From Florida to New York, these 12 small towns were the inspiration behind some incredible stories.
There is nothing like a great book to take you away when you can’t travel. When a great book makes a lasting impression, there is an almost universal desire to visit the place that inspired the author. Being able to walk the same roads as a favorite author or memorable character allows a reader to understand their favorite books in a new, intensely different way. While many great novels are inspired by the lights of big cities like New York City or Los Angeles, small towns across the country have been inspiring authors for centuries. These 12 small towns inspired some of the best and most popular American novels that have stood the test of time.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God author Zora Neal Hurston grew up in Eatonville, the first all-Black incorporated municipality in the history of the United States. Many of Hurston’s books take place in Eatonville, and some of her characters are based on the town’s residents. Today, Eatonville embraces its ties to the Harlem Renaissance author with an annual “Zora!” festival and The Zora Neal Hurston Museum dedicated to the author and other artists of African descent.
Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville and drew heavily from her hometown to create Maycomb, the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. Visitors can tour sites from Lee’s most significant novel. Local actors have been performing the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird for over 30 years. Devotees of the novel can also see the town’s iconic courtroom where Lee watched her father practice law as a child, which inspired the book’s dramatic courtroom scene. The courthouse has historical photos of Lee and her friend Truman Capote. The town also features a “Birdhouse Trail” lined with birdhouses depicting scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Alice Walker was born to sharecroppers in rural Eatonton. Her upbringing in the small, segregated town in the Jim Crow era influenced her writing in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple. The beautiful landscape of her hometown also inspired Walker. The Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton honors Walker and other Georgia writers. Walker’s childhood home, school, family church, and family cemetery are all still standing.
Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire and several other renowned plays, called Clarksdale home as a child. Many locations in Clarksdale made their way into Williams’ work, and he borrowed the names of people he knew in Clarksdale for his most famous characters, including Blanche and Stella. The town honors Williams in a number of ways, including the annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee William Festival, The Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum, and by preserving many of the sites significant to Williams’ life in the town’s historic district.
Taos, New Mexico
Taos and the surrounding area have been a muse for authors for over a century. The town’s Pueblo architecture and majestic mountains formed the backdrop for works by authors including D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, and John Nichols. Visitors can explore the D. H. Lawrence Ranch and sit under the “Lawrence Tree,” a tall pine that was a favorite place for the author to write. Lawrence, who wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, penned Autumn in Taos and several other works at the ranch. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop features Taos’ Laguna Pueblo. The place Cather called home in Taos, now called “the pink adobe,” is still standing. The modern writer John Nichols lives in a Taos casita built in the 1940s. His novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, takes place in the Taos-like town of Milagro. Visitors to Taos often try to catch sight of the author.
Asheville, North Carolina
Generations of authors have drawn inspiration from Asheville’s Blue Ridge Mountains and vibrant arts scene going back more than a century. Wilma Dykeman, John Ehle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, O. Henry, James Patterson, Carl Sandburg, Thomas Wolfe, and many other writers wrote works influenced by their time in the town. Some, like Fitzgerald, only called Asheville home for a short time, but the town is mentioned in his most famous book, The Great Gatsby, and in later life, he wrote from his room in Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn. Wolfe, an Asheville native, called the town of Asheville “Altamont” in his acclaimed novel, Look Homeward, Angel, but the setting is unmistakable. The Asheville Literary Tour helps bring the town’s literary history to life.
Horror writer Stephen King called Bangor home for decades. King drew inspiration from the town for the fictional town of Derry, Maine, which appears in 24 of the author’s stories, including It, Pet Semetary, and Bag of Bones. The King family’s red Victorian-style mansion is on-brand, protected with a creepy gate resembling a spider web and adorned with bats. The mansion is now a writer’s retreat and not open to the public, but it can be seen from the street on one of several tours dedicated to King’s work.
Mark Twain drew heavily on the people and places in his childhood home in Hannibal for some of his most famous novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Visitors can tour Twain’s boyhood home, now a museum dedicated to the author. While in Hannibal, fans of Twain’s work can also take a ride down the Mississippi river and explore one of the town’s caves, just like Tom and Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal also hosts two festivals dedicated to the author, Twain on Main and Tom Sawyer Days.
Dr. Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, grew up in Stamps, where her grandmother owned the only Black-run general store. Angelou wrote about the town throughout her acclaimed novel. The town dedicated the Lake June Park to Angelou, who wrote about the lake and other sites in Stamps. The author’s family church is still operating, and visitors can see Angelou’s elementary school, the Lafayette County Training School, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, New York
In 1996 the town of North Tarrytown changed its name to Sleepy Hollow to honor its history as the town that inspired Washington Irving to write The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Today, visitors can see landmarks from the Legend throughout the town, from the stately manor where Ichabod Crane strolled with country girls to the haunts of the Headless Horseman. Other popular stops include the Old Dutch Church, where Crane’s flight from the Headless Horseman ends, and the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where former town residents believed to have inspired some of Irving’s characters are buried. The adjacent village of Tarrytown, where Irving’s Sunnyside estate still stands, is another popular stop and the site of annual events paying homage to the author.
Chincoteague Island and Assateague Island, Virginia
The wild ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague have fascinated visitors for hundreds of years. In the 1940s, the ponies captured the imagination of Marguerite Henry, who was inspired to write Misty of Chincoteague. The book tells the story of Misty, the filly of a wild pony that lived on Chincoteague’s Beebe Ranch. Wild ponies still roam the area. Visitors can tour Beebe Ranch and see some of Misty’s descendants. Want to see Misty herself? She is preserved and on display at the Chincoteague Museum.
Salem may be most famous for being the site of witch trials in the 17th century, but it also inspired Nathanial Hawthorne to write his classic novel The House of the Seven Gables. The house still stands and is open for tours. Salem is also the inspiration for a nearly endless number of books about witches. The town is filled with sites related to witches and witchcraft that formed the basis of many works of fiction set in the town.