What Is Travel Fiction?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Travel fiction is a genre of creative writing that focuses on the settings of an unusual environment. The setting for travel fiction can influence the mood, themes, and actions of the plot, as well as provide a metaphor or overarching image for the story itself. In travel fiction, it may be the characters themselves that are traveling, but it may also be the reader who is taken on a journey to an exotic, unfamiliar, or even fantastical setting.

Homer's "Odyssey" is a famous example of travel fiction.
Homer's "Odyssey" is a famous example of travel fiction.

As a genre, travel tales are more ancient than might be expected. One of the oldest pieces of travel fiction, Homer's The Odyssey, is still frequently regarded as one of the best. Written around 750 BCE, The Odyssey set many of the rules for the genre that are still in force in modern novels. The plot of this ancient story follows the war hero Odysseus, as he travels through many strange lands on his quest to return home. As in many stories of this genre, when Odysseus finally does return home, he bears new knowledge and power from his adventures.

Travel fiction may involve visiting other planets.
Travel fiction may involve visiting other planets.

One of the most common themes in travel fiction is self-discovery; as the main character explores his unfamiliar destination, he or she is also undergoing a mental journey as well. Travel fiction also frequently parallels the classic story structure of the hero's journey, where the hero must set out from his familiar surroundings, undergo difficult trials, and return with a boon that will help in his or her ordinary life.

Another staple element in travel fiction is the exploration of a new location. Ideally, the location in the story will be new for the reader, allowing him or her to experience a vicarious vacation by book. In some cases, the location is one that the reader cannot visit, such as a time in the past or a fictional planet. Other stories explore real locations, such as Egypt, Tokyo, or the Mississippi Delta, often using details and locations that are factually accurate. With travel fiction based on real life, it is not unusual for the author to do extensive research or have an intimate familiarity with the real setting for the story.

Many pieces of travel fiction use the location to create a theme or metaphor that pervades the entire novel. In a story about experiencing autumn in Massachusetts, the turning and falling of leaves might be used as a metaphor for the ending of a long marriage. In a tale of a woman that travels constantly from town to town, the continuous journey of the plot might reflect the endless search of the main character for peace or a place that feels like home. By using prose to describe the settings and locations in detail, the travel novelist can not only transport the reader to a new world, but may touch on deeper, sub-textual themes that are felt, rather than explicitly written. In many ways, the location of a travel story is the most important character of all.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon - I think the most important thing is to make sure you get the opinions of people who live there and who have visited there. If you haven't been yourself, that can be overcome, but even if you have, you can still easily get details wrong that a native or a frequent visitor would see immediately.


@Ana1234 - I would add to that it's by far preferable to write about places you've actually visited if you can. I know if you're writing a story with a lot of traveling, it might be impossible to go to all those places in the course of research, but every place has a unique identity that you won't be able to fake. At best you can gloss over it somewhat, or maybe get details from other people who have been there. But in an unfamiliar country even the air tastes different and I'm not sure you can really describe that unless you have been there.

In fact I think it's very difficult to describe it even if you have been there, but at least then you can give it a shot.


I'm not someone who is always telling people to write what they know, but I do think it is a lot easier to write about a foreign country (or a made-up country) if you have traveled. You don't even have to have gone to the country you're describing. But if you've never left your own country there is no way to really see how much you take for granted.

The best travel fiction is able to evoke both the differences and similarities between countries and unless you've experienced life outside your own country, it's very difficult to harness that ability to write like an outsider.

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