I don’t like to travel.
Let me elaborate: I like being new places, but I really don’t enjoy the process of getting there. The thought of arranging for a place to stay, paying for it, packing, getting up, driving six billion hours, and paying more money for gas, food, etc…it’s enough to make me want to cancel the trip entirely and hide under the covers. I actually get nauseous thinking about it and going through with any travel plans is a struggle. And I consider anything farther away than one and a half hours “a trip.”
Perhaps its because I like comfort and convenience. I’ve been heavily spoiled by this age of cars, trains, and airplanes. Traveling has never been easier, and it takes a lot less time and money than it used to. I’ve never known anything else, so I often forget how lucky I am to have a car that makes a trip that would have taken me a week by horse only a few hours. Still, I despise going to an area I don’t know well that is far away from anything I recognize as a safe haven. Trying to take everything you might need and plan for contingencies while still being mobile is very stressful.
I was reminded of all of these things when I drove up to New York State this weekend to attend the wedding of two of my friends. I was reminded of all the anxiety and hassle that comes with travelling. But, I was also reminded of something else: the power and beauty of geography.
I passed through some stunning scenery along the 6-hour drive through Pennsylvania into New York. Huge rivers, vast lakes, mountains covered in the most verdant vegetation imaginable, tiny towns nestled in valleys, and massive windmills perched on the peaks, turning slowly with the wind or hidden beneath heavy, grey clouds. I wish I could take pictures and drive at the same time, but I wanted to get to the wedding and home again in one piece, so you’ll have to take my word that it was gorgeous.
Driving along those green mountainsides with Celtic music playing sent shivers down my spine. It also reminded me how very difficult travel really is for the characters in fantasy novels. In most cases, the highest form of transportation is on horseback, or by boat if there is a river. If there happen to be dragons or pegasi in this realm, travel time might be the equivalent of driving a car, but those rides would be reserved for the elite, not the common folk. Most people would have to contend with traversing these mountain ranges on foot through narrow paths, surrounded by woods on all sides that could conceal anything from bandits to hungry beasts. And they would have to camp out in those same woods, or, if they were lucky, stop at an inn or beg shelter from a farmer or trapper. Travel is long, hard, and dangerous.
As a writer of fantasy, I have to keep this in mind. If I need my characters to travel from Point A to Point B in a certain amount of time, I have to look at the terrain. Are they walking across flat grasslands or inching their way along goat paths? Are they walking or riding? What is the weather like? How much food do they have? Is there access to water? How skilled are they at living off the land, hunting, and foraging? Are there a lot of animals likely to attack them? Is this land good for farming, and if so, what kinds of crops? How likely are they to meet friendly, or unfriendly, people along this road? All of these factors, and probably more that I’ve failed to mention, must be considered whenever you have your characters traveling from place to place, especially if they have a deadline. If they only have a few days to get somewhere, make sure the territory they are crossing will allow that. Or make the land fight them if that’s what your story needs.
The land, the geography of your world, is as much of a character as any of the others. It has facets, characteristics, a history, and is very good at facilitating conflict. Wars are fought over land and resources, and wars can be won or lost depending on the terrain. Remember 300? The Spartans held out against a superior force, not because of their leather speedos, but because of the Pass of Thermopylae. They were able to bottleneck the Persians and pick them off in small, manageable chunks because of the geography. The Spartans lost the pass when a traitor showed the Persians an alternate route that allowed them to overwhelm the Spartans.
I feel like I should go more in depth with this topic of geography and travel…but I think I would have to do more research to give specific examples illuminating the often overlooked impact it has on stories. What do you think? Would you want to know more about geography and travel in fantasy? Or are there any examples you would like to share?