Sep 092019

In our modern world, we’re used to the Gregorian calendar being accepted worldwide. This wasn’t always true and in some places it’s not official and is only used when trying to correlate dates between different countries. We could invent a datebook for every kingdom, but that’s a lot of work for little gain. A universal calendar, meaning one that’s acknowledged across a planet, has both advantages and disadvantages.


In stories, we might have little reason to mention the year, but this depends on our needs and the world’s technological level. A fantasy setting might be less concerned with information in general, not to mention date, but some SF frequently mentions this, such as the well-known “star date” for a captain’s log entry in Star Trek. What’s important is that, whether we mention dates or not, we need a universal calendar for our notes even if not used by our characters. Otherwise, we can’t reconcile two differing calendars and understand when events occurred. There’s no way to tell that year 734 D.C. in Kingdom X is thirty years later than year 343 O.E. in Kingdom Y.

Each sovereign power may have its own time measurement. Year one will be an important event, such as the kingdom’s founding or the life and death of someone important. There could be a technology that shapes life, or a supernatural event or discovery. It should be something that resonates with society or which the power wants to champion, such as the first ruler in a dynasty. While we’re free to invent these internal calendars, we need a universal one.

Whether our universal calendar is recognized on the planet is another matter. For this to happen, there must be a globally accepted event. On Earth, we use the birth of Christ, with years before that counting down like a timer and the years after counting up. However, this scheme wasn’t recognized for hundreds of years and didn’t become standard for hundreds more. Christianity slowly spread, and with it, the calendar. For an invented world, we might need something like the birth of magic or a new technology to occur and slowly spread, too. A swifter way is a cataclysm, which is especially viable in post-apocalyptic fiction and which will quickly dominate minds and ways of life. A mass exodus from a planet might be, too. We need to think of an event that most people in the world will think is a big deal.

If we want our story to be directly impacted by the event, by which I mean the characters and world are still recovering from it, the event should be recent, within the last few hundred years. Otherwise, place the event farther in the past. The invention of a technology might impact modern life, but the moment of that invention doesn’t have to be recent.

Deciding no universal calendar exists is also fine, but be sure to choose one for your private notes if you’re building a world intended to be used a long time, and which has multiple sovereign powers with differing calendars. If you can’t decide, then go with a believed creation date rather than the timespan required by evolution. It took millions of years for life to evolve on Earth, but according to some religions, God put us here less than ten thousand years ago. We can also decide that the first civilization is a marker, as that might’ve been much closer; years longer than five digits (10,000) can seem unwieldy.

When it comes to the initials like A.D. and B.C., whether for a universal calendar or not, we’ll want a naming convention of some sense, such as B.M. and A.M., as in “Before Magic” and “After Magic.” We don’t need to use this style. Terms such as Heisei 12 in Japan means it’s the twelfth year of the current emperor, named Heisei. People might want a positive spin on the years, but in a dystopian setting, a negative sounding term can be accepted.


If we’re inventing a world for long term use or might use both hemispheres, there are some issues to consider for calendar names. On Earth, January is a winter month to some and a summer month to others, and since the word “January” has nothing to do with a season, we’re okay. But what if it was called “Snowtime” instead? That would only make sense to areas which receive snow in January.  Tropical climates may never get snow regardless of hemisphere, polar areas always have snow, and some areas have no seasons.

If we want to do it anyway, regional terms can add dimension. A character from such a place can express how different things are back home, now that they’re away. On Earth, there’s no shortage of people from the northern hemisphere saying how weird it is to celebrate Christmas in summer while south of the equator. Some holidays, like Christmas, have nothing to with a season but have become associated with it.

It’s tempting to decide the year starts with spring, but this is once again only true for certain areas. For others, it would be the first day of winter or not associated with any specific season. How likely is it that everyone north of the equator likes that spring idea and everyone south of it likes the winter idea? Not very. The likely result is a different calendar, which might be local in focus.

So what do we start the year with? An event that has nothing to do with weather, climate, or seasons. In this chapter, the “Historical Event Categories” section may provide ideas.

Sep 052019

How is time measured in our invented world? This is a subject we can ignore if everything is Earth-like and we’re fine with the audience assuming time is similar, as they probably will unless we remark on it. Markedly different time measurement is an area of unnecessary exposition that is best avoided unless it matters for our work. Readers don’t want to remember how many minutes there are in an hour, hours in a day, how long the week is, how many weeks there are per month, and how many months the year includes. Each time we mention that two characters will meet in an hour, but that’s really two Earth hours, is an annoyance.

Should we create different time measurements? That depends.

Minutes and Hours

I recommend leaving minutes and hour lengths alone. Changing them offers an audience confusion with no payoff. There are better ways to make our world seem different. Even if we mention that an hour is ninety minutes, for example, but then we keep writing “hour” in our story, the reader will forget the different length. This is especially true if this alteration is arbitrary and has no rationale that makes it easier to remember. We can invent other words instead of “hour,” but then those require explanations that must be remembered, too, doubling down on the encumbrance with which we’ve burdened the audience.

