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Nose to the Grindstone: timelines [Oct. 30th, 2008|06:43 pm]

You will have noticed no word counts for a few days.  That's because the virus and exhaustion have temporarily disabled my FFB (fast fiction brain) and what I have to work with now are two other modules, the LEB (logical explanatory brain) and the AB (analytical brain.)

Which means it's a good time to work on time lines when I can keep my eyes open (the eyelids are lined with sawdust but very heavy.   The entire head is very heavy and wants to fall off, but I'm not letting it.)

The problem with timelines is that if you do them after the first draft, you discover why you should have done them before. 

Of course I knew I should do them before.  But I was still hoping to find the old notebooks with the old timelines that gave me every detail of travel times (for instance) plus other stuff I haven't been able to intuit.

Instead I had to go back to basics.  If Train A leaves Chicago at 9:45 traveling 52 mph, and Train B leaves Denver...no, wait, wrong century/universe.   What I have now is the first of what will be many large sheets of graph paper with names across the top and days down the side (two squares per day, because there's day, and then there's night.)  So on Night 0, for instance, Kieri leaves Verella for Chaya, and Selfer rides north to contact Dorrin's cohort and bring them south (this is all in Paks III).   Someone in Dorrin's cohort then continues north to the Duke's Stronghold to let them know what's happening.  When does that messenger arrive?   If someone then goes back to Verella from the Stronghold, how long does that take?   Paks readers know that on Day 10 (in that sequence) there's a battle.  When could word of the battle get back to Verella?   Will A get to V before or after B gets to V?

Some events/time-intervals were set in the Paks books and cannot be changed without ruining continuity.   Paks's recruit group took seven days on the road from the Duke's stronghold to Verella in Paks I.   This is pre-auto/train/plane travel, so getting there is less predictable (weather, road conditions, terrain, load, etc. all figure in) but some transit times would be clearly impossible.  (I could drive, on a good road, from Verella to the Duke's Stronghold  in a day.  On a superhighway, less than a day.  It's still seven days on foot for a marching unit--if the weather holds.  On horseback?  With one horse only or with relays?  All this has to be calculated....and then the decisions come.   For the plot, it's best if one traveler is in and out of the city before the next arrives...and after (but not long after) another.  First approximation put the wrong one first.    

This has plot significance.  Causes come before effects (well--usually and sort of...)   If you want event X to affect character A's decision on something, A must learn about event X before making the decision. 

In addition, when working with multiple viewpoint stories--in which the POV characters are not in the same place at the same time--the decision on how to braid the POV sections together so the reader isn't confused will depend on exactly this kind of control of temporal information....the reader needs to feel the story moving forward, not be jerked around in time.  (Some readers like that; most don't.)  

In this instance, if the second courier travels as fast as the first, and the second character responds as quickly and decisively as he could, the events he needs to know about will not have happened yet.   Why would he not respond that quickly?   Hmmm....that will have to wait until the FFB comes back on line.  The chart has a little box that says "Need delay or...???"



[User Picture]From: green_knight
2008-10-31 11:43 am (UTC)
I am glad this happens to other people. My Summer Ball, Hightlight Of The Year ended up being designated a New Year's Ball when it turned out that I could compress things in that direction much better than expand them in the other. Bye solstice, hello new year (February edition).
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-10-31 05:33 pm (UTC)
What the book needs, it gets. The decor has to adapt.

Or, as I think it was Cherryh said, "Draw the map last." (My caveat to that is "..but draw little maps as needed so you don't have river-hopping cities...) If you're using this-world places, of course you have to adapt to that...but if it's all your own creation...Story trumps everything else, and no one will see the retrofitting if you do it carefully.

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[User Picture]From: eir_de_scania
2008-10-31 02:20 pm (UTC)
And if you don't get the timelines right, readers will complain. Ask JK "Timeline? What timeline?" Rowling. :-P
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[User Picture]From: jowake
2008-10-31 02:21 pm (UTC)
I am beginning to learn why I have never written a book. I could NOT be bothered with all this stuff which appears so seamless to the reader and obviously takes a lot of thought and planning on the part of the author. I am becoming more and more admiring of what authors achieve to entertain me. Thanks so much.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-10-31 05:25 pm (UTC)
If it's not at least partly fun, you won't do it--so writers tend to be people who find it fun. Sometimes. In part.

