14 Literary Settings Inspired by Real Places

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At the end of a good book, do you ever close the back cover, sigh, and think, “I wish I could be there”? Good news: in some cases, you can. While you’re probably never going to make it to Narnia or Hogwarts (I know - I’m disappointed, too), here are a handful of “fictional” places you can actually visit.

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1. Growing up in the midwest means a field trip to Hannibal, Missouri, to see Mark Twain’s old haunting grounds—it was the highlight of my sixth-grade year. Twain has said there was no better place for a boy to grow up than Hannibal and was thus inspired to use many of the area’s landmarks in his writing, especially The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. What was called McDougal Cave in the book is called Mark Twain Cave today - a trip inside will reveal many of the details you might remember from Tom Sawyer.

2. If you want to visit the fictional West Egg from The Great Gatsby, you need only to get yourself to Great Neck, New York, where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived with his wife Zelda for almost two years. It’s thought that he modeled Nick’s “modest” house on his own. In fact, their house is still there today, though I have to say - modest? Really? Maybe in comparison to Jay Gatsby’s...

3. Calling all Little House fans: DeSmet, South Dakota, may just be your next vacation location. Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in the little pioneer town and took many of her series’ buildings, settings and locations straight from the roads of DeSmet. The Surveyors’ House from By the Shores of Silver Lake is still standing, and you can visit a reconstructed version of Laura’s own Little House. If you don’t think you’ll make it to S.D. anytime soon, never fear - there’s a virtual tour as well.

4. The New York Times wants to help you follow in Holden Caulfield’s footsteps - they’ve painstakingly recreated his route around the city, even though J.D. Salinger was often careful to create pseudonyms for places featured in Catcher in the Rye, especially hotels.

5. If I ever get to Portland, you can bet I’ll take a trip down Klickitat Street. That’s where Ramona Quimby grew up - and it’s not far from where her creator, Beverly Cleary, grew up.

6. Winnie-the-Pooh may not be real, but his home is. Charming Hundred-Acre Wood is based on a place in East Sussex, England, called Ashdown Forest. Many of the landmarks found in the A.A. Milne classics still exist there, including Poohsticks Bridge, Galleon’s Lap (called Gill’s Lap in real life), Roo’s Sandpit and Heffalump Trap. They even hold annual Poohsticks competitions there.

7. The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Mass. - the oldest surviving mansion house in North America - inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name that was published in 1851. You can tour it and Hawthorne’s birthplace all for the same fee if you’re ever in Salem, though Hawthorne’s house was actually moved several blocks from the spot where it originally stood.

8. It’s thought that Seven Gables was a huge inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn wrote his own tale of a spooky house based on one that really existed. Actually, Lovecraft’s The Shunned House was likely based on two abodes - a Providence, R.I., house Lovecraft’s aunt resided in, and a downright terrifying home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Lovecraft once called it “a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds — with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, and an outside flight of stairs leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed.” That house no longer stands today, but you can still check out the one in Providence, especially if you’re in the market - it’s for sale.

9. James Joyce once said that if Dublin somehow got wiped off the face of the map, you could rebuild it just by reading Ulysses and recreating all of the locations he mentions within its pages. Should you ever want to walk in Bloom’s footsteps, I’d make sure to do it on June 16 - that’s Bloomsday, when thousands of other Joyce fans gather in Dublin to retrace Leopold Bloom’s route.

10. Obviously Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau, was never actually represented as a place of fiction, so maybe it doesn’t quite fit this list. But it’s still a location in a classic book that you can actually visit - never fear, it hasn’t been replaced by a parking lot or an apartment complex. Thoreau’s original cabin no longer stands, but you can step into a replica of it and you can see where the real thing once stood.

11. Back in Washington Irving’s time, Sleepy Hollow was known as North Tarrytown, New York. It’s a quaint little town, but I bet you still get the chills when you see the bridge that Irving imagined his Headless Horseman thundering across.

12. Hotels are great settings for mysteries and thrillers - just ask Stephen King. If you ever want to feel like you’re living in pages written by Agatha Christie, just book a room at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, England. Christie stayed there often and just barely bothered to disguise it as “The Majestic Hotel” in at least three books: Peril at End House, The Body in the Library and Sleeping Murder.

13. I doubt any other little pub has ever inspired as many authors as The Spaniards Inn in London has. The Inn claims that Keats was listening to the birds in the inn’s attached garden when he decided to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” Bram Stroker name-drops the Inn in Dracula, and finally, Charles Dickens set an entire scene of The Pickwick Papers in the inn.

14. It’s hard to say which exact island inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to pick up a pen and write about Jim Hawkins and Treasure Island, but there’s no shortage of theories. Some day Stevenson’s uncle was a seaman who told him detailed stories of Norman Island in the Virgin Islands. It’s also been noted that he visited Brielle, New Jersey, in 1888 and was so taken with a small island on the river that he carved his initials there. Today, it’s called Nienstedt Island. Lastly, Stevenson’s map looks a bit like Scotland’s isle of Unst. Unst makes the official claim to fame, saying that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island after visiting the lighthouse his uncles, David and Thomas Stevenson, built there.

Honorable Mention: Though you can’t actually visit this place these days, at one time, the White City of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago really did exist. And it really did inspire L. Frank Baum to write about a similar venue, though it was a slightly different color: Emerald.

September 8, 2011 - 8:18pm
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