Book details: time in fiction

Some authors go into very high level of detail. In this post, I’ll focus on a specific one: time measurment and calendars in works of fiction, focused on fantasy.

A bit of background

Even in our world, the calendar we now use is not the first by far. There were others, and there were reforms (such as adding 29.2. every four years). In times when mechanical clocks were not even in people’s imagination, keeping track of time was done differently. Also, due to the absence of industry as we know it, it is likely that the longer parts of the cycle (seasons, years) had more significance than days or hours due to their impact on agriculture (when to plant, when to harvest…)

Time tracking in fiction

One of the most important factors is the story’s length: if the whole story happens over the course of a few days (weeks at most), then going as deep into detail as creating the world’s calendar is usually unnecessary, unless there’s a need to reference some background events in past (let’s say that a revolt would happen on an anniversary of a major event, for example).

For longer stories – and this would likely apply the most to epic fantasy, more so if it involves a long journey – much more time will pass before the story reaches its end. Seasons will change – and allow us to see the world in a different ‘garb’.

It’s at that point we might need to be able to track the time. Sometimes, just a vague idea (moon phases or seasons) might be enough. Sometimes, the author might have the need for a more precise tracking of time.

The point where I tend to have the most mixed feeling is when authors make custom names for day or months – I see it as a sign of dedication and an eye for detail yet the naming itself might not be as useful if it’s used just in the set-up stage and a few mentions, thus becoming a lot of effort (unless the author’s imagination is good enough to make it low effort) for minimal impact. Also, if you want to see the custom names in full use, you need to either remember them or write them down.

Where I see the potential is Sci-Fi. When traveling between worlds, it’s likely their day and year length will be different. This, in turn, would probably mean something similar to jet lag as someone coming to stay in a world with different day length would either need to adjust to it or find a way to coexist on their own natural ‘schedule’ while the world would have its own very different. Imagine someone from Earth coming to a world with 16-hour or 32-hour day (1/3 of our day up or down) and having to adjust their sleep schedule for it or experience ‘desyncing’ of their natural rhythms.

Personal writing experience

I have some experience, even if not as practical, with this situation. Starting from the last, one of the yet-unused concepts had the MC step through a portal to another world where he had to face language barrier and different day-night schedule while needing to find potential allies to survive in the hostile environment.

As for the actual story, I’ve considered somewhat custom calendar with 12 months at 30 days each and 10-day weeks but eventually left that be and went with 12 months at 28 days with 7-day weeks, though it’s never mentioned. In this concept, the months are based on lunar phases (so each month begins at new moon) and the ‘new year’ is on winter solstice. 7-day weeks are purely for practical reasons by using day names as we know them. The 4×7 month also made it very easy to track events by hand-drawn timeline graph (because every month was divided into four equal sections).

Month names, on the other hand, are never mentioned – the Latin-based names used by many languages would not fit a fictional world and creating cutsom names – even if it was with a significant help from languages like Czech and Polish where month names are coming from the natural cycles instead of being copy-pasted from Latin would be a work I was not up to. Thus, I mostly only mention weeks/months/seasons passing.


I’ll wrap it up here. As always, I’ll welcome your opinions and experiences. Have you tried to make a custom calendar for your story? Or is it something you might find confusing when reading due to having keep track of those custom names?

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