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Fascinating Locations That Inspired Best-Selling Novels

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If you’ve ever immersed yourself in an entirely different world while reading a book, you’re not alone. Stories that take place in intriguing locations are often the ones readers enjoy the most — in such books, the setting becomes almost as important as the characters themselves. Writers often draw inspiration for these stories from their real-life surroundings. Here are seven fascinating locations that inspired some of the world’s best-known novels.

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Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, England: Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings

Wooden bridge in Puzzlewood, forest of Dean.
Credit: GuyBerresfordPhotography/ Shutterstock

Two of the world’s most famous book series share a connection: England’s fantastical Forest of Dean. Here, you’ll encounter winding paths, deep green foliage, looming moss-covered branches, and a strong air of hidden secrets within the trees. J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) grew up in Gloucestershire and spent time in the forest, which serves as the inspiration for the series’ Forbidden Forest. There are also traces of her childhood cottage home here (which the author secretly purchased in 2011), such as in the tiny closet under the stairs that served as Harry’s bedroom.

J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) also spent time in the Forest of Dean as a child. He was inspired by the forest’s labyrinth of caves and geological formations called scowles, created by erosion in the limestone soil under the woods. Middle Earth, the elaborate setting for his books, contains several mystical forests such as Mirkwood, Lothlórien, Fangorn, and the Old Forest — all influenced by the Forest of Dean’s unusual features.

A popular area of the forest to visit is Puzzlewood, where you’ll find mazes, a café, a playground, farm animals, picnic tables, and a gift shop. Puzzlewood’s other claim to fame is as a film set — Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Secret Garden, Dr. Who, Merlin, and Jack the Giant Slayer are just a few of the television shows and movies that have been shot here.

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The Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado: The Shining

Stanley Hotel on a gloomy day.
Credit: Zack Frank/ Shutterstock

If you’ve read Stephen King’s horror thriller (or seen the movie adaptation starring Jack Nicholson), you’ll undoubtedly remember the hotel where most of The Shining takes place. Its long spooky hallways, eerily empty bar, and isolated location set the scene for the chilling tale. Estes Park lies on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, and due to the snowy, mountainous location, much of the park and town shuts down for the winter.

In 1974, King was living in nearby Boulder and working on a novel titled Darkshine but reportedly wasn’t happy with its setting. For a change of scenery and inspiration, he and his wife headed to Estes Park and spent one night in the Stanley Hotel, a 142-room Colonial Revival-style resort built in 1909. No other guests were in the hotel because the hotel was closing for the winter the following day. The couple dined alone in the large dining room with chairs on all the other tables as pre-recorded orchestral music played in the background.

When his wife retired to Room 217, King wandered the empty corridors and visited the hotel bar, where the bartender served him drinks. King reported having a disturbing dream that night about a firehose chasing his terrified young son down the hotel corridors. The nightmare, combined with the hotel’s eerie desolation, was the inspiration King was looking for, and Darkshine became The Shining, which takes place at the fictitious Overlook Hotel.

The Stanley Hotel, which overlooks the majestic Rocky Mountains and Estes Lake, has since been restored to some of its former grandeur. Room 217 is the hotel’s most requested room, and the hotel added a hedge maze to mimic the one in the movie. The hotel has a reputation for being haunted, and its rumored paranormal activities are often featured on TV shows and online.

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Ngong Hills, Kenya: Out of Africa

Cows are grazed on Ngong Hills in Kenya.
Credit: Vladimir Gall/ Shutterstock

Danish author Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, chronicling her time living on a coffee plantation from 1913 to 1931 at the base of Ngong Hills in Kenya (when it was known as British East Africa). Blixen arrived in Africa in 1913 to marry her second cousin, Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. But the marriage eventually fell apart, and Blixen, who had fallen in love with Africa and its people, took over his plantation.

During this time, an English big-game hunter named Denys Finch Hatton became Blixen’s long-term romantic companion. The plantation eventually failed due to falling coffee prices, droughts, and an unsuitable elevation, and Blixen was forced to sell the land and return to Europe. But she never stopped longing for Africa and wrote her memoir detailing the breathtaking wildlife and vast savannahs around Ngong Hills.

In 1985, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford starred in a film adaptation of Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. (Streep received a Best Actress nomination.) Several scenes featured Streep and Redford against the stunning backdrop of the Kenyan landscape. Blixen’s plantation home, near Nairobi, has been converted to the Karen Blixen Museum. The fertile green Ngong Hills that Blixen wrote so favorably about lie just a few miles northwest of the museum and are a popular hiking spot.

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Great Neck, New York: The Great Gatsby

Warm sunrise overlooking meadows in Manhasset Bay Long Island, New York.
Credit: Oleh Basistyy/ Shutterstock

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, primarily takes place during the Roaring Twenties in West Egg and East Egg, fictitious towns on Long Island’s north shore. Both communities housed wealthy families who lived in lavish mansions, but with one significant difference — “old money” families who had been wealthy for generations lived in East Egg. Across a small bay, West Egg’s inhabitants were considered “new money.” Jay Gatsby, the main character, lived in West Egg and often threw elaborate parties. He pined for his love Daisy, who lived across the bay and married another man.

