘distraction’ has become the source of much creativity. Dubai was not a place I visited in search of history, but my travels there inspired me Dive for pearls [his highly acclaimed novel from last year].”
However, after many years of metropolitan life, the author has dropped anchor in his native kingdom and discovered that new frontiers can be explored in his own remarkable part of the world without wandering far from home.
“Kerry is great at inspiration,” he says. “I have the Collins Press walking books for Carrauntoohil and other places. I didn’t think after 17 years of living in the city [Dublin] I would settle into country life during Covid, but it’s a beautiful part of the world.
The home base gives him a personal connection that transcends all others.
“Lately I’ve been wanting to examine the finer details of smaller sights closer to home. Each day I walk along the Kenmare Estuary noting how a particular sight changes with the passing hours – how the sky, wind, humidity and tide affect the landscape. The beginnings of a new novel are born from this experience.
“Marcel Proust once wrote: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ Although writing can be stimulated by travel, it is most beneficial if it unlocks the true inner journey.
Originally from Co Clare, the English presenter and author weaves stories where the characters are separated by centuries and continents – like her novel The letter home (2022), where the setting shifts from modern Boston to famine-stricken western Ireland. It is this landscape, particularly the Burren, that features regularly in his work.
“Last summer, I spent a week here pounding the trails and hills after months of confinement. When it felt like the walls were closing in, the wide-open landscape looked like paradise. Most enjoyed by all was a sound I hadn’t heard since I was a child – the repeated calls of a cuckoo,” she says.
A regular visitor to the Burren since childhood, English recalls the limestone walls and tea flasks in a narrow lane near Kilnaboy Church: “In fine weather, with the flowers in bloom, this may be the quietest imaginable. In winter, with the roaring Atlantic wind, it can feel dark and intimidating.
Author and actor Carroll doesn’t have to think twice when it comes to his favorite destination.
“Without a doubt, New York, or more precisely Manhattan. What’s not to like? There really is something for everyone, from world class theater to shopping and all the fabulous art galleries and museums you could perfectly well waste an entire day in.”
It’s a love that inspired his novel Meet me in Manhattan (2015) and it dates back to his teenage years when his father participated in the New York City Marathon every year.
“He was taking me with my mother and my brothers for the trip. Well, we didn’t know we were born. Mind you, New York was so different back then, it was a time when tourists feared being mugged at night and knife crime was rampant. And yet I had found my little corner of paradise.
It’s the city’s unquenchable spirit that has inspired the author to return, time and time again.
“To see how the city has since reinvented itself is truly amazing. Nothing, absolutely nothing can ever bring this city down. NYC came back to life after the 911 tragedy and now, post Covid, the city is doing exactly the same. I have already planned my next visit and I am counting the days.”
For some writers, the relationship between travel and writing is fraught with angst, but it still oils the creative process. Morris, a multi-award winning writer and editor at The stinging fly news magazine, can relate.
“Personally, I find it difficult to travel. It wasn’t until the last few years that I realized it was because I struggled with anxiety. I’m quite a confident person in my own environment, but once abroad I can crumble a bit,” he says.
“I hesitate to ask for help and I feel very embarrassed by my ignorance, by the fact that I don’t speak the language. In reality, no one is watching, but I can’t get out of my head. I’m starting to feel like an intrusion.
“It’s a very private kind of anxiety. Intellectually I believe people should be able to live and travel wherever they want, but emotionally I can feel very uncomfortable when I’m abroad.
When city life and work got the better of him, he felt drawn to the west coast and the charms of Galway city.
“In my early twenties, I once spontaneously quit a job. It was in Dublin. As I was trying to explain to my boss why I was leaving, I just felt this irresistible urge to run away to Galway , to be by the sea. And it’s a city that’s held that hold on my mind for a long time. In this last decade, at my lowest point, I’ve been to Galway, I’ve seen friends and I came back purged and renewed in an essential way.
For Morris, the undeniable connection between travel and the literary process happened without warning in Switzerland one summer day. It was “one of the most peaceful moments of my life in Bern”.
“It was a June evening, sitting in front of a café with a friend, having a beer. The calm, the setting sun, the buildings with wooden slatted shutters. I felt a kind of tranquility that I often only feel when reading Hermann Hesse. I said to my friend: “I feel like I’m in a Hermann Hesse novel”.
“And she said, ‘It’s funny, because he lived here. “”