How far is that again?


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?


18 comments to How far is that again?

  • Writing a fantasy, I pondered this issue as well. Part of it is motivation. How much time do you want to invest in developing these new ways of looking at time/distance? How much effort do you want to have to put into the story to make sure it all makes sense and is easy to read. The easy to read part is the big thing for me. If I have to stop or pause at all to make sense of it, then it’s too much. If it disrupts the flow of reading at ALL, then it’s too much in my opinion. When I read I don’t want to have to take a break to make sure I’m understanding new vocabulary. This can apply to names and concepts too. I don’t want to have to flip to a glossary in the back to make sure I’m pronouncing stuff correctly. Maybe I’m just a lazy reader. I’m one of those who is fairly happy with letting the author get away with normal conventions of time and space, even though I know it should and could be completely different. I’ve had readers on my novel question me on using seasons instead of year, even though I make numerous references that make it clear that the term means a whole year and not just spring or summer. I use general terms like ‘midday’, ‘a day’s ride’, and instead of yards/meters things are measured in terms of the heigth of a man, i.e. ‘that cliff is at least a hundred men high.’ If you want to be somewhat lazy like me, I think using common reference points makes it simple to understand without having to put any time into figuring it out. The typical reader (yes, I know some really get into those kinds of details) wants to just read the story and not be bothered with thinking about conversions. Not trying to insult the reader here mind you, most folks can figure out these things, but that’s not really the point. If you can immerse the reader, they will generally allow you a fair degree of latitude when it comes to this. In my opinion of course.

  • In my current WIP, the places that don’t have clocks (most of the world) use the diameter of the sun to mark the passage of time. So when someone asks, “How long ago did you see him?” The response would be, “About two suns ago.” In other words, “About the time it takes for the sun to travel twice its diameter across the sky.”

  • Misty one of my main POV characters in my WIP is an animal. She thinks of periods of time in mooncycles. There is a the *sharp-pointed moon*, and its opposite, the *pregnant moon*. There is the *hungry moon*, and the *hunters moon*. I’ve had fun thinking/speaking with an animal’s mind, coming up with words that might make sense to her, making it basic enough to feel primitive, yet hope I don’t irritate readers with its weirdness.

  • This is a great topic that a lot of people don’t really think about. For me, it’s a matter of keeping it as simple as possible while still being true to your story.

    For instance, in my WIP, I’m dealing with Stone Age culture that wouldn’t use time like we do. And because this culture is very in-tune with nature, I’ll try to use descriptions that they would use but also help reinforce the culture and character – “the hour of the crickets” not only tells the reader that it’s dusk in the summer, but that the character who notices this sees the tiny details about the world around him.

  • “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.”

    Indeed. Beware the smeerps!! [Watch out: they breed like rabbits, so there’s no such thing as ‘just one’.]

    As I’m writing fantasy [gads, there’s that word, again], I reach into the past for such words then tweak ’em a bit, and expect [hope] that the reader will be clever enough to get the gist from the context.

    But for the passage of time — well, that’s kinda plastic, isn’t it? I mean, time drags when you’re waiting for something, but it flies when you’re having fun.

    There’s the approach of marking time by units of measure that are a standard by consensus within the world of the story [did I say that right?], and then there’s showing how the characters are experiencing time — tired, hungry, are we there yet — in the way of personal perceptions.

    Oh-hhh, I really oughtn’t try this before my second cuppa.

  • When I mentioned it to my wife she said that there’s been books she’s read where the author used words that were vaguely like the actual word or used the first letter or two from the words. Could be a good way of doing it; making it look vaguely like the original word, enough so that the reader can still figure out what it is. Even the Klingons have Kelicams instead of Kilometers. πŸ˜‰ That’s probably a lot like what Misty said about looking up the root origins and working with that.

    The thing that I’m having an issue with the most is time. I like the idea of using the span of the sun as a guide, though you’d have to be paying a bit of attention to the sun when someone asks. It’s still a good guesstimate tool. Especially for determining when to meet someone or to coordinate an attack.

    The easy ones are morning, mid-morning, midday, etc, but using those, how would you go about saying “see me in a few minutes,” or if it just hit midday how would a character tell another that they’ll be in the Greasy Gorgon in a half hour? I guess an extension of the sun thing could be using the length and position of shadows, though if it’s raining you lose your method of time measurement. Same with using the sun in any way, including sun dials.

