The first time I saw the Great Wall of China, it was on the front of a postcard my dad had sent from a business trip. I kept that postcard with the others in my bedside table drawer where I’d reach for them nightly, feasting my eyes on Holland’s colorful tulip fields and wooden windmills. The Eiffel Tower’s slender silhouette at sunset. England’s storybook thatched cottages. I’d flip through images of faraway lands, wondering what it felt like to stand in each place. Imagining the sound of their languages and the flavors of their food. I may not have known what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew what I wanted to do: travel.
For me, traveling has never been about luxury hotels or fine dining (though I appreciate both every now and then), it’s about knowing that the air in Athens, Greece smells like oranges. That the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Australian desert snack on honey ants. That there is a group of yogis in Burlington, Vermont, who meet at the Sailing Center dock every morning for sunrise Vinyasa surrounded by Lake Champlain’s soothing blue water. It’s about stepping out of my daily routines and habits to surprise my senses by observing infinite variations of what it means to live.
As a writer, exploration and discovery are kindling for my creative furnace. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of travel’s influence on my creativity until it was taken away during the pandemic. It took the monotony of my wake-work-binge-watch routine to realize that my confinement and dulling flame were inextricably linked.
Of course, this dynamic is neither unique to me nor a novel concept. The connection between travel and creativity has long been examined by artists and scientists alike. And while the relationship seems undeniable, I was curious how those experiences translated to the page. So, I recently connected with some of my fellow Writer Unboxed contributors and community members to find out how travel has influenced their work. Today, I’m sharing the insights I’ve learned from their experiences.
Traveling Helps Us Remember the Forgotten
The opportunity to see a new place may inspire us to book a trip, but often it’s the stories rooted in their landscapes that stay with us long after we return home. Chilean writer Isabel Allende, who’s known for creating imaginative stories around significant historical events, once said, “Write what should not be forgotten.” In this way, travel has been a source of inspiration for historical fiction writer Erika Robuck, author of The Invisible Woman, opening her eyes to the contributions and struggles of women who have been all but forgotten by history.
“I’m sensitive to atmospheric nudges, the way an old house or city trembles for one to notice a story it holds,” said Erika. “The first that influenced my writing was my visit to the Hemingway House, in Key West. As I walked the grounds, I was overcome by a desire to set a story there. When I returned home, a dream where Ernest Hemingway urged me to write the novel set my course for Hemingway’s Girl,” which brings Hemingway to life through the eyes of Mariella Bennet, a fictional character inspired by a real-life Cuban girl who was the object of his infatuation.
When Erika’s book tour for Call Me Zelda took her to Concord Books, in Massachusetts, she spent time visiting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house before her signing. “I had that same feeling of being overcome,” Erika explained. “It was Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, however, who caught my attention. In Hawthorne’s writing room, on the glass in the window overlooking the river where Sophia had fallen on ice, inducing a miscarriage, she had used her diamond ring to etch ‘Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.’ From that, The House of Hawthorne was born.”
What “forgotten” people, places, and stories have you encountered in your travels?
Travel Sparks Our Curiosity
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s creativity manifesto Big Magic, she describes a lifetime devoted to creativity as “nothing but a scavenger hunt—where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity.” She encourages creatives to, “pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.”
Historical fiction writer Sarah Penner, author of The Lost Apothecary, found herself on one such scavenger hunt several years ago during a business trip to London. “As soon as my plane touched down in the city, I had the sensation of having lived there in a prior life,” said Sarah. “The energy, the historic landmarks, the Victorian pubs … I was equally awestruck by this enormous city and entirely at ease within it.”
When she wasn’t at the office, Sarah followed her curiosity through nearby Ludgate Hill’s narrow cobblestone alleyways, ancient doors, and mysterious passageways, which became the setting of her dual-timeline novel that switches between the 1790s and present day. “It was impossible not to imagine the long-lost secrets that might be lying within,” Sarah explained. “Those explorations inspired the hidden apothecary shop in my story that is ‘buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.’”
Where has your curiosity led you and your writing?
Travel Is a Journey to Understanding
Thomas Henry Pope, author of Imperfect Burials, relies on travel to add authenticity to his books. “While internet research and imagination can create good bones to a story, sensory and ground-level experience draw readers and hold them tight,” said Thomas. “Characters are enriched by relating to setting.”
Though his next book, The Trouble with Wisdom, occurs 35 years from now, to get the details right, Thomas made the journey his characters do on their spiritual quest. He traveled through Canada, Alaska, Japan, Korea, China, and Tibet, which enabled him to write confidently about the land, light, weather, fabrics, architecture, accents, dance, and even humor. “The lay of the land and the cities influenced the plot points. Knowing China’s deserts was pivotal for the stakes. And people I met populated the scenes. In Tibet, I learned nomadic women choose whom they are married to, and they hold the wealth. Husbands are there at the wives’ consent. This allowed for wonderful character development for my American male protagonist.”
How has traveling enhanced your story’s authenticity?
Travel Awakens Our Inner Storyteller
Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Moroccan scholar who is said to have traveled more than any other explorer in premodern history, said of traveling, “It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
For thriller author Angela Greenman, whose debut novel The Child Riddler is forthcoming, it was the Prague Castle that left her speechless and roused her inner storyteller. “I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere and its massive complex,” said Angela. “Inhaling the towers’ cold musty smell imbued me with its history—the ruthless discipline of the castle archers at the narrow windows; the fear that the torture victims must have felt—and my muse went into overdrive, inspiring a major ‘chase’ scene that takes place in the castle.”
Angela used the details that moved her, like the tall graceful blue bottle of Bulgaria’s national drink, rakia, and the glow of Austria’s green and blue domes in the evening light, to weave an elegant “background tapestry” that contrasted her characters’ devious plotting.
When did traveling leave you speechless—and how did the experience impact your writing?
Travel Guides Us to Our ‘True North’
Twenty-nine transatlantic crossings, a trip around the word, and countless other adventures led American novelist Mark Twain to conclude that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” More than 150 years later, those words still ring true for poet and YA speculative fiction author KL Burd, for whom a lifetime travel has been an eye-opening experience that has inspired his writing philosophy: Never focus on the ills of a society. Instead, find out what makes it special and unique.
As a young child, KL’s family moved from the U.S. to Germany, and the 13 years that followed shaped his entire life. “From our home base in Southern Bavaria, I traveled to Austria, The Czech Republic, Italy, France, England, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and more,” said KL. “And with every bite of a new dish, or with learning a new phrase, I was taught that my view of the world is not the only one that matters. Each city brought an appreciation for differences. It taught me to celebrate the beautiful parts that make each person, town, and country unique.”
As an adult, KL visited his parents’ home in the Caribbean and explored the surrounding Islands. “I’ve taken in all the parts of North America and have found that my place is among the people of the world. The world has more to offer than I could ever imagine, and I relish in the fact that the joy, love, and unity in spirit of people across many lands can be a source of hope for humanity. That hope shows up in my work. That hope keeps me traveling to new places and basking in the possibility of sharing fresh, amazing stories with the world.”
How has traveling shaped your writing philosophy?
If your work in progress has hit a roadblock, I’d like to offer you the advice of American author Ray Bradbury: “Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
Whether you have time for a 100-day journey, like Thomas Henry Pope, or a few hours to explore a new city after work, like Sarah Penner, a world of wonder and possibility is waiting to leave you speechless and unearth the story inside. If you need a little help finding your way, check out my upcoming project with National Geographic, 1,000 Perfect Weekends: Getaways Around the Globe, for innovative excursions that might just put you on the path to your next big idea.
How has travel influenced your writing and/or creative process?
This post was originally published on WriterUnboxed.com. Check out all of Erika’s recents posts at writerunboxed.com/author/erika-liodice.