1. eclectic1993
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    eclectic1993 Member

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    How to creating units of measurement for another time and place?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by eclectic1993, Nov 16, 2012.

    Hi,
    Sorry if this is in the wrong forum. My characters will live in a setting similar to ancient earth (~ 5,000 years ago). I suppose I could in my narration and description or characters use English or metric units. However, that seems really bad.

    If the setting and time period is documented in history and cultural books then it is a simple matter to research and choose those units of measurement involving weight, speed, time, distance traveled, volume of water, length, volume, etc.

    How do you (or would you) go about creating units of measurements for created fantasy-like worlds? I suppose I could use comparisons. For example, using 'time to travel' to represent distances, using 'head, hand, finger' to indicate measurements of length, height of animals to speak of character height.

    I really need an injection of inspiration.

    Thanks,
    Chuck
     
  2. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    I'd find a uniform object or guide.

    We started using the human body, both for older measurement and unit of mathematics. Feet. Hands. Inches (thumb section) yards (a step?) etc. Fingers for decimal maths, units of 10. Hence the digit in digital.

    For metric we use water and silver. 1 gram of water = 1 square centimeter of water = 1 millilitre of water, and 1 litre of water = 1 kilo. To establish the amount of water for a litre/kilogram we use a central kilogram ball housed in France, I think. Roughly. I'm sure my knowledge is lacking.

    BUT, use it like that. So you could use similar systems of creating relations between known materials. Maybe oil, blood, a type of metal the size of of an average thumb, a particular nut that is always the same size and weight, creating displacement for volume, weight, and width for measurement, and then name your measurements whatever.
     
  3. ithestargazer
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    ithestargazer Active Member

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    I think you're on the right track in terms of using units of reference that relate to particular objects, people and spacial experiences of the time. If the people are living in a time of limited education and travel then it makes sense that they use familiar things to reference measurement. The equipment and mathematical ability to measure these units in any organised sense would be in their infancy if your world is similar to ours 5,000 years ago.
     
  4. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    Start by searching for terms like:
    ancient units of measure
    anthropic units
    prehistoric units of measure
    history of weights and measures
    historical metrology

    You'll find lots of them, some of which have already been suggested. Then fit the ideas, but not necessarily the specifics, into the civilization of your world.
     
  5. charliewrites
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    charliewrites New Member

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    I agree with using physical items as a reference. One thing to bear in mind that this has the lovely personal touch of someone else's measurements being different to everyone else. I weave willow, and we use spans and cubits to measure the willow. The cubit is the length of my forearm, which is obviously a different length to my husbands forearm. But this means every willow fish I make is mine, and could even be traced back to me if necessary.

    Weights could be the number of nuts, cones, seeds, mice (or whatever animal) etc it would compare to.

    Time on earth is measured by the turning of our planet (a day and night), the moon orbiting the earth (a month) and us orbiting the sun (a year). Couldn't you just create your own timescales based on this sort of thing? Even if you never reveal to the reader how long in earth hours a day on this planet is, you could still hint that it is longer/shorter etc.

    Distance traveled could it be to do with how long a person could travel in a day? I know an acre is the area a man could plough in a day.

    I think volume of water would always be measured by whatever they use to collect or drink water from. so a shell full of water or a water collection pouch or something.
     
  6. eclectic1993
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    eclectic1993 Member

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    Hi,
    Thanks for all the thoughts. I've read a lot of the Bible before so I'm familiar with things like cubits, spans, omers, etc. I looked into a 'Units and Measures' section of an encyclopedia (yes, I still have some on a book shelf :) ) and found units from various cultures and time periods.

    What's lacking in one culture is available in another culture and time. So, I think I'm free to 'make up' units and measurements as long as they are based upon what is found/seen in the lives of the fictional characters.

    I've decided to use the moon and star constellations to indicate time and seasons, and the position of the sun to indicate passing of time during the day.

    I just found this link that converts old unit of measurements into modern and ancient units. http://www.convert-me.com/en/convert/weight/bibshekel.html


    Here's another question. Is it necessary to explain the unit of measurement to the reader? Here's an example using a fictional "olag" for capacity.

    They saw it at the same time. The clay jar held an olag of water. They had gone two days in the desert without drinking and several more without eating. They were weary and desperate.

    Now, if the olag is 1,000 gallons then the story finds them drinking and celebrating. If an olag is 4 ozs then a fight might break out.

    Thanks,
    Chuck
     
  7. charliewrites
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    charliewrites New Member

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    I think if it was me I'd be tempted to drop in hints earlier on about things that would be important later. You could do this in dribs and drabs of info or all in one go I guess. One way that springs to mind is someone showing or explaining to a child how the measurements work.
     
  8. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    It's far better to have the immediate context tell the reader about things than to have a character explain it to another.

    If someone carries a container in one hand, finds it an effort to carry with two hands, or can't reach the top of it, then the reader gets the idea. If one comments "That'll last for days," or "We'll have to split it, and it won't be enough to get through the day," the reader is informed without being directly told.
     
  9. eclectic1993
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    eclectic1993 Member

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    Thanks for the tips. I particularly like the idea of showing how much effort was involved in lifting or carrying the container. In fact, the characters' reaction to the container should be sufficient. If they start beating each other to get to the jar then there must not have been too much to share.

