Time-Words in Fiction

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How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

7 thoughts on “Time-Words in Fiction

  1. S.D. McKinley

    “light-years” – this is more of a distance measure than a time, but it is in relation to how far light travels in one year, which can be different if is traveling in space, air, or, for example, water. It is all very confusing because we have to use comparisons for understanding of communication and digestible, quick words. The question I keep wondering is that: If you are in a spaceship traveling at the speed of light and you travel one light-year and then you travel back to earth, that should take another light-year. Nothing has changed on the Earth, except for two years have passed ( and all the other things that go along with it ), BECAUSE the way we judge a year is the obit of the earth, so both of those years are exactly the same.

    Now, this is where things get interesting. There is a concept called time dialtion, which honestly at one point in time, made sense to me, but now it doesn’t so I need to study up myself. πŸ˜€

    As far as in regard to fiction, I have been focusing on events to play a part in time interpretation for the reader, such as eating or sleeping. But I have yet to actually write, let’s say a paragraph where years pass inside the paragraph. Interesting article! πŸ™ƒ

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for all this.

      Yes, I have heard about time dilation. My understanding is that in sci-fi, usually the vast distances between stars are handled by introducing hyperspace travel as a possible thing that does not kill the passenger. Then there are different conventions. Often, the people traveling through hyperspace don’t age on the journey, but the people back home continue aging, so that a commitment to travel through space is, effectively, a commitment to permanently leave behind everything you have known. In what I would call less realistic treatments, there are ways to go through hyperspace (wormholes?) that either are practically instant or else take only weeks or months from the perspective of everyone involved.

      I mistrust any novel where space travel doesn’t have a significant personal cost associated with it.

      I have also seen an interesting treatment where a large ship full of people got stuck in a space/time loop while traveling through hyperspace, but were unaware of it. From their perspective, they’d only been traveling for half an hour or so. They didn’t know that to their loved ones, the ship had never arrived and had been missing for months.

      Having years (or just weeks or months) pass inside a paragraph is a wonderful trick that can avoid boring your readers … as long as they don’t end up feeling cheated! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. S.D. McKinley

    I congratulate you on your hefty response here Ms Mugrage. 😎 No worries. It’s an excellent discussion topic and it made me think of the concept from the video game Mass Effect. They figured out a way to decrease the mass in aid to allow the ship to travel faster, because I know that the faster something goes the heavier it gets. Which I think is also what’s so perplexing about light. Sound is a vibration which makes that quickness a bit less perplexing but we can just see it as a signal from the one and only almighty? 🀠

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha ha yes, hefty comments, that is me.

      Yes, I agree, light – like space and time themselves – is both a mystery as to its nature and a gift to us. In the creation poem in Genesis 1, it’s the first thing that we see God speak into existence.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand think of time and people on a continuum that never ends, so ancestors and people currently alive and those coming after us are all one and connected. It’s where conservation and community meet. Love this idea of time, it is beautiful 😍

    Liked by 2 people

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