1. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    English or Metric

    Discussion in 'Research' started by KhalieLa, Mar 26, 2016.

    Which system is used most often in novels, English or Metric?
    My WIP is set in Iron Age Europe, so I doubt they used either system, or used much of a system at all for that matter.

    It makes little difference if I say, "The house was 4 meters square, with a heavily thatched roof and an ox hide curtain for the door." OR "The house was 4 yards square, with a heavily thatched roof and an ox hide curtain for the door." I just want to make sure I'm being consistent.

    All the archeology journal I read use the metric system, so when I write descriptions of things that involve lengths, like where a post hole would be marked for a house, I tend to automatically write in metric. BUT other times, like when I'm referencing weights, I might say "She weighed 9 stone" or "She added a dram of honey." This makes me lean toward wanting to use the English system, but I so seldom see it used, that it just looks funny on the page.

    Currency was ingots, so no need to worry about being consistent there, since coin wasn't used. No references to temperature either, aside from hot or cold. I just want to make sure my weights and measure are neatly aligned.

    Thoughts?
     
  2. Sundowner
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    Sundowner Member

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    Well, I'm American, so no matter what setting my stories are in, I use Imperial, because I expect my readers to largely be American, so I don't want to confuse them. If I wasn't American, I'd probably do the same with Metric. Even if I was writing in a fictional setting where they used a completely made-up measurement system, I'd still use my native measurements just so the reader has to do as little thinking as possible, because having to pause to process and comprehend something as trivial as the mass of something can break immersion.
     
  3. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    If your characters don't have a measuring system, then I wouldn't use one; that feels like a distracting narrative intrusion even if you're using an omniscient point of view, and an actual POV violation if you're using first person or third person limited.

    "The house was barely big enough for a bed and a small table..."

    "She was a small woman."
    "She added a dollop of honey."
     
  4. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Either don't use a system or use the one of the setting. Although I have to say, metric is better.:supercheeky::supercheeky:
     
  5. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I don't know why you assume that they wouldn't have any units of measurement. Ancient Europeans needed the measure shit too. It's most likely they'd use Roman/Greek, Babylonian, or Egyptian measurements (in descending order of likelihood), those being the most developed of those we know about.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_units_of_measurement
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_and_Talmudic_units_of_measurement
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian_units_of_measurement

    If you want to preserve your "in world" feeling, I would suggest you start there.
     
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  6. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    If you can find the actual units for the specific people you are writing about then use that, if you can't then don't use standarised units.

    Thing is that 'Iron Age' covers a lot of time and a lot space and things like units are pretty specific to the civilizations that come up with them. Without some standardizing authority to create them units don't really exist. It's the same deal as with coinage; you barter based on the items in front of you and the exchange rate depends on what you can get at the time. Once you get lots of people together you need money and standard units because you start building logistics chains and need to be able to stipulate a price and a quantity before hand but with fewer people you just don't care so much.

    If your guys live in a civilization (ie a nation with a power structure rather than a tribe) then they'll use whatever units their civilisation uses. Look them up; we know most of them and you'll notice a lot of similarities in how units get picked - Something the height of a person, a weight about a pound or two that you can pick up in one hand, the volume of a mug of beer, the volume of a common barrel; things that you would use on a day to day basis so these are the kind of things your people will think in terms of even if they don't have specific words. The place where things change is in bigger areas. I think to a tribesman they'd think about 'a days walk' rather than 'ten miles' and 'a cartload of apples' instead of 'a tonne of apples'.
     
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  7. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Add another voice to the "don't use measurements your characters wouldn't use" side. I would find it jarring as a reader and it would distance me from the narrative.

    The only exception I can think of would be if you were writing omniscient with a clearly modern narrator. "Back in those days, of course, they didn't have roads like we do today. They'd travel on paths, often less than a meter across." But if you're in the voice of your characters, you should only use words/concepts they'd have (translated into English, of course!)
     
