Point A to Point B, Via Q, 3, and $

The Great Move still hasn’t happened, but it’s on schedule at the moment, and continues to give me post fodder. Part of The Great Move includes The Road Trip, you see, and planning that has made me think about distance. Driving nearly two thousand miles from one door to the other tends to focus one’s mind on the subject.

I’ll be on the road for five days. Seems like a long time, right? And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m taking it easy. But that kind of speed would have been unimaginable to people only a few generations ago.

Until the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s, the fastest way to get a coherent message across a long distance was to write it down, then give it to a man who would then hop on a horse and ride from point A to point B. It was also possible to use coded messages like drums, flags, or plumes of smoke, but these are highly localized and dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Pigeons were also used to send very short notes from one point to a fixed destination (the birds will always return to their home roost, at a speed of about sixty miles an hour).

The Oregon Trail (not the game, the real one) was about two thousand miles long and took an entire summer to traverse. I’m just thankful to be traveling in a Honda sedan, not a covered wagon pulled by oxen or mules.

Even for people who stayed closer to civilization, travel times and distances were more onerous than in modern times. Washington, D.C. was chosen as our capital because it was halfway up the east coast (and because Virginia and Maryland agreed to cough up the land for it (no big sacrifice on their parts; the place was a semi-inhabitable swamp for most of the 1800s)).

Most people had access only to the post, which traveled by stagecoach or horse-mounted courier. The Pony Express ran from 1860 to 1861, and its claim to fame was getting a mail pouch from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, in ten days. The mail moved about ten miles per hour, including stops, which was incredibly fast for the time. A horse can sprint up to fifty-five miles per hour, but only for a very short distance (usually a quarter or even an eighth of a mile). Horses in the Kentucky Derby run about thirty-five miles per hour, and an average horse can gallop at about twenty-five miles an hour for short distances (a horse’s most efficient gait is the trot, averaging eight miles per hour (a Standardbred harness horse can trot over thirty miles per hour)). Even a bicycle doesn’t move as fast as a horse over long distances, though it must be said- the owner doesn’t have to feed one end of a bicycle and shovel manure away from the other end.

But in the 1830s, we began to be less dependent on horse and pigeon power, and the world began to open up. Steam-powered engines were put on boats, and gas-powered engines were developed for cars. Radio tech became viable in the early 1900s, and heavier-than-air flight shortly after. Then TV burst onto the scene in the 1950s, and we never looked back. The first human went to space in 1961. Oh, and there’s a little thing called the internet. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

(Must it be said that these technologies were developed very gradually, and didn’t spread across the world immediately? Not everything is instantaneous. Heck, the Aran Islands of Ireland- a remote place but not the end of the world- didn’t have electricity until 1997.)

Nowadays, most highways have a speed limit between fifty-five and seventy miles an hour, so a normal person can drive five to seven hundred miles in a day, and the iron-butted among us can go double that (one of my aunts periodically drives from Rhode Island to halfway down the Florida coast in about twenty-four hours. She’s also a human GPS, but that’s another story). Travel in modern America is a piece of cake compared to most other places and times.

Culture plays an interesting role in travel as well. In the UK, any drive longer than an hour is a massive undertaking. In the US, most people will drive that far to get a decent pizza. My house is half an hour away from anything of interest (except the post office; after I finish this post, I’m going to get the mail. On horseback. It’ll take me half an hour, interestingly enough). It all comes down to what you’re used to.

So what’s the point of all this rambling? Good question. I’m uncaffeinated, trying to clean a house and pack, and fighting an upper respiratory infection. So rambling is the order of the day.

I write mostly non-contemporary fiction. That is, whether it’s historical, fantasy, or something else, it takes place in universes that don’t have access to modern tech. Even my WIP science fiction series is more like a regency romance, except that their immigrants travel to new planets, not to India or America.

Travel times and distances are important to my stories. Characters have to change horses at regular intervals, or stop and rest themselves. They need to pack enough food for journeys, and there’s usually no way to tell a person at Point B to watch for travelers coming from Point A. It changes the way a story is mapped out in my head, and the way a reader looks at it.

