Friday, August 17, 2012


Take a bus to work. Take a plane to a conference. Drive a car. Walk. In real life the act of traveling can take minutes or hours or even days. In a story it can be skipped over in a few sentences. "He drove to work." "She flew to London." "They rode in the stagecoach to the river then continued via paddlewheel downstream to the city."

But sometimes the act of traveling is part of the story. The Fellowship of the Ring would have been much shorter if the story only focused on the Shire and Mordor and skipped all the traveling between the two locations. Many other "quest" stories also include an interesting travelogue along with dodging assassins and training on the road. Others, unfortunately, seem to think that the travelogue is the point of the story and proceed to have giant infodumps intermixed with occasional mentions of the characters. In my own books, The Crystal Throne and Talking to Trees, the characters must travel a great deal in order to find help.

There is a fine line between keeping the travel setting interesting and boring your reader with what they might consider unnecessary information. Is it important to the story for your readers to understand the entire history of the city? Do you need to focus on the difference between horses and the "equines" of your alien planet (especially if the inhabitants of that planet have never seen a horse)? Do your readers need to know how aircraft work in order for you to mention that the characters are on a flight between Detroit and Minneapolis? Do you need to go into the history of trains or buses? If your character stops at a spaceport on Titan, do your readers really need to know what means of propulsion each alien spacecraft uses?

Even the best plans for travel may be disrupted. Peter in Talking to Trees mapped out where he needed to go, only to find the Watcher had other plans.

Peter stumbled forward and tripped over the uneven floor. Floor? Recovering his balance, he turned, intending to complain. But there was no Watcher behind him. Only the remains of a stone wall with a tall panel of silver-gray wood. "Oh, great. Now what?"

He turned slowly, studying his surroundings. There was the ruined wall behind him and tumbled stone blocks that could be the remains of a matching wall off to his right. The ground fell away to his left, and he walked over to look out over the edge. "You have got to be kidding me!"

The hillside sloped down to the edge of a big lake. Was it a lake or a sea? He tried to spy the other side, but water stretched as far as he could see, muddy and still. He looked at the water's edge, wondering how deep it was.

Walking around the ruins took only seconds. There was just the one partial wall, part of a floor, and a jumble of stones. The small hillside the ruins stood on was the only patch of dry land he could see. The hill was completely surrounded by water.

Peter sighed. The Watcher really had it in for him. What did it expect him to do here? What could he do here? "Where is here, anyway?" he muttered. He didn't remember any large seas on his map.

He unslung his backpack and pulled out his homemade map of the Lands. Spreading it out on the floor, he looked from the map to his surroundings.

He was right. There was no large lake or sea on it. But all he had learned about the Lands had come from elves or Windkin. Perhaps this was in an area where neither had explored? Or outside the Free Lands entirely?

Peter shook his head at that thought. He had to be somewhere in the Lands. Somehow he was sure of that. But where? He couldn't even be sure he was in the same time period as Jody and Jeanne. "I thought it would be so easy," he complained. "Just head east of Windgard and--"

He paused and looked again at the map. He looked out at the water. "You dumped me in the middle of the Great Flood?" he shouted at the wall.

I'm writing this blog post at the airport in Detroit. Yesterday (Saturday) I was flying from Lansing, MI, to La Crosse, WI, with a stopover in Detroit. The stopover was only supposed to be an hour. I should have been suspicious when I got off the plane from Lansing to find the gate for my connecting flight directly opposite. Usually the gate for the connecting flight is on the other side of the airport. We boarded, sat down, and then the pilot came on the intercom that there was a problem with a valve (which was blasting hot air into the front rows of the plane). So everyone had to get off the plane and wait until they fixed the problem. Hours passed while they tried to find either a new plane or fix the problem. Seven hours later, they found a possible plane but needed to find crew (as the previous crew had to go offshift). About midnight, the steward and then the pilot arrived, but no first officer. So by then Delta decided to cancel the flight and rebook the remaining passengers for flights the following day and send us all off to a hotel for what was left of the night.

A straightforward tale of woe as it stands and a major example of "how not to handle" a situation. The supervisors vanished, leaving the poor gate attendants (two volunteered to stay past their shifts to help us) to give what updates they could. But the gate attendants didn't have the authority to even issue meal vouchers until after all the airport food places had closed down for the night.

However, as I'm a writer, this will show up in a story sometime. Maybe the plane was sabotaged deliberately as part of a mystery. Maybe the reason was one of the many irritated passengers. Maybe the Bad Corporation in charge of the spaceport was trying to strand the expert investigating a problem at the end location. Or maybe I need to write another spaceport-based story (this isn't the first time I've been stranded or had 'interesting' flight problems).

Perhaps that's why some of my most frustrating nightmares are about me not being able to get somewhere. Such as dreaming I need to take a test but things keep popping up to stop me from even getting across the parking lot to the building the classroom is in. Or I get to the building or can't find the classroom.

Oops, one of my fellow passengers from last night's cancelled flight just noticed they've changed the gate for today's flight. And so it begins...

Have you subjected your characters to interesting travel misadventures? What are your favorite travel or travel/quest stories?


  1. In Milky Way Marmalade one of teh characters gets caught in a time slip and ends up living an entire life only to return mere seconds where he was left off. Quite funny.

  2. Sounds like a nightmare for you at the airport! I like a few 19th century writers, so both Huck Finn and Kim come to mind as travel or quest stories that have made an impact on me. And of course, Around the World in Eighty Days!