    Thanks,
    Chuck
     
  10. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    In developing ideas for measurements for my own novels, I reasoned that the less developed a civilization is, the less likely they would be to use accurate measurements. So for time, an early people might simply refer to dawn, morning, midday, afternoon, dusk and night. A very advanced civilization with decimal digits (i.e., ten fingers/thumbs) might even use decimal time in some fashion, though their calendar probably wouldn't as it would by nature be related to the physics of the world and solar system they are in. As for other measurements, as others have said, I'd anticipate the usage of physical items around them as initial ideas for measuring things, though that could be pretty arbitrary.

    In my novels I didn't want to explain in the narrative how the measurements worked as I felt it would distract from telling the story, so I just used appendices for that. Some readers did struggle with me doing it that way though.
     
  11. AGWallace
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    AGWallace New Member

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    In researching my latest novel, I was struck that a "mile" had so many different definitions in Northern Europe of the 1600's. The Germans had one distance, Swedes another, the French and English still others. Map makers of the time routinely used more than one scale on a single map just so various peoples could understand it.

    Denominations of money were even worse. Every German district minted its own coins, and coins from one place had to be exchanged when traveling to another. And this was all true in a relatively "advanced" society.

    Of course, an ancient fantasy world might have its own definitions for these things, but "people" -- no matter if they're human or not -- share the all the characteristics that we moderns do: anger, greed, laziness, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, etc.

    People organize their own societies to maximize their profit at the expense of others, and they usually use weights and measures to do so.

    As a reader, I couldn't care less if a "gallon" is called a "drog" or a "chelk" or anything else. What I want is a reading experience that pulls me into the emotional world of the characters, without having to memorize a dictionary of new terms ... JRR Tolkien excepted, of course, and if you're another Tolkien then ignore everything I've said here! :)
     
  12. Jetshroom
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    Jetshroom Active Member

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    I would hesitate at making up measurements. If I was writing a fantasy or old world setting, I'd simply use imperial measurements. (Daily, I use Metric) The reason being, as a reader, I know (vaguely) what a gallon is. I don't know what a drog or chelk is. If I don't know what a drog is, and it's actually important to the storyline (and not just a vague use of measurement for the sake of it) then you're going to have to explain it in terms of measurements I'm familiar with, or I'm not going to get it. To that end, if a drog is a weight of approximately 17.2 grams you'll need to explain it that way and you've suddenly undermined the point of calling it a drog. HOWEVER, if you want to use measurements like feet, or hands, suddenly I get an approximate idea of how far you're talking about. Because I have feet and hands. (I'm fortunate.) If you were to use a hogshead as a measurement, I have an idea of how much that is because I can imagine a pigs head filled with iron nails.
     
  13. eclectic1993
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    eclectic1993 Member

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    Hi,
    I just read all the postings again and I really appreciate the feedback. My goal is to avoid any and all references to units when possible. As suggested above I will use dialog and descriptions such as "...he struggled with both arms to lift the bamboo bucket full of frogs destined for the dinner table..." I must admit, it is very challenging to ignore units of measurements, but I do believe it is possible.

    My fictional story occurs about 600 years before the flood of Noah's day. The earth is not tilted therefore the length of a day and night are of equal length. Obviously I will use units of measurements from the Bible. However, there are things not mentioned such as time (hours, minutes, and seconds) and distances (miles).

    I've written a 22 page manuscript for a short story as practice and encountered some 'unit based' challenges

    1) A character in one scene sprints a couple hundred yards directly to a position that includes several obstacles. She avoids going around the thick jungle growth to a trail due to the urgency of the situation. I could write "...she sprinted six hundred cubits to the jungle entrance...". It doesn't seem to roll off of the tongue. However it is 900 feet and is quite a sprint, leaving the runner breathing hard. Is this okay? What would you suggest as an alternative?

    2) Some characters in another scene travel about five miles to reach a dinosaur nest. It takes then about 90 minutes trudging through the rain forest and jungle. I can't

    3) Is it plausible to use hours, minutes, and seconds during this time period? They might fit better than kilometers and miles. What do you think?

    Thanks,
    Chuck
     
  14. Jetshroom
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    Jetshroom Active Member

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    Firstly, I would question whether the specific distance is really relevant to the story at all. I just don't feel that knowing it's 900ft to the jungle adds anything to the story for me. Similarly, 5 miles is just an arbitrary distance to me. It's just a decent walk.
    I would simply write something like "she sprinted to the jungle" rather than "she sprinted the [arbitrary distance] to the jungle" because they are the same sentence. If I wanted to show the distance was in any way significant, I'd describe it. Again, not using measurements: "...she sprinted along the stretch of sand to the jungle's edge. Breathing hard, she crashed through the undergrowth..." It simply describes that she ran, and was breathing hard when she reached the jungle. Nobody cares exactly what distance it was.
    With regards to time, if you're using miles, go with hours. You're only putting it in terms of things the reader can understand anyway. If you're not comfortable doing that, consider using the movement of the sun to convey the passage of time. I've seen the phrase "the sun was now just a hand above the horizon" used before, I didn't know what the time was, but it was obviously approaching sunset.
    If you do use measurements regularly and consistently though, it will contribute to the tone of the story, making it feel much more technical. If that's what you're going for, then do it. I'd say just be consistent.
     

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