WorldBuilding: How to Construct a Caravan

We’ve talked about how many stories are road and travel oriented, or deal partially in moving between places. There are lots of ways to go when your character needs to get somewhere, all the way from on-foot through the forest to horseback down the less traveled road. But consider the pitfalls in striking out on your own. If you encounter danger in the form of a wild beast or pillagers, you are your only defense. If you fall sick, there is no one to nurse you back to health. There are no others whose skills you can rely on, which means you must be completely self-reliant.

That being said, why not travel with others who are also headed to the same city? After all, there is safety in numbers, and in a caravan, you can enjoy a few more of the civilized world’s creature comforts. Brilliant idea, you say? Excellent. Go on and begin to write out the short little adventure and I’ll wait right here… What? Back already? Yes, writing the details of a caravan is harder than one thinks at first glance. Let’s take a look at some basics.

1)      Define the structure of the caravan—a master, captains, enforcers. Decide if the caravan itself will provide necessities like food, shelter or peace-keeping. Also consider that there might be people offering services on their own, like laundrying, washing, food prep, acquisition of items that are hard to obtain on the road.

2)      Define the contract—are there fees involved that are owed to the caravan master for certain services and protections expected? A code of conduct? Certain places/times when merchants may enter and leave the caravan? Remember it is a business for everyone, so each party is going to want to protect himself.

3)      Next, decide how many merchants will be in the caravan. Then decide what wares they’re going to be selling—mundane items from faraway lands, hard-to-find spices, rare jewels, etc. Keep in mind that beautiful exotic birds are cool, but they’re not very marketable unless the vendor gets lucky and strikes the fancy of the indulgent rich lady. More practical items are going to appeal to the common folk who will be spending the bulk of the money in bazaars.

4)      Now that you know the number of merchants and their wares, devise a general day planner for each one of them, both in-market and on the road. It doesn’t need to be detailed, just a two or three bullet pointed list to give you an idea of where each one is going to go and be doing at any given time of the day. If you want to weave in more details, also try creating a short character profile for some. This doesn’t have to be a lot either, maybe just a personality quark or a place of origin that gives the merchant an opinion that’s going to differ from the others.

5)      Create conflict. In certain lights, the bartering system is built on conflict—I have something you want, and I want your money. Merchants have to know how to read people, to draw potential clients nearer or push away those who are going to do them harm. These principles that will earn them a living in the market might also protect them on the road. Travel between markets is a good time to explore characters and relationships a bit more, and to entertain your readers with disagreements. Likely, all the merchants in one caravan are not going to be from the same place, so there are going to be misunderstandings and grievances. Air them in public with the loud-mouthed northerner who feels he has been cheated out of an extra meal or the whimsical romantic from the south who is pinning after the caravan master’s laundress.

6)      Understand class differences. I’m listening to Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (brilliant book, totally recommend it, BTW) and I recently listened through the part where Danni is in the Dothraki holy city, visiting both the eastern and western markets. The eastern market holds items that her new people would be more willing to buy, while the western market has things from her childhood, more exotic to the Dothraki. Everywhere she goes though, she is honored as the princess she is, and showered with gifts. The book never mentions her paying for any of the many things she acquires, and really who would be brave enough to demand money from a lady when she has three powerful warriors at her back? But she’s the exception rather than the rule. Merchants know how to assess, so they will be able to tell a person’s social and economic status based on things like their clothes, cleanliness, mannerisms and speech.

7)      Decide what kind of town they’re going to be in next. The local demographics are going to influence the way your merchants act and present themselves. Consider how much better they’ll dress when they arrive in a wealthy city where they hope to appeal to many fine lords and ladies and their servants than if they are headed to a poor desert country in dire need of water. Consider also that if the caravan travels to a set number of cities that the vendors might change their wares to better market to different groups of people. You want to keep the clime in mind too, especially when dealing with foods and animals. Some things might spoil while traveling through the desert.

No, go try that caravan scene again.


10 thoughts on “WorldBuilding: How to Construct a Caravan

  1. This is very insightful. I like the example of the scene from A Game of Thrones. I’m reading the fifth book in the series now, and I must say that the portrayal of everyday life in the books are very gritty and realistic. Looking forward to more worldbuilding articles from you. 🙂

    • Thank you Murshid. The Game of Thrones has been an inspiration to me on more than one level, and the idea for this article came directly from the scene I mentioned in the Dothrki holy city. I’m glad you found it helpful!

  2. Very informative and inspiring! I wish I had time to sit down and write right now. :0( This info could be very helpful for a separate book away from my Dukarian Legacy series titled Guardian of Destiny. The guardian is an elite soldier who rescues a special child with a great destiny and has to take her to a place far away. Traveling in a caravan might be a necessity at some point in the journey. Thanks for the pointers!!!

    • I could see the value of traveling amid a caravan, but were I that guardian, I don’t think I’d get any sleep while traveling with others, lol. I’d be too worried about safeguarding the child. Anyway, if that does become a part of your novel, you’ll have to let me know how it goes!

  3. I really liked this! Don’t mind if I follow, do you? I’ve always loved writing but never taken a class or studied how to do short stories, novels, and how to structure those sorts of things. Now I’d like to write a novel or a series of short stories, but don’t know where to begin! Anyway, I really liked this and when I have time I’ll explore more.

    -John with an H.

    • John,

      It’s never too late to begin writing. I don’t have any formal training or education whatsoever, but I freelance well enough and am working on my first novel trilogy. The best place to start is to just start with the writing, and fit everything else in around that. It’s more like a puzzle than anything else lol. Best of luck, looking forward to reading your articles.

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