Getting around in your historical novel; horses, boats, and really bad roads
Unless your historical novels takes place in one location—which would be pretty boring—your characters will need to go somewhere. And until the mid-nineteenth century, it was really hard to get there. Here are some facts to remember when moving your characters from one place to another in a past era:
- The Romans paved their major roads, but for the most part, until fairly recently roads were just dirt peppered with potholes. And until the sixteenth century, carriages were just wooden boxes on wheels, which means you would bang your head on the wall and get thrown from your seat going over all those potholes. Which is why most people just rode horses—getting soaked in the rain, frozen numb in the cold, and cooked in the blazing sun, but at least their bones weren’t jarred and jolted to dust.
- Going back thousands of years, wealthy women, children, the sick and the aged lay down on pillows in litters—long boxlike structures swinging between wheels and pulled by horses for long journeys, and carried by four men lifting horizontal poles for short ones.
- Even the largest European cities—such as London, Paris, and Rome—were built for foot traffic, horses, and litters, which meant the roads were narrow and twisting. By the early 1500s, Hungarians invented a rudimentary spring suspension system for carriages, which made them far more comfortable. Suddenly the roads were totally jammed with enormous vehicles. Some municipalities demolished entire city blocks to make wider roads for carriages.
- Sitting in a springed carriage with gorgeous upholstery and plump pillows was a lot more comfortable than riding a horse in the rain and heat and snow. But it was freezing in winter (you might put your feet on a metal box with hot coals inside or hold a hot brick wrapped in flannel—until they cooled down and you froze again.) And it was stuffy in summer.
- Which brings us to the problem of where you were going to spend the night. First choice was staying with friends or relatives along the way. Reservations at inns were problematic. You might send a messenger ahead with a request for a room, but you could never be sure when you would arrive at the inn due to weather, bad roads, broken axles, lame horses, or sick passengers. So a reservation was pretty useless. Sometimes you would arrive exhausted, and there was no room at the inn.
- At most inns you would share a bed with utter strangers of the same gender. The sheets were often dirty and crawling with insects. The wealthier sort brought their own sheets—sometimes even their own beds—when traveling. And then there were highwaymen. Most carriages had secret compartments to hide jewelry and gold, and the coachmen were usually armed.
- Sea voyages were equally uncomfortable, with the added disadvantage of seasickness and possible drowning. In ancient times, there were no passenger ships. Individuals would pay for a spot on the deck of a merchant vessel and sleep under their tent, eating their own food. Pirates were always a threat.
- Tourism as we understand it didn’t exist. Travel was so dangerous, slow, uncomfortable, and exhausting, you needed a really great reason to leave town like doing business, serving in the military, or making a pilgrimage to a temple, church, or shrine.
- For more modern novels, steamboats came into vogue in the 1820s, trains in the 1840s, and commercial flights after World War II.
Next Week: Write and Wrong, Combining all HFFs into Your Scene
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