  8. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    He lived in an iron age hut the size of a chevvy '62, NO.
    His arrows were strong like Superman, NO, NO.
    He drank his mead, enjoyed a good game of billiards down the inn, NO, NO, NO.
    Her waist stretched the span of a horse's head POSSIBLY.
    ...
    Yards are GOOD, also research the pre-revolutionary French system, some good words in there, their lexicon.
     
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  9. Mike Kobernus
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    Mike Kobernus Contributing Member

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    I would not use an anachronous system of measurement. Go with something like 4 strides wide, or 3 hands across.

    Certainly I would be mystified at the choice to include the metric system in a bronze age novel. Shudders...
     
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  10. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Still better than imperial 'tho. :supercheeky:
     
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  11. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, everybody knows a yard is a king's foot or somfing...
     
  12. Mike Kobernus
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    Mike Kobernus Contributing Member

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    What is a king's foot?
     
  13. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I'm with @ChickenFreak here. I have a similar issue in one of my two WIP's. It doesn't happen in ancient times. In fact it happens in the future with a group of people that are the descendants of colonists in a new world that are stripped of technological knowledge because of {event I won't disclose}.

    Regardless, sometimes technical measurements can be a bit of an "empty file" to me when I'm the reader, difficult to turn into an image that the inner eye sees clearly. I know very well that a stone is fourteen pounds, but I'm also American so I live in a place where no one uses that measurement. I have to do some math in my head to make 9 stone equal 126 lbs. because 126 lbs. is something with which I am contextually familiar. 9 stone, even though I know what that is, has no experiential connection for me. But even here the weight in pounds is lacking some context. Is she a shorter woman or a tall amazon? 126 lbs. looks very different on someone who's five foot flat than it does on someone six feet tall. I'm better with knowing the weights of men, so a short fellah weighing 126 lbs, would be "A lean little man. Wiry and spry." But if he were six feet, then he would be "A tall man. Alarmingly thin."

    Also - and I'm not saying you're going in this direction, but I've seen it happen - sometimes bringing all this battery of period-correct terms into the work instead of being descriptive about it starts to feel like one is attempting to educate the reader. This can sometimes come off as condescending. Again, not saying you're there; just pointing out that there is a path that does lead to that.
     
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  14. terobi
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    terobi Contributing Member

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    Use the one that best fits with your setting.

    One of my projects is set in near-future Earth; metric works perfectly there. The other is a steampunk story involving a war between two empires - and actually there one empire (modelled on the British one) uses imperial units, the other (modelled on the French) uses metric.

    The metric measurements are used in archaeological papers, not because it's the measurement of the time, but because it's an international standard, particularly in academia and science.

    If you're dealing with things set in the future, really, you should be going metric - the US is bound to do it eventually (even if they have to lose another couple of Mars probes before someone realises it), and to a US audience having something in metric seems a bit "futury" as a result (even Star Wars novels measure everything in metres).

    If you're setting something in the past, it's much more immersive to use the measurement system of the society you're writing about (even made-up ones, if you can get away with it).

    As I recall, JK Rowling had to fight about this with her publisher, since their house style was to use metric measurements, where Rowling thought that the eccentric old-fashioned nature of the wizard community fitted much better with imperial measurements.
     
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  15. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    I very seldom have to use weights and measures, but when I do, I want to be consistent. The descriptions of houses above are one example. Saying "small" has no bearing, because small by todays standards would have been enormous then. For a small house, you can say, it was twice as long as a man, but then what do you do when you get to a chieftains house and you are looking at something with a length of 50 meters?

    First drafts are always written on "auto-pilot." Once the story is out, then I can fix issues like automatically writing in metric. Using some ancient Roman system would be entirely out of place for the setting and only confuse the reader. Everyone (aside from a bunch of American's who refuse to get with the program) knows metric. Most people would be familiar with English. I know that a yard is roughly as long as a meter, it's just that to me, yards looks silly on the page. I haven't seen yards used to describe length since I was in elementary school. I was simply wondering if it looked silly to others as well. Whatever system of weights and measures I choose is going to have to be consistent thought the book and work in the majority of instances where it's needed.

