Tuesday 3 March 2015

Author Maths, by Y S Lee

The US/Canadian cover (Candlewick Press)
One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. My Mary Quinn Mysteries (called the Agency series, in North America) are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed the country and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my novels takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city. 

The UK/Australian cover (Walker Books)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Distance in miles
Walking (in mins)
Running (in mins)
Horseback (in mins)
Vancouver to Toronto
Toronto to New York
New York to Montreal
Montreal to Vancouver
New York to Vancouver

I assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour - a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

- 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

- 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

- 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

This left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period during which my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?
Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Mary Quinn Mysteries (Walker Books/Candlewick Press), a quartet of novels featuring a girl detective in Victorian London. Rivals in the City, the last in the series, is published in the US and Canada on March 10.


Joan Lennon said...

That is a really interesting chart! I've worked out days and distances in messing scribbled notes here and there before but never with such clarity - well done!

Y S Lee said...

Thanks, Joan! This is the first time I've been so organized but the number of locations and characters shuttling around made it necessary.

Clare Mulley said...

I love the work here, that you do this.

Y S Lee said...

Thank you very much, Clare! I've always loved this kind of school maths question.

Leslie Wilson said...

I find it a bit trying; but I am lucky to have a whizz mathematician for a husband. He is always on hand, bless him, to spot howlers, help me work out characters' ages, work out distances, etc.. In return i act as thesaurus to him, when he's writing, and give him feedback on style.