At least now you know we actually do work, and not just "churn it out." (grin)

What I hope for is that when the reader falls into the world I make, there are no seams, no rough edges, no distractions...the story grabs them and sweeps them away, but even on the fifth or eighth re-reading, they don't see the scaffolding. I don't always make it, but I do try.
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[User Picture]From: sophielandon
2008-11-01 03:55 pm (UTC)
I confess that when my re-reader hat is on, I sometimes like to look for hints of scaffolding, to try and discern, off in the mists somewhere, traces of the author and her processes. Possibly as an encouragement to the writer-hat-wearing side?
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-11-01 04:14 pm (UTC)
I dunno..sounds to me more like the critic-writer-hat-wearing side.

As a multiple-times-re-reader myself, I prefer not to see any of the construction debris lying around...even when trying to grasp how a writer did something that pleased me a lot (and that I'd like to do to my readers.)

Pieces sticking out visibly annoy me. This probably goes back to my childhood experiences with a mother who designed buildings and took me to construction sites, and who also designed and made beautiful clothes. Her idea was that everything should be finished, polished, to a high degree--my childish haphazard way of building things with wood drove her wild. (I made a table by nailing some square-cross-section molding lengths to a little flat board. She was appalled that I had not gone under the kitchen or dining room tables to see how it was done and then done it properly. But I wanted a doll's table the right size for my favorite doll *now*. With a cloth over it, the nailheads in the table top didn't show.)

For work I cared more about--writing, photography, art--I think I internalized her value system on construction and finish, while remaining just as haphazard when it comes to wood and cloth. Just get the job done so I can get back to making up stories.
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[User Picture]From: sophielandon
2008-11-01 04:21 pm (UTC)
Not so much pieces visibly sticking out, but trying to find, under all the layers of french polishing, where they would have to have been. It's something I did long before I ever thought about writing anything myself.

Perhaps I see a book as an analogue to a canvas, where the artist can underdraw, overpaint, glaze, smear, run amuck with his palette knife. The viewer in the gallery sees the finished product, while the art historians and conservators, with their X-rays and infrared machines, see quite another thing, with false starts and reworkings. (And yes, I guess that does put one much more squarely into critic territory!)
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From: paultarjr
2008-11-01 10:02 pm (UTC)

timeline and horse travel

Sorry for the newbie question, but....

I was really fascinated by how descriptive and accurate you got in the early Paks books (especially the first one when she was a recruit/soldier), and just couldn't figure out how to translate movements like that into some first writing attempts.

So how do you resolve (calculate/estimate?) the actual distances and time that it takes for travel within the books?

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-11-01 10:50 pm (UTC)

Re: timeline and horse travel

Excellent question. It's both simple and complicated (don't hit me!) and relies on a lot of data already in print. Military history has good data on the rate of travel of infantry and cavalry and supply trains of various kinds under different conditions and in different periods. I used a variety of sources, including Sherman's _Memoirs_, because the Civil War distances and speeds were given in familiar units (to me) and a lot of the travel was on foot and horse, not by train or motorized vehicle. But I also had in hand sources from the ancient world (esp., but not limited to, Caesar's _Gallic Wars_) and through medieval and Renaissance sources. For harnessing draft animals, or packing with animals, I used sources such as
Telleen's wonderful book on draft horses and the Sierra Club handbook on wilderness travel (which gives very good estimates of how much a horse, mule, donkey can carry and what the effective rate of travel is in different terrain.)

Here are some basics, though thanks to LJ's comment limit it may take me several comments to get through it:

1) The bigger the unit, the slower (overall) it travels. If you have one person walking past a post, it takes seconds. If you have a hundred soldiers in a formation five wide and twenty long, it takes *at least* twenty times as long for them all to pass the post. If you have a thousand soldiers (a legion, let's say) in a formation five wide and two hundred long...you see where this goes. On an open plain, a formation can be just about any shape (wider than deep, deeper than wide) you need...but suppose you've had them in a ten-wide formation and you come to a bridge over a rushing creek that's only two persons wide...the formation backs up (just like traffic at a bottleneck) and must slow down.

2) The effective speed is limited by the slowest unit: if the guys in front can march 5 mph, but you have a 2 mph baggage train...your daily travel from camp to camp is 2 mph x hours traveled.

