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Worldbuilding: Dates and Measurements

In your story world, how did they track time: shadows, position of sun and planets, sundials, hour glasses, bell tolls, clocks, atomic clocks, watches, timepieces?

Did they have the concept of seconds, minutes, hours, etc.?

Writing a book set in the far distant past, I couldn't figure out other terms that would relate the passage without our cultural shorthand for time: weeks, days, etc. 

In future or alternate worlds, you can make up the rules. But how do you convey that a day on Mars is equivalent to three days on earth without saying so or saying three rotations of the sun, etc.? If anyone has a good answer, please share!

How did they track dates: position of the planets, equinoxes and solstices, star movements, position of the sun or moon, shifting tides, days, weeks, months, years, etc.? Did they have calendars, star charts, or atlases? 

In your alternate worlds, do they have seasons? What are they like?

How did they measure things? Each ancient tribe and village measured things in unique ways, such as the size of a ruler's hand, foot, or pace. It is hard to convey measurements without referencing modern methods.

Market towns developed their own ways of measuring and counting until standardized pounds, tons, etc. were developed. 

Cooking required pinches and handfuls to cups, ounces, etc. Once civilizations started trading, the need for standardization led to two major systems: imperial and metric. From distance to cooking, each had its own proportions and proponents. Imperial uses inches, feet, yards up to miles. It uses cups and ounces. Metric uses millimeters, centimeters, meters, up to kilometers. It used liters. Arabic numerals (1,2,3)won out over Roman numerals (I, II, III) in most places.

How did they measure distance (miles or kilometers), speed (mph, kph), nautical miles, light years, latitude and longitude, meridians, temperature, land mass (acres, hectares, etc.)?

Did they have survey equipment or topography maps or nautical maps?

How advanced were their mathematics and sciences?

What was their knowledge of space and astronomy? Did they utilize zodiac signs? Did they have projections for earth's (or their planet's) demise?

Had they explored space? Were there other worlds and galaxies? If they traveled the galaxy, had they met other life forms?

I once critiqued a story where a space ship landed and no one was surprised, scared, etc. Unless your cast has knowledge that there are other life forms, it is unrealistic to think no one would be alarmed when an alien descended. If it were only one being, they might be more curious than furious, but they wouldn't just take it in stride. If a group arrived, they should be terrified, especially if they were extremely different in appearance or sported weapons and advanced technology.

Did they have space stations or colonies?

Did they understand atoms, dark matter, worm holes, or find a way to wrinkle time?

Could they travel at the speed of light? Did they have warp speed?

In your magical world, can they portal or just appear and disappear at whim? How far can they travel? Are there limits or rules regarding magical travel?

Suggested references:
1. Time Telling Through The Ages by Harry Chase Brearley
2. History of the Zodiac by Robert Powell
3. Telling the Time by Rupert Matthews
4. Astronomy 101: From the Sun and Moon to Wormholes and Warp Drive, Key Theories, Discoveries, and Facts about the Universe by Carolyn Collins Petersen
5. Rising Time Schemes in Babylonian Astronomy by John M. Steele
6. Astronomy and Calendars – The Other Chinese Mathematics: 104 BCE- AD 1644 by Jean-Claude Martzloff
7. Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon: The Calendar in Mesoamerican Civilization by Vincent H. Malmström 
8. Greek and Roman Calendars by Robert Hannah
9. Measurement: A Very Short Introduction by David J. Hand
10. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress by Hasok Chan

Next week, we investigate Medicine.

For advanced world-building, the SBB Build A World Workbook is available in print and e-book.

Other titles in the series:

Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book takes you from story seed to conflict outline. The fourteen companion Build A Plot Workbooks, in print and e-book, offer step by step development prompts: ComedyCon, Heist & Prison BreakFantasyGothicHistoricalHorrorLiterary
(Drama),  MysteryRoad TripRomanceScience FictionTeam VictoryThriller & SuspenseWestern.

SBB II Crafting Believable Conflict in print and e-book and the Build A Cast Workbook in print and e-book help you build a believable cast and add conflict based on the sixteen personality types.

SBB III The Revision Layers in print and e-book helps you self-edit your manuscript.

Free story building tools are available at  

1 comment:

  1. In my novel they measure years in seasons. A child has seen six winters, and her mother has seen twenty-one. They measure distance in how much time it took to travel there by foot. Everyone walks. The pay in brass rods, or strings of beads, and products that took a long time to produce costs more. Fruit picked from a tree in the forest will cost less then maize grown in your own fields, which requires more work and a long wait. The week has four days, which is the traditional way of Congo people long ago.