Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)

vigilante

8 Comments

Filed under Writing Historical Fiction

8 responses to “Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

  1. Interestingly, my cousin rode his bike from Baltimore to Philly (well, just outside) a couple of weeks ago, because train tickets were so expensive. It took him 11 hours.

    Communication lag and information lag is always an interesting thing to consider, and frequently crucial. We remember what happened to Romeo and Juliet (granted, a far earlier example than what you’re talking about)

    • Eleven hours from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Isn’t that interesting? In 1800, it took about two days by carriage. Of course, the roads were much worse then. And you’re right. Romeo and Juliet is the perfect example.

      • I didn’t ask the route he took, which also might be significant. But yeah, it’s amazing that the two cities are both so close and so far.

        And horrible roads by carriage in the 1800’s….didn’t people get “carriage sick”? Nobody ever seems to casually mention it!

  2. Carriage sick. Now that you mention it, I’ve never heard of it either, but you would think they would with those horrible springs.

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