Creating great travel-inspired novels means channeling the voices, thoughts, and perspectives of an imaginary foreigner.
Credit: Brian Stauffer

Even the most confident and seasoned travelers may experience a shiver of unease when they arrive in a foreign country and the official who stamps their passport asks, “What is the purpose of your visit? Are you here for business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure!” we say. “Vacation!” hearing our voices rise, as if—though we are telling the truth—we might be suspected of lying. Perhaps it’s the fact of the uniform, or the effects of a long voyage, or the border guard who may seem intimidating but is probably just bored.

In any case, this moment is far more complex and fraught when the traveler is a writer who has come to do background research for a novel. Is that purpose business? Not exactly. Pleasure? If the writer were to tell the truth, it might sound something like, “Well, since you ask, the purpose of my visit is to see your country and your culture through the eyes of an imaginary person—a character I invented.” By and large, it works out better for everyone if we just say, “Vacation. I am here as a tourist.”

That initial white lie at the border is just one indication of the essential strangeness of the project: Going somewhere to observe and try to understand a place with a very real landscape, with its own very particular physical and social geography, only so that you can invent something that never happened there, or anywhere, to someone who never existed. In fact it’s not like traveling for pleasure, with its pure openness to the thrill of new experience; nor is it like travel writing, journeys on which that pleasure may be partly compromised by the need to find the perfect opening sentence. In fact, it’s like no other form of travel, for the simple reason that the person who’s traveling isn’t exactly you.

Sometimes, reading a literary classic or a contemporary novel that features a strong sense of place, I’ll find myself pausing to wonder: Did Thomas Mann look at the Lido from the point of view of the doomed, lovesick Gustav von Aschenbach, whose unrequited passion leads to the tragedy at the center of Death in Venice? At which point did Diane Johnson decide to introduce her readers to Paris through the sensibility of the bright young Californian heroine of Le Divorce? How did E. M. Forster transform himself into Lucy Honeychurch, exulting in the beauty of Florence in A Room with a View?

Over the years, I’ve had all sorts of travel experiences that have eventually found their way into novels and stories. Something occurs that lodges in my mind until a character and a plot collect around this kernel and begin to take on the peculiar life of fiction.

Visiting the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s, I attended a literary conference at which I had no idea what anyone was talking about: a heated controversy that turned out to involve the return of Croatian exiles. One of the speakers was a flamboyantly theatrical Hungarian poet who, almost a decade later, suddenly appeared (as if under his own volition) in a story I was writing about a young woman who found herself fascinated and terrified by a Hungarian poet’s intense aura of romance and high drama. On one trip to Paris, I noticed that every evening, when I turned on the TV at my hotel, the station was airing a documentary in which a peasant couple was slaughtering a pig at their farm; each night a different couple, a different pig, a different region of France. And this somewhat bizarre and memorable encounter with French TV gave me the inspiration and the title for a novella—Three Pigs in Five Days—that was published in 1997.

It’s been more rare that I’ve traveled specifically for the purpose of researching a fictional character or plot, but that was certainly the case with my most recent novel, My New American Life. Forty pages or so into a rough draft, I had an inconvenient realization: Either my heroine, Lula—a young Albanian immigrant working as a nanny in the northern New Jersey suburbs—was going to have to come from somewhere other than Albania, or else I was going to have to go to Albania to see where she’d come from. I’d read everything I could about the country and practically memorized the one guidebook I was able to locate. But ultimately I discovered that I simply couldn’t imagine or invent Albania without some firsthand experience. I wanted my heroine to have grown up not only in a former Communist dictatorship, but in the most isolated and extreme Eastern-bloc nation.

Besides, in order to see the United States through Lula’s eyes, I had to know more about the place that she was comparing it with. I needed to eat the food and smell the smells she had known as a child, to watch the play of light and darkness in the sky over her home, to see how her neighbors walked and talked and inhabited their city, to find out how heavily the legacy of their painful history still affected their daily lives.

And so, in May 2009, I spent two weeks in Tirana, the capital of Albania. I made a short trip to Kruja, the site of a historically important castle, and to Berat, a small and very beautiful city. Along the way, I not only observed enough to make Lula a credible character but also recorded all sorts of marvelous details that I was able to use in the novel—and could never have invented. One man told me that a neighbor had been taken by the secret police because her son put a forbidden radio antenna on the roof so he could listen to a chesty Italian pop singer he had a crush on. A young woman explained that when foreign TV, prohibited for so long, was finally permitted, her generation learned English from SpongeBob SquarePants.

I’d read that the dictator, Enver Hoxha, had built 700,000 concrete bunkers, but I hadn’t really understood the role that these structures, resembling indestructible cement cow pies with eyes, played in the landscape and the culture. I passed the George W. Bush café in Kruja, and ate at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Tirana where the only other customers were Methodist missionaries from the United States. I noticed that everyone who could afford it drove a Mercedes of uncertain provenance, the vehicle best designed to survive the lethal potholes and frequent collisions. I crossed the shaggy lawns of the university, with its touchingly neglected science museum, deserted except for the boy who worked there and two friends—guys who could have gone to college with Lula.

I came to love the beauty of the countryside, its stark medieval hill towns, its ancient churches and mosques. I understood why Albanians are so fiercely attached to their native land, and also how its attractions would measure up, in the mind of a restless, unmarried 26-year-old girl, to what she hoped to find in New York City. As much as I adored Albania, I knew, by the time I Ieft, how Lula would answer the question of why she’d moved to New York: “Who would choose Tirana over a city where half-naked fashion models and their stockbroker boyfriends drink mojitos from pitchers decorated with dancing monkeys?”

The trip to Albania gave me everything I required in order to understand my heroine. But one reward of travel (whether the journey is just for fun, or for work of any sort) is that it gives you so much more than what you wanted and needed—more than you ever suspected you desired.

Perhaps I could tell the border guards that: traveling to research a novel is in many ways the same as traveling for pleasure. What stays with you are the surprises, the revelations, the experience of the new, the joy of meeting interesting people and encountering unfamiliar sights and sounds, flavors, and smells—all things that I could never have constructed from the raw material of my imagination.

But that would definitely be more information than any border guard could process. For the present and future, it’s probably better for everyone if I just continue saying, “Vacation! I’m here as a tourist.”

Francine Prose’s novel My New American Life was published in April by HarperCollins.

Francine Prose picks eight novels where the setting is always in the spotlight.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann Nothing has ever captured so well the beauty and the pulse-racing creepiness of this gorgeous city.

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson Reading this smart, delightful comic novel provides all the fun of a week in Paris without having to leave the house.

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster Read it to find out how little the splendor of Florence has changed—and how much people have.

GraceLand by Chris Abani The sights and sounds of Lagos, Nigeria, pulse through this vibrant novel.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami My favorite of Murakami’s books reveals all sorts of familiar—and hidden—aspects of Tokyo.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell This imaginative first novel is set in an alligator theme park that could exist only in southwestern Florida.

Gryphon by Charles Baxter The American Midwest reveals itself as a place of great beauty and strangeness in Baxter’s eloquent fictions.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens Granted, London has changed a lot since Dickens’s time, but whenever I go there I feel I’ve reentered one of his novels.