I wonder, what could be a good way to provide time measures in a fantasy universe. I don't mean the calendar which is covered in the question: Out of this world... Giving it time?, but measures like hours, quarters and minutes.

When it's obvious for me that I won't write "5 kilometres from here", would it be satisfactory to write "an hour of a way from here" (pardon if it's not a proper grammar way to say that in English, I write stories in my native language)?

Is it reasonable to provide exact time measures in worlds without clocks, basing it on sundials or magic? Sundials could be an answer for hours (perhaps with the passing hours announced by bells or anything), but they're not accurate for any shorter measures.

Or is it better to pick up some in-universe measure, like the length of popular local prayer? F.e. we use Ave Maria in Poland for that.

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    For distances one could use mile in the old sense of a thousand paces, perhaps using your language's word for thousands. I.e., three miles would be "three thousands", with paces being implied.
    – user5232
    May 31, 2013 at 9:31
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    I'm not sure how much basis in reality it has, but in some comics I read, native Americans measured the passage of time by how long it takes to smoke a pipe - one pipe = 30 minutes. Two hours would be "four pipes ago". If your world is primitive enough and doesn't have constructs like hourglasses and such, a device like that might be a good solution - like Ave Maria you mentioned.
    – Tannalein
    Jun 20, 2013 at 22:18
  • I find it unique and it could really strengthen an atmosphere of a story, thanks! If you change it from comment to an answer, I'll be glad to upvote it. Jun 21, 2013 at 8:38
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    In Cynthia Harnett's novel The Load of Unicorn, a time measure mentioned is "a paternoster while" (i.e., the time taken to say the Our Father (Lat., Pater Noster prayer). In the context of the passage, the fact that the time unit is a prayer is relevant: something like, Wait there long enough to say a prayer. And, while you're waiting, say the prayer!
    – TRiG
    Sep 23, 2014 at 21:11

9 Answers 9


How much do you suppose that your fantasy world resembles our own world? And how much do you want to deal with made-up units of measure?

I don't suppose that the people in a fantasy world would speak English, but fantasy novels written for an English-speaking audience normally have all dialog in English. Perhaps you could explain that by saying that the dialog is translated, but I think most readers and writers don't even think about the issue.

Likewise, you could simply have the characters talk about time in hours, minutes, and seconds, and if anyone questions it, say, yes yes, the time units are translated from whatever units these people use, just like the language is. I suspect most readers wouldn't even notice it.

If you do invent your own units of time, you then have to explain them to the reader. Like if a character says, "The knights from King Throbnar will arrive in 20 framnians" ... is that a few minutes? Hours? Months? You could include some narrative to explain the time unit, but that seems like it would be an awkward interruption in the flow of a story. You could include some dialog where one character explains the units of time to another, but that is likely to be awkward. You either get that lame "as you know" dialog -- when was the last time someone said to you, "I'll be back in an hour -- you know, that's one twenty-fourth of a day, or about 3000 heartbeats" -- or some obviously contrived scene where you suddenly introduce a teacher explaining time-keeping to a group of children or some such. If I felt it necessary to use made-up time units, I'd try to find a way to introduce them naturally, to give some context where it's clear at least roughly how long the time unit is, without unduly calling attention to it. Like, "I'll be there in a framnian! she cried, as she raced down the stairs." I think the reader would get the idea that a "framnian" is a small unit of time, in the same ballpark as a second. Or, "Well son, you're ten lamnings old now. You're a man." The reader would presumably guess that "ten lamnings" must be what we'd call somewhere in the mid to late teens.

Don't suppose that ancient or medieval people did not understand precise time-keeping. "Minutes" and "seconds" were invented by the ancient Babylonians circa 2000 BC. Ancient people used sundials and water clocks to measure time fairly precisely. While I'm not familiar with the Mercedes Lackey story someone here mentions where her characters measure time by making marks on candles, she didn't invent that: it was a method used by ancient people. The main catch to time-keeping back then was not being able to keep track of time in general -- they could do that -- it was being able to keep track of time while moving. The various mechanical devices people had for measuring time didn't work if you moved them around. Tip your hour glass or your water clock over and it quits working. It wasn't until the late 1700's that portable time keeping devices were invented.

