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Dealing with distance in fiction

June 6, 2011

If there had been an airport just around the corner from the Shire and one in Mordor, The Lord of the Rings would have been a pamphlet.

I am actually typing this entry on a train. I travel 170 km (around 105 miles if you’re so inclined) in less than three hours, stops and changes between means of public transport included. Imagine if I had had to make the journey on a horse. Or if I’d had to walk.

Working on a novel (or a trilogy) spanning over a century and a half with a protagonist who travels Europe and later to the USA, I have thought a lot about distance. Although the 1850s aren’t exactly the distant past, a lot has happened since then. The journey between towns or villages in England at that time weren’t quickly undertaken. As a child, my main character’s brother has a friend who has been to the Great Exhibition in London, and to him it seems a fairytale land far, far away.

Nowadays most of us have been abroad (well, at least where I live – it’s a very small country) or at least if you’re in the USA visited a different state. It is possible to be a commuter, we can easily connect with people in other countries all thanks to the internet, and news travel almost at lightning speed. If a war breaks out on the other side of the globe right now, I am likely to know in a few hours at the most. Imagine centuries (or less) ago when it could take days or weeks for news to reach people in other countries.
With stories set in a contemporary society, I can estimate travelling quite well. It will take half an hour to get from this station to that. It will take around 12 hours to get to Tokyo. And if I want to check, it’s pretty easy. I can go online and look at timetables. But I have no instinctive idea of “how long it takes to get from X to Y” when it comes to the past. What means of transport were invented at a given point? How fast did cars actually go in the 1930s? There weren’t any trains going from this town to this, were there? It takes research.

There is also the matter of pacing. If you have someone in a story set in the past (or in a fantasy world, or in a post-apocaplyptic world) undertaking a long journey, is the story going to be about the trip and what happens along the way? Or is it going to be a sort of, “And then they walked for many days and nights until they reached …”?
We can turn that question around, of course. If you have someone in a contemporary story (or a science fiction with even faster means of transport) travelling from one place to the other and it takes only 30 minutes, is the journey itself not important then? Or it is going to be a description in minute detail of what the protagonist is thinking and looking at out of the window?

So maybe Lord of the Rings wouldn’t have been a pamphlet after all. The plane could have crashed in Isengard or hijacked by Uruk-hai. There could have been waiting time in the airport, customs could have been hell. Or Frodo could have fallen asleep on the way and dreamt a whole lot of things. But if the distance of the journey itself hadn’t been as huge a deal as it was, the story would have been quite different.

How does distance affect your writing? Does your fantasy world have instant travel magic because you can’t be bothered to write long journeys? Do you find it hard to really grasp the long distances when writing  historical fiction? Or do you constantly strand your characters in stations waiting for the train to slow down the pacing?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 11:15 pm

    I have 3 WIP novels- a trilogy- set in the recent past, (1960s to 2000s) and 1 WIP novel set in the near future (2045).

    My trilogy has many long, leisurely walking scenes in which time isn’t really an issue, and several “scheduled” cross-country car trips in which I describe the space-time continuum in greater detail. There’s one scene I carefully mapped out using Google Maps and MapQuest- my protagonist, a cross-country runner, sprints to a neighboring town and collapses.

    My futuristic novel has a lot of high-tech vehicular travel, but the travel is done rather quickly.

    Paying attention to the traveling details while writing a novel adds an extra layer of believability.


    • June 7, 2011 5:42 pm

      I like the point about time being an issue or not. And I agree with you that details adds to the believability. It can be various things, even just small things like the colour of the dust on the road that adds to the atmosphere.
      Oh yes, Google Maps and the like are brilliant for research of this kind.
      Thank you for commenting! 🙂


  2. June 6, 2011 11:28 pm

    Okay, now I’m imagining the Fellowship trying to get their assorted weaponry past airport security (and probably giggling more than I should). Also you just know the plane is going to get grounded due to volcanic ash from Mount Doom.

    Seeing as my work in progress takes place on three different planets, I kind of have to have some form of magic transportation or spend years traveling between them, in fact one of the planets is orbiting a different star to the others which sort of ups the ante to ‘use magic or have the cast die in transit and the rest of the story happen to their decedents many, many generations later’, I mean I could throw sciency words like FTL-Drive or Wormhole around, but that’s really just magic in fancy dress and I’m cursed with terminal honesty. It still takes time though, traveling between systems takes days or weeks depending on how far apart they are. I have a feeling that that’s a decision that may bite me later but for the moment it’s working quite nicely with the pacing, allowing characters a bit of a breather before it all goes to hell again. So somewhere in the middle I guess, the journey isn’t the story, but it’s part of the story, if that makes sense.


    • June 7, 2011 5:46 pm

      Oh yes, airport security is a problem with weapons and armour and what have you. (“Sir, you will need to remove that chain with the ring, too …”) You made me laugh with the volcanic ash comment!
      I think that’s the fascinating thing about writing other-wordly stories. You get to play with transportation like that.
      And it makes perfect sense. I feel the same about one of my stories – the journey is important, but it’s just one part of a whole.
      Thank you for your comment!


      • June 17, 2011 3:14 pm

        I loved how in Kill Bill the airliners obviously have little slots next to each seat so the passengers can store their samurai swords safely during travel.


  3. June 7, 2011 1:15 am

    Now that Aiwevanya put that image in my head, I can’t help but laugh!

    I worry about travel a lot in my WIP. The character travels between states frequently (I wonder if it’s a little too often). Generally, I skip the actual travel and have her arrive X hours later.

