I started out by proposing some basic topics that one might consider when looking at the role of travel in a world or story. These were:
- Logistics of travel
- Place of travel in the culture
- Place of travel in one's life
- Effects of travel on a person.
A good place to start is by asking questions like the following:
- What are the underlying conditions of travel?
- Why do people travel?
- Who travels?
- What kinds of technologies are used to make travel possible/easier?
- What kind of environment are you in, and what are the hazards and time demands of travel?
Danger is important to consider. A stroll in Sherwood Forest would not really be recommended, when the place was full of bandits! We often hear in traditional tales about young men (third sons particularly) going off to seek their fortunes - but this was a culturally driven activity. The reasons behind travel are very different between cultures, and they drive the features of travel. Consider the differences, for example, between the travel experienced by brides in ancient China and that experienced by modern Australian college students off to backpack through the world.
Erin pointed out that you only travel if you can. Travel for fun requires a specific socioeconomic level. If you live in a subsistence culture, you only go places for critical reasons - traveling to find work, or traveling as part of your work (as a performer or a trader, for example). Working the land was a very important job that didn't lend itself to travel.
Glenda mentioned pilgrimages. Pilgrimages have occurred throughout history all over the world. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales come to mind - and even today we have people making pilgrimages to holy sites like Lourdes, Mecca, or the great temples of Japan. Glenda recommended Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold, in which a great lady wants to get out, and uses a pilgrimage as an excuse to justify her travel, but then has to assemble a great number of guards and attendants as well as supplies to make it happen. Do you need an entourage in order to travel? Or are you alone? Shakespeare's Twelth Night involves a shipwreck, but Viola's solution to having to travel alone was to dress as a boy, so as to avoid an appearance that might draw predators. That kind of advice is still applicable today, where people are told not to stop and look at maps in public, so as not to "look like a tourist" and potentially draw trouble.
Ancient travelers were often at the mercy of fate and had nothing to fall back on in terms of support structures. By support structures we are referring to the kinds of places one can access or communicate with in advance in order to make travel easier.
- Can you call ahead or use the internet to reserve a hotel?
- Do you have a tour company that will arrange everything (but which might keep you isolated from local culture)?
- Are you traveling abroad to study where you might have a university or other school to help make arrangements, set up lodging with host families, etc.?
- Are you traveling to see family, where you might be made an honorary member of the local structure and be integrated into the group, but which might lead to obligations which make it hard for you to enjoy the same things that tourists do?
Here are some of our travel pet peeves in books:
Erin hates when characters travel across a continent but experience no regional variation.
She also hates it when the currency is gold, but no thought is given to how heavy the gold would be, or how you might carry it all with you.
Juliette hates it when an author's ease with travel gets projected onto story characters whose environment and lives would make travel very scary and/or difficult, and they therefore make light of it.
Erin is bothered when you find grain merchants very far from their homes (grain is heavy!). And when it comes to the involvement of merchants in your plot, why would a merchant whose local reputation makes him successful want to implicate himself in your escape? Why would he be in the city in the first place?
Juliette also asked, why would that merchant have full bags when he was leaving the city?
Travel is a mental as well as a physical hurdle. I run into it often when people talk to me about taking their children on planes (Oh, it must be so hard!). Sometimes it is - but it isn't always. Babies who are pre-mobile have far less trouble on planes than toddlers do, so I was really glad I got my kids accustomed to planes during this period. There was also the example of my nephew who went on a plane for the first time at age 9 and was not frightened at all because he had no experience of what to be frightened of! Erin said she was worried that she'd be afraid of planes, but she wasn't. Some people have travel phobias. It makes much more sense to be afraid of a boat's sinking than to worry about plane flights. Also, watch out that you don't divide your characters between "seasick and feeling like they are going to die" and "born sailor." There's a range here!
Glenda mentioned that her grandmother nearly fell overboad on a boat, but was caught by another passenger.
Technology has a huge influence on travel. The "road trip" in a car is very different from the jetlagged plane trip, and very different from a voyage in an ox-drawn pioneer's cart. Roman roads were a considerable innovation that made an enormous difference to travel. So did conquest and imperialism. (I was imagining the little Indiana Jones airplane traveling across the map!) An empire has a center, where things flow both to and from it, exporting the imperial standard as well as importing from the provinces. There is both forced assimilation and appropriation, in other words. This was true of the Roman empire, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and certainly the English empire.
Thank you to everyone who attended! Next week's hangout topic will be Infrastructure - which includes buildings, roads, bridges, dams, etc. etc. and has an enormous influence on daily life and culture. It should be fun... I hope to see you there!