A few months ago, I started writing the sequel to my book Trina's Bell's Humming Summer (a lighthearted blend of adventure and mystery for middle-grade readers), which is set in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. And, with my protagonist Trina back in this charming city for new exploits, I recalled the time when I first came here, and the impact the city's glorious scenery and its amazing wildlife had on me. All the marvels I encountered sparked the idea for my first novel, and this lovely place continues to be a well of inspiration to me.
I also started wondering how many other authors had similar experiences. Of course, books have to be a) very successful and b) around for a while for readers to get interested in how they came about. So it is no surprise that when googling 'real-life locations that inspired literature', I ended up with several classic novels as a result. Below you will find a small selection of beloved children's books inspired by the natural beauty of places the authors lived in or knew very well. Thinking about them, I noticed that Trina Bell's Humming Summer, though being decidedly 21st century, possesses a few striking similarities with those classics (not to say my book is anywhere close to these giants), some of which apparently never fall out of fashion in children's literature. They are mentioned at the end of each write up.
Book: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Location: Great Maytham Hall in Kent, England
It turns out that Frances Hodgson Burnett had her own 'secret garden', complete with roses and a pet robin, and what little Mary Lennox experiences at Mr. Craven's fictional Misselthwaite Manor is taken partly from the author's own story. In 1898, already a writer of some means, Burnett moved to a splendid manor house, Great Maytham Hall in Kent. On its grounds, just like Mary, she found a hidden door in a wall overgrown with ivy. Behind it was an enchanted old garden (dating from 1721) in dire need of TLC. She brought it back to glory, planting lots of flowers within its four walls, and used to write there, dressed in white, among the sweet scent of her roses while a tamed robin peeked over her shoulder.
(Similarities: An orphan and a half, the delights of flowers and wildlife, a good-natured older character who introduces the protagonist to his animal friends, an angry boy with a health problem, and a reunion with an estranged father.)
Book: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
Location: Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England
Christopher Milne, son of author A. A. Milne and immortal as Christopher Robin, wrote this about the inspiration for his father's famous story: “Anyone who has read the stories knows the forest and doesn't need me to describe it. Pooh’s Forest and Ashdown Forest are identical.” His family owned a holiday retreat, Cotch Farm, just a mile north of the beautiful woods and frequently took the short walk there to enjoy its pleasures. Ashdown Forest Centre offers a free leaflet, “Pooh Walks from Gill's Lap” (downloadable from its website), that outlines a stroll through the forest, visiting many spots featured in the Pooh stories including Galleon's Lap, the Heffalump Tree and Lone Pine, Eeyore’s Sad and Gloomy Place, North Pole, 100 Acre Wood and The Enchanted Place.
(Similarities: Glorious trees, talking animals — a lot of fun and many enchanted places.)
Book: Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Location: Moat Brae in Dumfries, South-West Scotland
There is no doubt that a large Georgian townhouse and its park-like property located on George Street in Dumfries inspired JM Barrie's legendary story. During a speech he gave in 1924, the author recalled playing there as a teenager when he attended the adjacent Dumfries Academy and befriended fellow students Stuart and Hal Gordon, whose family owned Moat Brae: “When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries Garden, which is enchanted land to me, was certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”
Moat Brae's park-like gardens sloped down to the River Nith, affording views of the water meadows and the rolling hills of the southern uplands at the horizon. The house was built in 1823 in the Greek revival style, rather fitting for Barrie's protagonist Peter Pan, who borrows his name and character traits from the mischievous Greek god of woodlands and wild places. About ten years ago, a trust rescued the abandoned house from dilapidation, and a project is underway to transform it into a 'National Centre for Children's Literature and Storytelling' complete with a discovery garden mimicking Neverland. British actress Joanna Lumley is the patron of the fundraiser, which has almost reached its goal of 6.5 million pounds. It is lovely to see that people care for places that inspire imagination.
(Similarities: Elements of fantasy, a skilled flutist, escapism, another island, and a tiny female companion with wings.)