While it’s true that time is likely measured differently on other planets, our audience is on Earth and needs to quickly understand time references in Earth terms. A workaround in SF that has characters from Earth is to have one mention “that’s 1.5 Earth hours” to another person; the characters should likely go by Earth measurements for their comfort and that of the audience. In SF, a briefly visited planet is a good time to use different minute/hour measurements for a story impacted by this.

One reason to leave minutes and hours alone is that this unit of time measurement will be more frequently mentioned than days, weeks, or months. Story scenes take place in minutes, hours, and days. Having “minute” and “hour” be too different just messes with our audience’s understanding of time. But scenes are less often separated by weeks or months, and once we’re working in bigger units, does it really matter if “three months later” is one hundred days instead of ninety? Only a little.

As an example, on my world of Llurien, there are twelve months of twenty-eight days, resulting in 336 days. That’s twenty-nine days, or a month, shorter than Earth. This means someone a year old on Llurien is eleven months old on Earth. But after ten years, a ten-year-old on Llurien would only be nine years old on Earth. While the gap has widened, the difference between a nine and ten year old isn’t great. This is again true at 22 vs 20, and 33 vs 30. I don’t need to ever point this out to my audience, but if I do, it doesn’t matter unless characters from Llurien come to Earth (or vice versa).

On this note, it’s important to figure out how long a year really is on an invented world. Once we’ve decided on all our measurements, do the math to figure out a scenario like the above.

We could name the hours of the day, but this can be another encumbrance that gains us little and requires exposition. Do so with a good reason that impacts your story or skip it. We can do these things and seldom mention them, however.

We can change the number of hours in a day, but it’s recommended that day lengths be similar to Earth if we’re building an Earth-like world. This means being off by a few hours at most, not having only twelve hour days unless we really mean for this to figure prominently. In SF, the life forms from a planet with different length days will have different sleep and eating cycles, but this will matter more when life forms from worlds with disparate cycles are brought together.

Days in a Week

The number of days in a week is another area we can change. There are seven days on Earth due to ancient civilizations naming them after seven celestial bodies that were visible (this included the sun and moon, which are Sunday and Monday respectively). With planets named after gods like Thor (Thursday), we also acquired the names. We can do something similar on an invented world, using whatever rationalization we can make sensible. There could be eight moons that cause eight-day weeks. There could be six gods, each getting a day in a six-day week. We can depart from deities and decide the days are named after the six schools of magic in a world dominated by supernatural power. Or maybe there were six great heroes from long ago. Or six dragons. In SF, the days of the week are likely decided long before technological advances that could have days named after technology (or related scientists, explorers, etc.), but maybe a later empire forced change on everyone.

In the above examples from Earth, you’ll note that Thor is spelled differently for Thursday. Most of the god names were altered in time from different cultures misspelling things, or just altering the spelling for their native language. We might want to do this, too, to make day names easier to say. For example, I could call a day Llurienday, but that’s kind of a mouthful. Shortening it to Llurday or Rienday is a little better.

Regardless of our decision, we should take strides to minimize the use of day names in our writing because our audience will have no idea what we’re talking about. This is true even if we explain it once. We can provide charts on a website, like a glossary, but skillfully handling this is the best approach. Our characters (as opposed to our narration) should be the ones most often using the day names, because they would. Take this example passage:

Kier asked, “When will the sword be ready?”

“Next Rienday,” the blacksmith replied.

Kier nodded. A week and a day. Plenty of time to run it through his beloved’s heart. (italics)

If we change the number of days in a week, we might want to go with six or eight. The reason is that when we narrate “a week and a day” as above, this is still close to a week on Earth and the audience’s sense of time passing is only slightly off. By contrast, if a week is twelve days, we throw the audience off quite a bit more and might have to keep reminding them of such a thing. In the above scenario, I would instead write, “Thirteen days. Plenty of time…”

Weeks in a Month

How many weeks do we want in a month? On Earth, this isn’t set. Instead the number of days in a month is what determines how weeks are laid out. A month with thirty days could span four weeks one year and five the next, depending on what day of the week that month began. We might choose to standardize the weeks more, in which case the weeks might get names. On my Llurien world, every month has four weeks of seven days. Those weeks are associated with the four elements, resulting in Fireweek, for example. The fourteenth day is always the seventh day of the second week. No one needs a calendar to figure it out.

Months in a Year

How many months do we want in a year? Once again, and for the same reason, it’s recommended to be off by one from Earth, meaning eleven or thirteen months in a year. Earth months are named and our invented world will need month names, too. Once again, our audience will have no idea what we’re talking about, so they should be used sparingly and explained succinctly. Take this example passage:

Kier asked, “When will the dragon give birth?”

“In Dicerimon,” the dragon keeper replied.

Kier nodded. Three months, just in time for the winter sacrifice.

In this passage, note the use of the suffix “mon” on the month name. On Earth, we have “uary” and “ber” to denote half of the months. We might want to choose a similar approach to indicate to our audience that we’re referencing a month. A common prefix or suffix can assist their understanding. As with Earth, perfect uniformity may not happen or be advisable and can even look like too much planning on our part. Feel free to make exceptions.

