Period Pieces: To “Road Trip” or Not to “Road Trip”?

Part of the Via Appia – the road leading north out of Rome wikimedia.org

I have hit the first proverbial brick wall in my Romans Vs Aliens novel and though it is not about the content, it is about how I get my gladiators from Rome to Germany. I have written all I need to write about events in Rome and have a few short half chapters set at the camp. What I am stuck on is what happens in between.

I am torn between writing a fully-fleshed out journey up through Italy, across the Alps, into modern Switzerland, skirting around the edge of modern France and into Germany where they are to reach Mogontiacum (Mainz) for resupply and more information from the city governor and the German ally. I had originally decided they would make a pit stop at Augusta Treverorum but have since moved that to Mogontiacum as it is closer to the Limes (border) and a little farther east. The issue is then moving them beyond the Limes and into Germania Magna which I fully intend to write.

modified version of image from wikimedia.org
modified version of image from wikimedia.org

On one hand, a road trip gives a book an epic feel – especially if a lot of stuff happens on the route. Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this kind of road-trip plotting but stuff is actually happening on the route; I’m not sure if mine will or that I even want it to. However, when a road trip goes wrong it can go horribly wrong. It can feel unnecessarily drawn out, adds details that are irrelevant to the plot and feel that the writer is bloating the text purely to increase the retail value of the book. A good example of this is C.J. Sansom’s fifth Shardlake book Heartstone which has over 100 pages of travel merely moving the protagonists from London to Portsmouth, a distance of just 73 miles.

On the other hand I like books that cut to the chase. Lindsey Davis’ Falco books often take place across the Empire. Falco has travelled to Greece, Iberia (Spain), Syria, Gaul (France), Germania and Britannia in the first ten books. Not much of the journey is explained in the narrative. Often we will go from one chapter to the next having cut out the actual travel, getting to the nitty-gritty of the story.

And this is where I am torn. This novel is primarily an action piece, but it is also shaping up to be very character-driven. I have written, and definitely want to use, a number of flashback pieces that are absolutely integral to what will happen to the men in the early stages of their arrival in Germany, and how they will react to what will happen. At the moment, I cannot think of any better way to work these in without interspersing them on a road trip, which I think will work well.

Has anybody else come up against this problem? How did you deal with it? Do you prefer to write road trips or cut them out completely? Any insight will be appreciated here!

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6 thoughts on “Period Pieces: To “Road Trip” or Not to “Road Trip”?

  1. I’m facing something similar myself. On the one hand you want to convey the epic scale of the achievement (so many hundreds or thousands of miles on foot across hostile territory) but at the same time you don’t want to slow the book down.
    My approach has been to write the journey, but there is a very good chance that some or all of it will go during the edit, as it has been a nice aside but doesn’t really move the story along.

    1. Yes that has also been playing on my mind. I don’t want the journey to merely be a vehicle for dropping in my flashbacks. The only hostility they might come across is the elements when crossing the Alps (which probably isn’t all that hostile in late summer) because they are within the borders of the Roman Empire.

      If I write the journey purely to insert the flashbacks, then I think something must happen on the journey. If I don’t, then I am going to have to be very careful about where I put the flashbacks.

      I have a lot to think about! Thanks for your feedback 🙂

  2. I’m not a fan of the road trip. If something has to happen on the road then just cover that I’d say, otherwise you have to do a lot of research for a section that adds nothing to the story.
    Checking ancient river records to decide where was navigable, where ancient bridges and fords were, and trying to get an idea of the place to describe it accurately are all very worthy, but are ultimately a distraction if they aren’t the main focus of the novel, I think.
    Personally I hate long descriptions of travel in books, it is either a long description of a route I’ve never been, with meaningless landmarks that add nothing to the story, or worse yet, is a route I know, but the author hasn’t (Americans writing about Britain I’m looking at you) which runs suspension of disbelief.
    That said sometimes the journey IS more important than the destination, but generally not if there are bad guys waiting at the destination.
    That’s my opinion, other authors/readers may disagree

    1. Oh hell yes. The one thing I forgot to mention above is that I did know the route that Matthew Shardlake took in Heartstone (roughly following the route of the modern A3) and the villages he stopped at… and I really couldn’t care that he visited places I knew well. It’s likely that he drove it, cycled it, whatever but it was not important that he stopped overnight in Liphook and passed by Devil’s Punchbowl.

      I think between yours and Dylan’s comment, and trawling through my notes, that I’m not going to write the journey across Italy and the Alps – it is unnecessary. It’ll hop from Rome immediately to Mogontiacum (some 770 miles) – but something is going to have to happen there. At this point there is one character with no back story at all and a night in the city should give me opportunity to develop that.

      Thanks for your help guys!

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