Measurements in Fantasy

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MagicMagor

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Measurements in Fantasy
« on: March 13, 2018, 01:27:18 PM »
I apologize for the unimaginative title, but i'm terrible with naming things. I also could not decide if this topic is better suited here or in writing discussion.

When i recently thought about the part i'm currently working on i encountered a strange problem in my thinking - how to measure things in my novel? This may sound an odd problem to have but for me it came apparent once i started thinking about it.
I'm a german, living in germany so in my normal life i'm used to the metric system. Length is measured in metres and kilometres. But most of the fantasy books i've read (especially the english ones) are from US based authors. And there distance is usually measured in feet and miles. When reading these books i make quick and dirty mental translations as "1 mile = 1 kilometre", even though that is not really accurate, but it is suffice to enjoy the book.
However this has created this problem in my mind, that using "kilometre" as a measurement in my book sounds way off - because for me fantasy uses the mile. But then using mile also does not sound right because i'm roughly measuring things in kilometres in my head, when i set up distances - and that could be way off for someone who is actually used to the proper mile length.

A third option would obviously be inventing my own fantasy-terms for distance but i'm not a fan of having fantasy names for common things.
Currently i'm leaning to option two - using the terms i associate with fantasy but with my rough translation into the metric system.

I know i'm not the only non-us person here, so i'm wondering if other have also encountered this problem. How do you measure things in your fantasy novels?
Title: Tigerhall (WIP)
Status: Writing
Word Count : 34,711

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Rohierim

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #1 on: March 13, 2018, 09:24:01 PM »
First I would say it depends on what type of fantasy you are writing. If it's Medieval Times than it probably wouldn't be in miles or kilometers. It'd be more in leagues or probably a measurement based on time:

1 Days ride
Three candlemarks had passed before....

I'm not a fan of "making" new measurements of time up because it's all about putting something that fits within the world you are creating that helps keep the reader submersed but also allows them to determine length in less than a fraction of time.

As for your other question on being accurate between kilometer and mile, I would think you are thinking too much about it. If I read a story and it says 20 miles (I'm from the US) I know what that is. If you say its 20 kilometers...I do as you do and roughly figure 20 miles (though I lived near Canada most of my life and I know it's not accurate). No one actually tries to figure these things out, especially if they are engrossed by the story. The only time you would have a problem is if you say they have 10 leagues to run (30 miles) and they get there in an hour. Don't need to be 100% accurate, just not so far off that someone who has no idea of distance can still tell you are wrong.

Roh

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katfireblade

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #2 on: March 14, 2018, 08:53:29 AM »
Seconding @Rohierim. British fantasy makes it over here all the time, so we do get some books with the metric system in play. Plus, if your book gets big enough to translate (this can include from English to English, believe it or not), chances are someone else will make those adjustments for you.

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Manu

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2018, 01:39:03 PM »
I usually avoid giving exact distances in the first place and use the time it will take to cover that distance instead - a day's journey, half a day on horseback, someone's going somewhere and will be back by noon, things like that. Usually that's more relevant to the plot anyway - off the top of my head, I can't think of any situation where the distance would be more relevant than the time.
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katfireblade

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2018, 09:37:24 PM »
Old timey measurements are also wonderful to use--leagues or fortnights or a butt or what have you. It can generalize time and/or distance and/or weight (everyone knows a league is a long damned distance even if they can't define it precisely) and give a reader perspective without sounding too modern.

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kherezae

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #5 on: March 24, 2018, 11:20:35 PM »
...I think I've miraculously managed to avoid this difficulty. Perhaps I tend toward what you all have been saying about measuring more by the time it takes? Mileage doesn't seem very important overall, in my opinion! (Also in the UK/etc, what is the equivalent of mileage? Kilometrage? o.o)

I used to mostly just write fantasy with essentially US-style measurements of everything - days, hours, what have you. Like a couple of you have said, I'm not a fan of making up fantasy equivalents of typical things because in theory if this was real and translated to English, those sorts of units would be translated too for simplicity.

That said, for my current world I decided I wanted its orbital length etc to be a little different from Earth, so for my own sake I figured out some differences in their system. I know they're a duodecimal system with 6 days in a week and 12 equal months of 36 days, with a "leap day" every 12 years because their orbit/tilt is really close to exact with their time keeping system. However that background knowledge doesn't really show up in the book often at all. Mostly just in month names and the name of the 6th day of the week because it's the rest day. (The other days of the week don't really have names, exactly, because each day of the month always falls on the same day of the week, so why would they need names?)

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Penguinball

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Re: Measurements in Fantasy
« Reply #6 on: May 16, 2018, 12:13:35 PM »
I looked at this when on a world building binge and was like eh boring. I'll probably just use inches and miles despite being Canadian, because that is what most of the books I read use. Most of the time though I'll probably use time measurements to convey distance, town B is a 10 day ride through the mountains from town A, that sort of thing.

I remember reading somewhere that people in North America are more likely to use time when giving directions, and this can throw Europeans off. Everything in Canada is so far away, I'm more likely to say it is a 4 hour drive to Vancouver than it being 351 kilometers. I'm not really going anywhere with this, it is more an interesting tidbit.

Anyway, exact measurements aren't really a bother for me. I'm not likely to be famous enough that I have super fans who want to reconstruct my world exactly so I'll just fudge the numbers and hope no one notices.