Discrepancies in elapsed time or distance are a frequent complaint from readers who care about a story’s continuity (some people don’t mind if a medieval character teleports from London to Paris in five seconds). There’s even a trope to cover this phenomenon, when it’s easy to avoid and even easier to fudge.

I make maps of my universes and write out timelines to keep everything straight in my head. You might have a different coping mechanism; all that matters is, does it work for you?

If you get stuck, if the plot absolutely requires a character to travel at superhuman speeds without the technology to back it up, it is possible to hedge a little. Have characters refer to the distance with a qualifier- ‘about two hundred miles’, for example. Foreshadow your character’s incredible (or mediocre) speed at a point early in the story. Mention that the moon was full, so they didn’t have to stop moving at night. Have them change horses more often, or if they’re traveling by car, make them drink lots of coffee and only stop for bathroom breaks. If you’re writing science fiction, FTL is a good form of handwavium, and most readers take it for granted that a SF universe has it. All of these methods can be used to eke out a few more miles without catapulting your reader out of the story.

Okay, that’s enough babble from me. The sun is shining and the horse needs exercise before I get back to packing. Talk amongst yourselves. What are the most egregious examples of travel-related handwavium you’ve seen (or written)? How do you keep time and space straight while writing? How important is it to you?

47 thoughts on “Point A to Point B, Via Q, 3, and $

  1. Being a stickler for accuracy, and having actually hiked from Nebraska to West Virginia (Well, about 50%, thanks to people offering rides), I know in my muscles and bones that it takes time to go from here to there with medieval-era technology. I’m very much afraid I’m going to have to draw a map to get my story going again. How many days journey from where my hero is conscripted into the King’s Army to its base camp?. Where is the village he was raised, for his backstory? How far from the army’s camp to the King’s Palace? How much of the tedious marching needs to be there to establish time and distance, and how much can I put on fast forward? Where are the barbarians? Where be dragons? Muse is insisting on knowing these things and refusing to offer up decent story without a diet of picky little geographic detail.

    1. OTOH, a lot of people would be poor judges because they do not routinely go for a walk of a mile or two. As even the well-off did in the days when getting out horses might not be trivial. They’d find it much harder than it was for people for which it was everyday.

    2. My mental WIP has ” roads inherited from the ancestors”. That could save some time, but I don’t know if it would work for you.

    3. One shortcut that might be useful is to base your world on similar geography. So instead of [fantasy place] to [second place], your mental map is [fantasy place = Nebraska southeast] and [second place = West Virginia]. Then do your travel time and comparative difficulty based on that. That’s kind of what I did, taking a route I’m very familiar with and then overlaying it on my fantasy world (minus lovely graded roads, of course.) And then I basically took it down to a vague description (both distance and time), but at least I knew.

      Incidentally, my mother hiked the Camino pilgrimage route around her 71st birthday, and I was pleased to note that my estimate of “roughly ten miles a day for unknown terrain on foot with time to eat and find a place to sleep” seemed to be about right. Obviously, trained folk could do better, and truly rough terrain would make it harder, but for your average person in decent walking health (which she’d trained up to), it’s a reasonable estimate.

      1. I did that. I used the Chiang Mai valley I lived in as a kid because I knew what I could see from the mountains.

  2. Since I have good timesense and am possessed of a fine internal GPS, it bugs me when transit times are… unlikely. If it’s a long dull trip, it’s not that hard to write “At the oxen’s slow pace I could have arrived sooner on foot” or “Three months later the caravan straggled into Jerusalem.”

    Probably the most consistently egregious I’ve seen was 24 (the TV series) in which a suitably-motivated person could drive clear across modern Los Angeles in five minutes.