    Funny thing, this all kinda hit me for the first time while writing one of my latest. It’s a world where an Earth colony ship exploded and the survivors crash landed in pods on a planet with no supplies. With no useable tech and no supplies to make more the colonists decided to just make the best of it and survive. A couple thousand years later, the colony has grown into a number of medieval societies, a little like England before it was united under a single ruler, their technological days long forgotten. I ended up deciding to give them sun dials because it would’ve been one of the things that was created from the get-go and survived the times, as well as normal colloqial Earth terms for time and measurement. Then I started thinking about a straight fantasy novel I was writing and started wondering about how I would deal with time and measurement in that one. I’m still not exactly sure how I’m going to deal with it, but I’ll come up with something. Hand spans is the first to come to mind. It’s an imprecise measurement, but most measurements in medieval society were typically imprecise, including feet, until they were finally standardized.

    It’s definitely something to ponder.

  • I just thought of a possibility for determining sun span across the sky. Using a coin of the realm and holding it out so that it looks the same size as the sun and using it to estimate how many spans the sun has traveled across the sky since it rose. Kind of a simple and neat way of checking the time. Might even be able to come up with a renamed minute/hour scale that way as well. hmm.

  • Wendy

    Good question! Great commentary. I like the use of older real-world terms for marking lengths in fantasy. Taking stuff from Medieval, Renaissance, and Elizabethan lit is useful, perhaps with slight modifications. It also seems to me that this a good, familiar way to set the comparable time-period setting in the reader’s mind.
    I probably work this way, with slight variations, though I’m unsure off the top of my head since it isn’t something I really sat down at made specific notes about. (Maybe I should…)

    Daniel asked: “…how would a character tell another that they’ll be in the Greasy Gorgon in a half hour?” (First…Greasy Gorgon. *snort*) I wonder if people were once more accustomed to hanging around and waiting, dealing with the vagueness of “when I’m done in the fields” or “just a bit past Vespers.”
    There were hour glasses though…not that they were everywhere, but some mark of time for some people, I imagine. …and church bells since it was at least, important for the clergy to mark prayer times.
    I guess that’s another way one could deal with things. Make up various religious offices that happen at fixed times throughout the day beginning at dawn, signalled with bells or a call to prayer sort of thing. one would need a society that was a religiously focused as our Middle Ages, but it would work. …with some fuzziness remaining in the between times.

  • Time and its measurement is a complicated thing in second-world fantasy. This is something I’m still trying to figure out.

    One thing I do have is a calendar for the entire year. I have the days of the week and the months all named. Also, I have the length of a minute and an hour and how many hours are in a day (all of which are very different from the real world).

    One of the biggest impacts I have on time is scale. The world many of my stories take place on it quite larger than Earth, but the day is nearly 3 times longer as well.

    So, a character in my created world will cover a lot more distance in the course of 5 hours, simply because his/her 5 hours is nearly the equivalent of 14 hours on Earth.

    While I have my own names for days of the week and for months of the year (and a different word for Year as well), I still don’t know what to do about minutes and hours and seconds.

    I know at some point I need to make a decision. And because I am me I tend to complicate matters. The word I use for Year actually has two meanings. It means Year and it also means Time, depending upon the context in which it is used. I’ve had to train myself to replace time with this word even in words like “sometimes”, when used in dialogue. The word “time” does not exist in my created world.

    And, when I move forward in the timeline to futuristic stories everything gets really wacky when I have so many different cultures who measure the passage of time (but not called time) very differently. For instance, a species that is immortal measures things on a very different scale from one that lives for about 150 years.

    And, when a character on my main world is 15, if they were on a world based upon Earth’s measure of time, it would take them about 45 years to get to 15 biologically.

    So, if one really delves into this issue, there are so many layers and areas where a simple thing as a minute or an hour ripples across the spectrum.

    At the moment, I’m trying to come up with how a desert based nomadic culture will name and measure such things as opposed to a maritime culture, as opposed to an agricultural culture.

    World building never ceases, especially when dealing with long timelines. I imagine the future versions of these same societies may end up changing how they calculate things and what they call them. An intergalactic government will most likely have a Standard Time imposed that people will need to keep track of independent of their local world time.

    And on and on it goes…

  • My Caledonians and Germans use seasons (Time of the Lambs, The Cotton Grass Blooms, The Crane Follows the Warm Wind), the sun if it’s there, the moon at night, animal behaviour (when the plover sings, when the deer go to the brook), or weather (ere the morning mist rises). For directions I use phrases like “the way of the Cold Wind,” or the position of sun and stars; and for distances the time it takes to get there because that is a lot more important to people than the actual distance. Shorter distances may be a strong man’s stride or the width of a hand, and weight is what you can carry – or not. πŸ˜‰

    I hate wearing a watch and when I’m hiking I rely on natural phenomena even today. It works surprisingly well – I’ve never got lost or missed to be at a certain place within an half hours frame. What annoys me, though, is daylight saving time. It screws with my instincts.

