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Real Life Places Made More Special By Books

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Patricia Thang

Senior Contributor

Patricia Thang is an educator located in Los Angeles. Though a native Angeleno through and through, her heart also belongs to Tokyo, where much of her family is from. Besides books, she is an enthusiastic devourer of many things, including podcasts, television, and J-pop. She realizes there’s not enough time in the world to consume all of that content, but she’s trying anyway. Other endeavors to which she has dedicated herself include cuddling her dogs until they’re annoyed and taste-testing every vegan ice cream she can find. Twitter: @aintnopthang

One of my favorite things about books is when authors use real locations in their writing. I’m not talking about books set “somewhere in [insert city here]”, but when a very specific place and the very specific experience of being there is described. Whenever this happens with a place I’m already familiar with, I am able to feel deeply connected to the story and the characters because I recognize exactly what it is that they are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling. On the other hand, a breathtaking description of a place I’ve never been can be inspiring and make for an exponentially more valuable experience if and when I ever do make it to that destination someday. I asked my fellow Rioters about their own experiences with this, and they were lovely enough to share some stories about their special IRL places from books.

Among my college friends, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a ubiquitous novel we’d all read as young teens, but by the time we’d all arrived in Pittsburgh for school, we’d mostly forgotten that the novel was set in this very city. The movie adaptation was released at the beginning of our third year – when the stress culture so prevalent in many universities was beginning to affect our mental health at peak levels – and we were reminded of a scene early in the book where Charlie, Sam, and Patrick drive through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. It was something we’d all done before without even thinking, but we were all re-inspired and began to be more aware of that part of the drive into the city. Even I think it sounds so damn cheesy, the idea of feeling “infinite”, but turns out it’s a thousand percent true. We started making it a regular thing we did, giving ourselves an escape during miserable all-nighters to remember how it felt to be young and free. It’s incredibly dangerous, not to mention illegal, to actually stand in the bed of a moving pickup truck, so we would simply roll down the windows of a sedan, but it still works. Emerging from the tunnel and overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh at night, with music blaring and the wind in our faces, is absolutely magical, and Chbosky captured it perfectly.
Patricia Thang

At the foot of The Rocky Mountains is nestled a sprawling red-roofed building that served as the inspiration for The Outlook, the haunted hotel central to Stephen King’s The Shining. The Stanley Hotel located in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado is a popular tourist attraction; so as a lifelong Stephen King fan, it was a given that this eerie, majestic landmark would be a stop during a visit by my sister and I of our mother in Denver. Even without King’s story of the destruction of the Torrance family, The Stanley has its own haunted history that is respected and even embraced by the owners. Being on the property, you can fully understand exactly what about this space motivated King’s story. The air is charged with a sordid history, ghost sightings, and possibility.

Elizabeth Allen

In Spring Green, Wisconsin, there is a house. It is a house which defies description, some people joking the architect, Alex Jordan Jr., in designing and creating it, earned the sobriquet of “Frank Lloyd Wrong.” Part residence, still replete with the original, green shag carpeting and a glass infinity room stretching into nothing; part oddities museum, the basement and underground caverns full of antique firearms, musical automatons, creepy dolls, a squid fighting a whale, mannequin torsos reimagined as colorful angels, Burma Shave signs (yes, those are real), the world’s largest carousel, and all other manner of indescribable things; and part bizarre memorial to one man’s obsession, it is a place like no other and I can think of no other place from which Shadow could have stepped into the world of the gods. My husband and I went hours out of our way, despite the fact we were driving cross country with a six month old, to visit the site of one of our favorite scenes from one of my favorite books, American Gods by Neil Gaiman. It is creepy and magical and horrifying and wondrous all at once and I would go again in a heartbeat.
S.W. Sondheimer

When I moved to the US in 2012, I was determined to see as much of the country as I could. I also love train journeys, and was (still am) excited about how long those journeys can be in America. (In the UK, you’d fall off the edge of the island if you kept going for longer than about six hours.) I went on an East Coast journey in the summer of 2014 and spent a few days in Providence, RI, which I’d been curious about since reading Come to the Edge, Christina Haag’s memoir about her friendship, then love affair, with John Kennedy Jr. I thought it sounded like my kind of place, and I was right. I sat on the grass at Brown, reading, and pretended I was both young enough and cool enough to be a student there. I found the clock tower she has written about so beautifully. “The words love is strong as death were carved into the stone… I wanted to be loved like that.” And I had coffee in a super charming street, with a view of the house the two of them had shared with Christiane Amanpour, among others, re-reading the relevant sections of the book. The memoir is alive with elegant writing, but it’s come alive in three dimensions for me now.

Claire Handscombe

My location-specific experience is upcoming. This summer, I’m going to be spending two weeks traveling the United Kingdom. I’m going on my own, but I won’t be lonely—I’m bringing a full set of Harry Potter books with me. My trip is Harry Potter-themed, all around—I have an “All was well” tattoo on my back, and this September 1 will be the one of “19 years later” from the epilogue. I plan to be in King’s Cross at 9 a.m. September 1. I also plan to roam the Scottish highlands, go to the studio tour, take the Jacobite steam train (the real-life Hogwarts Express), visit Oxford’s campus, see Glencoe where so much was filmed, and more. And all the while I’ll be re-reading the Harry Potter series for perhaps the dozen-th time. I can’t wait—my trip is going to be absolute magic.
Leah Rachel von Essen

Living in London, U.K. provides lots of opportunities to suddenly find myself in an area or street where events from a favourite novel took place. I love to ride the bus or go for walks, looking out at the city whilst listening to an audiobook by Charles Dickens, or Sarah Waters or one of the many many others who’ve written London. The best part is to be listening to a novel, look up and realise I’m in the exact place where what I’m listening to is set. Getting the bus home through St John’s Wood I shudder slightly every time remembering that it was here in Tipping the Velvet that Diana lived in her villa where she kept Nan. Then I arrive home to the same street that much of one of Zadie Smith’s novels is set.

Rah Carter

I spent a year studying in Scotland during college. The UK is FULL of literary destinations, but the place I was most excited to visit was Haworth where the Bronte sisters grew up. Visiting the Parsonage where Charlotte, Emily, and Anne grew up was fascinating, but hiking through the Yorkshire Moors that inspired Wuthering Heights was the highlight of my trips. At the top of my hike, the sky erupted into a full blown storm. It was very cold, but I felt like Cathy scouring the moors for Heathcliff while trudging through the mud on my way down. Plus a hot bath and a reread of the novel was waiting for me when I got back to my bed and breakfast.
Alison Doherty

If you have a special place of your own that you’ve made a meaningful connection with because of a book you love, tell us your story in the comments!