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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Telling time in a fantasy setting

   
Author Topic: Telling time in a fantasy setting
luapc
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I'm working on a fantasy novel, and need to do some time telling as in how many seconds, hours, days, and so on have passed. Right now I've been using seasons for years (four equaling one), months as moons, days as suns, glossing over hours and minutes as general times of day (morning, afternoon, etc.), and seconds as heartbeats. I think this works fine, but I thought that maybe some other suggestions would work better.

What would you suggest using, or have used with success before?


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pantros
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Candlemarks.

some history for you:

http://physics.nist.gov/GenInt/Time/time.html

Minutes is a tough one as the minute we all know and love is an arbitrary division of the hour with questionable origins. (Bablyonians had a base 60 number system but at the time of babylon the hour was not widely used if it had even been invented yet.)

[This message has been edited by pantros (edited November 03, 2005).]


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luapc
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Interesting and useful link. Thanks.
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Jaina
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In my current WIP I'm using a modified version of ship's time. Here's the basics:

Watches
Midwatch........Midnight to 4:00 a.m.
Morning watch........4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.
Forenoon watch........8:00 a.m. to noon
Afternoon watch.........Noon to 4:00 p.m.
First dog watch........4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Second dog watch........6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Night watch........8:00 p.m. to midnight

Bells
1 bell.....first 1/2 hour after watch began
2 bells....second 1/2 hour
3 bells....third 1/2 hour
4 bells....fourth 1/2 hour
5 bells....fifth 1/2 hour
6 bells....sixth 1/2 hour
7 bells....seventh 1/2 hour
8 bells....eighth 1/2 hour and end of the watch

That will only give you time within a day, of course, and it needed a lot of modification before it fit in with my story (for example, the bells didn't mark preconcieved points in time, but they were the time), but it might be a place to start.


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Elan
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Here's a terrific link for Calculating Medieval Time:
http://www.saradouglass.com/medtime.html

I'm also writing fantasy. I'm having to rethink my need for seconds, minutes, hours. The sad truth is, people in medieval times did not THINK that way. They had no access to accurate timepieces. Their idea of time was "morning, noontime, after noon, night."

If you want to be historically accurate, you'll be getting more vague with time rather than more specific, unless you have fantasy technology that approximates a clock.


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Corky
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Another thing you might try is to have characters refer to how long it takes to do something common. Something like "three bread-bakings later" or "after a couple of steel-heated-to-whites" might work if you don't have to use them a lot.


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franc li
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Hmmm. How about bladders or stomachs? babies nap in 90 minute cycles, so the day could be divided into naps. You'd never have to say "a nap translates into 90 earth minutes". But a nap translates into roughly a 10th of an adult's waking day. You establish it the first time they eat luncheon at the 4th nap or whatever you want to call it. Dogs take naps too, though I don't know how long they last.

If I wrote a fantasy novel, I think all the adults would take naps as well.


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Elan
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Using a candlemark (the length of time it takes a candle to burn) would be more likely than naptime, I should think.
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pantros
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A candle mark is the time it takes a standard sized candle to burn from one notch to the next. The candle would have been nicked along the side or marked with colored wax at standard intervals. Of course this standard would be based on the stencil the candlemaker used to mark his candles so candles from different candlemakers would vary in the actual duration of a candlemark.
Not to mention inconsistancies in the raw materials could have effects as well on burning time.

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JmariC
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Mercedes once wrote a bit with the candles having bells in/attached. So when the candle reached the 'mark' a bell would drop, signaling the hour's change or if someone started the candle as a timing method, the end of the period.
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Leaf II
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Are you so sure that it wouldn't annoy readers having to re think their time system... having to translate 3 of this weird thing, or 1 of that. If I had to think about what the author was saying about half-bells and second watch... I would be thinking (WHAT TIME IS IT!!??)
But I dunno, if it works for the story, maybe I'm just being picky or something.
As for me I KNOW seconds, as well as mins. hours... ect. In all the fantasy books I've read (or at least finished) there was never an issue of making up weird time things. So that's what I think. Also, this was a good thread, because before I wrote all of that I wasn't so sure for my own stories. But anyways...
g.j.

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pantros
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If you are going to have a scene where timing is important, then at some time you need to explain the time system in your world.

If the time system will not have a direct effect on the plot, just mentioning the different names for periods of time in a way that they are semi-clear as to what they mean will be enough.

"Jonah slept for six candlemarks"
"Erik got up at four bells, just in time for dinner."

Are examples of semi-clear.

If precision is important then the writer will have to devise a creative way of imparting the way time works to the reder.


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Leaf II
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Yeah.. but that just sounds so dumb. Why not use hours? And if you have to say... John slept till 7 a.m. say he slept till morning. It doesn't need to be so ...strange. I just think making up silly things like that is sort of not necessary.

[This message has been edited by Leaf II (edited November 04, 2005).]


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JmariC
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Depends on if you're going for a historical accuracy or historical basis.

Why would you say "hours" if there were no clocks with which to measure such time?


