Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How , Uh, Cold Was It ... ?


In writing, sometimes a general term is enough. Other times, you will want to get more specific. The dictates of the story will usually determine it, and -- mark this -- it is better to be general and get it right than specific and get it wrong. This is an ongoing discussion here. Better to say, "She shot him with a gun she pulled from her purse." than "She shot him with a Taurus .38 Special automatic pistol she pulled from her crocodile Hermes bag."

"Gun" is boring, but it isn't wrong. No such thing as a Taurus pistol in that caliber.

I'm guessing about the handbag. Might have been a knock-off.

In journalism class, they warned us to beware of unqualified general conditions. "It was a modern building." Or, "He was tall." Or "It was cold."

What does "modern" mean? This month? This year? This century?

"Tall" compared to whom? Tom Thumb? Manute Bol? Joey the Giraffe?

How cold is cold? Water turns solid at (in F.) 32°. Nitrogen is a liquid at -196°. Helium is still liquid at -269° and might not get solid above Absolute Zero (−459.67°).

Below Absolute Zero theoretically doesn't exist. That's the basement floor.

Colder than a Bose-Einstein condensate? Or colder than a witch's tit? Or a well-digger's belt buckle? These latter are not precise measures, but they convey a certain ... tone. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey? Colder than my ex-wife with a headache ... ?

Black as a crow's wing. Is this blacker than a pedophile's sin?

Gets to be more fun once you start waxing metaphorical.

Comparisons are a good way to give people a memorable visual. If I say "He had a bruise on the back of his hand 47 mm in diameter." that might not mean an awful lot to the non-metric crowd. If I say, "He had a bruise the size of a Liberty Head silver dollar on the back of his hand." and you know what that coin is, it's easier to visualize.

"Big around as a tennis ball," probably you have an idea how big that is. "Big around as a spliggle ball?" Good luck with that one.

One of the drawbacks in science fiction and fantasy comes from such comparisons. "Big as a pack of cigarettes." isn't one you can use in your fantasy novel set in Cimmeria. (Though it might be amusing: "Conan took a pack of Luckies from his direwolf pelt and offered one to Thunga. 'Coffin nail?' Conan asked cancerously.")

How far can Ooma chuck that spear in a world that doesn't use feet, meters, rods, or other Terran measures? How do you let a reader know? "Armspans" might work; even though that depends on how tall somebody is, you can get a general idea if Ooma is an adult and you've made him more or less human-sized.

"Paces" could do it. "Boot-lengths?" "Forearms?" That's where "foot" started, and it was a while before it was standardized to the current international length.

Have a look:

  • 1 Amsterdam foot (voet) = 0.2831 m.
  • 1 Danish foot (after 1835) = 0.31385 m.
  • 1 French foot (pied du roi) = 12 pouces = 0.32484 m.
  • 1 Norwegian foot (after 1824) = 0.31375 m.
  • 1 Portuguese foot = 0.3285 m.
  • 1 Rotterdam foot = 0.296 m.
  • 1 Russian foot (English foot borrowed by Peter Ι) = 12 inches = 1/7 Russian sazhens =0.3048 m.
  • 1 Spanish foot (till 1752) (Pie (foot) de Ribera/de Rey) = 12 Pulgadas = 0.287342 m.
  • 1 Spanish foot (1752 to 1765) (Pie (foot) de Burgos/Castellano) = 0.278635 m.
  • 1 Spanish foot (after 1765) (Pie (foot) de Rey) = 12 Pulgadas = 0.32483 m.
  • 1 Swedish foot (fot) = 12 inches (tum) = 0.2969 m.
  • 1 Venetian foot = 0.34773
How much draw does that bow have? Equal to the weight of a prepube girl half a span tall? Assuming the girl is not anorexic, nor overweight, you can get an idea that the bow isn't something a strong archer would have any trouble pulling, because the girl is almost certainly going to be at least two feet tall, and less than four feet. But if the bow has the draw equal to the weight of a larger than average man, now you are talking something Ulysses might string and shoot. (Yes, you have to define "average," and that could be tricky, but I'm sure you can come up with something relative, because that's all that really matters. A man who is stronger than any man in the village by half again? Doesn't matter how much weight he can push if he's wrasslin' with somebody in the village -- he'll be stronger than they are.)