    My nonhumans have FTL and have been in space for 13,000 years, so taking ship to the next system is about as exciting as taking a mundane bus to the next burg. To keep them properly appreciative of the scale of the universe, occasionally I toss them into some remote wilderness and make them walk home. Also, their dirtside public transit tends to be… functional. One character grouses that the backbeyond airbus’ notion of a first-class sleeper cabin means you get a blanket along with your plank.

    1. “Probably the most consistently egregious I’ve seen was 24 (the TV series) in which a suitably-motivated person could drive clear across modern Los Angeles in five minutes.”

      My husband and I were once talking about the Sammy Hagar song, “I Can’t Drive 55.” We were wondering just where he started from if it took him “sixteen hours to get to LA.”

      We eventually decided that it was probably somewhere in West Hollywood : – )

      1. One of the later James Bond movies had Bond in South America, England, Italy, and back to South America apparently within hours.

        My wife normally doesn’t worry about continuity problems, but even she was WTFing.

        1. Shoot, I can go from Africa to Europe to Scandinavia to Asia to America within minutes at work. 😉 (I’m currently working at an amusement park work an “Around the World in 80 Days” theme.)

          And lack of scale is indeed one of the things that bother me in the latest Star Wars movies.

        2. That weirdly historical and ahistorical King Arthur movie (the one set just post-Roman) had some fascinating geography that they went through in England south of Hadrian’s Wall. Let’s just say that not only was their speed unlikely, so was their route.

      2. I heard Sammy Hagar on the radio explaining it once. I can’t remember exact details, but I think it was from somewhere in Nevada (or was it the Sierra Nevada?) to a studio in L.A.

      3. Heh heh…. when I was living in Santa Clarita and occasionally working off in the direction of LAX, I found during evening rush it was faster to cut through Hollywood than to take the perpetually-clogged 405. At the time not enough people had discovered the Doheny-to-Sunset-to-Franklin route, so it was usually a clear shot all the way up to the Highland interchange (main problem being the lack of a jump light at Highland).

  3. Funny, been having an interesting time with my current WIP. Had a bunch of characters take two days to travel five kilometers. A twenty kilometer expedition is taking a week. No tech, middle of winter, and they had to re-invent snowshoes. Seriously. Oh, and they are doing this all on low rations so they can’t burn calories by pushing themselves. Yeah I am a bad, bad man.

    1. Have you ever read Eric Sloan (sp?). He wrote about weather years ago… Look at the Sky, Tell the Weather for example. He wrote about a guy caught up north with a snowplane whose landing/takeoff gear broke in a storm. The guy made new gear out of a caribou in three days, and took off just before a new storm blew in. Supposed to be a true story….

      1. Might have to look him up. That bush pilot story sounds reasonable though. Other factors in the WIP are that things have gone from modern tech to no tech. So no one has the experience needed to figure that stuff out yet.

  4. One of my science fiction stories partly takes place on a planet in a binary star system and I tried to be clever about showing the passage of time by noting the positions of the primary and secondary star relative to one another in the sky – both suns close together, one near either horizon, primary alone in the sky. I say “tried to be clever” because only one of my beta readers noticed and the rest were a little confused about how time had elapsed – a little too much with the showing and not enough of the telling there, heh.

    In my fantasy setting it is too dangerous for most people to be out on the roads at night so in the more remote areas there are fortified waystations spaced about a day’s ride apart from one another. My research into how far a “day’s ride” might be mostly came up with the answer of “it depends” but eventually I found an interesting blog post that was sort of a primer for fantasy writers on long distance travel via horseback (I have since lost the address for that blog – perhaps that might make for a good subject for a future Mad Genius Club post?). At any rate, in the fantasy setting I use the waystations to signal both the passage of time and distance. for story-writing purposes I usually make a chart in Excel.

    For an alternate-1930s setting in which airship travel is a thing, I researched airship cruising speeds and made an Excel spreadsheet to calculate travel times between various cities and other points of interest.