3) Animal powered travel (including pedestrians) is affected by innate ability, fitness, health, weather, terrain (slope and altitude), ground conditions (wet, dry, soft, firm, hard, stable, unstable), load (weight carried), and for the animals, the quality of care and quality of rider (for ridden animals). That is, a very fit horse of the right type, with a very fit lightweight rider and excellent care, can travel 100 miles in about 11-12 hours over rough terrain, and 10-11 hours over flat terrain. This is exceptional...those few horses doing so are winning 100 mile endurance rides. Your average pleasure horse today rarely travels more than 5 miles a day--about an hour's ride at a brisk walk--and though it can be conditioned fairly easily to travel 20-25, most owners don't have the time to do that. Back when horses were used regularly for transportation, the excellent common riding horse--intended to cover distance--could travel 50 miles a day back to back. That did require adequate feed and excellent care (hoof care, grooming, attention to injuries, proper fitting saddle, competent not-too-heavy rider.) The U.S. Cavalry, in the late 19th c., assumed a troop could move 45 miles a day...which fits in with the Norfolk Hack going 50-60 with a single rider. Fictional horses should have the average speed/stamina of horses in the appropriate historical period.

4)Choose an average speed that is within historical range, a relatively relaxed speed for anything but a gallop. For horses, this might be 4 mph walk, 6-8 mph trot, 10-12 mph canter, 15-20 mph hand-gallop. Variations are possible (horses are not stamped out by robots.) Yes, modern race-horses are faster. Yes, some horses can walk 6 mph (a lovely feeling) or trot at racing speed. Unless you're writing about the exceptional horse, don't have it in the book. Same for humans. A fit youngish person has no problem walking 3 mph and most can walk 4 (brisk walk)...so a person and an average horse walk comfortably together. A person's jog, however, is slower than most horses trot--that's a person's running speed (leaving out the Olympic athletes.) Fifteen miles/hour is a four-minute mile--easy for horse, but not human.

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-11-01 11:10 pm (UTC)

Re: timeline and horse travel

Sure enough, LJ's DAMFOOL 4300 character limit got me. I really, really hate that. It's MY journal; I should be able to write a comment of any length I want. Grump. But anyway:

5) If you work with an average speed for the character or horse, that gives you some leeway for emergency speeding up (but not outside the possible) and a lot of ways to slow them down. Let's say you can walk 4 mph on level, firm ground and that's your best non-emergency walking speed. Add a heavy pack. You'll slow down. Instead of that (it may not fit the story), make that soft loose sand...or mud...or an uphill slope...or uneven, rocky ground...or a fever...or an injury...or hunger....or put in a stream that has no bridge and is difficult/impossible to wade. It helps here to have some experience, though you can find some info in books. If you have yourself noticed the difference in your gait and your speed when walking with a pack on and unloaded...hiking in rough terrain as opposed to level open terrain...in the face of driving rain, snow, or thick fog instead of clear weather, you will automatically make adjustments in your writing.

If you look at old maps (try England; the miles are the same as ours) you will notice that villages and towns of the pre-railroad era were spaced for foot traffic and horse travel...you could walk to town in half a day or less (thus there and back in a day) or a day (thus needing to spend the night in town.) Those distances are physically reasonable--they represented what ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes (fitter than we, because they had to be, but not pro athletes) could and did do every day or every week. Walking 5-7 miles to town...sell your eggs, your butter, your cheese...walk back...no problem. The old time pedlar could cover 20 miles/day on foot, and if he had a pack animal, 25.

Ground conditions. Humans on foot without a load do the least damage to a trail. The more pounds per square inch, the more the trail degrades. Horses and mules have way more psi than humans (smaller hooves, more weight--plus the weight of their load.) Wagons and carts, even more so: so wheels sink deeper in mud, causing more friction, causing more resistance to the draft animals' pulling--they have to pull harder.

But for writers, it's all about Story. If you need someone to be three days away from someone else (for whatever plot-worthy reason), do it. A three days' ride (on a good, ground-covering travel mount) might be 150 miles; a three days' walk (for an ordinary person not pushing himself) might be 60. For a well-trained, fit, smallish military unit, it might be 90-100. For a very large army and its baggage train, it might be 45. Ensure that you've considered terrain, weather, ground conditions, all the other factors.

It's not like cars, where you can go 60 mph uphill and down, at sea-level or 5000 feet of elevation.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-11-01 11:51 pm (UTC)

Re: timeline and horse travel

Practical example. In Paks I, there are some specific times given for a march in good weather from point A to point B. Let's call that normal speed. In Paks III, someone travels (on horseback) an unspecified fraction of that distance (from point B to a point somewhere between A and B) in a little less than half the A --> B/2 time. Someone else travels from that intermediate point on to point A with a message that will generate a unit's move from A to B.

Now, in the new book, if minimum times are used from the intermediate point to A, to start the unit in motion, and then the normal time is taken to go from A to B...they get to B too soon. Why? Because the event they need to arrive *after* is generated by something happening somewhere else--let's say C--and word of it reaching B. The B --> C --> B distance, and the problems on that route, determine how long it will be before the folks at B know what happened at C. Since it's important that those leaving A arrive after B knows about C...it was necessary to insert perfectly ordinary complications in the travel from intermediate point to A, in the organization of the trip to B, and on the road to B.

