Monday, September 5, 2011

Units of Length and Time in Fantasy

sun dial
Hours, and miles, and parsecs, oh my! How does a writer deal with time and distance terms in a fantasy or science fiction story? It's something to think about while world building.

My own WIP is set on Earth, but it's a fantastic enough scenario that I don't want to always use conventional units of measure, such as yards and feet. I decided to explore the alternatives and came up with phrases like "stride length," "hand span," and "and arrow shot away."

Looking at historic terms for measurement can be helpful, whether you use them as is, or modify them for your fantasy world. This article of old-timey measurement may be of help. Did you know the old Spanish unit, vara, appeared on many U.S. land deeds? The exact length varied from place to place, but in California it was set at a little over 33 inches.

If you invent units or use ones wholly unfamiliar to readers, you may want to give them a clue as to what they mean or mentioning measurements will serve no value.
To remain vague may work to your advantage, as in, "The Orange Duke's castle was a day's ride away." Use words such as- dawn, dusk, twilight, sunset. Better yet, describe- "Our shadows were lengthening as rode across the desert." Of size- "about as big as a squirrel," or "an acorn size __ ."

lengthening shadows

For non-earth stories: Do you have a 24 hour rotation to your planet? If there are two suns, are they always in the sky at the same time? (Research binary star systems.) Does each sun have a name? Do you have four distinct seasons. More? Fewer? How will you give the reader a feel for that? "It was the season of phacelia, when the purple blooms carpet the landscape, a welcome sight after fifteen months of snow. But I shouldn't complain. Winter was short that year." (Dumb, tossed-together example, but you get the point.)

Remember, as a science fiction writer, you must know more about your planet's astronomy, geology, etc. than the reader. He/she doesn't need or want science and history lessons. They want a story and to get a feel for your world.

twin star system

* links to image sources linked in image captions


nissa_loves_cats said...

I like the idea of using ancient Chinese units of measurement in science fiction stories just because it's so common to presume in every future setting only the metric system will be used.

Giles Hash said...

Great pointers. I'll have to keep that in mind for my next book!

I think the one point where I have to disagree is with your statement that Sci-fi readers don't want a science lesson. I think Ringworld disproved that theory when the readers went to the author and insisted that Ringworld is unstable. He didn't plan on writing a whole series, but he needed to to fix the stability of the ring. :D

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Nissa, that's brilliant! :)

Giles, I should have been more clear. I never meant the science didn't have to be believable. I only meant the reader doesn't want the writer to drone on and on like a text book. I went into this in a post last year:

But you're right. Readers want to know that the writer's science is plausible at least within the rules set up by the world you've created.

joylene said...

Reading this reminds me of how fascinating S/F is, how much I enjoy reading it and watching the movies. It also reminds me how I better stick to mystery and suspense. Trying to imagine how you keep track of all those facts makes my head spin.

But my motto is "never say never". I once said I'd never write a children's book.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Joylene- true true. Never say never. :) But I'm kind of with you. SciFi is tough to write. Fantasy is more forgiving with the tech stuff, so my writing leans more that way.

Mohamed Mughal said...

I agree, Amanda. If the bulk of your science makes for a believable backdrop, the reader is much more likely to grant you a suspension of disbelief for a story's fictional premise.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

So true, Mohamed.

A related thought- I think if we go into some detail about a scientific or techno thing that is true, you can gloss over the made up stuff with babble and readers are more willing to suspend disbelief and buy into it.

Shelley HW said...

Awesome post as always. It gave me somethig to think about in regards to the steampunk tales I'm spinning, thanks!
Love trhe sundial. I want to get one for my yard.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Yay, Shelley, I'm glad the post was helpful. Yeah, sundials are cool. I want one as a wristwatch like they wear on the Flintstones. LOL

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