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wbriggs
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I like what Jaina posted a lot. I also like using the church times (matins, vespers, etc.).

I don't think we have enough information to say what the times should be, because it would depend on the fantasy world. Is church or temple important? Then it might be the time of calls to prayers. Are there walled cities? The watch times might be the ones, if they're regular. Are there space bodies visible in the sky besides the sun, or do people do things at night? Maybe astronomy is relevant.

It sounds like fun.


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nimnix
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Guess it's time to bring back sundials and water clocks. Sand's good too.

I'm just using hours, days, months, etc. There were plenty of ways to make clocks and calendars.

http://www.hourglasses.com/html/brief_history.html

[This message has been edited by nimnix (edited November 04, 2005).]


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'Graff
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I think it's important to point out that the appropriate time in your piece should be determined by your POV character--how does he think of time? What are his conceptions of its passage?

If your character's a farmhand, chances are he won't think in terms of candlemarks. He'll be worried about getting up in time for milking, or finishing his chores in the barn so that he has enough freetime to get to town and back before sunset.

This is sort of tangential, but I think that Americans are way too preoccupied with time for their own good. Think about it--in what other language and in what other society is it possible to "make time"?

I'm done. Main point: just stick to your character's viewpoint, and everything should feel consistent.

And I like the use of heartbeats for small fractions of time. It's better than a thrice.

-----------
Wellington


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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This reminds me of something I heard a while ago. The word "curfew" which now more or less means the time when everyone needs to be indoors actually comes from a practice started by a king (if I remember correctly, it was Charlemagne) of ringing a bell at night to remind people to cover their fires before going to bed. "Curfew" comes from the French words for "cover fire" and eventually came to mean a particular time of day.
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AstroStewart
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So maybe it's just my personal opinion, but what's wrong with just using hours, minutes, seconds, in a fantasy setting? I know technically in a more medieval type setting it's not technically correct to use units of time just as it wouldn't be correct to use meters and centimeters, or inches, feet, yards, etc. But whereas units of length can easily be explained (eg. "he stood almost as tall as I" "the door was twice as tall as I was", "average height", etc) how can you describe time without units of time?

How do you describe an hour without standardized units of time? "He sat as his bench thinking for about 1/24th of the day" ?? It's just too much of a hastle in my opinion.

As for using units of time that make more sense in context, while it seems a really cool and more realistic way to go about it, given the level of technology of your fantasy world, unless it's something really really intuitive (just using things like "noon" "afternoon" "night" "midnight" etc) it just seems like too much trouble for me, as a reader, to try and translate what the units mean.

Again, this is just my personal opinion, but if I came across a passage in a book where it says the hero waited somewhere for 2 clicks, or 6 candlelengths, or 3 bells, or etc etc (even if the units of time used were actual measurements used in medieval times etc) I would just get frustrated.

"Don't try to tell me how many tickertocks of time something took and then try to explain the tickertock system of time, just let me know it was 20 minutes" I would think to myself, as a reader.

Just as, in a fantasy setting, there's no reason the hero would speak English (or whatever language you're writing your novel in) but we write books in a language the reader will understand, I prefer to not mess around with units of time.
Again, just my 2 cents


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Monolith
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In fantasy, you can use pretty much any time description you want to, but I'd want to make sure the reader would understand what I'm trying to get across.

I use the simple time below.

Sunrise
High Sun-midday
Lowering sun--evening time
Sundown--sunset
Moonrise--late at night

or something like that. But that's just me.

Do you think this would be an acceptable way to measure time for the day?

I also use moons to pass the months and the seasons too.

Just my opinion.

-Monolith-


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Corky
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quote:
Moonrise--late at night

That wouldn't work because the moon rises at a different time every night.


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JmariC
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Moonrise can work, not as a clock, but as a reference point. It works the same way as saying something happened after dinner. Dinner isn't always at the same time every day, but it is a reference for when something happened on that day.
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keldon02
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"What would you suggest using, or have used with success before?"

Moments, before/after, task time, moon phases, growing and animal husbandry seasons, festival/holiday dates, legend/dream time in order from shorter to longer. If you are vague make sure to be vague in an internally consistant manner.

I do like Calculating Medieval Time reference. It is logical that primitive people would have difficulty conceptualizing the flow of time.

But it might also be said that Americans are too obsessive compulsive about time so that they are overconcerned and so miss the metaphysical aspects of non-time.


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Spaceman
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I think you should let them have portable atomic clocks powered by eye of newt.
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lehollis
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It isn't a question of anything being right or wrong at all. Some authors want the detail of a historical or historical-based time measuring system, and seek details on how to do so. It may be that the factor of time is an important one in their WIP, and they seek an exotic timekeeping method to set that apart.

No one is saying it either right or wrong to use hours, minutes and seconds.

I agree that POV is an important rule here, as well as what-works-for-you and what is important to emphasize in your manuscript. Hours, minutes and seconds are invisible, like the word "said", so I'll just pass by them without noticing them. Using something else will call attention to the time keeping, which may be your goal, sometimes.


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AstroStewart
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Well said. Well said.
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