The two communities are based on real-life Sands Point (East Egg) and Great Neck (West Egg), separated by tiny Manhasset Bay. Fitzgerald and his wife rented a home in Great Neck from 1922 to 1924. They befriended some of its newer inhabitants, who had recently earned their wealth as famous writers, actors, and comedians. At the time, “old money” families such as the Vanderbilts and the Guggenheims owned estates in Sands Point.

Fitzgerald hosted and attended parties in both communities and often sat on the porch drinking in the evenings and watching the happenings across the bay in Sands Point, according to Ruth Prigozy, executive director of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. He started working on The Great Gatsby while living in the shorefront home, which still stands in Great Neck. (It sold for about $3 million in 2016.) Two of the Guggenheim mansions, Falaise and Hempstead House, still stand in Sands Point and are part of the Sands Point Preserve Conservancy.

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Pamplona, Spain: The Sun Also Rises

View of Pamplona with bridge over Arga. Navarre.
Credit: Iakov Filimonov/ Shutterstock

Ernest Hemingway was another famous author who penned best-selling novels during the Roaring Twenties — and he happened to be a friend of Fitzgerald’s. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, partially takes place in Pamplona and follows a group of British and American expatriates living in post-World War I Europe. Throughout the book, the expats, many of whom were former soldiers, engage in various affairs and spend time trying to escape their memories of the war.

Pamplona is famous for its bullfighting and the annual Festival of San Fermín’s main event, “running of the bulls.” The wild, exciting, and dangerous event involves releasing several bulls from a corral to chase hundreds of people through the city’s blocked off narrow streets to the bullfighting ring. Spectators watch from the sides or balconies above. In The Sun Also Rises, the main characters travel to Pamplona for the festival and embark on a series of alcohol-infused adventures and romantic entanglements.

Hemingway lived in Paris off and on during the 1920s and traveled to Pamplona during the festival. He was so fascinated with the event that he returned two more times, bringing along an assortment of British and American expats. His third trip closely resembled the fictitious trip to Pamplona featured in The Sun Also Rises. The weeklong Festival of San Fermín (also known as Sanfermin) still takes place every July in Pamplona.

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Hannibal, Missouri: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse in Hannibal, Missouri.
Credit: K. Bradley Washburn/ Shutterstock

Who can forget the lively adventures of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s famous novel? The book is set during the 1840s in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, along the mighty Mississippi River.

Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, grew up in Hannibal, and St. Petersburg is based on his boyhood hometown. He worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi (among other jobs) before becoming a writer. Many of his boyhood antics made it into the novels, and several of the characters are based on people Twain knew. In the book, Tom and his girlfriend Becky get lost inside a cave for several days, and later cave scenes involve villains and buried treasure.

The real-life town of Hannibal has created several tourist attractions in honor of its most famous former resident. You can tour caves in the Mark Twain Cave Complex, take a cruise on the Mark Twain Riverboat, and visit his childhood house, which has been restored and converted to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. You can even “paint” a replica of the whitewashed fence from one of the book’s most famous scenes in one of the museum’s interactive exhibits.

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Whitby, England: Dracula

Whitby Abbey Ruins.
Credit: Kraft_Stoff/ Shutterstock

Gothic horror’s most famous villain, Count Dracula, lived in Transylvania, part of modern-day Romania. However, Bram Stoker, the Irish author who created him, never set foot in Romania.

In the novel, Dracula traveled from spooky Transylvania to Whitby, England — a seaside Victorian-era vacation destination — aboard the Russian ship Demeter. By the time the ship arrived in Whitby during a turbulent storm, the entire crew was missing, and the corpse of the captain was lashed to the ship’s steering wheel. Observers noted a large, black dog-shaped animal leaping from the ship’s deck to shore and running up the 199 steps to the Whitby church — the shapeshifting Dracula had arrived in England.

Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula began in Whitby during a four-week summer vacation in 1890. Stoker had already been working on a gothic tale about a character named Count Wampyr, set in Styria, Austria, when he discovered a book in the Whitby public library that mentioned a sadistic 15th-century prince named Vlad Tepes, who served as the inspiration for the world’s best-known vampire.

Stoker found additional inspiration in his surroundings. Looming over the town are the ruins of Whitby Abbey, an imposing Gothic church dating back to the 13th century. Perched on a cliff below is St. Mary’s ancient parish church, which can be reached by a 199-step stone staircase. The church’s adjacent cemetery contains many crumbling tombstones. As Stoker walked the abbey, church grounds, and among the graves, he noted names and dates that later showed up in the novel. Stoker also would have likely learned about an 1885 shipwreck of the Russian vessel Dmitry that was carrying a cargo of silver sand to Whitby, inspiring Dracula’s journey in the novel.

Whitby is still a popular seaside tourist destination and has embraced its Dracula connection. You can tour the abbey ruins and participate in various activities and tours that follow the novel's events.

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