Category Archives: Research

Random information that I encounter in the course of performing background research

Temporal Descriptors in Fantasy

It is easy to take time for granted.

We live in a world where we are very conscious of the time. We have accurate time at our fingertips. We use time at a minute level on a regular basis, and we can get the time at a second and millisecond level quite readily.

Time can easily be one of those things that a fantasy writer throws around without really considering. I certainly did.

“I waited a few seconds.”

“Give me five minutes.”

“I was due to meet him at 3 o’clock.”

“It had been seven hours.”

All of these are the sorts of phrases that drop into the text without really thinking about it. They are commonly used in our culture, and to not use them requires a conscious decision.

As part of my large-scale world-building review, I have been thinking a lot about time. What degree of granularity is appropriate for my story? How do they measure time? How conscious are they of time?

In deciding how to handle time in a story, there are two major factors: how much does time matter in the story’s context, and what are their options for measuring time?

As part of figuring this out, it is helpful to know a little bit about how temporal descriptors developed in our world, and what timekeeping devices have been like throughout history. Stealing like a thief is always a fine option in world building!

How Long is an Hour? 

Things like hours have not always been considered constant. Because an hour is made up of 60 minutes in my world, it is easy to assume that a standard of unit of time is, of necessity, going to be constant.

Not so.

Depending on how you measure time, an hour can vary. For example, if you get an “hour” by evenly dividing the daylight time, an “hour” will be much shorter in the winter than it is in the summer.

As odd as it seems to us, that was quite standard in many parts of the world – including Medieval Europe. In fact, they had two different sorts of time. Solar time, which varied, and time “of the clock”, which didn’t.

I find this notion of parallel – and differing – temporal metrics quite amazing. Of course, once you know that temporal measures don’t have to be constant, you have to decide whether you want them to be constant in your world.


So how did we wind up with hours, minutes, and seconds anyway?

Two ancient civilizations are at fault.

The Egyptians first divided the day into two twelve-hour chunks. That’s the duodecimal component. They primarily used sundials, so they were one of those temporally-variable cultures noted above. It was actually the Greeks who came up with the idea of fixing the duration of an hour, to make certain calculations easier. You can thank Hipparchus for our current 24-hour system. But I digress.

The Sumerians were the brilliant folk who did sexagesimal calculations, giving us the base-60 calculations for minutes and seconds. The Babylonians adopted the system, and gifted it to the Greeks.

Of course, minutes and seconds were not in common use for many centuries. Whether to have seconds at all is a question every fantasy author should consider.

When I was thinking about this question myself, I became preoccupied with the terminology. Where did minute and second come from, anyway?

It turns out that it was originally:

  • First minute (60 seconds)
  • Second minute (1 second)
  • Third minute (1/60 second)
  • Fourth minute (1/1/60 second)

The last two were only ever of interest to a slice of European scientists, in the time period before the milliseconds and nanoseconds took over.

Ways of Timekeeping

A society’s options for time keeping is going to have implications for what temporal granularity makes sense for that culture. It may also influence the most appropriate jargon.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sun and stars
  • Water clocks
  • Sand timers
  • Candle clocks
  • Mechanical clocks

The next thing to consider is whether there is accurate time but at a large scale (e.g. a town clock); globally accessible but inaccurate time (the sun); personal but relative timekeeping (e.g. a sand timer); or accurate personal timekeeping (a pocketwatch, etc. – which is extremely new-fangled in the larger scheme of things!).

To some extent you can mix and match these options.

How they keep time is going to have ramifications.

For example, accurate and compact timekeeping is necessary for measuring longitude accurately.

Case Study

 My novel is set in a society with roughly 16th century technology. Town clocks seemed reasonable, as did small but inaccurate devices such as sand timers or candles. I went with sand timers – although it’s worth noting that sand timers imply a degree of sophistication when working with glass.

Which verbiage to keep?

I decided to change hour to bell, since the bells are how everyone hears the time. I might still change it back to hour, since most people will consider “hour” invisible, and “bell” makes itself felt.

I tried to get rid of “minutes” for a while, but frankly minutes are really hard to eradicate. I eventually decided that at their level of sophistication – and regimentation – it was reasonable to have something more fine-grained. I may change my mind about it, but I feel that any alternative would be so obtrusive as to be problematic.

I did get rid of seconds. I really don’t think seconds have any place in a pre-industrial society, unless there are scientists involved. Fortunately it’s relatively easy to swap out “seconds” with “breaths” or “moments”, depending on context. Most of the time “seconds” aren’t actually being used as a strict temporal measure – they’re being used to give the sense that a small amount of time has passed.


Most of my information came from Google, thanks especially to: