They say that travel broadens the mind, but in doing so it also provides you with a huge amount of material for your fantasy writing in terms of locations and settings. Although it’s possible to travel from your armchair nowadays, nothing quite beats the real thing, when you can use all of your senses to really experience and understand a place. And in doing so, you can write about it with far more confidence than simply looking at a picture.
But before you head off, take the time to learn the history of the places you’re going to as borrowing ideas from its past can provide plenty of depth for your writing. Let’s look at a few examples.
Who wouldn’t be inspired by a place like Venice? Unfortunately it’s more of a museum now than the bustling city it used to be, but you can still get a sense of its glory days when you’re there. The city was established hundreds of years ago upon islands in a marshy lagoon to protect the local people from savage attacks by various invaders sweeping across the mainland. But from these humble origins, just look at what it has become: extraordinarily beautiful buildings floating on a raft of wooden pylons buried deep in the mud, intersected by narrow canals where black gondolas lined with red satin cushions ply the waters.
In medieval times and the renaissance, Venice was an absolute powerhouse reeking of money. With its powerful doges, intricate legal system and wealthy business people, it was the capital of commerce, influence and modernity. It was also a place of pleasure, where fantastic masks were worn to hide your identity so that you could shed your inhibitions and carouse wildly until dawn. Of course this kind of hanky panky also caused the odd plague (which led to some fairly spooky long-nosed masks being used), including syphilis.
Today if you visit Venice you’ll find that it smells of muddy water, not of sewerage, like in did in the past. And you can happily get lost in its maze of streets for hours. But the greatest wonder is at night when the place practically empties and it is silent and ghostly. Mists rise to cover the canals and you can stand atop tiny arched bridges, where the only sounds you will hear are the lap of the water against the buildings and the distant chatter of tourists.
I love including aspects of Venice in my own fantasy writing. A city criss-crossed with canals, sitting in a lagoon for protection, but still vibrant, successful and utterly indulgent in its own vices. There are few places like this in the world, so it provides some brilliant ideas that you can borrow and transform. But don’t forget how people used to live in such a place, where the only way to get around is by boat – this may be romantic, but it also constrains the movements of your characters. If you ever see a funeral in Venice, you’ll understand what I mean.
Ah Paris. A beautiful city which is larger than life in the sunlight, but where long morbid tunnels lurk beneath its surface. There is so much about Paris that you can weave into your stories from ancient Roman times through to the revolution and beyond because it has such a violent and glorious history. There are hidden places like the catacombs, the gargoyles of Notre Dame, the long galleries of the Louvre, majestic chateaux on its outskirts and the river Seine that has been its lifeblood for centuries. But search a little further and you’ll find the little markets in side-streets bustling with people, men peeing in the Metro tunnels, artists lining the Seine, tiny shops laden with mouth-watering delights, churches choked with tombs and a very proud population who take their city very seriously. It’s this human element that you can push into fantasy, whether you use Paris as an actual location or as the basis for a fantasy location in your novel. Use the big tourist draws as placeholders, but plug into the people and their history and you’ll find a rich source of inspiration.
I know I’m going off the beaten track here a little, but stick with me. You don’t have to go far in Australia to hit the “outback”. The outback environment is a bare place but far from barren, with red sands, dry riverbeds, clouds of locusts and few trees, but just wait until it rains and the dessert blooms in a wild rainbow of colours. Such an environment is difficult to live in, it is very hot and can burn you to a crisp. And like other places where there is little or no rain, people have to adapt to survive. The native aborigines have many fantastic stories, or dreaming, that you can tap into for inspiration. Similarly places like the Grand Canyon, which has various indigenous tribes living in the area, have their stories to tell of hardship and survival. But although the dessert can be harsh there are also oases, from turquoise pools to waterfalls fed by ancient aquifers. Water is a scarce resource in the dessert, but also a place of immense beauty because it is so unexpected and joyful.
So what can you take away from your travels so that you can transform them into a location for your stories? For a start, you will know:
- What a place looks, smells and feels like.
- What people eat.
- How people live, work and survive.
- What the environment is like and the constraints it places on peoples’ lives.
- What their homes are like.
- How people move about.
- Where they are buried.
- What their beliefs are.
- Understand why people live where they do and their history.
But if you like a little bit of virtual travel, I’ve popped a board up on Pinterest that has some fantastic photos you might like to look at. There are some jaw dropping images out there of places you will not believe actually exist, which can give you wonderful settings for your fantasy stories. Bon voyage.