Worldbuilding Basics #3 – Distance

“You want to go how far? In how long?

Friend, if you think this ‘ere horse is going to get you all that way by tomorrow, the price of buying him is going to be the least of your worries. Tell you what, grab that stool over there, share that wineskin, and I’ll tell you a bit about distances. We’ll start at the smallest and work our way up”

Digit, or Finger. This is an easy one. Ever asked for a finger of whiskey? Well, look at the thickness of your finger; that’s what you’ve ordered.

Inch. Slightly larger than a finger. In fact, many people suggest that an inch is around the same as two fingers. Although I would refrain from trying to order an inch of anything at a bar, it may be better than waving two fingers at the barman.

Foot. This can be a hard one. Find your nearest king, take off his slipper and measure his foot. That’s right – it should be exactly one foot in length. Now then, don’t be too surprised if His Majesty doesn’t take too kindly to this. So, to save such an inconvenience, and you losing your head, many kings now set a foot to be a standard length. Many stonemasons will use this as it saves problems when you’re half-way through putting up a building and the tall king is replaced by a much smaller one. For the rest of us, an easier way is to count twelve inches.

Cubit. Another one based on the body. This one is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. I ain’t ever had a use for this one, although I have heard some gardeners use it when putting up their fences. Maybe the monks would know.

Yard. Often used as a measurement of short distance, it’s about the length of three feet. This is also a favourite measurement of tailors and cloth-makers. The reason I tell you this is that in most cities, the tailor’s guild will have their own physical representation of a yard, called a yardstick. Try to cut your cloth at any length different to this and the guild will ‘ave your hands.

Mile. Ok, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Originally a measurement of how far a well-fed army could march over a thousand paces, not many people know that a mile is considered over five thousand feet, and over seventeen hundred yards. The reason most people don’t know that is because many of the tracks now have signs that simply point in a direction and say ‘miles’.

Nautical Mile. Now I’ve got nothing against sailors and the like, after all they’re doing the same travelling we are except they ain’t got anything solid under their feet. I’ve been informed by a glass-eyed pirate that a nautical mile is longer than a normal mile, around six thousand feet, although how they measure that on something like the ocean is a mystery to me.

League. Another one based around walking on dry land. This is how far you can walk in an hour, usually about three miles. Although there are types of people who walk far enough to talk in leagues; bards, rangers and the like, many stick to miles as it’s easier and doesn’t involve walking, songs, or stories.

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Worldbuilding Basics #1: Campfires

Ah, the staple of a good fantasy novel; the campfire. Who hasn’t heard stories of heroes huddled around a campfire on a dark, cold night? Or the villain who hatches an evil plan whilst the flickering flames reflect in his eyes?

But how many have wondered if the fire had been built safely, or if the correct materials had been used?

There are a number of things that should happen before our heroes can relax into a night of warmth and safety.
 

Things to consider when choosing to build a fire

* On the run. A campfire can give provide a great source of both heat and light but if your heroes are hiding, or trying to be discrete, then maybe all that heat (and rising smoke) is burning a large hole in your plot instead. There’s a reason fires were used as signals hundreds of years ago – they can be seen for miles on a dark night.

* A rainy night. Much of the success in getting a campfire going will depend on how dry your materials are. It’s not to say that a campfire can’t be started following a heavy downpour, it just means your heroes may need to spend more time not only finding the dry materials to start the fire, but they’ll also have a harder job keeping it burning.

 

Where to build your fire

* Location, location, location. The location for a good fire can be driven by where your heroes are planning to spend the night; no point in building a fire in the open if it’s raining and there is a cave nearby. Similarly, if the cave is known to harbour wild animals, or a mythical beast, then it may be best for our heroes to keep walking. Protection from strong winds should also be a thought, especially if our heroes are camping in an exposed area.

* Safety first. Ideally, campfires should be built in a pit where the grass sods have been removed and stones have been placed inside. There should be no loose roots or vegetation that could possibly be ignited. Obviously, our heroes don’t want to bore the reader with this detail, but there should be some time allotted to the preparation of the fire.

 

What to collect for your fire

Apart from oxygen and a flame, the only other ingredient for our heroes’ fire is fuel;

* Tinder. Small shavings of wood, or twigs.

* Kindling. These are larger sticks around the thickness of our heroes’ fingers

* Fuel. Any kind of wood ranging in size from kindling to small logs. Remember that carrying logs can be heavy work so perhaps the burly warrior should manage this rather than the frail cleric.