If this book were not part of the same universe as the Paks books, the travel times from A to B and B to C would not have been fixed, and I could simply have stated them as was most convenient for the story. It's always easier to start afresh, but you can't do that when you're continuing in the same world, anymore than you can change the distance from Chicago to Indianapolis on an existing road that people can look up the mileage on.

What matters is not the distances themselves--nobody really cares how many miles A is from B--but the sequence of events, the structure of the plot. The travel from A to B (or R to S or any other locations in the story universe) has to feel real, and be consistent within its rules, but Story trumps all...and thus the complications that slow someone down, or the sense of urgency that makes them hurry, must feel right, reasonable and within the bounds of that story universe, but are the writer's to manipulate, to make the story work.

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From: paultarjr
2008-11-02 12:35 am (UTC)

Re: timeline and horse travel

Thank you...that really helps! A LOT!

Next question, albeit it does not pertain to the timeline as originally mentioned above or travel....

In the upcoming book(s), are any of the various saints/beliefs in Paks-world (other than that of the elves) explored any further? I was curious about Torre (and the others)...and would your timeline include historical items as a reference (past and present) to help fit K-'s reign (and whatever current events may be occurring?)

Follow up...would you update the timeline as new events / ideas come to you at 'gotcha' moments (those moments where you're mind (and story) takes a massive creative turn you didn't expect, but winds up being extremely good, or do you do that in the follow up editting/re-reading?

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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2008-11-02 01:25 am (UTC)

Re: timeline and horse travel

Some may be brought out more but not all. Every invented world should have details you can't quite see, things that aren't explained. My opinion.

What I call a timeline is strictly a tool for ensuring that sequences of events occurring in different places within the story chronology are kept straight. It's obviously similar to the "history timeline" that shows you what Egypt was doing while Mesopotamia was doing something else and China something else, but the chronology is limited to the story's length. There's a separate area in the background writings for stuff that happened before (and after) the story at hand. The history characters know (think they know) is never 100% accurate--any more than the history you and I "know" is.

Now the way *I* write (as opposed to the way others write) is that I write the story and then figure out what I did. The recent "corrections" that have, in several areas, made the chronology "fit" were all done after the story itself was written. I've been writing strings or strands, eacn in a separate viewpoint. I knew there would be adjustments, but this gave me a strong forward drive, impulsion, "oomph" for each POV's plotline. Where the strands cross (where POV changes from one to another, or where POV characters who have been in different places meet), any chronological impossibilities have to be fixed. In my head, I know what happened first, second, third...for each person, and for the story as a whole. But I may, in the heat of writing, have thrown in a duration that now doesn't work--isn't compatible with Paks, or isn't compatible with the other character.

Travel is often the easiest to adjust. I'm working on another one (though in this case, it's one of the chapters I would've written this week if I hadn't been sick...and I know now exactly when the character must arrive at a particular point. So I know within a week when he must leave for that point, given the distance to travel. Getting from where he is now, to that point, in time, determines what complications will or will not be put in his way. As I write that chapter, I'll be aware that come what may he has to be at X by that time. The reader knows he should be there for one reason, and may worry he won't make it (if the complications are tough enough) but I know the *real* reason (plot construction reason) and that he will. (Note that in many books there are multiple situations where someone needs to be at X by a given date/time, and multiple complications and possibilities...and sometimes the plot demands that the character *won't* get there. The writer must know which is which; readers find out as they read.)

Sometimes tasks are easy to adjust. A task normally takes X time, but with complications/interruptions can take 3X. If you need Martha to finish a task no earlier than 3 pm, and it's usually a one-hour task that she usually starts at 1 pm...you don't let her start at 1. Or you add complications that make it a two-hour task, or you interrupt her partway through with something logical she can't ignore. Whatever method or combination you use must feel absolutely logical and reasonable to the reader...reasonable in terms of her character as presented, in terms of the world you've created--all parts of it. If, for instance, you've shown her being worried about her mother's health...a phone call from her mother with distressing news about a visit to the doctor and what the doctor said will delay her starting that task. Maybe that only gains you fifteen minutes; her mother hangs up in tears. Then her sister, who's just heard the news calls and wants to discuss it (or comes over), and they argue. That gains you another half hour. And she's so angry with what her sister said about her mother's diagnosis that she breaks a glass and cuts her hand and has to stop and clean up the mess...and so she's at the front window, cleaning it, at the right time to see someone open a car door and the neighbor's child get in.
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