A Question of Time?

No, not the age ol’ question of, “How do I find time to write?”  But rather, the age ol’ question of, “What the heck do I call units of time in my fantasy novel?”  It’s a question most people probably don’t give a second thought.  And if you’re writing in anything but historical or fantasy genres, you most likely don’t have to deal with it.  This is one of those pesky details I wrote about a while back; one of those things that needs a little research so it comes off feeling correct and not out of place.

The keeping of time is ancient.  The Egyptians were the first to create a 24 hour day.  Night was divided into 12 hours, designated by the position of the stars in the sky, and the day was divided into 10 hours.  The other two hours were twilight hours – before dawn and after sunset.  During the day they used shadow clocks, sundials, then water clocks and hourglasses, but it wasn’t until late in the 14 century that the term “minute” came into being.  At least, according to my research via the www.

Now that I’m in the final edit of BD&L, these are the pesky kind of details that become the stumbling blocks.  Not insurmountable ones.  Just annoying, little ones that delay me and stop the flow of the work because it’s now crunch time (no pun intended) and I can’t just gloss over it and mark it as one of those things I’ll come back to later.

So, for those of you out there who have had to reckon with time in a period when it wasn’t recognized as we do now (meaning no watches, no clocks, no minutes or seconds) what solutions did you come up with?


  1. I think for readability you probably want to stick to something we as readers know. Even if you call the measurements by different names, make the day 32 hours, etc.

    But it is an excellent question! I’m going to watch this one 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Raelyn. It’s funny how I’m not even conscious of throwing “hour” or “minute” in there, but they sure do jump out on the last edit. Not that I have that many references to a length of time, and I suppose there would be creative ways to get around the reference, just one of those details that comes out and needs to be dealt with for consistencies sake. 🙂

  2. I’d kind of hoped this post held answers Kathi! 😉 I have the same trouble when I’m writing. Mine is somewhat historical fiction, so the last two books have been set late 12th, early 13th centuries. I tried to use…moments instead of minutes, specify noon, evening, etc. and then work around the rest. It is a tricky one – and I haven’t quite figured it out.

    • LOL Krista!! 🙂 I spent quite a while researching this and still don’t have a definitive answer of what they called units of time before the 13 or 14 centuries. And would “normal” folk have hourglasses? Or were those reserved for the upper crust? Does saying something like, “In half a turn of the glass, nothing on this earthly plane would matter to her any more.” make sense to the reader, or just confuse the issue?

      • If you’ve referenced hourglasses in earlier parts of the story, then yes, that works, even if it feels a bit wordy and perhaps telling.

        Normal folk would have judged time on the sun and the feeding and/or milking schedule. Prior to regular church/school services, a day started at sunrise and ended at sunset. The actual breakdown of hours less important than getting the day’s chores completed. I suspect you could research any farm situation and find it similar today.

        Also, I know cooking times were based on the length of various hymns at one point in history. My grandmother actually had a cookbook, hand written, that had been passed down at least six generations, and had notes like “sing X through twice and remove immediately from the fire.”

        This is such a fascinating discussion 🙂

      • I never knew about the singing to mark time! That’s awesome. Hmm….now my brain just jumped to how could I use that as a plot for a new novel? 😉 A type of magic that can control time by song? I’m also thinking the next time I pass along a recipe to someone I’m going to substitute baking times with songs and see what they think. LOL Fantastic info!

  3. What a fabulous post – definitely gets the grey matter working! I have been sat here thinking about it for some time now, and the only thing I have really thought of would be using compass points and segments thereof. Seeing as though it has been such a baffling point, perhaps you could refer to the segments as “Q’s” (thinking Q-uestion here), after all, it is often said that the answer lies within the question…

    • Bev, I’m not sure my grey matter needs to work this hard! LOL Excellent suggestion, and good starting point to get the creativity in gear.

  4. Love the comments.

    I confess, I abandoned two suns when I realized how nutty it would be to crack the time problem, Robin

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