When revealing the number of months, we can also work this into narration instead of writing exposition about it. See Kier’s fate for guidance:

Kier asked, “When will I be executed for my crimes?”

“Two years from today,” the judge replied. “One for your beloved. Another for the dragon.”

Kier hung limp in the chains. Twenty-two months to agonize over his mistakes.

Aug 222019

While an elaborate history isn’t needed, a sense of the past can add realism to our work. How much history we’ll need depends on how much we’d like it to inform the present. A short story needs little, but an epic trilogy of adventurers traveling across many lands requires it. The sovereign powers they traverse have history with each other, and some of that will be recent, such as a war or a new ruler who is crushing freedoms for the people or reducing restrictions. Even if we don’t want to comment on this sort of thing much, characters will be aware of these new ramifications of entering another land. Traveling through similar places results in a flat narrative.

Science fiction often focuses on the future, given the presence of technologies that don’t yet exist, but that future is far enough away that there’s still past that’s ahead of our current timeframe. In other words, a story set on Earth in 2500 AD has 500 years of history that hasn’t happened yet. In settings not connected to Earth, we can create future history without worrying about how we get there.

A common fantasy trope is that ancient, and long-vanished, civilizations have left relics that characters discover and use. These can include magic items, forgotten spell books, powerful creatures, and ancient, long overgrown cities that harbor horrors that will one day reawaken. The characters responsible for the demise of these civilizations can become legendary figures, which is covered in “Creating World Figures” from Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #1). We should have a high-level idea of what culture created these items and how that culture disappeared, but details included in the narrative can be sketchy because in a world with limited technology, the average person knows less history. This is true even in an advanced society such as our own, where most people aren’t worried too much about the past; that said, we pick up little details from the news and entertainment, so we have a general sense of events without depth of knowledge.

The architecture of ancient civilizations can provide a sense of being alien and therefore unsettling, allowing us to characterize a scene with description and our characters’ reaction to a location. To do this, we should decide what form of government this decrepit place had. There’s a tendency toward the brutish, hulking, and threatening styles associated with authoritarian regimes (and the foreboding they produce), but we can also have an elegant place designed by an enlightened species, whose city has been destroyed by war or plague (resulting in a sense of nostalgic loss for visitors). Deciding on the reaction we want can help inform our decision.

Post-apocalypse works need a cataclysm that has created the present scenario. The cause can be technological, biological, supernatural, or somewhat ordinary (such as an asteroid strike). A world with gods might want a moral reason for the destruction, such as gods abandoning a wicked species. In Dragonlance, human pride caused the gods to stop answering prayers for hundreds of years. Such a scenario allows commentary on humanity’s failings.

We might have multiple continents and therefore a whole world for which we’re creating history. In this case, we might want to organize the history we create into smaller sections, possibly in different documents. World events, such as gods inventing a worldwide species, or a plague that spreads between continents, would go into one file. But we otherwise might want to organize our events by a continent or region.

Where to Start with Space Travel

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Aug 082019

The first choice to make in planning a vessel is to determine if it needs to operate in atmospheric conditions, or even if it might expect to do so. This will determine whether rear-facing engines are required, but STL engines will also require this. We should also decide what sort of ship it is (cargo, war, passenger), as this determines the amount and type of quarters, and dining or entertainment possibilities for crew. Next we should decide how passengers and crew typically board or exit the vessel, where they stay, and what they do onboard. We can also determine the purpose of our ship, such as travel within a solar system or between stars. This will help determine what sort of additional engines it has. Lastly, we should decide the events we’re intending to take place on this vessel so that we can decide what sorts of vulnerabilities it might provide us with and how characters and story might benefit from these; but we can also start with this subject. The best choice is to go with the subject that gives you ideas first, then return to less inspiring areas later.

How Big Is the Interior of Your Spaceship?

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Aug 052019

We may want to decide how long it takes people to move between locations in a ship, but this only matters if our story benefits from it. It’s a moot point in small vessels. In an episodic show like Star Trek, where one ship will be repeatedly used, consistency is crucial. In many episodes, characters from the bridge are ordered to another part of the ship to deal with an emergency and arrive seconds later in TV time. We could conclude that the show just skipped ahead a few minutes, but often, whatever emergency was occurring, like two characters fighting, hasn’t progressed more than a couple seconds. The presumed reason shows do this is so that main characters, i.e. actors, are featured all the time, but it’s not realistic. We accept it, however.

If you’d like to be more realistic, approximate how long it takes to walk or run between all locations on a ship and whether something like an elevator is required. How long does it take to climb or crawl through maintenance corridors like the Jefferies Tubes of Star Trek? Are there stairs or only ladders? We seldom see a stairway except in places like engineering (and even then it’s usually ladders). Why is that? Surely if they can invent warp drive they can still see the value of stairs over ladders if the turbo lifts (i.e. elevators) stop working. Are there no stairs (or underwear) in space?