These are things you need to work out, if you are going to sky off. Of course, you could use inches-feet-yards-miles and simply don't address it, and that's legit. You are, after all, probably writing in a terran language for an audience that presumably reads it, and there are some conventions allowed. If you make up a real alien language and write in it, your audience is apt to be limited, Klingon notwithstanding.

Just a few things about which to think as you cast your story and start the action ...

8 comments:

taintmonger said...

I feel a little old.
How old do you feel?
Old enough to know who Manute Bol is.

jks9199 said...

I like the introduction/explanation that Isaac Asimov included in the with one version of Nightfall. (I think it was in the novel he wrote with Robert Silverberg, but it could be in an anthology, too...)

Basically, he said he didn't feel like bothering with making up alien names and having readers puzzle over reading them, or fussing with pseudopods and the like... but if you wanted to, you were welcome to read "Bob" as "Br'k#zs*t" and assume that "arm" means "pseudopod."

Or at least that's how I recall it!

(Same way he decided to just roll with technological developments as he wrote some of the later Foundation stuff...)

(And I remember who Manute Bol is... and have used him as an example in martial arts classes much to the consternation of young whippersnappers!)

Dan Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Moran said...

Yep. My favorite gag in this area is the "all this stuff was too weird for you, so I, the writer, turned it into stuff you can understand." Hell, even Tolkien used it -- Meriadoc Brandybuck? His "real" name was Kalimac Brandagamba -- but, Tolkien wrote, he'd translated into names that would make more sense to us.

It's a good gag. You get to use all the familiar descriptions and comparisons readers understand, with the occcasional interjection of something new for flavor.

jks9199 said...

One more thought, after having time to read some of the links...

I have great respect for professionals in any endeavor. And when I say that, I include plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics and others that aren't always considered professionals. If you're paid to do it -- you're a professional to me.

And if I ask you to do what you get paid by others to do for me for free... I'm at least potentially taking money out of your wallet. Bluntly... I'm stealing from you.

Now, I've got some friends who I'll ask advice in their professional line from. Like "Does one GFIC outlet in the circuit line protect the entire line?" or "Do I need to make a doctor's appointment with my doc for this symptom?" Occasionally, these folks will offer to do their thing for me... and I may or may not accept! It depends on a lot of different things, including, to be honest, the state of my wallet.

But my general rule is that I don't ask you to do what you get paid for for free.

(And, as to asking writers to read your work... How do you know that the WRITER is any good as an editor?)

Dan Moran said...

Bluntly... I'm stealing from you.

For asking? I know any number of writers who'd agree with you, but it's nonsense. Being rude, maybe, depending on circumstances. It may make writers feel bad to say no -- all of us can remember being there, and almost all of us spend our whole careers in that spot, to one degree or another. Sure, I can get a publisher to read my novel outline, but I'm having a hard time getting producers to read my tv series pitch ... and so it goes. You have to be Steven King or Tom Clancy or such before that stops happening.

So we sympathize, more strongly than most newbies understand. We were you. But the idea that it's theft is silly. Say no. Move on.

Steve Perry said...

What Dan said. You aren't stealing by asking, all anybody has to do is just say no. Long as you don't have a sense of entitlement about it, no harm, no foul.

We tend to prefer the next level of problems above our own. Unpublished writers want to be published. Published ones want to hit the bestseller list. Bestsellers want to hit the #1 spot. #1 spot folks want to stay there longer than Stephen King or Tom Clancy did.

God only knows what King or Clancy wants, but I'm sure it's something I'd look at and say, "You are kidding, right?"

As Dan pointed out, because he sells a novel and it does well doesn't mean he can get a movie script read. And if he could get it read and made, that doesn't mean Brad and Angelina would be all hot to do it. And if they did, it still might not win him the Oscar™ ...

Perhaps R. Crumb's advice is the best here:

Just keep on truckin' ...

jks9199 said...

Perhaps asking wasn't the best word. Maybe I should have said "expecting." But all too often, I deal with people for whom the distinction is at best academic.

If I were to ask Steve to read a story I'd written, and I were perfectly willing to accept "No", that's not a problem. The moment that I assume Steve (or Dan or anyone else) owes me the read... That's a different situation. Like I said... for way too many people, the distinction doesn't exist. If they can reach you and ask you... you somehow OWE it to them.