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Conflicts views on describing time and distance

Discussion in 'World Building' started by ProfessorTane, Nov 9, 2020.

  1. ProfessorTane

    ProfessorTane Acolyte

    I am looking into crossover fantasy - the protagonist coming from our world and moving into another.

    While I want to describe time and distance the way the protagonist understands them - hours, meters, etc I find this jars against the world I am building, which is looking at time and distance in a more archaic manner.

    Are there some suggestions how to best describe these? And the difference between the protagonists POV vs just describing it generally (not from a POV of anyone.) Does talking about 'what seemed like hours passing' from the POV seem strange when the people around her do not go to that granular detail e.g. see it as the passage of the sun's arc as a good gauge of time etc.

    What about if the world measures distance by steps (or something along those lines.) but the protagonists sees them as meters?
  2. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

    They still have terms for units of time. A candle will last a certain number of minutes, one can hold their breath for a number of seconds, those bits of time are too short to use the passage of the sun's arc. Plus, would the average person have the knowledge/tools to accurately gauge that? We still have ticks on even the most basic (analog) clock designs to denote how many degrees denotes how much time because if we went without it then we'd never have something accurate. Same thing with distance. How far away is the tavern from the town square? 500 meters or maybe 2 minutes of walking.

    You character is from our world, so she's going to think of things in hours/minutes and kilometers/meters (or feet/inches). She's not going to magically start thinking of things in terms of cubits. Everything she sees is going to be processed through the cultural lens of the world she grew up in. Imagine if you went through her situation but ended up someplace dealing with the bubonic plague. Your knowledge of germ theory and basic hygiene will not gel with what the people around you do and believe, you may never be able to fully "turn off" your modern brain/instincts. The idea of raw meat hanging out w/o any sort of refrigeration is going to make you green around the gills no matter what you do.

    If your narrator/"camera" is through her view, then you should be using modern units in her thoughts and in the narration, because that is what she's thinking. The words coming out of her mouth might be different in order to communicate with the people around her, but she's still going to think and process info in a modern way, so it should be presented that way to the reader.
    S.T. Ockenner and ProfessorTane like this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    The protagonist can speak in her terms, those around her in theirs. Every once in a while they need to understand what the other means and can explain it. Since it's their world, the protagonist would soon learn that a day's ride is twenty miles but could be only fifteen or twenty-five. She would learn that precision is a modern burden.

    Then again, how often do they need to say how far or time of day? The ogre can be big; she doesn't have to be forty stone or about five hundred pounds, she can simply weigh as much as a small horse. She can be taller than a human by a head. Sometimes, it's actually more evocative to use descriptors than it is to use the numeric precision of the modern world. Numbers, as the song says, add up to nothin'.
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  4. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    For distances you can compare things (as tall as a horse, wide as two people shoulder to shoulder) this can become a way to translate between the two cultures. For farther distances it could be by the amount of time it takes to travel (three day on foot, two days by sea). For short amounts of time breaths or heartbeats instead of seconds (he dodged two blows in half a breath), minutes could be multiples of those, hours could be the angles of the sun or some mathematical grouping of the previous time usage. Days are each sunrise or some other natural phenomena that occurs at a steady rate.
    In any case have the character learn to understand the local meanings and thus the reader will learn them as well.
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  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    Well, length or height measurements in the more archaic systems are usually based on some form of human attribute (feet, hands etc). The length of a day varies but there's usually some way of dividing it up, if only so that people can plan when to meet. You may just do time division in terms of days, or someone may have some form of candle or sun dial or similar which divides time up. Weight is an interetsing one, and it's usually one of the first things a ruler wil standardise, in order to encourage trade. I think that if I were a new arival in a world like that I'd be asking what they meant when they used a certain term to express time, distance, weight or whatever
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  6. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

    9 bees past six-moons bring the forty-kitten bundle of rice.

    Best advice I've heard is that the narration is written in YOUR language. So, artifacts like Time, and August, and Thursday are part of the "translation"
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  7. Maria Heath

    Maria Heath Dreamer

    This is a good point. Is your main character even speaking the same language as these new people? You could say no, in which case you have the whole issue of learning another language, and the ways this language expresses measurements would come along with that.

    Or you could say yes, for the sake of ease of writing, they speak the same language as the protagonist. In this case, I definitely think the protagonist would keep their own cultural way of expressing measurement, but you could demonstrate the disjunct by having scenes in which there is a struggle in communication between the protagonist and the new people, where the protagonist wants them to be more specific and has to come to terms with the fact that their idea of "specific" is just different. Or over time, the protagonist could begin losing the sense of concrete measurements from their home world since they have nothing to check the measurements against (e.g. no yardstick, no thermometer, no clock), so their guesses about measurements keep getting harder and harder the longer they're away from the home culture.
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  8. LAG

    LAG Minstrel

    Just throwing in terms I've come upon: Leagues, ells, cubits, spans, armspans etc.
    Some terms are biblical(well, more roman i'd say... not etymologically hebrew ... ah roman cubit, and ell is where 'elbow' comes from.), which makes me wonder what other ancient forms of measurement can be used, or even just the terms of measurement in other Earth tongues (a bit muddled, after invention of metric)

    Ancient Roman units of measurement - Wikipedia
    look interesting, and might use them when I create a verse.
    cubitum-cubit: 0.74m
    gradus-step: almost 2.5 ft
    passus-pace: almost 1,5 meter. almost 5ft
    stadium-stade: 185m/607ft

    And then ancient greek has terms like daktylos(finger) dichas or hēmipodion(1/2foot) . drachma for coin. konche as a measure of volume.
    ok wow came onto this site and it has gems:
    Glossary of Ancient and Traditional Weights and Measures, and Money. Hemyock Castle
    mostly concerning english fuedal terms.
    Money. Normally means the silver mark, a measure of silver, generally eight ounces,

    Riding: Administrative unit of land. Third part of a shire, eg. the Yorkshire Ridings

    And many other sites I don't have time to explore, but I like this topic now ... ways in which tribes measures, sticks etc. a good avenue of study.

    Imperial inches, feet and miles flow better word-wise than metric kilometers and centimeters. Time-wise a few hours, a few minutes work well enough, seasons and moons, turnings and cycles.

    Time changes if the planet changes, but if the world isn't built on absolute scientific terms, being vague is no sin. A planet with three sons can still have days [Jack Vance: Tsai], and a world with two moons, months [Warhammer].

    If definitions of time and measurement don't worry you that much, and you want to focus on the story and the characters rather than every minute detail of the world, then there's no need to bother much.

    The folk above me have nailed down the answer pretty well.
    Ofc, if one wishes to be all creative and fancy, the world can have words created for such things, but then some exposition is needed.

    [Gordov took three steps to measure the lizard, and declared, "The beast I have slain measures a single koolom."]

    [The hummingbird flew up to the window and back to the branch, forty-two times in total. "Yup, she does that, flies here and there, taking precisely four mobos to do it, and then flies away. Does so each sun-cycle, she does," Greta explained.]
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2020
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