Not ‘time travel.’ The WIP is still chugging along, slowly and reluctantly, but I’m going in a different direction today. I may have discussed fictional time previously, and I know for a fact that the Writer’s Guide to Horses series mentioned how fast horses move and how they were and are used for transportation. But it’s a subject that interests me and is important for writers, so it’s worth poking at it again.
I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings and one of the things that struck me was how long it took everything to happen in the first book. SPOILERS AHEAD, if you’re one of the very few people who doesn’t know the story.
The Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo’s 111th birthday party and the next real action takes place 17 years later. Then, Frodo takes all summer to sort out his affairs and start his journey in late September. And so on throughout the book, including things like resting in Rivendell for two months while Elrond and his advisors try to figure out what’s going on and what to do next. There’s a strange mismatch between the urgency of Frodo’s errand- destroy the Ring before it can lay hold of his mind- and the pace of actual events. Also, destroying the Ring gets rid of Sauron, who is currently trying to take over Gondor and the surrounding countries. You’d think the heroes would want to move quickly and prevent that, or at least lessen the destruction of the war.
Things pick up dramatically in the second and third books. I haven’t gotten to them yet, but if I remember correctly, The Two Towers and Return of the King take place in about a month, total. And the characters do a lot of running around. And fighting, and saving the world, but I’m mostly focused on the running around.
I was initially befuddled by the pace of events, super-slow then ultra-fast, but it makes some sense. Tolkien, having gone to war, knew a bit about logistics and the limits of the human body, and could extrapolate to figure out the limits of each of the races of Middle-Earth. For the hobbits, who are about three feet tall, a ten-mile march is exhausting. Aragorn, who’s six and a half feet tall and has spent most of his adult life trekking around the continent on foot, has no problem with it, and has enough energy to keep watch at night.
Tolkien also uses various means of speeding up the characters. Boats, horses, being kidnapped and carried around by Uruk-hai, all make them move faster than their usual pace. So the story may look weird in terms of travel times, but it makes sense. If he was hand-waving stuff because he wanted the Fellowship to leave Rivendell on Christmas and finish their task on March 25, the Feast of Annunciation, he did a good job of making it happen for reasons that work in-story (And before the Catholics in the audience take me apart in the comments, I know very well that Middle-Earth wasn’t a Christian land and Tolkien said it wasn’t an allegory. It’s entirely possible, and reasonable, that he was using dates that were important to him because it made the story easier to keep track of in his head, even if they were irrelevant to the world he’d built).
Another thing of note is- and this is key- the characters are all exhausted by the end. Frodo and Sam almost die of starvation and exposure after the Ring is destroyed, because they have no physical reserves left after their journey, and it takes them a couple of weeks before they are fully awake again, never mind being back to full strength.
What I’m getting at is, travel times and their effects make sense in The Lord of the Rings. They should also make sense in your stories. You don’t have to personally do a ten or twenty mile march to see what it feels like, or ride a horse across the country to see how long it takes your butt to get sore, but the timing and effects of travel should bear some resemblance to reality, or you should explain why they don’t- maybe your characters have magical travel, or they’re genetically modified for endurance or strength. Whatever you like, as long as it makes sense.
Don’t forget to factor in environmental issues. A normal human walking pace is about three miles an hour, but that’s on a flat, level surface. Hills, water crossings, or rocky terrain will slow down characters, as will extreme heat, humidity, or cold. Forced march pace is four miles an hour, but even a person in good shape can only keep up that pace for so long. Then, let them rest. Or show them being tired and possibly making mistakes because they’re exhausted. If you need to make a smart character temporarily stupid, this is a good way to do it; most people don’t brain well when they’re tired.
Anyway. Your turn. What’s the most egregious example of travel-based weirdness that you’ve seen in fiction?