Tag Archives: world-building

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:








Fun with Revisions

I have been busy revising my YA fantasy novel for the last month.

I came away from Viable Paradise wanting to strengthen the cultural and historic foundation for my world. I spent the first month doing research; I have been integrating the fruits of that research ever since.

It isn’t that I’m adding or changing that much, but each 10-200 word snippet has to be judiciously inserted, and then massaged to match the 2nd-4th draft quality of the rest of the work.

It is fun, but it is slow going.

I went through and tagged all the spots that I wanted to tweak. This last week, I have been bobbing up and down between having 27 and 30 sections to modify. That is down from about 50 at the start, but I seem to have hit the dreaded Editing Plateau.

Part of that is the tendency of the edits to proliferate: insert a detail about the city in section X. Realize that section Y should have further exploration of the same thing. Add section Y to the list.

Part of that is my reluctance to officially check off the changes. I go back and re-read each insertion. Edit. Tweak. Re-read. Allow it to rest. Come back. Re-read. Edit.

Some of them have been pretty easy to finalize. Others have been in draft form for several days, and will remain so for a little while. Inserting information while avoiding info dumps can be tricky, and I sometimes have trouble telling whether I have crossed the line.

That’s what beta readers are for, though!

My other struggle is coming up with substitutes for slang.

I love language, especially the weird mutt that is English, but some of my favorite words and phrases are too vividly vernacular to play in a fantasy setting. It is an interesting problem.

It is always a judgment call whether it is appropriate to use certain kinds of slang in a work of fantasy. If you view it as a translation, you have more leeway, but there is still a limit.

There were a number of terms or idioms that I used originally that I have now marked for substitution. In some cases I’m having trouble coming up with a reasonable/interesting substitute that will be easy to understand.

The one that is currently giving me fits is bigwig. There are lots of great (approximate) equivalents: high muckety-muck, big kahuna, nob, nabob, VIP.

None of them are remotely suitable.

So now I’m trying to come up with an equivalent that is actually appropriate for my story’s culture, that will be easy for the reader to pick up.

I’m toying with something based on military structure, armor, or weaponry, since the nobles in the country come from a martial culture. I could potentially go with a crossover term such as “brass”, which has the advantage of not being completely unfamiliar, but also comes with baggage.

I will probably wind up cutting my losses on some of the slang, either going back to the regular word (e.g. changing “green monster” to “envy”), or letting the real world slang slip through.

I’m hoping to finish up the current round of edits in the next week or two, so that I can put out a call for beta readers. We’ll see how I do with preventing the edits from proliferating. I have “finished” it before, surely I can again . . . ?