    I have a scene where one of the characters is told he needs to bring the MC's weight in {mysterious item I won't discuss; not something silly like gold, silver, etc} to some location. He produces the {mysterious item/s} and announces, "There's 9 stone there. We reckon she weights a bit more than that now, but that's all we could find."

    Knowing she weighs a bit more than 126 pounds isn't important and I don't expect the reader to do math. What is important, is knowing that finding that amount of {mysterious item}, was a difficult task.

    If I say, "All afternoon, the ring of Billy Bob's ax could be heard throughout the glen and by the time supper was ready a cord of wood had been stacked against the little house," I couldn't care less if the reader knows a cord is 4'X4'X8'. However, the measurements and terms still need to be correct for those who do know! If I say, "He put up a winter's worth of wood that afternoon," anyone who knows anything about wood is going to write me off as an idiot. If I just say "During the afternoon he got in some wood," that has no meaning because "some" could be two cord, or he could be a lazy git who only brought in an armload for that night's fire. It's not about "educating the reader," the point is to make sure the units are correct and consistent for the "already educated" reader.
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2016
  16. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    The Hellenic system wasn't developed until about 100 years after my target date. The Romans based their system off that of the Greeks, so it's even more recent. Yes, these people probably used something, but at this point, there are very few hints as to what it was. And since the story is set in central Europe, using a Grecian, Roman, Egyptian, or Biblical system is out of place. I think it would detract from the setting and confuse the readers.
     
  17. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    So... what was the question, then? You think yards are silly, so I assume you won't use those... but you seem to really want to use some form of precise measurement, so... meters?

    In terms of the cord of wood - I'd be pretty surprised if they were talking about cords way back when, and Google confirms that the term comes from the 17th century. So if I were reading your book, I'd be surprised to see the term, and if I Googled it I'd see I was right to be surprised. Why can't you just say he spent the afternoon cutting firewood, without giving a precise quantity?

    Similarly for the chieftain's house - if you've already described the smaller houses, why not use them as units of measure? The chieftain's house was as large as ten regular homes, or whatever.
     
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  18. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    Knots - knot tied in a piece of string delivers rough estimate distance, time, use stars also.
     
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  19. jannert
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    If you were a small child today, say 5 years old, how would you describe the weight of a person? Or the size of a house? The reason a child would be unlikely to say 9 stone or 18 metres by 16 metres is because they will be unfamiliar with those measuring terms at that age.

    I'd say pretend you're a child and describe these things as if you have never heard of these terms. I imagine you'd describe them in relation to something else, wouldn't you?

    Either that, or invent a measuring device. A stick as long as your father's arm, or as @matwoolf suggested, tie a knot in a piece of rope, or something like that. I don't imagine there was a standard system of weights and measurements in the Iron Age, so just play around with the idea.
     
  20. Lew
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    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

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    Since those units of measure haven't been invented at the time of your setting, I would use "paces" for yards, and maybe feet just as is, as those have been a common unit of measure for thousands of years. Weight would be comparative, since they wouldn't have had standard units of measure or scales to measure things. Just heavier than or lighter than should be sufficient. "Too heavy to lift." "he could barely heft it.." etc.
     
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  21. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    How, pray tell, is this any less confusing to the reader? Heck, even Larry, Darrel, and Darrel can't figure out what the magistrate wants.
    ******************************
    Larry, Darrel, and Darrel headed down to the pub. Being a small town, the pub was small too, measuring no more than the length of four men placed end to end for width, and twice that length again for length. Rash behavior coupled with public drunkenness had resulted in them being sentenced to community service. Since the community revolved around the pub, so did their service. The local magistrate was already there, drinking a beer on the porch, ready to supervise their work.

