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Fictional units of measurements?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Deleted member 4379, Mar 12, 2016.

  1. Hi!

    I've been wondering how people usually do measurements and distances in fantasy, especially in medieval fantasy.

    Using terms like meters or miles kinda make sense, but in the other hand they don't quite fit the era or fictional world. Has anyone gotten a good solution, or is everyone just using the basic units like meters.

    I also considered creating a fictional unit for measurement, but that would take a lot of explanation and the reader might not understand it so well.
     
  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I tend to stick to basic feet, mile, yards, more archaic sounding system while still being familiar to most of the English speaking market. If I were writing a more modern fantasy, I'd go to meters. I've also been known to throw around stones for weight measurement. But in general, it's rare to use a system of measurement much, so I wouldn't bother.

    Now coinage, that I develop systems for.
     
  3. JPT

    JPT Scribe

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    Never seen a problem with Imperial measurements - They were formalised in 19th century but things like feet and miles have been in use since the Romans, and a league (3 miles) always sounds nicely old-school. Metres and kilometres do sound odd but then they've only really been around since Napoleon if I remember correctly.
     
  4. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    I have never given it much though before. If I were creating something I think I would use something like how far an average man could travel in a day/ hour etc. by foot as a unit of distance.


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
     
  5. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Unless it's important, I tend to be vague about absolute measurements. When I do use measurements I tend to use imperial units. No need to reinvent the wheel unless I have a very specific need.
     
  6. TheKillerBs

    TheKillerBs Inkling

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    I avoid them altogether, except for time, for which I do use hours, and that's the smallest unit of time I use. Everything else is described.
     
  7. Guess the good old units work then. I mostly use them for example telling how far away something is. It really sounds a bit odd for a medieval character to say "The city is x kilometers away", since the unit doesn't fit the current time.

    In a nutshell the ancient Roman ones are probably the best ones to use.
     
  8. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

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    I try to avoid using specific measures such as metre of miles in my old style fantasy. I use time to indicate distance. I will say to go from A to B is a four day ride or two days by ship, etc. For me the distance to somewhere isn't as important as how long it will take the characters to make the journey, which will change depending on the method of transportation- on foot, horseback, carriage, small boat, large vessel, motorbike, car, or anything else.
     
  9. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I tend to use familiar units of measurement, usually imperial because metric seems too modern. But I don't use them often. I won't say a man is 6 feet tall, I'll say he's tall enough to have to stoop in some doorways, or a head taller than the protagonist, or I won't explicitly state it but mention him ducking or banging his head or something once or twice so the reader gets the picture (not just about the height, but also about things like whether he's aware of his surroundings, used to having to duck for low doorways, etc). Similarly, I'd use miles as a distance if I have to, but I'd rather use something like "half a day's walk" or similar.

    On the one hand, I figure, it's a fantasy world, they're not speaking English, so I'm "translating" everything anyway. And if 17 flurglesteps is equal to 4.38 miles, then calling that distance "over four miles" is good enough. Who's even gonna know? Does it even matter? So I skip making up flurglesteps and just say it's "over four miles".

    On the other hand, imperial units aren't universal. I won't use a unit of measurement people are going to be confused by or which is going to break the flow. Going back to imperial: miles, yards, feet and inches might be familiar to many using the English language (though not all), but who knows how long a furlong, chain or perch is? Well, I do right now because I just looked it up, but I'll have forgotten in ten minutes. And I don't want readers to have to wonder "how long's that then?" - whether that's an unfamiliar real unit or a fake one.

    So yeah as a result, avoiding the units, using more descriptive ways of conveying what I intend. Which has the added bonus of being more wordcount, which is helpful during NaNo ;)
     
  10. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

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    Long distances are measured in leagues, that is, how far a person (or a horse) can walk in an hour. Short distances in paces. Heights are measured in arm-spans, the distance between the outstretched arms of a person. Rope is also measured in spans. Cloth is measured in spans, the distance from the nose to the outstretched thumb.

    The idea is to have all measurements not definite exactly. That way you can fudge distances a little. :)
     
  11. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I see a couple of problems with this. For a start, you've got to rotate 90 degrees to get started, which puts a person in an awkward pose or requires estimations without a good scale that might not be correct. Secondly, at least for person heights, your arm span from the tip of one middle finger to the other is very similar to your height - certainly closely correllated. So everyone is an armspan tall, or thereabouts, measured by their own armspan. Thirdly, because people can vary quite a lot in height and therefore armspan, a tree that is seven Jane-armspans tall might be six John-armspans and five Jason-armspans. How do you think that's going to work when you want to build a barn and Jane, John, Jason and Jade are each measuring the upright for one corner? It's going to result in a very crooked roof and a not very stable barn.

    Having fudgable distances for things like how far a fortress is from a town or how tall a tree is doesn't matter much, but if the unit you're telling the readers about would clearly cause chaos if used for any practical purposes then the reader is going to notice the fudginess. Better to keep quiet or make it clear certain things are approximations for quick uses, not for practical purposes. For example, having someone make a guess about something and another character fetches the measuring stick - to promptly be told to put it away, as the characters don't need to know exactly.
     
  12. goldhawk

    goldhawk Troubadour

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    Actually, you would measure heights with a knotted rope, each knot tied at one span. And people did build stable buildings using these methods. They just use the same rope for every measurement.
     
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