Some Thoughts about Time

Saturday morning, I was lying in bed, gradually waking up and not quite wanting to, when I heard the town hall tower clock chime. This clock strikes every quarter hour, but only counts the hour itself on the full hour, with a different bell. Thus, when I heard three strikes, I knew it was quarter to something (turned out to be quarter to seven, a bit early for weekend waking).

My mind wanded on to fantasy. Generic fantasy often uses medievel-like settings. Peasants come to mind, as well as knights, castles and maybe scheming princesses. Yet we as authors live in modern times, with modern habits, and most of all, a modern sense of time.

And so it happens that in some fantasy tales, the characters can saddle their horses in a couple of minutes (it takes me about 20 minutes, including cleaning the horse). Yet this is not just about realistic time spans. The real question is: Would people think in ‘minutes’ if they have no way of measuring them? What would their view of time actually be like? And how can this different feel and sense of time be transported in a story?

During the European Middle Ages, time was usually measured with the help of church bells. Generally, the bells only tolled out the hours – which has led to some sayings used even today. I would assume that back then people had a good sense of the duration of an hour. Yet I’m also fairly sure that this kind of “slow life” is now alien to us, who live in the rhythm of email, phone calls and txt messages. How would it feel to do one’s work in a slower mode? Maybe even without being paid by the hour?

Beyond knowing how much time has passed, there is another sense that allows us to know the time of the day. I remember clearly that as a child I always knew when it was 5pm, because that was when we had to be home from playing in the forest. I’m sure that monks and nuns had (and have) a similar sense of points in time as they are bound in the routine of their convents. Even animals know very well when food time has arrived and complain when their human is late. I’m fairly sure that this sense of time has survived until now and is familiar to many of us.

Yet how can one use all this information when writing fantasy? How can we transport our sense of time, where seconds and minutes matter, into a medieval world where such units of time are practically unknown? How can an author make use of that different, slower feel of time?

I’m looking forward to your comments!

About Hannah Steenbock

Hannah Steenbock is an author, dreamer, and coach. She has published several short stories in English and German, as well as one novel in German. In 2013 she started self-publishing her work. In 2014, she has won two awards for her short story "Sequoia".
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