Telling time in Fantasy Novels

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!

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10 thoughts on “Telling time in Fantasy Novels”

  1. There’s another way that the Ugaro tell time that you didn’t mention, and though it’s not precise, it is prevalent: 40 breaths. I actually noticed as I was reading through Tarashana, since so many people were asked to pause for 40 breaths to reflect or calm down.

    Liturgical years are a different beast altogether, but often involve astrological time. But saying ‘three days after the Feast of . . .’ can help orient the reader. I hate the ending of the story, but Seraphina is a great example of this, as is Garth Nix’s delightfully weird mashup of angelology guidebook, Three Musketeers, and Medieval Venice, Angel Mage.

    One might also use slightly archaic terms such as ‘sennight’, ‘fortnight’, etc.

  2. IIRC Lisa Barnett and Melissa Scott’s Point of Hopes (and subsequent novels) have a very complicated time keeping system that has to do with a zodiac calendar and moons (which I think are like months) and two suns. The first chapter has: “It was past noon, a hot day, toward the middle of Sedeion and the start of the Gargoyle Moon, and the winter-sun was rising…” It’s less prominent in the books after Barnett passed away, but plays a very important role in the first book at least. I think I read somewhere that the inspiration for the worldbuilding was Dutch or Flemish or something, but I don’t know if that goes for the time keeping too.

    Here in Thailand the day is separated into 4 parts, lasting 6 hours each, and time keeping is something like 1st hour of the morning or 2nd hour of the afternoon. I confess my brain broke trying to reconcile it to the more familiar time keeping and I haven’t made that much of an effort to understand it. I think it’s based on a monastic system and I think Martha Wells might use a similar system in Wheel of the Infinite, which I _think_ was inspired by Cambodian Buddhism and Angkor Wat.

  3. Great comments!

    EC, heartbeats too, taking the place of seconds. Then breaths are both a way of thinking about time and a social method of reducing impulsivity and helping people control their strong emotional responses.

    I actually heard someone (British) use “fortnightly” in casual conversation. I was totally charmed and really ought to use those terms one of these days.

    R Morgan, I liked Point of Hopes quite a bit and really should get around to reading the sequels. I had forgotten about how time is handled in those books, but I definitely like it, whatever it was inspired by.

    I have trouble even with military time and have to count to tell what nineteen hundred is, so I’m glad I don’t have to adjust to “first hour of the six-hour morning” or anything like that.

  4. David Drake in the preface to each of his RCN space opera series explains that he uses English measurements for one civilization and metric for the other, but that that is just so everyone can understand the units he is using, and that the two civilizations don’t share the same terminology. He asks that the reader just assume the novel has been localized into modern equivalents and to not give him a hard time about it. But he does this because apparently people give him a hard time about it all the time!

  5. I’ve read a couple stories wherein the author used the French Revolutionary calendar for week and month equivalents. Which is consistent and unknown enough to work without making a lot of work for the author. Three ‘decades’, ten day weeks, per month, plus 5 or 6 extra days to round out the year. And he used the month names from it, too.

    I’ve seen incense stick used as a measure of time in stories set in Asian cultures. About 15-20 minutes, I think. A longer span is ‘shichen’ which is a couple hours. There were also apparently time ‘measurements’ by how long it took to eat a meal.

    Pre-commonly available clocks certain things were timed by repetition of prayers “10 our fathers” to boil an egg or something like that. Also oil lamps marked for intervals of time, or candles the same. There are all sorts of ways once you start thinking about it.

  6. “Month” is entirely generic, *if* there is a moon with an orbital period ~ 30 days. That said, in the Tuvo series, it’s not clear that the moon has any regular phases at all.

  7. Se’nnight and fortnight are recognisably based on the neutral, physical idea of a day, but imply that days are grouped in sevens, a strongly Earth cultural element.
    A tenday or fiveday would have less inherent cultural bagage and be both legible and logical for peoples who count in tens.

    Years are natural, inherent in a planet circling its sun, though their length would differ on different planets based on that circumnavigation.
    With the different worlds mashed together in the Tuyo world, would the different countries also have diverging year-lengths, seasons shifting out of alignment?

    Months are cultural, moons are based on our Earth moon – and moon cycles do *not* neatly correllate with a solar year. With a smaller, faster moon or a slower moon, or no moon at all, that would be different. This might impact Ugaro ideas around kalendars, e.g. with the moons gradually shifting through the seasons.
    Then a woman’s menses rythm might not be associated with the moon cycle, though it is still likely that women would have a (probably very old) way to keep track (likely associated with some reliable natural phenomenon).

  8. Remember that they will not have even the equivalent of minutes, let alone seconds, without a means to measure that unit of time.

    Breaths and other units being inherently less accurate is fine, though.

    I also note that if in an Earth-like situation, you still have to realize that people’s knowledge of the natural world is limited. There are people who will not realize that if the moon was a crescent and is now full, about two weeks have passed, let alone that it was more if it were a waning crescent, or less if a waxing one. There are people who do not realize that if the princess’s garden has crocuses in one scene, tulips in the next, and roses in the third, they took place over months. Et cetera.

  9. Mary Catelli, exactly, that’s the whole point of not using “minutes” unless you want to imply the culture is more familiar in certain ways.

    Pete, right, in the Tuyo world, the Moon’s phases depends on where she is looking, not on any periodicity. The anthropomorphic view of the Sun and Moon and Stars definitely reflects some underlying metaphysical truth; it’s definitely not metaphorical. And Hanneke is right that a woman’s cycle is periodic, but in that world, not monthly. Beats me what other natural phenomena fit into a roughly 30-day period but are not moon-dependent.

    I love the idea of incense sticks as time units and may borrow that.

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