    Unless the story is in the journey itself, I don’t think the reader needs too much information. They trust us authors to get the characters where they need to go…or to make sure the mishap is entertaining.


    • June 7, 2011 5:48 pm

      I can definitely see why you would skip the trip. Unless something happens on the way or the characters have really interesting thoughts on the way. While details of journeys can add something to a story, they can also weigh it down if they aren’t relevant.
      Thanks for the comment!


  4. June 7, 2011 1:36 am

    As a new writer I struggle with this, but I am getting a handle on it. My WIP has a long journey, during which important things happen, so that travel is in the story. But I have other trips which the main characters take without the reader. It really helps to keep in mind that you are writing Life: The good parts version. It is hard to let go of the main character sometimes, but she does need down time right?


    • June 7, 2011 5:51 pm

      Great phrase “Lift: The good parts”. 🙂
      I like doing “dull” bits now and then though, but they should definitely be in the story for a reason. – They should be dull for the characters, but not so much for the reader.
      Thank you for the comment!


  5. June 7, 2011 1:50 am

    Good topic!

    I’ve been amazed at how often a long journey is not mentioned at all, especially in a day and age when going down the road to the well was dangerous.

    I’m a fan of the UK series “Merlin”, but am always dismayed when Merlin or Arthur find they have to take a journey, a time-sensitive journey, which is nonetheless a long trip, and they show no concern… and in fact, show up just outside of the town or castle.

    Our readers deserve some sense of what it takes to get somewhere.

    At the same time, treating our readers to a long, drawn-out disertation about freeway trafic is no service. The descriptions should be held in reserve for the unusual, not the mundane.


    • June 7, 2011 9:08 pm

      Good point about journeys in those contexts. Lots of things could happen on the way and you could hardly call people on the phone to tell them you were late or in trouble.
      – Thank you for the comment and for the like. 🙂


  6. June 7, 2011 3:13 am

    I write a lot of historical fiction and fantasy, so figuring distances is always a chore, except when you have someone who’s already in the know. Reenactors, historians, and especially people who love horses always seem so happy to share their knowledge. They can tell you how long it’d take a horse to ride over rocky terrain versus how far a troop afoot in the jungle could run.

    I figure this part is where we writers get to spend a day in the shoes of other occupations, and it’s pretty fun, though figuring the pacing and plotting of the novel beforehand can be a bit tiring.


    • June 7, 2011 9:13 pm

      Experts can be quite handy.
      And I think you’re quite right – we do get to try out other occupations. I pretended to be a photographer for my latest story to reseach (not really, but I did read up on photography and play more with it myself).
      Thank you for the comment!


  7. June 7, 2011 7:30 am

    Ooh, interesting discussion. I suffered through this with my novel most recently. The character has to travel, but I didn’t want to make the traveling the focus, so I found a way to skim over it and yet keep enough concrete details that I wasn’t just completely glossing over it.

    Basically, I agree with Mr. Scott up above. We do owe the reader some sense of what it takes to get there, and in its own way the travel is important. But they also don’t need every single detail. It’s a balance.


    • June 7, 2011 9:20 pm

      Yes, balance. Always a delicate thing to uphold.
      I agree with you on skimming over and keeping concrete details at the same time. I’ve found that I’m going for that sometimes as well.
      Thank you for the comment and the like. :3


  8. Rachel permalink
    June 7, 2011 4:02 pm

    You know I really never think about it. This is because I let my fickle Muse take me where she wants to go and I normally don’t question her. However, I agree that it is important to be consistent with distance in your stories and how long it takes to get there, as well as the pace of the story. As much as I love a good epic journey, sometimes I just want the characters to get to their destination. Maybe this is because I am impatient, or the author does not have enough “important” things happening along the road, but Mr. Scott and Martinez make a good point as authors we owe it to the reader to express the time and distance of our worlds (it is part of what makes them believable).
    Thanks for the insight, Howalt.


    • June 7, 2011 9:24 pm

      I follow my muses too a lot of the time, but sometimes I need to connect the dots for them.
      Yes, I agree that consistency is important.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting! 🙂


  9. June 17, 2011 3:21 pm

    In my writing, generally everybody walks (cars exist, but not in the area where the stories are set), and I walk a lot so I have an idea how long it takes for a healthy person to walk 20 blocks or whatever.

    In my (post-apocalyptic) WIP, people have to walk through an urban area for a longer distance, but I mentally based it on urban areas that I’ve walked (I even called the chapter A Journey in the Dark, in homage to LoTR, since a lot of it is through abandoned subway tunnels).

    (In edits, I will have to add the fact that even abandoned subway tunnels would still have the occasional stopped train in them, which I didn’t think of before.)

    Richard makes a good point. I describe the unusual travel but don’t spent a lot of time on the mundane.


    • June 20, 2011 4:48 pm

      I must admit I like the picture you’re painting of your post-apocalyptic world. Treks through subway tunnels must be eerie! And it makes a lot of sense not to have trains nad cars and that kind of transport in such a setting.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting! 🙂


      • June 22, 2011 1:49 pm

        There are a few scary things in the tunnels. The possibility of flooding (they’re going under a couple of rivers), the limited number of batteries for their flashlights, the uncertainty of where they’re going. They also run into a few other groups of refugees, though mostly it ends up that the “heroes” are scarier than anybody else they run into. 🙂
        Plus there’s a certain amount of character byplay among the travelers as they’re walking, of course.


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