 

What kind of fire to build

Three of the most commonly used fires are covered below;

* Teepee. Possibly the most common type of fire used for bonfires, this design requires the tinder and kindling to be placed in the centre of the fire pit and the fuel to be built up around it in a teepee, or pyramid, shape. As the fire burns, more fuel is added around the sides. This type of fire generates tall flames and is good in winds.

* A-Frame. This type of fire is the one most people use for cooking, the design requires the kindling to be built in the shape of an ‘A’ with the tinder collected in the centre. To keep this fire burning, the fuel is added directly onto the A-frame. This type of fire is the quickest to establish.

* Log cabin. This type is possibly the longest lasting and easiest to maintain. The design of the log cabin fire ensures that the pile of tinder in the centre is surrounded with stacks of kindling and fuel at right angles forming a box. The stacking will also enable more oxygen to reach the flames.

 

Lighting the fire

Again, your novel can dictate this. If matches exist in your world, then viola! Similarly if magic is prevalent and there is a (responsible) mage amongst your heroes then problem solved. For most other situations, a flint and steel would be most commonly used;

* Fierce, but fragile. The first few breaths of fire can rage quickly and are easily extinguished. Due to this, our heroes should try to block as much wind as they can (wide dwarves are helpful here). Once the flint and steel are used to create a spark, the tinder will burn quickly. Ideally the tinder should be lit in a number of places to ensure the fire grows rather than burns out.

* As the fire grows. Our heroes should ensure that more tinder is added as quickly as the fire can devour it. Don’t risk overpowering the flames with too much too soon, only add more when the previous fuel is burning.

* Now we’re cooking. Not quite yet, but our heroes should continue to add bigger and bigger pieces to the fire, ideally in a kind of overlapping pattern. Save your biggest logs for when fire is fully established and the cooking pots are ready, although remember that food should be cooked over slow burning embers, not raging flames.

 

Maintaining the fire

* Brrr. If the fire begins to die or becomes a pile of slow burning embers, it is possible to re-ignite the flames by gently blowing on a particular spot. This should obviously only be done from the side of the fire (and definitely NOT by the bearded dwarf).

* Tossing the caber. It’s perfectly natural to want to add more fuel to the fire to keep it burning. But this should be done in a controlled manner, not by simply throwing logs into the flames. This only risks damaging the structure of the fire and could potentially cause sparks to fly.

Anyone remember this famous poem?
 

There once was a maiden called Claire

Who spent a night in the woods for a dare,

She threw logs on the fire,

Settled down to retire,

And woke in the morn with no hair!

* First watch. It is not considered safe to sleep next to a lit fire. However, all good fantasy novels require at least one person to keep watch. This person has a responsibility to keep the group safe from wild animals, enemies and to keep the campfire going.

 

Putting the fire out

When the time comes to put the fire out, there is a safe method to follow. Again, the plot of the novel may allow the time for this, or it may require a quick kick of dirt to kill the flames.

* One night or two. Any small embers can be put out with a sprinkling of water. Any more than that and you risk soaking the area and giving yourself problems for the next night. The embers should be turned over with a stick or branch to ensure all is wet and extinguished.

* The Travellers Code. Some travellers live to a code where they prepare a fire pit for the next person to come along (most commonly used in wooded huts). Others, such as rangers or druids, prefer to pass through without impacting nature too much. If this is the case, then the fire pit should be filled back in but only once the fire is completely cold. This is a decision for your heroes to make.

Worldbuilding basics

So, I’m sat around this campfire with a few of my characters and we’re having a discussion about where we think they should be heading to next. I’m trying to explain a bit about the world that they live in (after all I did create it) and they’re not really listening.

And then it struck me. Why should they be listening to me ramble on about all the great and wonderful things in the world when I don’t really know the small things, you know the things that matter. I call them the basics.

In any fantasy world that I’ve created I always model the same things; geography, history, wars, legends etc. but I never cover the basics, the little things:

* Ever wondered what the different parts of a castle are called?
* Know your ale from your mead?
* How exactly does a knight take a pee in full plate armour?

Over the past few days, I’ve pulled lots of these questions together and I’m now going to spend a few weeks answering them, adding them to the blog, and hoping they help bolster up all the work that I’m (still) doing on the website.

By the way, the worldbuilding 101 toolkit links are still here