  • It's not my piece of work, I'm only beta reading it. But your guidelines are very good and helped, thanks. May 31, 2013 at 15:36
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    "I suspect most readers wouldn't even notice it." I agree. I have read fantasy books, and the mention of a number of hours or miles has slipped in unnoticed. Later, when I thought about it, I realised that it didn't matter; it's a translation for the benefit of the reader. May 31, 2013 at 16:03
  • I've decided to accept this answer as it was the biggest help in the particular case, focused on short measures of time and contained useful advices about imagined measures. Thanks once again. Jun 2, 2013 at 16:44

Once a physics professor told me that we, in daily life, measure distance with time. In fact he is right. If somebody aks - "how far away is the mall?", we answer "It's fifteen minutes away". That means that measures are always relative to normal everyday standards, not scientific ones.

In old days, moon or sun was a good way to measure time: "It will happen in three moons". Also horse and walk speed are good for distances: "Castle Rock is two days from here".

You need to keep in mind that the knowledge of time was somewhat well developed even in ancient societies. Celts, Mayans, Egyptians, they all were quite skilled in it and could predict even solar events. Please check the Jewish calendar ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_calendar) Also, note that meal times are not something that every society has. Brazilians Indians eat when they were hungry, not in specific times.

Your problem is how normal people use time, since they lack the knowledge and means scholars did. Like I said, they would rather use common nature to do that. The best approach for me is to separate scholar from normal context. A sage would know and measure time in a more technical way, a normal person would express it in daily units.

Looking at CLockeWork answer, a priest would more complex ways to know at what times the bell should be ringed, and could talk among other priests according such more accurate standards. The salesman from the street, could just say "by the third bell".

When I do write, I try not to use normal measuring units for a fantasy world and apply what I wrote before. Castle rock is not fifty kilometers away, it's a day away. There's an book (or a movie, I don't remember quite right) where the lord of the realm conduces a lot of candle burning experiments to try to determine what is the best way to determine time measuring.

One thing I suggest is to look the Net for such kind of standards. This page talks about horse travelling times http://voices.yahoo.com/realistic-horse-travel-fantasy-fiction-novels-455939.html

  • Measuring distance with time is culturally dependent. It's a lot rarer in Ireland than I've heard it is in the USA.
    – TRiG
    Sep 14, 2014 at 8:14

I understand your concern; minutes at least are very much a reflection of an age of clockwork and in a world with no such machines detailed measures of time jar the reader. I don't know the exact setting of your world, by which I mean that if it's medieval that allows for wildly different tech to if it's Aztec, but here are a few general suggestions:

Hour glasses — It isn't unreasonable for a character to carry an hour glass, this would track minutes, but it would require the character to know the hour is up and to turn it over

Sun tracker — a device that can be held up to the sky to measure the sun in points of its decent or rise towards its zenith

Sun dial — a fixed device and so it would be hard for the character to actively track the time

Water clock — same as for sun dial

Bells — Churches would ring bells every hour based on a sun dial

Time could be measured in shadows or points, but honestly in the time fantasy tends to be set in time would likely be measured in quarters of a day. So sun rise, zenith, sun set and midnight. I would simply say:

The walk would take half a day.
We won't get there before high sun.
They rode through the night.

There's no need to be specific to the minute in this setting: everything took a long time.

  • I agree, an hour glass is a very wise option when we need to measure a particular amount of time and can focus on the glass itself, so we are aware when that time actually passes. May 31, 2013 at 9:50
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    Absolutely, though only really good for watching time, it's so easy to not notice that an hour glass has finished :-)
    – CLockeWork
    May 31, 2013 at 10:05

If the units of time are established, then yes, that's a good way - providing you add the mode of transportation.

  • Five minutes of leisurely walk away
  • Eight hours of forced march
  • A fortnight on horseback
  • an overnight train ride
  • Three hours of flight on dragon back
  • Two days by a blimp
  • Walk ahead for three prayers, then turn left.
  • Thirty generations in an ark traveling at speed of light.

Only if the mode of transportation is well established or obvious, you can skip it in giving distances. And they are nice in giving the reader a rough clue while leaving the writer a lot of wiggle room.

I don't know about other countries, but in Poland hiking route distances are given in hours and minutes (of normal walk), because two tracks of the same length may vastly differ in difficulty - and so, time estimate is much more meaningful than distance.


Mercedes Lackey's Valedmar series has established candles (of a specific although unexplained size) which burn steadily enough to be marked off and used for timekeeping. So "three marks" (that is, however long it takes the candle to melt down three of the marks carved or painted on the side) is three hours.

I have never heard of measuring time in prayers (because people don't all speak at the same time and cadence — a New Yorker speaks much faster than someone from Mississippi), but if your fantasy world doesn't have Catholicism, you could also use poems. That would allow you to write the poem as an epigram or to open a chapter, which might also give you an opportunity for symbolism.

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    Very interesting point with the candles. That's also a brilliant idea to use such poem or a song as an element of the plot, thanks! May 31, 2013 at 10:00
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    @DarekWędrychowski She also had a character use an "alarm candle," for want of a better term: the candle was set in a metal bowl and had a bell in the wax. When it melted down to the bottom (three hours or whatever) the bell would fall into the bowl and chime. Time's up! May 31, 2013 at 10:02
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    +1 for the candles, they could even be kept in storm lanterns to make them portable
    – CLockeWork
    May 31, 2013 at 10:03

One thing to remember is that our concept of time and specifically splitting much of our experience into units of time ("he held his breath for a second" and "I'll see you in 15 minutes" and "It will take 3 hours to walk to the next village") is very modern and evolved in the context of timepieces of increasing accuracy.

Prior to accurate time pieces, people made limited reference to units of time. A monk might refer to hours of the night (although these varied in length by season) and a Roman might refer to time by a sun dial (again of variable length by season) but this was not how the common person thought of time.

It is in fact anachronistic to have your farm boy or girl in a setting analogous to Earth earlier than the Renaissance (and probably much later in most places) talk about seconds and minutes.

However, I think you'll find that most references to a specific passage of time are unnecessary. In the examples above, "he held his breath for a moment", "I'll see you shortly", "it will take all morning to walk to the next village"


Just by way of example. This year I am writing a blog of fairy tales and have evolved a system for the folk to tell the time without the widespread use of definite timepieces. The day in any major settlement is split into a number of bells (presumably the bell ringers have hourglasses or similar to keep track of when the bell should be rung).

The bells run like this: 6am Morning Bell, 9am Market Bell (signifying that the market should now be fully open), 12pm Noon Bell, 3pm The Day Bell (signifying the market should soon wind down and close) 6pm Evening Bell, 12am Midnight Bell.

It's an organic system but it does give my characters a useful way of measuring time.

  • Out of curiosity, are they different bells or bell patterns? Otherwise you hear A bell and you know it's A time, but for example in the extremes of seasons or if you're blind or indoors, you won't know WHICH bell. May 31, 2013 at 13:07
  • I'm not so sure if in a typical fantasy universe anybody would care for disabled people. It's pretty much modern thing. But on the other hand, there's no need to pick up all the bad things from the real world. May 31, 2013 at 14:20
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    The way I think it works, or I imagine it working is that the bells tell everyone to do something or to change "rhythm", so people hear a bell and if they're doing morning stuff they figure "that must be noon bell" and switch to post-noon stuff. If you're not sure which bell it was then I guess you would just ask someone nearby.
    – One Monkey
    May 31, 2013 at 14:42

There are some interesting units that really do exist that are seperated by society, or not widely used anymore.

