The Travel Writer’s Bookshelf: books that set a mood

Jonathan Lorie hand-picks titles that vividly imagine the atmosphere of a destination.

In this series, travel-writing trainer Jonathan Lorie introduces the classic travel books on his shelf and explains how these can inspire your own traveller’s tales. This week: moody stories.


What is it that so often calls to us from other places? What do we remember? For me it’s the mood – of a place or a culture, a moment in my life, or maybe just a passing hour. The carefree cafes of Paris, the bleached boats of the Greek isles, the glittering temples of Thailand all have their vibe and their memories, and for me these amount to more than what a place is like: they conjure too what a place is about. 

Here are three books from my shelf that beautifully convey the mood of a place and its people. An afternoon with these authors is a dip into another world.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

A gripping tale of a murder in Georgia that crosses gothic with travel to explore the different moods in a southern American town. 

Voices of the Old Sea, by Norman Lewis

A deeply moving memoir of three summers spent in Spain in the early 1950s, capturing the mood of a peasant world that has now almost gone. A great work by a great travel writer. 

Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti

A wildly atmospheric account of the ancient Saharan city in all its squalor and splendour. The Nobel Prize-winning author captures its sights, sounds and smells – and his own reactions to its strangenesses. 

Tips from a travel writer

As a travel writer, there’s no need for you to limit yourself to a one-dimensional tale of simply ‘what happened’. You can access the power of mood, which really means the power of feelings – your own, your characters’, sometimes a mood in the place itself. A ruined church at midnight will usually be a fearful space. A medieval town in party mode will usually offer fun, nostalgia and a little bit of weirdness. 

A powerful mood in a piece of writing can act like a spell on your readers, lulling them into a dream world you’ve made, that surrounds and involves them in your story. You want to hold them there. You don’t want the magic to break. 

Top tips for creating mood in your writing are to slow things down, focus on small details that trigger associations – the bats in the church belfry, to quote a cliché – and to show your character’s reactions: they gasp as the bats swoop towards them, or lurch into the darkness, or simply scream. John Berendt’s book above ends at midnight in a cemetery with a sort of sorceress: I dare you not to be spooked.

More information

Jonathan Lorie is the author of The Travel Writer’s Way: turn your travels into stories (Bradt, £14.99), the ultimate handbook for aspiring travel writers. He teaches travel writing at www.travellerstales.org.

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