Book: Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Locations: Maienfeld / Hirzel, Switzerland
Though the town of Maienfeld claims to be Heididorf (Heidi Village) because it was there that author Johanna Spyri met a little girl on a walk who gave her the idea for her main character, the landscape of the author's hometown of Hirzel is the background and inspiration for much of the most popular piece of Swiss literature ever written. In either case, both places are set in the spectacular scenery of the Alps. Maienfeld has embraced Spyri's novel and the part it plays in it, and is now the centre of what is called Heidiland, a kind of alpine Disneyland for Heidi lovers — reviled by critics for its kitsch and clichés but nevertheless extremely popular with tourists, particularly those from Japan and Korea.
(Similarities: An orphan and a half (wow, world literature is brimming with them), a friend having mobility issues, a 'love interest' with a bunch of goats, and majestic mountains.)
Book: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Locations: Norman Island, Isle of Unst, Fidra
Different islands lay claim to being involved in the creation of this timeless novel. A seafaring uncle told little Robert exciting stories of Norman Island, one of the Virgin Islands in the sunny Caribbean (we can only speculate that pirates played a role in them). Later in his life, Stevenson visited the Isle of Unst, one of Scotland's Shetland Islands, where his father and another uncle, both engineers, were involved in the construction of a lighthouse. Unst is said to have been the basis for the map of Treasure Island; a claim also made about Fidra, another small rock in the North Sea east of Scotland, whose beaches Stevenson frequented. He also spent time in Brielle, New Jersey, (today known as Nienstedt Island) — which he nicknamed “Treasure Island” and where he carved his initials into a bulkhead. But as this episode took place in 1888, long after the story's publication (it was serialized in the children's magazine Young Folks between 1881 through 1882 under the title Treasure Island, or The Mutiny of the Hispaniola), it only proves that the man had a true passion for islands.
(Similarities: A coming-of-age adventure, shenanigans, the search for valuables, a missing leg, another island, a bird on a shoulder, and of course, treasures. Also: A copy of Treasure Island is given to Trina as a present by her friend Kale.)
Book: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Location: Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Last but not least, the inspiration for the story of Canada's beloved red-head, Anne (with an E) Shirley, are the places of author Lucy Maud Montgomery's childhood on gorgeous Prince Edward Island.
Green Gables, where she was born, is a major tourist attraction today, but it was the homestead of her mother's parents in Cavendish (only four-hundred metres east of Green Gables) that Montgomery treasured most. “It is and ever must be hallowed ground to me,” she said of it. She moved there as a toddler to live with her grandparents after her mother died of tuberculosis. It was her home from 1876 to 1911, and there she penned her most famous novel, Anne of Green Gables. Unfortunately the buildings are gone, but the scenery surrounding her Cavendish home is still there, and it is easy to imagine how all these lovely places found their way into Montgomery's writing.
(Similarities: A plucky heroine (another orphan) with an overactive imagination as well as a keen sense for nature's charms, kindred spirits, and a story set on a beautiful island off the coast of Canada.)
Did these authors ever imagine their books would become classics? Did Lucy Maud Montgomery or Johanna Spyri anticipate thousands of admirers, over a hundred years later, flocking to the places that set their imaginations in motion? Probably not. But the genuine love for their settings speaks to the reader through the writing, keeps the fascination fresh, and has made these formerly unknown places so special to many generations.
Victoria, of course, doesn't need my stories to make it popular — it is already overrun by visitors from all over the world who take in the same attractions my protagonist Trina explores: gorgeous Beacon Hill Park, the stunning Inner Harbour, the lavish gardens of Government House, quirky Craigdarroch Castle, and many more.
However, if you open a copy of Trina Bell's Humming Summer, you can also enjoy the not-yet-famous spots. You can rest with Trina and Moss on their favourite bench to marvel at the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Mountains, or sneak into the park's 'secret chamber' where Trina meets Kale for the first time. You can sit on the rocks at Clover Point and wait for Gonzales to appear, check out where the Royal Commodore anchors when not at sea, or climb in the big hedge by the band stand to see the cookie jar that is Sweet Pea and Arrow's home. Hopefully, just like me, you will fall in love with these enchanted places. And who knows — maybe one day a century from now, they will be mentioned in a post like the one you just read.