Usain Bolt would hate living in a fantasy novel. He’d still be fast, obviously, but no one would know just how fast. The tiny slivers of seconds separating him from the rest of the pack, making him, officially, the fastest human being in the recorded history of the world wouldn’t be, well… recorded. Imagine the scene: Bolt at the finish line, left arm extended, pointing, right arm bent – his classic victory pose – while a couple of monks squint at the hourglass and sundial.
Monk 1: Did you see it move?
Monk 2 (querulously): Well, there was a cloud.
Monk 1: How many grains went through the hourglass?
Monk 2 (with increasing irritation): I don’t know. It kept running after he crossed the line.
On the other hand, Bolt’s problems pale compared to those of the writer of fantasy, who has to deal with this sort of thing in nearly every chapter. After all, even if we stuck Bolt into, say, the Lord of the Rings, even if we never knew exactly how fast he was, it’d be pretty clear that he was faster than, say, Gimli. As a racer, Bolt can always just mark off a section of dirt and challenge people to a race. The author of fantasy, on the other hand, is in the position of the monks mentioned above; she is the timekeeper, not the racer, and she’s not allowed to use a clock.
Of course, clocks existed in the medieval world and, if you include water clocks, much earlier. Archaeologists have discovered clepsydrae in Babylon, India, Egypt, and China, some dating back more than five thousand years. The clocks themselves are not anachronistic. The ubiquity of timekeeping, on the other hand, our ability to glance at our watches or computers or wall clocks or phones or televisions and see time ticking past in seconds and minutes, nice and orderly, is uniquely a hallmark of the modern world. From where I’m sitting right now, in a café in Brattleboro, Vermont, I can see seven clocks (if you include the parking meter just outside the window).
A writer whose books are set in the contemporary world can easily jot down a sentence like this: “For a few seconds, Jim held his breath, hoping the walrus would not hear him.” The same sentence, however, even excluding the walrus, might give a writer of fantasy pause. After all, the denizens of her world are unlikely to think in terms of seconds. Even if there were a clock tower in the center of their town, they lack wristwatches. The narrator, naturally, need not be constrained by the psychological limitations of the characters, but if she too freely appropriates the temporal precision of the modern world, she risks shattering the illusion of her invented land.
Different authors of fantasy and historical fiction have approached the problem from different angles. Steven Erikson’s elegant solution is to use heartbeats instead of seconds. Of course, not all heartbeats are equal, but the order of magnitude is right. Hours are also simple enough; you can usually get away with “half the morning,” or, “for most of the day.” If the scene takes place in a city or town, someplace with bells or gongs or a massive church clock in the center square, so much the better.
Things get tough in the middle realm, the chunks of time greater than a few heartbeats and shorter than a morning. If you want your character to hide beneath the floorboards for fifteen minutes, what do you do? A few ideas:
Make the poor bastard count: “Jarrel waited for the echoing footfalls above to recede, then forced himself to count upward to a thousand before he dared to risk raising the trap door.” This is rarely a great solution. Unless the reader is quick to convert a thousand-count into minutes (16.6), it’s not very precise. Also, it’s psychologically implausible in most situations: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts and counted to a thousand…”
Put in some clocks: Maybe you thought your town didn’t have clocks? Maybe you want to think again: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts, ignoring the clock tolling ten, and ignoring it, too, when it later tolled eleven.” But then, this isn’t going to do you much good if they’re making out in the woods.
Fudge it: “For what seemed a very long time Elesse ran her hands over Jarrel, his chest, his back, marveling that, after so many years, he should be in her arms once more.” This solution tends to work well in battle, too: “Elesse hacked with her blade for what seemed like days, until her arms were spattered with blood and her breath burned in her chest.”
Compare it to something else: I still remember the prologue to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which is a great book, but has this strange sentence in the prologue: “…another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile.” It’s a game attempt to solve the temporal problem. Unfortunately, the sentence needs to be taken out into the street and shot.
The most useful approach is probably to mix the methods; the timekeeping for love will be different from the timekeeping for blacksmithing, and there are certainly other approaches that I’ve forgotten or never even considered. I’d be very curious to hear what I’ve left out. In a world without seconds, can you have a rodeo?