Time and Travel in Fiction

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?

50 thoughts on “Time and Travel in Fiction

  1. What’s the most egregious example of travel-based weirdness that you’ve seen in fiction?

    I thought of more of the “opposite”.

    In one David Eddings series, he had the characters (for good reasons) come close to killing their horses by pushing them hard.

    Later in that series, the main character is traveling by horse on an important mission. Eddings’ describes what he does to preserve his horses (the MC has several with him and switches horses). Among other things, the MC goes around hills (when possible) instead of riding up the hills and then down the hills.

  2. As a Catholic, I see no conflict between not-an-allegory and uses-religiously-significant-dates-as-story-significant-dates. People have made similar arguments (though not necessarily with dates that would have been religiously significant to the author) about Jane Austen’s Emma: http://www.jimandellen.org/austen/emma.calendar.html

    (The Old Midsummer’s Eve and Old Midsummer’s Day they’re talking about is the Julian calendar version of Midsummer, which country folk continued to acknowledge even after the Brits adopted the Gregorian calendar.)

  3. Boats, horses, being kidnapped and carried around by Uruk-hai, all make them move faster than their usual pace.

    :laughing in delight:
    I just had the mental image of Tolkien with a map of Middle Earth, a ruler, and a compass, measuring stuff and muttering up a gray storm then going “dash it all! CALL IN THE EAGLES!”

  4. even if they were irrelevant to the world he’d built

    First off:
    Sorry you’re braced for being taken apart in the comments on this one; I’m more delighted someone remembered that Tolkien DID do Things with his dates.

    Second; wish the folks who’d done so would listen to Tolkien, beyond the “it’s not allegory” thing.
    Middle Earth is Catholic. Philosophically so. Structurally so. That is why the dates echo back, from the miracles– because important things echoing through history is A Thing. THAT WAS THE POINT! :mutter mutter mutter:

  5. I honestly can’t think of a badly done travel time situation– partly because I try to not notice that kind of stuff, because it’s so seldom plot relevant– but last night I saw one that was done REALLY WELL in a silly girl anime. RPG Real Estate, basically the entire series is a bunch of not very bright girls being cute and/or funny, but transit time by airship vs teleportation crystal vs flying mount– and the limits of each– has been one of the bigger plot points thus far.

    Roughly speaking, the teleportation crystal is a train, the airship is a bus, and the flying mounts (pegasi, gryphons) are some sort of POV.

  6. egregious examples? i don’t know, but i know i had to come up with something for a bunch of trainees on their way to offworld basic to be doing for the duration of the trip…

  7. The pacing in the last Harry Potter book is a little odd. Harry and Hermione spend a LOT of time just camping and getting nothing done. There are a couple of active moments — about two days at Christmas and sometime in February. Then the pace picks up in the spring.

    Also, …
    Dante’s definition for allegory is more or less a beautiful untruth that is designed to teach something. I think there is some other definition of allegory that people are avoiding when they say that LOTR is not an allegory. Even Tolkien. It’s obvious that there are allegorical meanings all over the place in the book. I’ve never quite understood this.

    1. The most common usage these days is in the one-thing-stands-for-another. Usually in a reasonable amount of detail. The LoTR has much more allusion than allegory to it in my opinion.

    2. An interesting definition– most likely, the folks objecting (including Tolkien) were doing so on grounds of the most common definition, that it’s a hidden meaning– ie, “the story isn’t the story, it’s REALLY about–“.

      A story that is a story can teach you. It will teach you, just like life teaches you. But it’s a story, first. The characters are the characters.
      Gandalf is explained as “an angel” because that describes roughly the setup, not because he’s an allegory for Saint Michael. (….or any of the rest, really, that’s a horrible fit that I’d seriously admire someone managing to logically support)

      It’s a story of the destruction of the One Ring. Not World War II, or Christ over sin, or– all sorts of things. There will be echoes, because truth DOES echo.

    3. Since tone can’t convey in text, and I tend to not be sure if folks are thinking along the same lines– I’ll point out that Dante died most of a millennia ago. Some meaning shift WILL happen.

    4. The big problem there is that the three of them are sent to Go To I-Know-Not-Where, Bring Back I-Know-Not-What. It works in the fairy tale because the hero’s magical wife can tell him what to do. But questing for unknown objects, in unknown locations, without anything to help you, not even the address of a library with information, is impossible.

  8. I tried to do things very realistically in my HF – since in a lot of them, characters were depending on horseback travel. Which is most often as hard on the rider as it is on the horse.
    In “Truckee” they were traveling with oxen-pulled wagons, which over level ground and easy rolling could do a brisk 10 to 15 miles a day, depending on terrain. Mules and horse-pulled wagons over better roads, maybe a little faster. The Pony Express did ten miles at a fast gallop, and then the riders had to change to fresh horses. In The Golden Road, the MC worked as an express-rider in the California mines, a 20 mile-route, IIRC – he did the regulation cavalry pacing thing for long distances, of walk-trot-canter, repeat.

  9. Thanks for the analysis of LOTRs travel since the journey was metaphorically the spine of the book. I can’t think of one done really badly. On the other hand, there’s Jules Verne and Around the World in 80 Days, where the whole point is realistic travel times, Even hinging on (spoiler alert) the dateline. Can one really worry about spoilers for a 100-year-old novel? In some books like my wife’s, you don’t even realize time is passing so fast. 4 sets of characters converging on one place for the climax, each group with their own dramatic storyline, and most of them not realizing the others are going to be there. Thanks for the interesting topic.

    1. The really annoying part of Around the World in 80 Days (besides everyone thinking there was a ballon involved), is that the major plot twist would have been obvious in America, especially when they were trying to catch their ship.

      1. Good point, but how would they be sure to notice the date?

        Or was it Sunday?

  10. “What’s the most egregious example of travel-based weirdness that you’ve seen in fiction?”

    To be honest I have never paid attention to things like that. I don’t know much about horses beyond which end of the horse has the teeth. I do however know that it takes a couple of months to walk across Canada. This place is -big-.

    In my own stories I cheat. If somebody is sprinting a combat suit I try to calculate those numbers right, so we don’t have suits going zero to 60 mph in two seconds. That would be silly.

    The biggest cheat I’ve pulled out yet is taking my characters from roughly medieval France to a ruined city on the Tigris river in three hours. Nanotechnology is so handy! 🙂 It can grow you a supersonic flying wing when you’re stuck chasing a magic book across Europe and the Middle East.

  11. Be warned that if you try to walk twenty miles in a day from average levels of fitness, you will really regret it AND you will have no idea what it was like for people who walked all the time because of the bother of harnessing the horses and the possibility they were not available.

    1. The reason I mention is that there is a guy currently walking across Canada right now, James Topp.


      As an exercise in foot travel, be it noted that Mr. Topp, a slodier and a very fit guy by the look of him, left Vancouver on February 20th and today is somewhere on Highway 17 in Ontario, halfway between Kenora and Dryden. He’s still got 1,100 some odd miles to go before he hits Ottawa.

      He’s also essentially invisible on Canadian news media, and Google seems to be reluctant to mention him. Looking up a few different keywords for marching and walking across Canada etc. don’t turn him up. The curious thing of the dog that didn’t bark.

  12. In the next Merchant book, the protagonist spends a lot of time going to and coming from. I tried to base it on somewhat realistic “fit men used to walking with animals used to walking,” but I suspect my times en route are too short. Even though I build in allowances for stuff happening.

  13. Shoes matter. With proper shoes, twenty miles a day was fine for me and my sister when we were in our 40’s. But the first day I wanted to die because I wore the wrong shoes. (Susan Koman 3 x 20 walk on paved roads which also made a difference)

  14. One of the biggest issues in a lot of stories is not just how much time it gets to go there and back…but to get ready to do the traveling.

    Think about this-how long does it take to make camp, prepare and eat dinner, get ready for bed, clean your gear, sleep, wake up, prepare and eat breakfast, break down the camp, THEN get moving? You also need enough daylight to get started at the end of the day, if you don’t have relatively high-tech equipment (or magical equivalents). So, that eats into your travel time.

    Also, we can’t forget travel by other means. A ship, for example-you not only have the absolute travel time, but the time un-docking, getting out of port, then getting into port, docking, off-loading, then on-loading the next load of cargo and supplies…

    It’s those little things that you miss and forget.

    1. On getting the ship out of the harbor, it’s my understanding that it’s slower with a sailing ship than with a ship with engines.

      1. Witness that the forts of New Orleans were enough to force the British to attack on land, but Farragut just charged past them.

      2. And, it still takes time.

        Here’s another issue-getting a berth. Remember all of those container ships that are probably still sitting off the coast, because they don’t have a berth, or a berth that can handle a ship their size, or doesn’t have specialized equipment for handling the cargoes available immediately…

    2. Don’t forget you can only travel as fast as the slowest member of your party. If you’re traveling with kids, the five-year-old sets the pace. Why aren’t you carrying the five-year-old? Because you’re carrying the baby! Who also slows you down.

  15. Age, fitness, footwear, and enthusiasm make a difference. Weather does, too (walking a paved road on a sunny day is faster than slogging across a muddy field at night, or wading through snow up to your knees in a blizzard).

  16. I’ll admit, I cheated. The character was exhausted and when they collapsed, one of the local powerful things kind of felt sorry for them and dropped them off by a tramway before they woke up. (That particular entity has a long history of finding people who get lost out there, and tends to be reclusive, so it was even in character.)

    Judicious use of magic solves many problems!

  17. Wizard’s First Rule (Sword of Truth 1) by Terry Goodkind. The border/ Capitol is so far away. Like 300 miles. But hero does over the weekend on foot. Authors I have been know to pull up Google maps and see if your time frame is correct.

  18. For another “opposite example” Dennis L McKiernan’s “Iron Tower” trilogy and “Silver Call” duology generally feature travel of about 10 miles per day, but one time the MC’s group had to really light a fire under themselves, and took part in a journey that while it was mostly glossed over so far as the day-to-day drudgery of it and semi-handwaved off as paddling down a river for the vast majority of it…. he still specified at the end of the 2-month long trip that this blazing fast amazing epic journey had averaged 27 miles per day. With exclamation points.

    I’ve read accounts of the wagon trains that went west across America in the 1800’s. They’d generally get moving at 1st light and stop a few hours before sunset so they’d be able to make camp and cook dinner (possibly hunting to allow for it too) while it was still light out. Given that they generally traveled in the summer, this would still mean they’d have probably 12 to 14-ish hours of travel per day and they considered 10-12 miles of forward progress to be average to good, with 20 miles across flat plains to be blazing fast.

  19. I most sincerely hope that I never have to do another book that requires calculating multiple time zones including the wrong way across the international date line again.

    *eyes muse* That wasn’t a challenge!

    1. JFK to Tokyo on a JAL flight, then from Tokyo to a town in the mountains…had to stay overnight in Nikko because you don’t try to drive up to Touma Suisha’s house at night unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and it’s literally life-or-death desperate…

      Oh, the fun of that. And, figuring out time and space constraints in Rome for the next book.

        1. I’m writing it now, and the short version is…

          Narita International Airport, up the toll freeways (with a transponder to pay the tolls), until you hit Nikko proper. Private house just a block away from the Daiya River. Cars are BMW 5’s.

          From there…up into the hills, then along a private roadway. You go up THAT in a Range Rover or something with four wheel drive and lots of horsepower in the winter, daylight hours unless it’s a desperate emergency. Summer is slightly safer, which is when any big non-emergency work is done.

          1. Well unless you brought the BMWs with you, you are unlikely to actually use precisely that car. I haven’t done a huge amount of car renting in Japan but I’ve done a bit and I’ve never ever seen a foreign car in the rental car lots. A Toyota crown or a Lexus sure. Or Nissan equivalents. also Mazda and other Japanese brands. (Same goes for Range Rovers. Unless you have a really good reason to not use a Japanese brand car replace with (Lexus badged) Toyota land cruisers or Subaru foresters or similar. )

            Now if you have someone who picked you up at the airport then they might have imported cars. I do see BMWs and Range Rovers around, but they aren’t common. And the larger high end ones are rare. You see BMW M3s and other 3 series quite often, but hardly ever see a 5 or 7 series

            In the present day google maps will give you excellent directions that are pretty accurate for drive times (e.g. https://goo.gl/maps/UJNoNmNwLPYzeFm99 ) and google streetview will usually give you a pretty good idea of what the roads look like (though in the countryside streetview images can be a few years old so things may have changed – usually degraded). The twisty roads mountainous minor are usually very narrow with large sections that are single track and hope to god no one is coming the other way because someone’s going to have to do a reverse to get to a passing place. Take a look at google streetview around Takinoo Shrine (滝尾神社) to get a feel for it.

            I personally would drive a small 4WD car e.g. a little Suzuki Jimney rather than anything larger simply for the ability to pass other cars. I’ve driven those sorts of roads in Western Japan in a regular sized car and it wasn’t fun when I met another one trying to go in the other direction. In winter people that live the area (as opposed to living in Tokyo) generally swap to winter tires which helps with the traction (and/or chains). But that may not be enough, many of those roads will be under several foot of snow from say mid-December to February so you won’t be driving up them at all. The local authorities do clear some roads and farmers/residents clear the ones they use that the authorities don’t. But if you aren’t local to the area and don’t check, you can come across unexpected “Road closed until March 1st” signs and they mean it.

            1. If I remember what my notes were saying…the BMWs were there because they were the only branded car that was being sold enough in Japan that 1)had the right luxury options, and 2)had a good armored option.

              The SUVs…I’m looking at a revision, but for some reason I was seeing the number that the Range Rovers gave me the performance I needed. Back to the research again…need something that is four wheel drive and can make those roads in the winter during daylight hours, because the house is a getway one.

              1. If no one lives there you may need a snow plow stashed somewhere to get there unless the neighbors have cleared the road. Though that does make the fact that you’ve gone there kinda obvious. But then in snow any tracks are kind of obvious. But seriously Japanese farmers/foresters drive Jimney’s and the Daihatsu equivalents up all sorts of tracks with grades up to a good 20%. Unless you are pulling a heavy load those little 4WDs are remarkably solid

                1. Guy living on the mountain is wealthy. Not rich, wealthy. So, maybe he has a weekly snowplow that goes by…hm…another detail to add to the story.

                  (At least I don’t have to talk about the school in Shikoku beyond creepy rumors…)

    2. For extra fun, you can do it while fitting the entire plot around a pregnancy! (That’s something where you have a really limited amount of ability to fudge.)

      1. And by month 8 or so, no matter how much of a powerhouse she normally is, she’s going to be doing her best impression of a turtle on its back…

        1. There’s a reason Weber had Honor offload her pregnancies to an artificial womb……

  20. I can think of two examples of writers who did it really well.

    In “Captain’s Courageous” Kipling gets a character to do about the fastest possible West Coast to East Coast trip possible for the era (c.1900). He talked to various experts and there is general agreement that he nailed it. Particularly since shortly after the book was published a US Railroad Tycoon decided to see if he could better it and IIRC pretty much equalled it (I forget the exact details)

    In fantasy, Elizabeth Moon was very good at this in the Paksenarrion books. She took (IMHO) one liberty in making her women fighters a tad too strong for what is possible, but when it came to journey times on different roads, different weathers etc. she was really really good.

    This last winter I certainly discovered the difference between walking in summer on well defined paths and walking (on snowshoes) the same in winter when the paths are buried under several foot of snow. Path finding slows you down enormously. As does having to duck under tree branches that would normally be several feet over head. And even with snowshoes to stop you sinking hip deep, you will not be walking at 3mph on the flat. In fact there were plenty of times when we did no more than 1mph when going up and down hill.

  21. This was quite thought-provoking. I’m in the process of a re-write of a book, and I may spend some time just looking at it with this in mind.

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