    1. “both suns close together, one near either horizon, primary alone in the sky. ”

      While that’s a good base approach, it omits one critical point: scale. We have no idea from this how long it takes, unless it’s also tied to time of day and something we can equate to hours. Frex: in the time it took him to walk the four miles to his sister’s house, the secondary had made half a transit around the primary. That gives us a scale of about an hour, after which position in the sky starts to take on meaning. No need to stop and tell/explain; rather, it needs more showing.

      1. Exactly! I assumed, probably because I had spent quite a bit of time researching and designing the star system, everyone would just understand what the scale was. In this case, the stars were separated by about 40 AU and the secondary star changed locations in the sky over the course of a year. It would have also appeared less sun-like and more “painfully bright point of light in the sky” but the world in question was a colony world of a spacefaring civilization with a cultural and religious affinity for pairs – they knew their star system had two stars. The readers on the other hand… not so much, at least not without a bit of editing on my part.

  5. Not about writing (mine or others) but you can drive (non interstate) in plenty of parts of the US and have a community (some very small) about every thirty miles.

    Which was a fair day’s travel (on fairly good roads) pre-automobile.

    Of course, you can currently drive that distance in about thirty minutes.

    1. Once upon a time, I recall some claim (and no I have no proper sources for this, alas, so adjust salt intake accordingly) that European villages were fairly close as the distance between was a about half an hour’s (hour’s?) walk to the furthest of the villager’s fields. U.S. towns tended to be further apart as the distance was covered by horse.

      I suppose as time went on the distances became where it was starting to get Very Important that the train take on more water. Though there that might be more center to the surrounding villages.

      I would expect new settlements (other planets, moons) would be set up to allow topping off batteries before low charge becomes critical.

      1. The railroads into arable but unsettled (other than by Indians) land would usually build a station, section houses, and sometimes fuel and water facilities at fairly regular intervals. Towns usually sprang up around the stations. The spacing was in part dictated by the maximum reach of a muscle-powered section gang, and to a lesser extent by the intent to capture as much freight and passenger traffic as possible. Intervals of 6-15 miles were common. Water for locomotives was also a concern, but since tenders allowed locomotives considerable range actually watering at every station would not be required.

    2. In the middle of SW Wyoming is a place called Little America. It’s a massive gas station with hotels, a gift store, and weird roadside museum stuff (like a stuffed Emperor Penguin)—that exists simply because an entrepreneur noted how big car tanks were and how far they could drive. (There’s really nothing on that stretch of I-80. Even now, it’s a profitable location.)

    3. Texas west of Del Rio has a lot of towns about 30 miles apart. I’ve been told that it’s because that’s the distance a locomotive could run before needing to refill either water or wood/coal or both.

  6. “The Oregon Trail (not the game, the real one) was about two thousand miles long and took an entire summer to traverse. I’m just thankful to be traveling in a Honda sedan, not a covered wagon pulled by oxen or mules.”

    And hopefully with no one likely to get dysentery on the way.

    I feel like I took the wrong lesson from The Oregon Trail game. What I learned was, “Going all the way to the Pacific is for losers. Set up camp somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, shoot a bunch of buffalo, and trade the meat to the suckers who are still going to Oregon.”

    1. Meat wasn’t the problem. The problem on the western plains is water (same reason there were relatively few Indians and a lot of failed homesteads). Away from the rivers, you get seasonal streams and ponds, but on foot or even horseback it might be five days to the next decent waterhole. And if you’re set up where there’s water… well, so is everyone else. Now, water depots along the trail, that might have done a good business — if anyone had any cash money, which they probably didn’t.

  7. My own favorite Exhibit A for GreyhoundWavium is (and will likely remain) Wolfram von Eschenbach’s classic “Parsifal”. W. von E. was enough of a knight himself (late Medaeval, German) that his hero’s Mentor makes a point of “Wash the rust off your face when you take off your helmet,” but his European geography is an outright MESS. Travellers commonly ride (yes, really) from Camelot to Paris to Rome to Bavaria and back in a matter of days. It’s really quite a good book if you can completely write off any sense of place or location…

    1. I’m working on a story with fairy tales. Since heroes and heroines easily walk from one kingdom to another (if not necessarily the one they want), I’m going to have to make it clear that they are postage-stamp sized.

