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Q&A

Time measures in fantasy worlds

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I wonder, what could be a good way to provide time measures in a fantasy universe. I don't mean the calendar which is covered in the question: Out of this world... Giving it time?, but measures like hours, quarters and minutes.

When it's obvious for me that I won't write "5 kilometres from here", would it be satisfactory to write "an hour of a way from here" (pardon if it's not a proper grammar way to say that in English, I write stories in my native language)?

Is it reasonable to provide exact time measures in worlds without clocks, basing it on sundials or magic? Sundials could be an answer for hours (perhaps with the passing hours announced by bells or anything), but they're not accurate for any shorter measures.

Or is it better to pick up some in-universe measure, like the length of popular local prayer? F.e. we use Ave Maria in Poland for that.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/7986. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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5 answers

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One thing to remember is that our concept of time and specifically splitting much of our experience into units of time ("he held his breath for a second" and "I'll see you in 15 minutes" and "It will take 3 hours to walk to the next village") is very modern and evolved in the context of timepieces of increasing accuracy.

Prior to accurate time pieces, people made limited reference to units of time. A monk might refer to hours of the night (although these varied in length by season) and a Roman might refer to time by a sun dial (again of variable length by season) but this was not how the common person thought of time.

It is in fact anachronistic to have your farm boy or girl in a setting analogous to Earth earlier than the Renaissance (and probably much later in most places) talk about seconds and minutes.

However, I think you'll find that most references to a specific passage of time are unnecessary. In the examples above, "he held his breath for a moment", "I'll see you shortly", "it will take all morning to walk to the next village"

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/15834. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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One additional thought: Maybe the way you give time should depend on whether it is done by the narrator or by one of the protagonists.

The narrator is telling the story to a present-day reader, so unless the narrator is supposed to be a person of that fantasy world, it would be natural if he tells times the way he expects the audience to understand. So if the narrator tells us "they only needed about five minutes" that seems normal to me, even if the concept of a minute is not known in that world.

On the other hand, if some protagonist said "I'll be back in five minutes" in a world where you'd not expect minutes to be known, it would sound strange.

However a third-person limited narrator should probably be handled as if it were the current PoV character.

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Once a physics professor told me that we, in daily life, measure distance with time. In fact he is right. If somebody aks - "how far away is the mall?", we answer "It's fifteen minutes away". That means that measures are always relative to normal everyday standards, not scientific ones.

In old days, moon or sun was a good way to measure time: "It will happen in three moons". Also horse and walk speed are good for distances: "Castle Rock is two days from here".

You need to keep in mind that the knowledge of time was somewhat well developed even in ancient societies. Celts, Mayans, Egyptians, they all were quite skilled in it and could predict even solar events. Please check the Jewish calendar ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_calendar) Also, note that meal times are not something that every society has. Brazilians Indians eat when they were hungry, not in specific times.

Your problem is how normal people use time, since they lack the knowledge and means scholars did. Like I said, they would rather use common nature to do that. The best approach for me is to separate scholar from normal context. A sage would know and measure time in a more technical way, a normal person would express it in daily units.

Looking at CLockeWork answer, a priest would more complex ways to know at what times the bell should be ringed, and could talk among other priests according such more accurate standards. The salesman from the street, could just say "by the third bell".

When I do write, I try not to use normal measuring units for a fantasy world and apply what I wrote before. Castle rock is not fifty kilometers away, it's a day away. There's an book (or a movie, I don't remember quite right) where the lord of the realm conduces a lot of candle burning experiments to try to determine what is the best way to determine time measuring.

One thing I suggest is to look the Net for such kind of standards. This page talks about horse travelling times http://voices.yahoo.com/realistic-horse-travel-fantasy-fiction-novels-455939.html

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/7990. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I understand your concern; minutes at least are very much a reflection of an age of clockwork and in a world with no such machines detailed measures of time jar the reader. I don't know the exact setting of your world, by which I mean that if it's medieval that allows for wildly different tech to if it's Aztec, but here are a few general suggestions:

Hour glasses — It isn't unreasonable for a character to carry an hour glass, this would track minutes, but it would require the character to know the hour is up and to turn it over

Sun tracker — a device that can be held up to the sky to measure the sun in points of its decent or rise towards its zenith

Sun dial — a fixed device and so it would be hard for the character to actively track the time

Water clock — same as for sun dial

Bells — Churches would ring bells every hour based on a sun dial

Time could be measured in shadows or points, but honestly in the time fantasy tends to be set in time would likely be measured in quarters of a day. So sun rise, zenith, sun set and midnight. I would simply say:

The walk would take half a day.
We won't get there before high sun.
They rode through the night.

There's no need to be specific to the minute in this setting: everything took a long time.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/7988. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Mercedes Lackey's Valedmar series has established candles (of a specific although unexplained size) which burn steadily enough to be marked off and used for timekeeping. So "three marks" (that is, however long it takes the candle to melt down three of the marks carved or painted on the side) is three hours.

I have never heard of measuring time in prayers (because people don't all speak at the same time and cadence — a New Yorker speaks much faster than someone from Mississippi), but if your fantasy world doesn't have Catholicism, you could also use poems. That would allow you to write the poem as an epigram or to open a chapter, which might also give you an opportunity for symbolism.

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