When Travel Influences Fantasy Literature

The iconic Merlion statue in Singapore.

A friend (who also loves to travel) suggested that it might be fun for me to blog about how I draw inspiration for my fantasy stories from the real-world places that I visit and photograph. It was a great suggestion, and really got me thinking about the ways in which visiting new places inspires my writing. Overall, I’ve found that travel, and particularly foreign travel, excites my imagination with a sense of “other-worldliness.” Stepping off the plane in a different country can feel like entering a whole new universe with amazing and unexpected sights.

A street in Singapore. I wish I could say more about it, but I didn’t caption the photograph.
Note to self: Always caption your photos!!

In my experience as both a reader and author of fantasy novels, the art of writing fantasy involves a balance between the familiar and the unique. My favorite fantasy novels to read have been those that create original landscapes and cultures, very different from our mundane world. At the same time, the characters in the fantasy story must be familiar enough to allow the reader to empathize with them and care about their world. Travel can inspire fictional works that meet both of those elements.

A pathway in the Bukat Timah nature reserve.

In addition to the general concept of how travel influences writing, there is the more specific topic of which real-world places have influenced my fantasy writing and why.

When I first considered this question, Singapore came to mind immediately. A city with a merlion for its mascot has to be a great influence for a fantasy novelist. It was not that mythical beast, however, that truly caught my imagination during the week that John and I spent visiting the city.

Likewise, the beautiful Bukat Timah Nature Reserve (where I was warned to beware of monkeys accosting tourists to steal food) was not the place that inspired me the most. Both of those sights were very nice and certainly caught my imagination.

The greatest inspiration for me as a fantasy novelist came during a walking tour of the city. The guide took us to see the “wet” market, a collection of vendors selling fish, produce, and spices. As I walked among the stalls looking at the exotic wares, I was amazed. Not only had I never seen many of the food items for sale, I could not even put a name to them.

I am far from a culinary expert, but I have done some cooking and generally know my way around the grocery store produce section. The vegetables and fruit for sale in the Singapore wet market were so far beyond my experience that I might as well have been shopping in Narnia or Chalion.

The memory of wandering among the food stalls, staring in wonder at the strange items has stayed with me over the years. That experience provided part of the inspiration for the food scene in the short story Hospitality, which is scheduled to appear in Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared world anthology.

Apparently, I was so astonished by what I saw, that I never even took a photograph of the market. (Hard to believe, considering I usually take photographs of everything, including the interior of our hotel rooms.) Because I only use my own photos in this blog, I cannot include a picture of that wet market. So I will close this blog with a picture of the not-quite-so-exotic-food-establishment that John and I also visited during the trip. While I cannot say that the food there inspired any fantasy stories, the “Fish McDippers” were tasty and I wish they had them in the U.S.

There is a reason that John and I always eat at least one meal at McDonalds in every country we visit, but that is a story for another day.

-Susan 7/16/2021

p.s. Sue is still working on the cover art for the shared world anthology mentioned above, and it looks great so far!

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