Measure (sun) - I don't remember if it was the Aztecs or Incans, but one of these groups measured the length of the day by the span of the sun.I think there's something like 34, and since they were near the equator, the passing of seasons wasn't as noticable. So one measure was somewhere around 24 minutes.

The Original Roman Calander - The original calander that the romans used was based on a solar day, but a lunar year. Over time, this grew to be a problem as seasons didn't match up with the month (i.e. spring was shifting into summer because the year was 11 days short). Perhaps as something interesting, your 'time' could be inaccurate; pocketwatches often had to be readjusted for being off time because they weren't as accurate based off the releasing of a coiled spring.

The English Mile - This changed with every king for a few centuries until the 1600's. It was because the distance of the foot changed with the length of the king's foot. The Roman mile (another fun one, as Hadrian's Wall is 80 Roman miles, but only 74 SI miles) is shorter than the SI mile by some 400 feet.

Wheels - An English distance measurement of how far a standard wagon wheel rolled in a full rotation. While I don't know the actual distance (that old pi-r-squared thingie) this was a common mode of measurement, as it didn't shift with every monarch. I think it was around 3 yards. I think its origins start with the Romans.

Blocks - We use this measurement still, and it isn't clearly defined at all. Supposedly it is 250 squared feet of city space, but it changes to whenever the next perpendicular street intersects your direction of travel, and has no value in the countryside.

Seasons - Before ancient man realized that the sun didn't go around the earth, some civilizations measured time in Seasons. They may thought that the world was flat and at the center of all this stuff called the universe, but it wasn't hard to count upon Winter and Summer unless you lived near the equator (in which you still have dry and rain season). The word 'year' was substituted with one of the seasons.

Astrological Projection - Since celestial navigation was extremely important to both land and sea travelers (maps hadn't really been invented until neat the 14th century) some things were based upon the movement of the stars, which Venus (the Autumn Star) was one of the Primes. This wasn't accurate at all (Venus has a 255 day year) but it did set a sort of measuring stick.

Lunar Calander - Yes. The calander was once ruled by the moon. 28 day months, 356 day years. Do the math. Put in thirteen months and you got a 364 day year. Just don't mind that you're lagging 5 days every 4 years. (Surprisingly, it was Julius Caeser that figured this out. Thus, the Julian Calender. We now use the Gregorian Calender)

  • Not clear to me why someone who held to a geocentric universe would be more likely to use seasons to measure time than someone with a heliocentric universe. Either way, seasons are pretty important to farmers, and until fairly recent times, 90+% of people were farmers.
    – Jay
    May 31, 2013 at 16:58
  • I take it that when you say that maps weren't invented until the 14th century, you are referring to some level of accuracy in maps. The ancient Babylonians had maps by at least 2000 BC. atamanhotel.com/catalhoyuk/oldest-map.html
    – Jay
    May 31, 2013 at 17:05
  • Yes, seasons played a great role in works of Emil Zola or Władysław Reymont. Or George R. R. Martin, in a bit different way. May 31, 2013 at 17:11
  • @Jay Yes I was referencing to topographical maps, and though some did exist well before the 14th century, their accuracy and legitimacy was extremely poor (as we know them). Often guides were used (someone who knew the route), as well as the construction of roads, roadsigns, and landmarks. Stripmaps existed as far back as early Greece and late Egypt, but most times, you were probably better off asking for directions from locals as to the nearest town/watering hole/government facility.
    – Jersey
    Jun 5, 2013 at 16:26

One additional thought: Maybe the way you give time should depend on whether it is done by the narrator or by one of the protagonists. The narrator is telling the story to a present-day reader, so unless the narrator is supposed to be a person of that fantasy world, it would be natural if he tells times the way he expects the audience to understand. So if the narrator tells us "they only needed about five minutes" that seems normal to me, even if the concept of a minute is not known in that world. On the other hand, if some protagonist said "I'll be back in five minutes" in a world where you'd not expect minutes to be known, it would sound strange.


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