    And then come the Romans with their miles and hours and don’t understand what the natives mean, nor can they grasp the concept of less exact measurements that STILL work in a society. πŸ˜€

    For the Fantasy I use an altered form of the religious hours, plus leagues, ells and other old fashioned expressions.

  • Tom

    In my fantasy I tend to have characters speak of distance in terms of travel time…three days walk, two days ride, etc… for time of day, they just guestimate it. I do give them culturely appropriate day names (Elvesday), month names and year names sometimes (Year of the Rampant Dragon).

    One of my pet peeves is a story where I have to learn a language to read it. I don’t care that Shepherd’s grove is seven unks north. Say miles. Say leagues. If you say miles I will not be fazed. I know miles. They’re my friends. My brain will assume you are translating, since you’re already “translating” to English, right? Their unit of measure for distance just happens to translate into miles. Nice.

    I read for pleasure. If it gets too complicated I read something else. I might be a lazy reader, but I am not alone. So in my own fiction I try to keep it simple and seamless.

  • A agree with Misty. If this is done well, context will make the terms clear. In the Forelands series I used turns for months and fourspans as the main unit of measuring everyday length. My seasons were the the Planting, the Growing, the Harvest, and the Snows. Never had any complaints from readers. If you make the terms seem natural to your characters they will soon be natural to your readers.

  • I’m going to drop another question here, since it was my own original question. πŸ™‚

    Chapters, or no? Do you write in chapters or not? I’ve read novels before that were not split up into chapters and I’ve read stories that were split up into chapters, but not split up very well. The majority of novels are set up into chapters. Is it a big selling point to have chapters in a story or is it not as important as long as the structure is still well done?

    I’m not a big writer in chapters, preferring to just write the story all the way through without ’em. I actually kind of hate having to think about them while I’m writing. Is it better to get the story down first and then figure out where you want to put chapter breaks or is it imperative to follow the structure to the letter and write your rough with chapters in mind?

  • Daniel, I think that sounds like a great topic for next week — format for manuscripts and novels. Trends in genres… Anyone?

  • Faith,

    That’s a topic that sounds really interesting.

  • Standard measurements are already rather well-suited to a lower-tech society, having their roots in things related to the human body (paces, an hour’s walk in a league, a footlength [although 12″ is stretching it for most people], etc.) or natural cycles (lunar for months, a handswidth of travel for the sun in an hour, etc.). Unless for some reason you really want a world with hugely different timespans, such as a sun that takes 3.28 of what we’d call hours to travel a handswidth across the sky, or you’re dealing with a race different in size or makeup than a human.

    As for what to call those measurements, my preference in writing or reading is for the name to be changed only if it truly adds something to the written world or perspective and isn’t too distracting. I’m already writing in English, a language which wouldn’t exist in my fantasy world (every word has its etymology unsuitable to that world, not just measurements), and so I tend to keep the English names for things as default, for consistency. I save that “numinous” quality for specialized terminology and things that are alien to the current POV.

    I’ve encountered little need for minutes in a fantasy setting. People didn’t start thinking in terms of minutes until timekeeping devices capable of showing minutes became common. “Meet me at at noon,” or “when you’ve finished trading at the general store,” is usually enough. “When the sun touches the top of that crag” is fairly specific. If someone has to wait around for ten minutes, even a half-hour, that’s just how things work, and it leaves more time for the one waiting to think, or whittle, or talk with others (or start a bar fight—more plot quirks!).

  • One tool I’ve seen that I like in books is “candlemarks” to measure the passage of time.

  • CJ

    I think the biggest difficulty arises from words that will have NO equivalent in modern (or Earth) language. For instance, your story is going to be written in English (or whatever, but you know what I mean). You have already TRANSLATED it – unless you’re going to write the whole thing in gobbledegookish and provide the reader with a dictionary as an optional extra (now there’s a thought). Almost any society on any planet is going to know day from night as any planet supporting life will revolve on its axis and go around its star. Almost any civilisation, however primitive, will use this as the basis for their time. hours, minutes, miles? Well they would be different, but I think old terms and words that have a sound and feel similar to modern measurements will mostly suffice as the best compromise. As most people have said, though, it is just that – a compromise.

    Excellent post on a very good question.