One of our faithful readers, Daniel Davis, recently asked a very good question:
“I’m just wondering how others deal with time and distance in their stories. By that I mean, do you change the names of your time and distance from Earth standard (seconds, minutes, hours, feet, miles, etc) to something else, keep it the same, or do you even use standardized time? In a place that has no clocks or even sun dials, how does one have their characters deal with talking about time? Also, using English standard units of measure just doesn’t seem right for races who have never been on Earth, but using fictitious names for them could be confusing for readers.”
It’s an important point. It’s easy to use miles, inches, hours and such without realizing how very particular that language is to our own world. The likelihood of a race of people from another solar system using the same words to describe distance is almost nil. Time and space are necessary for a story, to keep track of the order things happen, and where. Maybe Dr Who can wrap his mind around time being a great big ball of wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey stuff, but the rest of us require an explanation that’s a bit more concrete. Our characters have to have some way of marking the passage of time, and the amount of distance. Creating a vocabulary to solve that problem seems to be the most obvious solution. Except the writer runs the risk of confusing his readers by changing all the familiar words. How far is a frangem? If it takes pix hofrensesses to reach the capital city, how long is that, really? Finding the comprehensible balance between new vocabulary and reader understanding is vital.
Most writers seem to keep the words for numbers, which is nice. Math’s already hard for me…I don’t know how everyone else feels, but if you start changing the numbers’ names, you’ll lose my attention. There’s always a threat of overdoing the worldbuilding and ruining the experience for everyone. Assuming that the numbers get to keep their names, we then have to look at the words for measurement. The first option, and the easiest, is to use all the words already in place. It’s safe, of course, and if you do a good job of worldbuilding in all the other areas of the novel, no one will mind too much. I’ve seen writers use archaic words to describe distances – leagues, yonside or nigh, to name a few. It’s a great place to start, since most readers won’t be overly familiar with them. Read a little Shakespeare and you’ll find plenty of dandy words to try. This doesn’t work as well for science fiction, since the assumption is that your characters have moved beyond that somewhat vague style of measurement. Since you’re building your world from the ground up anyway, I think the best idea would be to make up your own words. Easy, right? A great place to begin would be the dictionary. Look up the words you’re wanting to replace, and read about their origins, then let your imagination wander a bit. “Mile”, for instance, is derived from the Latin milia passuum, which means “a thousand double paces.” You could rename the mile in your culture as milpache. (This is just off the top of my head – I’m sure you can come up with a more graceful word. :D)
If your book’s people have a similarity to any of Earth’s plentiful and real cultures, you can investigate the language and borrow from it as well. Be cautious and respectful, though, especially if you’re borrowing from a language that’s still being spoken. The last thing you want to do is misuse the language and insult anyone. So you’ve made up your words…how does the reader know what in the world you mean?
Context. Present those new and thrilling words in context, and the reader will happily stick with you. Here are a couple of examples:
The trip to Anferr took two kiddles, and Jon was exhausted by the time he arrived. He promised himself that next time he’d send someone younger, with a better back. Not everything had to be his responsibility.
“Jon! Good to see you!”
“Finally.” He rubbed his back, groaning. “I hate having to sleep on the transport for even a kik, but the whole kiddle, sitting up…” he straightened. “I like my bed too well. Lead me to the coffee and toast, would you?”
In the first example, a kiddle could have been anything – a day, a week, a six hour chunk of time. There’s not much to connect to. In the second, we realize Jon was sleeping for a kiddle, which is much longer than a kik. And now he’s hungry for the morning meal. The evidence suggests a kiddle equals a night. It’s all about how you present the new and strange words. As long as you make it easy for the reader to make the intuitive leap, you’re in good shape.
I used the rising and falling of the sun as the main measure of time passing in my book, since my pirates depend on the skies for navigation. They live in an archipelago, so they also determine distance by how many days it takes to get from one island to another. Fairly simple, but it’s all the distance and time Kestrel needed. The Danisobans have their own methods, but she doesn’t know about them, and since the book was from her point-of-view, it never came up.
I’m going to throw the question out to my esteemed colleagues and all our other faithful readers. As we at Magical Words often say, there is no single right way to do things, but there are lots of great ideas. How do y’all handle creating distance words? What books have you read that accomplished the job well?