Ever since Homer’s Odyssey, writers from Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac have crafted spellbinding travel literature that can spirit the reader across the Ionian Sea, aboard a raft on the muddy Mississippi River, or on a ramble through a narrow, dimly-lit laneway in Greenwich Village.
brilliant writer transposes extraordinary landscapes seamlessly from the eye to the page, framing credible settings for their characters and events – which is often the result of detailed research documented in their trusty travelogues.
Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s road trip across America with his poodle spawned Travels with Charlie (1962), while 007 author Ian Fleming chronicled his globe-trotting adventures in Thrilling Cities (1963). Agatha Christie, author of Death on the Nile (1937), brought her wanderlust center stage to her 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 to the city’s sights, sounds and scents.
As she said about travel and writing: “You step from one life into another. You are yourself, but a different self. The new self is untrammelled by all the hundreds of spiders’ webs and filaments that enclose you in a cocoon of day-to-day domestic life.”
We asked five fiction writers to tell us about their travel muse – the destinations that inspired their stories and their enduring 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 crime novelist O’Loughlin just before she set off to Paris to investigate details for her current work.
“Travel is integral to my creative process. I’m inspired by location, but also by the people I meet. I’m very curious and, like Maeve Binchy, I listen in to all sorts of conversations,” she said.
While her books are mainly set in Ireland she often creates stark contrasts in her novels by shifting her literary lens 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 close to Frenchman’s Creek, with the ruin that would end up in the grounds of Hare’s Landing in west Cork right across the river. The image of a girl jogging along the beach with a German Shepherd at her heels arrived in my head and I had to find out who she was and what she was doing there.”
Talking of settings, she says: “It’s the influence they have on character and story, from a bleak rural landscape or wild beach, to a gritty urban cityscape. Keep Your Eyes on Me (2020) is set in Dublin, New York and London, and began when I started chatting to someone in the queue for a plane.
“Locations where chance meetings can happen, for me, are where stories meet. I love St Pancras Station for that reason.”
It’s that randomness of travel that can lead to a full character: “A trip on The Tube delivered Brioni O’Brien, the protagonist in my latest book, Remember My Name. When a girl with bright pink hair leapt on just as the doors were closing — lightbulb moment. It was as if she’d jumped into the story I was brewing at the time.”
With travel restrictions eased O’Loughlin plans to get moving again.
“Next week I’m off to Paris to explore an idea that’s been pulling at me for a while…”
Novelist and short story writer O’Connell is slow to budge from his northerly corner of the exquisitely beautiful Iveragh Peninsula in south Co Kerry, preferring instead to work on his craft at his desk.
“Travel has sometimes felt like a distraction, though this apparent ‘distraction’ has become the source of much creativity. Dubai was not somewhere I visited looking for a story, however my trips there inspired Diving for Pearls [his highly acclaimed novel from last year].”
However, after many years living a metropolitan lifestyle, the author has set down anchor in his native Kingdom and discovered new frontiers can be explored in his own remarkable part of the world without wandering far from home.
“Kerry is great for 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’d 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.
“In recent times I’ve been keen to examine the finer details of smaller views closer to home. Each day I walk along Kenmare Estuary noting how a particular view alters with the passing hours – how the sky, the wind, the humidity, and the tide affect the landscape. The beginnings of a new novel are rising out of this experience.
“Marcel Proust once wrote: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ Though writing can be stimulated by travel, it is most beneficial if it unlocks the true journey within.”
Co Clare native, broadcaster and author English weaves such where characters are separated by centuries and continents – like her novel The Letter Home (2022), where the setting switches from modern-day Boston to famine-time west of Ireland. It’s this landscape, particularly the Burren, which features regularly in her work.
“Last summer, I spent a week there walking the paths and hills after months in lockdown. When it felt as if the walls were closing in, the wide-open landscape was like heaven. Most welcome of all was a sound I hadn’t heard since childhood – the repeated calls of a cuckoo,” she says.
A regular visitor to the Burren since childhood, English reminisces about the limestone walls and flasks of tea on a narrow lane near Kilnaboy Church: “On a fine day, with the flowers in bloom, it can be the most tranquil place imaginable. In the winter, with the wind roaring in from the Atlantic, it can feel dark and forbidding.”
Author and actor Carroll doesn’t have to think twice when it comes to her favorite destination.
“Without question, New York City, or more specifically Manhattan. What’s not to love? There really is something there for everyone, from world-class theater to shopping, to all the fabulous art galleries and museums that you could blissfully lose a whole day in.”
It’s a love that inspired her novel Meet Me in Manhattan (2015) and it spans back to her teenage years when her father competed annually in the New York City Marathon.
“He would take myself, mum and my brothers along for the trip. Well, we didn’t know we were born. Mind you, NYC was so different then, it was a time when tourists feared being mugged at night and when knife crime was rampant. And yet I’d found my little corner of heaven.”
It’s the city’s unquenchable spirit that has inspired the author to return, time and time again.
“To see how the city has reinvented itself ever since really is astonishing. Nothing, absolutely nothing will ever get this city down. NYC sprang back to life after the tragedy of 911 and now, post-Covid, the city is doing exactly the same again. I already have my next visit planned and am counting the days.”
For some writers, the relationship between travel and writing is fraught with angst, yet it still oils the creative process. Morris, a multiple award-winning writer and editor at large at The Stinging Fly short story magazine, can relate.
“I personally find travel difficult. It’s only in recent years I’ve come to understand that this is because I struggle with anxiety. I’m a confident enough person in my own environments, but once I’m abroad I can fall apart a bit,” he says.
“I’m hesitant to ask for help and I feel very self-conscious of my ignorance, of my not having the language. In reality, no one is watching, but I can’t get out of my head. I begin to feel as if I’m trespassing.
“This is a very private kind of anxiety. Intellectually, I believe that people should be able to live and travel wherever they want, but emotionally I can feel very out of place when I’m abroad.”
When city life and work took its toll on him, he felt drawn to the west coast and the charms of Galway city.
“In my early 20s I once spontaneously quit a job. This was in Dublin. As I was trying to explain to my boss why I was leaving, I just felt this overwhelming urge to flee to Galway, to be beside the sea. And it’s a city that has maintained this hold over my mind for a long time. In this last decade, at my lowest ebbs I’ve gone to Galway, seen friends, and I’ve come back purged and renewed in some essential way.”
For Morris, the undeniable connection between travel and the literary process occurred without warning in Switzerland on a summer’s day. It was “one of the most peaceful moments in my life, in Bern”.
“It was an evening in June, sitting outside a cafe with a friend, having a beer. The stillness, the setting sun, the buildings with the slatted wooden shutters. I felt a kind of tranquility I often only get when reading Hermann Hesse. I said to my friend, ‘I feel like I’m in a Hermann Hesse novel’.
“And she said: ‘That’s funny, because I used to live here.’”