  8. The Irish would hold “American wakes” when someone immigrated, because it usually about as final a parting.

  9. well, Maryland managed to persuade certain landowners to donate the land.. a bug chunk of DC used to belong to Charles Carroll

      1. heh… meant big chunk. But yeah, there’s a reason the county west of DC is Carroll County…

  10. We used to travel from northwestern Illinois to Ogden Utah to spend summers with my great aunt. Crossing Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming on old US 30, the Lincoln Highway took us two days with a motel stop in North Platte Nebraska. Once Interstate 80 was completed, and I was old enough fill in as relief driver we could blast straight through in 21 hours. Of course the second year after I-80 was finished they slapped us with a national 55 mph speed limit which added several hours to the trip.
    And Blake, welcome to MGC. I suspect you’ll fit right in here with the rest of the crazy folk.

  11. For an idea of how fast people can move, read military history. You can learn a lot about how much ground a horse can cover in one day, how fast a road can be built,etc.

    1. On that topic, the Viking raiders of roughly the late 10th century onwards were successful partly because in their longboats they could travel roughly 10x the distance per 24 hour period than even mounted pursuit. They could pass a garrisoned town and 200 miles upriver away attack a lightly defended target before even mounted forces (Charlemagne’s) could hope to catch them, or even warn the target.

      Mentioned in the case that some of you might like to give certain parts of a pre-industrial society a strategic mobility advantage in your stories.

  12. One of my dreams for all the money I could ever want would be to put together a documentary on the Oregon Trail—filming at locations at about the time the travelers would get there. Weather and all. It would also talk about how most people actually did the transit—in defiance of the popular image of everybody riding in the wagons, the truth is that most people walked it. I’m sure if people actually got to ride in a wagon like they had back then, they’d understand why.

  13. Thank you for that information. I’m of Irish descent, and I’d always wondered how the Vikes had managed to terrorize the island for so long.
    It was a technological advantage, coupled with good attack strategy.
    This is definitely going into a book in the future.

  14. Linda, here is what I garnered was a typical Viking raid. Their longboats were seaworthy, yet of such shallow draft that they could sail hundreds of miles up a river. Upon landing, they would drag that boat up the riverbank to the point that it would be invisible to any riverine pursuit.

    Next course of action would be to hotfoot it to a farm or farms to procure some horses. Then they’d ride those horses miles inland to assault some unsuspecting town or, preferably, a monastery, to plunder it.

    They quickly discovered that monasteries were not only a prime source for precious metals and such, but both people and holy relics that could be ransomed for for cubic bucks. I would guess they might be curious why the faithful would trade gold for a fingerbone of St. Cyprian or the local abbott unharmed, but they would.

    The raid targets might be hundreds of miles up a river, and scores of miles from the river itself. A cursory inspection of a map of Europe will show there was scarcely a town that was not raidable, with the target having no advance warning.

    Eventually, some leaders put up fortified bridges across the rivers, allowing garrisons to attack the Vikings trying to pass them. The raiders learned to simply drag their ships overland around such obstacles, and attack St. Cuthbert’s after a short delay. They were able to terrorize all of Europe, even making it to Russia and down to Constantinople, to trade Eastern European slaves gathered en route to Islamic traders. (Hence the word “slave” derived from “Slav.”)

  15. I’m pretty sure it was a 1632 book that described an army on the move in great detail. They don’t move fast when you need to setup camp every night and the “road” is only wide enough for a couple/few people abreast. 20 miles per day is exceptional.

    Even though I’d heard “amateurs think soldiers; professionals think logistics” any number of times, I’d never given it much thought and was surprised.

    Re: Oregon Trail and walking. I’ve heard it was because the horse was to pull the wagon with all one’s worldly possessions in it. That loaded, the horse didn’t go faster than a human walking and it really didn’t appreciate the extra weight of the human(s) in the wagon.

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