“Wolfy, wolfy what’s the time?”
You all know the answer, don’t you? “Dinner time!”
It is (besides in playground games) probably the oldest time-mark outside of dawn and dusk. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of horology stems directly from wanting to know how close that was. As dinner-time and ‘knock-off time’ were much the same thing, I think that a reasonable supposition.
So: time. As a modern society we’ve become pretty precise about it. It is relatively easy – watches, phones, computers – all give us the precise time, and time-pieces are (by historical standards) almost ridiculously cheap and amazingly (by historical standards again) accurate. The words: “I’ll just be a few seconds” are something we can conceptually understand. The idea of sixty seconds in what one must have been a very precise measurement – the minute, which in turn must have been quite difficult for people whose most accurate indication of the passage of time was say the chiming of a clock on a public building every quarter hour, and even the hour was a bit iffy when you ran by the stomach-clock as to how close to dinner it was.
Mind you those few seconds can be remarkably elastic (I’ve known them to dilate amazingly) but… we have an idea what a second means. We assume everyone does.
But… as a friend of mine (Dave Truesdale) pointed out in a post the other day… in a fantasy novel, set in a medieval seeming world, where no clocks appear evident, how would a character have a clue what a second (or a minute) was?
Now this immediately runs smack-bang-crunch into a whole lot of logical ‘issues’. To mention a couple outside of ‘it’s fantasy’ and ‘It’s fiction’: 1)if you’re writing a fantasy world, unless it has an obvious connection to our modern one, (as in urban fantasy or something where passage between the fantasy world and ours is a norm) why hell are the characters speaking English? Obviously they’re not. You’re merely telling the story in English – therefore the terms are as modern English speakers would understand them. 2) By the time any society gets to the sort of medieval level some kind of time-keeping seems to evolve. It seems to have evolved, repeatedly, separately, using all sorts of devices – from the sun, to water to to sand-times, to candles to incense-sticks. It did hit complications where the day was divided into equal parts – which meant the time between those equal parts (see Japanese historical time keeping – thanks George Phillies for making me aware of this) but, realistically, you have to predate your fantasy a lot earlier than medieval before people have no concept of time beyond wolfy-wolfy time.
Now, the English in which many writer choose to couch their fantasy is often a deliberate and very stylized ‘formal’ and ‘old-fashioned’ usage of the language – using the diction itself to convey the impression of the ye olde high fantasy. It seems to work -I had one critic blast me for not using such in the Heirs of Alexandria series, with a casual modern use language, particularly in dialogue – which as it is a sort of Alternate History, the characters would mostly have been speaking bastard Frankish-Italian, appropriate to their social status… and if you’re going to translate that would have been their casual, normal non-formal speech. So that approach does work, at least for some readers.
It is probably, however, worth establishing – in your own head if not making it a thrust of the book – just how time-keeping happens. I mean, if there are mechanical clocks, no matter what the actual language is, or fantasy world is, some equivalent of the sectioning of the day (hour) must exist, and likely some way of sectioning the hour (minute) if not a way of sectioning the minute. On the other hand if time is measured by how long it takes a candle or incense stick to burn, well seconds are right out, minutes are unlikely and you might be ‘about half-way between lauds and prime’ (or whatever equivalent canonical hours you have made up).
It’s little details like this that throw you right out of a story.