    "Boys," the magistrate said, "you must split and stack a pile of wood that is equivalent to the height of a man tall, twice as long as a man wide, and three times the length of a man long. And I'll be here to drink beer and supervise your work every Saturday until it's done."

    Larry, Darrel, and Darrel stripped off their shirts and went to work. Soon their bodies glistened with sweat under the summer sun as they split and stacked and measured the ever growing woodpile. Using their shirts to wipe sweat from their brow's the trio announced they were done.

    The magistrate snorted, eyeing the precariously tilted woodpile wondering how long it would be before a guest of wind caught it and it toppled over under it's own weight. "That ain't hardly enough. Don't you listen," he said.

    Larry answered, "You said, the height of a man and it's as tall as Darrel. Then you said twice as long as a man is wide, Darrel ain't very wide. Then you said three times the length as a man is long. We got Darrel erect and he ain't very long either."

    Exasperated the magistrate said, "Darrel ain't as tall as a man."

    "I'm a man," said Darrel, "Therefore I'm as tall as a man."

    "No, what I mean is, Darrel isn't the length of a man," the magistrate countered.

    "I'm every bit as long as a man; I've even had a few Lassies say I was a good deal longer!" Darrel chuckled at his own wit, unperturbed by the glares of the magistrate.

    "You can't use Darrel, he's not standard length," the magistrate told them.

    "Wot? We can't measure with the dwarf? You didn't say that," countered Larry. "You can't go changing the rules after we started."

    "I didn't change the rules, you just misunderstood them. Start over and this time measure with the other Darrel," the magistrate said.

    After each getting a dipper full of water, Larry, Darrel, and Darrel returned to the woodpile. The splitting, stacking, sawing, and measuring resumed, this time using Darrel, not Darrel. As the sun set behind them, Larry walked up to the magistrate and announced, "We're done."

    The magistrate shook his head. "No, you ain't; that's not enough wood."

    Larry said, "We measured and now the pile is just as tall as Darrel. Darrel's no wider than Darrel, so you didn't gain any width. We got Darrel erect, but he's a bit shorter than Darrel, so you lost a little in length."

    "You're measuring with the wrong part of Darrel," said the magistrate. "I said you must split and stack a pile of wood that is equivalent to the height of a man tall, twice as long as a man wide, and three times the length of a man long."

    "I'm as long as any man," protested Darrel.

    "You ain't as long as Darrel," said Larry.

    The magistrate shook his head, knowing it was going to be a long summer . . . .

    To Be Continued in the Following Edition
     
  22. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    So, when you want to call humans dwarves in the name of historical accuracy, that makes sense to you even though it confuses your readers; now, you want to use modern measurement to keep your readers from being confused, even though it's not historically accurate. That's an interesting dichotomy.

    But, honestly, even your strange little example seemed to have the solution written right into it - the men all enjoyed a dipper full of water, didn't they? I don't need to know the precise quantity of water they drank in millilitres or fluid ounces in order to have a picture in my head of how much they drank.

    It really feels like you're over-thinking all this. (in the exact opposite direction from the last time I thought you were over-thinking things...)

    ETA: I'm also able to picture the magistrate drinking beer without knowing if it's a pint or a smaller glass, and I can tell it's hot out without having the precise temperature in either celsius or fahrenheit. I accept that the men were drunk without knowing their blood alcohol level, and that the town was small without being told its population. For that matter, I can picture a gust of wind without having the precise speed or suddenness of onset...
     
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2016
  23. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I quote myself:

     
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  24. JLT
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    JLT Active Member

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    I've used measurements for historical pieces that would be familiar to just about any culture ... a pace, a handspan, a day's walk or ride ... when they're called for. If you need to be more specific than that, I think you'd need to define your measurement by context, rather than by comparison to some modern measure.
     
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  25. BruceA
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    BruceA Senior Member Supporter

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    i am going to start a Change.org petition to demand that ALL historical textbooks now use this form of measurement ;)
     
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