How to Write Time

My writing follows a yearly cycle, and once again I have followed that cycle into — and by now mostly through — the creatively barren months of December and January.  The days are short, the sun-angles are low, and these things trick my brain into thinking I should be eating and sleeping more and working less.

We remain tied to the physics of the world around us, humbled by the tilt and spin of our planet, despite the best efforts of Tesla, Edison, and general industrialization.

It’s easy to forget how dependent we are on astrophysics while writing a novel, particularly one set somewhere other than Earth.  There isn’t a ready-made calendar; no system of days in a week, or months in a year, or annual holidays.  The writer has to make all that up, and then keep track!  That isn’t an easy task, and many writers simply don’t bother.

For all the work J.R.R. Tolkein did on language for Lord of the Rings, the scale of Middle Earth remains vague.  He usually doesn’t tell us how long the Fellowship of the Ring remains on the road, or how far they have traveled.

The Midworld of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is pointedly timeless, space and time both stretching and thinning as the Beams that support the world erode and break.

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, summers and winters both last “for years,” whatever that means.  Two or three years pass between books one and five, yet the unchanging season and lack of annual holidays left me feeling as if the events had taken place over maybe six months.

Obviously, you can write something brilliant without worrying too much about time.  But my body goes through monthly and yearly cycles.  Holidays mark my year, weekends punctuate my weeks.  I wanted the time in my world of Endrion to be palpable, just as it is in the real world.

To that end, I set about building a calendar for Endrion.  I decided to use 24-hour days, 7-day weeks, 28-day months, and a 336-day year.  These values are all similar enough to the values of Earth’s calendar that my readers will be comfortable.  My calendar also lacks leap-days, months of different lengths, or other irregularities.  Partly this is to make keeping track of my calendar easier for me, but it also fits the character of Endrion.  It’s a magical world, watched over by beings that might as well be called Gods.  Wouldn’t such a world have an eerily perfect calendar?

However perfect, though, it had to be imposed by the people of my world upon themselves.  I’ve not only invented a calendar, but a history for that calendar.

The days of the week are named by number — First Day, Second Day, and so on though to Sixth Day.  (Many human languages name the days of the week after numbers, including Hebrew and Japanese.)  The seventh day is Sabbath, the day to go to temple and otherwise rest, the weekend.

The months are given names which I meant to be evocative of the time of year, but which are ultimately meaningless.

On a larger scale, I also invented twelve major constellations for Endrion’s skies that fulfill the same role as Earth’s Zodiac.  No, they don’t influence the lives and fates of my characters — they serve as the basis for deciding what the current age is.  We count our years beginning with the assumed birth year of Yeshua of Nazareth.  The people of Endrion count their years by which constellation sits where the sun rises on the vernal equinox.

I keep notes on what day it is as I write — the year, the month, the day of the week.  My characters likewise notice time passing.  They vary their activities on the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  They feel the seasons passing, they note the phase of the moon, they know what day, month, and year it is.

It may be tricky to do all the world-building necessary to have these details at hand, but it is the little details that give a fictive world the air of solidity.

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2 thoughts on “How to Write Time

  1. Thanks for taking us through time! 😉 I enjoyed looking at various series and how authors tackle time. I agree that there should be some sort of cycle, and the reader and characters should move through seasons. I agree on the little details giving the world solidity. I invented new names of the 8 modern pagan holidays… close enough to relate to, but different enough to give them Ahmbren’s spin on it.

    For the calendar, however, I decided to use the Julian months, even though they allude to gods which don’t exist in Ahmbren (or do they? 😉 ). There have been two schools of reaction to my writing on that count. I find time and distances (not currency or anything else) jarring as a reader when they’re different, if they’re called out. I opted to use a standard Earth calendar with our English names for the months. This wasn’t an oversight on my part—I did it deliberately knowing some people might not like that. My rationale was that my characters don’t speak English either. I don’t know what their language sounds like, but when they say “sword” or “I love you”, it doesn’t sound like “sword” or “I love you”. So, in the thought that my entire book is a “translation” of a faraway world’s story, then “January” is the translation for “the first month after Highwinter”, and May would be “The month that starts with Lovers’ Night”, etc. I might spell out the Ahmbren names for the months for a future appendix somewhere, but the narrative flow of the story continues with familiar names for the reader. (Please note: I’m not judging this way or your way as better or worse. Just offering conversation). Tolkien also used a Julian calendar. Granted, Middle Earth is supposed to be our world’s mythic past, but still. If Middle Earth was before the continental drift, then the Julian calendar hadn’t been invented yet. But as a reader, I didn’t mind Gandalf making mention of October.

    When I did my train schedules in preparation for the Steampunk (I hate that term… Steam Age is better) Ahmbren story, I used the days of the week we’re familiar with. Stylistically, though, I’m not writing what I would call “authentic” medieval fantasy, and I blend different tech levels in the later books. I also choose modern words and voicing in many cases, and want the story to have a feel of modernity to it, to make it alive and relatable in today’s terms (kind of the dialogue feel of the Dragon Age video games, IMO).

    You make me want to go design my zodiac signs.

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  2. Aaaah, the head-trippy reality that none of what my characters are saying or thinking would actually be in English… Totally agreed about using real terms for units of measurement to avoid confusion. I just couldn’t do it with the months though. I guess that’s what appendices are for! 😉

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