WAW: Telling Time

Writing About Writing: A once-a-week post about some aspect of writing. I’m not an expert; I’m just some guy. Take it with a grain of salt.


If you’re writing speculative fiction, you’re probably writing in a secondary world (so, not our world). One of the most jarring things otherwise brilliant writers do is use our measurements in their world.

Imagine if Frodo looked up at Mt. Doom and said, “Should be there by 3 p.m. or so. Looks like a couple kilometers to the summit.”

Jarring.
As.
Fuck.

Option A: Just shut up

Infinitely better than using earth measurements for secondary worlds is just not mentioning it. Just don’t. Shut up.

Or write around it. Instead of “It’s 60 miles from City A to City B,” why not “It’ll take a swift horse two or three days to get from City A to City B”? Bam. Scene, atmosphere, culture and no jarringly earth-y terms for a place that presumably isn’t earth.

Option B: Work hard. Like, really hard

Your other choice is to talk about time. But it’s going to require work. Lots of work.

Wait, wait. It’s worth it. I swear! 

Don’t run screaming yet. You can do this.

Option B is to invent measurements for your world.

Easy: Take our measurements and give them made up names. A mile is a carith. It’s lazy but it’s better than nothing.

Better: Think about your world. What would people measure? Why? How? The answers should be obvious and logical.

If your world involves a lot of sea trade, maybe everything is measured by rope and sailor’s knots, even on land. If the Big Bad Evil wrecked up the joint a few hundred years ago, that probably both ended one era and began another. If your planet orbits its sun in 11 days instead of 365, 11 days is probably a super significant measurement of time.

Cheats

I know what I’m proposing can be overwhelming. But calendars and measurements are important. They come from culture and are oozing with history. We still name our days after Roman gods, but base our two big eras (BC, AD) on Christianity. There’s so much history and culture and information just in those two simple facts. You can write the entire history of your world simply by writing the date just once.

A simple trick I like involves old calendars.

  1. Buy an old calendar (or current year, whatever)
  2. Plot out your story on that calendar
  3. Watch time happen! Decide where weeks, months, years, eras begin and end based on actual events in your world

It’s easy, simple, cheap and great for outlining in general.

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