One of the benefits of being a 21st-century author is the vast amount of information available at your fingertips. More specifically, the internet. When you try to start putting a story together, your respect for authors such as Jules Verne, who produced imaginative works of fiction in the 19th century, grows when you think that they had to create their worlds purely from their imagination. I’m sure that books of the day were consulted by such authors, but the resources available to today’s writers gives them a huge advantage in terms of research. I’ve never been to Moscow, but I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to write a spy thriller, I could consult street maps of the city and look at hundreds of photos online so that I could concoct convincing descriptions of the locales involved, all without ever leaving my house.
With this in mind, I’d like to share with you a rather wonderful website that I have recently discovered: it’s called Atlas Obscura.
One of the taglines for the website is “Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations.” A quick look at a few of photographs and descriptions on this site is enough to convince me that this tagline is well-deserved. Given my recent discovery, I’ve barely had time to scratch the surface of this site, and have tended to concentrate my searches on “The Atlas” section, but there are also sections covering “Stories”, “Events” and “Trips”.
“The Atlas” section is organised by continent, and you can quickly drill down to a geographic area by then selecting a country and city. Among the delights on offer in the United Kingdom are Puzzlewood, a fantasy woodland filled with moss-covered rocks, bridges and trees, said to be Tolkien’s inspiration for The Lord of the Rings. Then there’s The Churchill War Rooms, the system of bunkers and tunnels used by Sir Winston and his government during World War II, and briefly mentioned in my novel Monkey Arkwright. Sticking with tunnels, how about a fascinating look at The Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a 1215-foot pedestrian tunnel that runs under the River Thames. Look at those photos – now’s there’s an iconic site that could inspire a whole dystopian novel.
Elsewhere in Europe, “Popeye’s Village” looks like it would make for an intriguing day out: the set for Robert Altman’s 1980 film was never dismantled, and the locals adopted the place as a ready-made theme park! Speaking of theme parks, my family are big Disney fans and we’ve had plenty of visits to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney World in Florida over the years. Although I already knew about this place, it’s good to see River Country on Atlas Obscura – it was Walt Disney World’s first water park, but years after being abandoned, it’s become an overgrown ruin full of wild grass and crumbling rides. Whilst being a favourite with urban explorers, it’s on the Disney property and security take a dim view of visitors, so I wouldn’t recommend visiting – just look at the photos instead.
One of the things I like about this site is how quirky and unusual places sit alongside places that are more well-known. So, whilst the #1 entry for Barcelona is Gaudi’s masterpiece the Sagrada Familia, one of the most visited sites in the world, the #1 entry for London is Highgate Cemetery. Granted, it’s hardly obscure, but I think that you’ll agree that it probably wouldn’t be in a traditional top 10 of London’s many famous attractions and monuments. Or how about the Torre Argentina (Roman Cat Sanctuary) that occupies a top-5 position on the list for Rome. Another couple of random places that I found on my travels on the site are Bunker-42, Stalin’s hideout beneath the streets of Moscow (check out the carpet in that tunnel!) and Expedition Bigfoot (The Sasquatch Museum) in Georgia – not Sasquatch country if I remember correctly, but I can’t resist a good Bigfoot story. As if this wasn’t enough, there are free cookies for visitors.
My character Monkey Arkwright doesn’t have much time for smartphones and computers – he’s more interested in getting out into the great wide open so he can climb a tree, rockface or building. But if he did enjoy surfing the net, I daresay that he’d find Atlas Obscura a truly wonderful site. I’m sure that it would provide him with inspiration for his next climbing challenge. There’s no doubt that his creator will be visiting this site frequently in the future, if not for the gorgeous photos on offer, then for an idea or two for some future story. All those photos of hidden subterranean worlds are just calling out for a creepy story ……