Saturday, November 8, 2014


How do you manage your timeline? If your story covers several days, as most stories do, keeping track of timeline is pretty important – there’s only so many things you can do during the course of a day. Everything we do takes an allotted number of seconds, minutes, or hours.

Keeping track of some kind of timeline is even more important if your character is out and about, traversing the world in some way shape or form. Most of the time, my characters live in a relatively non-mechanized world. If your character gets around by car, Google maps helps by telling how long it takes to get from point A to point B at the applicable speed limit.

During my time as a dungeon master, playing the game, Dungeons and Dragons, there were times when we needed to calculate how long it took to get to and from the dungeon. Though there were not a lot of things to worry about during such a journey, things did need to be marked off and accounted for. Supplies were consumed and monsters were checked for day and night. Higher level dungeons always had a map to follow, and even in my writing I go by some kind of map, even if it isn't published along with the book. This is the chart and rules I followed then, and I use it now for my books; it's close enough for what I need, and it helps me keep things consistent.

Travel Rates per Day

                                                            Miles Covered per Day
Travel Mode                        Trail     Clear     Hills     Mountains     Desert
Foot, no encumbrance*         36         24         16            12               16
Foot, light encumbrance**    24         12          8               6                8
Foot, heavy encumbrance†    12           8          6               4                6
Camel                                     48         32        24            16               32
Elephant                                 36         24        12              8                 8
Riding horse††                       72         48        36            24              16
Donkey or Mule                     36         24        16            12              16
War horse                               36         24        16            12                8
Draft horse                             24         16        12              8                8
Ox                                          16         12        10              8                6

*This is a character with a 120’ normal speed; he can carry no more than 40 lb.
**This is a character with a 90’ normal speed; he can carry between 41 and 80 lb.
† This is a character with a 60’ normal speed; he can carry between 81 and 120 lb.
†† The travel rates listed here are possible, but it will kill the horse if only one is used for the entire trip. Typically, a rider only manages to achieve these rates by riding one-third the distance listed and trading his horse in twice at way stations for fresh mounts. At the end of the day, he and the three horses are exhausted, but all are alive. If a rider does not intend to kill or exhaust his horse, he should use the travel rates listed for the warhorse instead.
Characters and mounts must rest one full day for every six days they spend traveling. Those who do not rest suffer a -1 penalty on attack rolls and damage rolls until they do rest. If they go more than six days without resting, they suffer an additional -1 penalty per six days until they do rest, and they must rest one full day for each six days they spent traveling if they are to lose the penalty.

Why do I talk about timeline? I'm reading a book where at one point the timeline seems to have not been carefully thought through. For most of the book chunks of time are simply skipped over and days are not counted. Weather comes and goes, and for the most part that is just fine. It makes it hard to judge the changing of the seasons or guess at the time past, but such is only background and not important to the story. However, at one point they are sailing across either an ocean or a vast lake, the journey takes days and days, and they get caught in at least a couple nasty storms. The last storm comes near to sinking the ship, but just as it blows off, they see the shore they're heading for so they make for the closest beach. Now here's where the timeline goes a little wonky. After a night or two camping on the beach, men step out of the jumble, and you all have seen enough movies, you know how jungles can be, so understandably they need to hack a path back to where they are going.

Problem #1: How did these men know where to find them? I'm still working on this one. Maybe there's an explanation in the book, but she hasn't had a chance to speak to another character who'll answer her questions. As it is, I seriously doubt she'll ask though. It's one of those insignificant things she won't think of, I'm sure.

Problem #2: They had the girl (the main character) riding in a wagon, which is fine for what it's worth, but moving a wagon through the jungle would be a logistical nightmare. Now apparently this was done from time to time because they ended up on a road, but this was a terribly overgrown road and they still had to hack their way along. Have you spotted the anomaly yet? If they came this way, with a wagon, to find them, why do they need to work so hard to hack their way back? And if they came by another route, initiated by the need to do some kind of search by chance, why didn't they return by the already cleared route? Even if the miles were longer, the time needed to cover the distance might have been shorter.

And here is problem #3: They were camped, waiting for someone to come find them, for two nights - it says so in the book. Their journey to where they were headed took days, maybe even a couple weeks, or at least something of a dreary eternity - in other words, much longer than two days. Let's do the math. For the sake of argument, let's say it took two weeks to make this one-way trip. If it took two weeks to go one way, it needs to take two weeks for the party to make the first trip to find them - at the very least - not counting the randomness necessary to conduct a search, unless they knew exactly where to look - still the distance covered would be the same, and just from the tone of what was written, even though no clear count of days was given, it had to be much longer than the two days they'd waited on the beach. Let's even give them a little advantage. Let's say some alert someone on some high tower spotted the ship out to sea. Since they just came out of the storm and land was this obscure cloud on the low horizon, that would still only give the search party three, maybe three and a half days to find them. Why would they take so long to return with their finds?

As you can see, this timeline anomaly fairly jumped out at me and slapped me in the face. Be careful with your timeline, and remember that it affects everyone in your world, even if you know absolutely nothing about them until after they stumble across your path. It still takes them X amount of time to cover Y distance, and they'll be restricted to when they can start.



William Kendall said...

My manuscript spanned over several weeks, and there were times that time became a factor. At one point I got in touch with someone I know in England and asked how long travel might taken in the Oxford area going east. In other instances I looked at airline travel times to gauge the amount of time involved in travelling from one country to another.

Anna L. Walls said...

I did the airline thing in a ghost writing project I had. That, plus dealing with time zones, make that particular project very interesting.

Willow Drake said...

Very good point, I hadn't thought about. So far I only write about Ember's journey and it is an alternate world where time hasn't really been a factor as she pops in and out of places, but it is something I will now think about.

Anna L. Walls said...

With Ember hopping in and out of one reality or another, keeping a constant timeline wouldn't be necessary in my opinion. And if ever she wakes up into her own real reality, it would be perfectly believable to have her wake up only a few minutes after falling asleep. :D I'm waiting.