In 2023, the zombie plague changed the world forever.
We haven’t had a lot of rain this month.
Three weeks later, we finally reached the sea.
We’ll meet at two this afternoon, okay?
We can probably make it to the top of the mountain in about five hours.
It took him almost twenty minutes to sneak all the way from the attic to the cellar.
A second later, she realized he’d been joking.
You can’t use any of those time units in your secondary world fantasy unless time is measured in seconds, hours weeks, months, and years, the way we do it in the real world. That’s not a problem if you want your secondary world to feel familiar. It’s a big problem if you don’t. So that always sets up a dilemma: what words do you want to use instead and what will those words imply about the society you’re creating?
There are a small number of time-related words that are generically appropriate. You can use those in (almost) any secondary world and no reader will bat an eye. They don’t imply anything (much) about the world. These are: an instant, a moment, a short time, a long time, dawn, dusk, sunrise, sunset, morning, midmorning, midday, midafternoon, noon, evening, midnight, a day, a season, spring, summer, winter, fall, year.
I have never yet managed to write an entire novel using only these generic terms (I’m pretty sure). But if you pay attention, you’ll find that most of the time, I use these terms heavily and that I never use “second” or “minute” or “week” or any other English-specific word for a time interval unless I’ve decided that that word is okay in whatever world.
Then it gets complicated.
Unless you want all your fantasy worlds and the societies in them to seem similar in important ways, you really ought to come up with society-specific ways to measure time. Different ways for each world, or each society within a world, provided the societies are quite different from each other and one isn’t based on the other or anything like that.
This starts to get creatively demanding. I think I’ve used “glass,” “bell,” and “chime” as time units. In The Floating Islands, I came up with a time unit, the senneri, that is some number of days, longer than a week but shorter than a month. I think I also use “week” and “month” in that world, but in general I try to avoid those units, especially “week.” To me, “month” feels more generic, though I don’t think that objectively is true.
Obviously time units are one of the many, many differences between the society of the Lau and the Ugaro. The Lau have clocks and measure time a lot like we do in the real world. They use all the normal terms for time units that we’re familiar with, although I’m trying to be careful, because “spring” is fine in the winter country or the borderlands, but seasons are different once you move farther south. (Long and short rainy seasons, long and short dry seasons.)
Obviously the Ugaro don’t use clocks and don’t divide time up into minutes, seconds, and hours. They don’t use hourglasses or any other kind of sand timer, and let me say here that I enjoyed giving Suelen a fifteen-second glass. Those must be demanding to make. You may have noticed that Suelen reflects that only surgeons and astronomers track time with that kind of precision. (We may learn a little about astronomers and astrologers in Tasmakat.) I’m sure you’ll also have noticed that Suelen had to carefully explain “minutes” to Tasa in order to track respiration rates for their patients. She might have heard the word, but would not have understood how long a minute is, only that it’s a short period of time.
Bells or chimes obviously wouldn’t make a bit of sense for Ugaro. What time units, and what measurements, I asked myself when I was writing the first book, could the Ugaro possibly use? That’s when I remembered being taught to hold my hand up to the horizon to measure the distance from the horizon to the sun, and estimate time that way. I hope I’ve been consistent in how long a “hand of time” is supposed to be, but probably not very. But it’s simple. A hand of time is about an hour. Try it yourself — hold your hand up in the evening with the sun on top of your index finger and count how many hands it takes to reach the horizon. There you go, that’s about how many hours it is till sunset. A finger is about fifteen minutes. I know I’ve treated that as closer to five minutes at times, and I’m going to declare that the Ugaro use the term “finger of time” for basically anything from five to fifteen minutes, more or less, and “hand of time” for anything from probably forty minutes to an hour and a half. Or so. It’s reasonable that they don’t care about measuring time with any particular precision. You might have noticed that when asked about time, an Ugaro might say, “Six hands of time, eight, ten,” meaning kind of in there someplace.
Distance is exactly the same as time, of course. You can’t use inches, feet, miles, kilometers, centimeters, furlongs, anything like that unless you want to imply something about your society. That’s why the Lau say “miles” and the Ugaro say “bowshots.” How long IS a bowshot? Obviously that varies by how powerful the bow is. An Ugaro can pull a pretty heavy bow and I bet the warriors not only compete in distance shooting, but exaggerate a bit on top of that. In the real world, a bowshot could be as much as 200 yards or more, closer to 300 yards when you start talking about distance records. The Ugaro consider a bowshot anything from 200 to 400 yards, or so, which means that you can say that four or to six bowshots is a mile.
For shorter distances, the Lau say “inches” or “feet” and the Ugaro say “spearlength” or bowlength” or “handbreadth” or whatever.
Rather than simplifying time and distance units to imply a less technological and less time-oriented society, you can perfectly well come up with super-ornate time measurement. That can do great things for your worldbuiding in a different way. In their Rook and Rose series, Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms have designed an ornate city that sort of resembles Venice, but is quite different. There are the two different magic systems, both complicated, and on top of that, the hours of days are counted according to a complicated system that I certainly have not figured out. (I haven’t tried, to be fair).
The hours passed with excruciating slowness. Second earth. Third earth. Fourth.
“Let’s meet at the foot of the Lacewater Bridge in Suncross. Is second earth too early?”
The charts have been drawn and the alignments read. With the blessings of Celnis, the year is set as 211. With the blessings of Esclus, the month is Colbrilun. With the blessings of Thrunium, the date is the third day of the third iteration. With the blessings of Sacretha, the day is Andusny. With the blessings of Civrus and Pavlus, the hour is second earth. Within this alignment, may all the glory of the cosmos be channeled …
In that world, we have sun hours and earth hours, among all these ornate names for the days of the week and whatever iterations might be. Notice that “month” and “years” are normal words; I guess Brennan and Helms agree with me that those terms sound generic compared to other words related to time. Regardless, this is yet another layer of cool worldbuilding on top of the different magic systems and the history of the city and so on. I should go back to this series and read the second book, but I bet I don’t touch very much fiction of any kind until I’m finishing up the draft of Tasmakat. I never read much fiction when I’m seriously involved with something of my own.
I wish I’d thought of sun hours and earth hours for the Lau, but alas, I didn’t. I guess I could let the Lakasha-erra use those terms, though they have two Suns and that must be complicated. In fact, that’s what I’m going to have to do — think about how they tell time given that essential astrological truth of their country and how that differs from how the Lau tell time. They can’t use the same measurements — their days especially have to be different. Well, that’s a detail that’s going to be fun, but I don’t have to think about it yet — it’s going to be a while till I send anybody into the country of two Suns!