Writing detours

You’ve heard the story “For the want of a nail…” Horseshoe, horse, battle, war, kingdom — all lost.

I made a goal to write two chapters before the next meeting of the Carolina Romance Writers. People write down a goal and put a dollar in the pot. If your name is pulled and you achieved your goal, you win.

It isn’t the money which is generally less than $30. It’s the goal. I have found I need a goal to keep focused on my writing. Maybe it is a throwback to my newspaper days, when a deadline was always looming over my head. You learn to write fast that way.

I had finished the first of the two chapters when it occurred to me I needed to check some  facts. Now, I know a lot of writing coaches tell you to keep writing until you have the first draft done and then go back and fix any errors, plot holes,  or questions. I can’t do that. The snags pull me in like quicksand. I can’t go forward until I’m satisfied.

My problem was I had to get two characters, Nathan and Caroline, from A — New Orleans to B — St. Louis. He tells her they should be home in under a month.

That nagged at me. If they were traveling via steamboat up the Mississippi River in the late 19th century, exactly how long would it take them?

So I looked it up. The Mississippi River at that time was 1,218 miles from point A to point B. That is some 400 miles longer than it is today, due to the vagaries of nature and the Army Corp of Engineers. Then I looked up how fast a steamboat could travel. Turns out it was 20 miles per hour on average, although they could go faster, up to 25 mph for short distances. So, if my calculator is right, it would take them 60 days to get to St. Louis, not counting stops along the way,  hitting a sandbar or the engine blowing up (which happened a lot). And then they have to get to Charlotte, N.C. via railroad.

Way too long for plot suspense.

If they got off the steamboat at Natchez and then took the railroad to Charlotte, it would cut the trip down to  a little over three weeks. That’s assuming a railroad engine could get  up to 67 mph at top speed. For my purposes I averaged it out at 55 mph.

You may wonder why they didn’t take the train all the way. Well, for one thing, in my world New Orleans is not part of the U.S., but in a separate country (this is an alternate history, a sequel to A Question of Boundaries). And although the U.S. was advanced as far as steam power, Floriana  wasn’t. So, no railroads.

And, Caroline  really, really wanted to travel on a steam boat. She thought it would be romantic to travel on the river. She thought that right up until…

Oops. Not giving too much away. But for all of you who think writers just sit and type,  I wanted you to know I spent most of the day yesterday looking up information and then putting it into my calculator.

All for the want of one  nail sentence.








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