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On Methods Of Travel In History (And Historical Fiction), by Anne Perry

One of the biggest differences over time is methods of travel. That includes the travel of words and ideas as well as of people and goods.  Today we can watch events on the other side of the world as they occur.  When studying to write my Byzantine story I was a bit shaken to learn that a letter sent from Constantinople (Istanbul today) could take six weeks to reach Rome.  If it were replied to immediately, it would still be another six weeks before it got back.  That is if the weather were reasonably favourable and no one met with bandits on the way overland, or storms on the sea part of the journey, or worse: pirates!  Then you could forget the whole thing!  This was one good reason for wanting to appeal to local church authorities and not to the Pope.

Conversely, in late Victorian London you could write a letter to someone else in London at breakfast time and expect to receive an answer before dinner that same day.  You certainly can’t do that by regular mail now.  It would take a couple of days if you’re very lucky.  Unless you want to spring for a messenger, of course.

For news, ask yourself: Were people dependent on a man on horseback, or in a wind or oar-propelled boat?

For letters, ask yourself: Who had paper? Who could read and write?  When and where were there envelopes?  When and where were there sealing wax and signet rings?  These might be minor details in your story, but they matter.  It isn’t getting it right so much as not getting it wrong.

When did telegraphs come in? What about semaphore flags?  What about smoke signals or drums?  What about telephones?  Who would have one?  What did it look like and how did it work?  i.e. direct dialling or through an exchange?  What about mobile phones, text messages or e-mails?  If you make a mistake, there will be someone who knows and will no doubt tell you.

There have been pamphlets for centuries.  When were there newspapers?

As for personal travel: slow, dangerous and uncomfortable covers a lot of it, but we need to be far more precise.  We need to be accurate in description, and vividly realistic in what it felt like.

What about ships: from canoes to ocean liner, wind powered (very dependent on weather), steam powered, oil/petroleum powered or nuclear powered? What sizes were the relevant kind of ships?  Some of them that circumnavigated the world were tiny, only a few paces from one side to the other.  Present day luxury liners are floating cities.  They are all like islands surrounded by perhaps thousands of miles of water, alone in a unique way.

What about planes: from tiger moths to jumbo-jets, and all points between?  Again, they are like islands, but in the sky.

On the ground, there is an almost endless variety of travel methods. There is underground railway, which thrived in London in later Victorian times.  There is surface railway, all over the place, some very pedestrian and some marvellously exotic like the Orient Express or the railroads across India.  Get times, stations and prices right.  That still leaves the whole world of horse drawn vehicles, from pony carts to omnibuses, not to mention other animals – dogs, oxen, camels and so on.  Last of all, people have their own legs as a method of travel.

Travel can be uncomfortable.  There are not necessarily any conveniences available.  There may be no privacy.  There was very little heating in most forms of early travel.  You would carry your own means of warmth or heating, if you could.  There may have been inns of one sort or another, but not always with room available.  Lodgers may have been required to share a bed. There may have been dangers of weather and, equally unpleasant, of pirates, brigands or highwaymen.  Not to mention simply getting lost.

Even with our present occasional delays and discomfort, we have more to be grateful for than many realise.


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Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelSlaves of ObsessionA Christmas HomecomingThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     The Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))True Soldier GentlemenEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Anne,
    I had to work this out last week with one of my protagonists travelling by ship from one Greek island to another, and then my other protagonist travelling on land with a mule.
    Great post!

    October 16, 2013
  2. Fascinating post, Anne. It’s finding out how long a particular journey would take that I find most tricky. I’m currently revising a novel set in the 14th century. I need to know how long a particular journey would take on foot, It takes only half an hour today by car on a smooth A road. Then it would have been a rough track. I have to think about snow-fall (we’re talking about northern England and in a hilly coastal area) and lots of mud. This sort of detail can’t be found written down anywhere so I’m having to do a lot of speculative fudging and hope it doesn’t show!

    October 16, 2013

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