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?