Monday, March 5, 2012

In Like A Lion, Out Like A Lamb

It's March. Up here in New England, the days are gloriously grey and dreary; they make me feel raw and shivery like no other days in any other month do. Come those last days, things will be greening up, the air will be warm and moist; it will smell like earth and rain. No, this isn't another post about weather. Kim already did a stellar job on that one. This is about time and how it passes in fantasy fiction.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to using our own earth calendar (the Gregorian calendar, also known as the civil calendar--the accepted standard.) One is that, since we're using our own language, (and I'm going to use English as the standard here, since that is what I'M writing in) use it in its entirety. That includes the days of the week, the months of the year, the seasons and even "clock" termininology. This is the easier method, and probably the most consistent.

The second school of thought is to avoid the terminology the way you would idiom. This is where things get sticky, because, short of inventing your own way of measuring time from seconds to seasonal cycles, it's impossible to avoid them completely. For example, we all know that our Wednesday comes from Norse mythology: Odin's Day--Woden's Day--Wednesday. How, you ask, can there be a Wednesday in a world in which Odin doesn't exist? Grand--no Wednesday. So...does your world even have seven day weeks to appropriately name? Does it even measure time in weeks? How about the hours in a day? How long is a day? What about seasons? Does your world have the equivalanet of winter, spring, summer and fall? Or is it a tropical culture? And if so, does it exist within a civilization big enough to know what winter is in concept if not in reality?

See what I mean? Much harder.

While the first school of thought is easier by far, and, if done with consistency and no apologies, will cause the least amount of controversy among your readers, the second will enrich your world, make it unique.
So how do you go about it? Like the way you would use our earth terminology: drawn your line and be consistent.

Do you want to use minutes and hours, but not week or month? Does your world have all four seasons?Use your world's culture to create the names of those spans of time you want to make unique--like Woden's Day. And, like the heading on this post, create those idioms and sayings that will go along with your world calendar. Remember that holidays is a joining of holy + days, create and use them accordingly to give the feel of those your reader will recognize from their own existence. (For example, in Karin Gastreich's Eolyn, there are festivals and rituals that equate to, but are not exactly like, Christmas and Beltane.) 

As for me, I prefer the second method. How about you? As a reader? As a writer?


Clint Harris said...

For me, this is one of those slippery slope questions. In one of my projects, I have seized up more than once and stopped writing it based on this. Days of the week, measurements of time, etc. have their roots in our world, but when you create a fantasy world out of whole cloth, even little pieces of language start to grind when you read. Terms like "decimate" have their roots in Earth history, and you find you are either shadowing an existing culture or trying to make one so bland that it doesn't reflect on Earth. URG!

I think what started this problem for me was The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien uses the days of the week and months in his narrative, but that would pretty much mean Middle Earth took place in the Middle Ages (after the establishment of such things as Wednesday) and so then my brain starts to think this was either very sloppy or...what?

It would be easier to think that Tolkien, being an early pioneer of what we call Fantasy would have just figured, "if I don't call it March, I'll totally lose my audience, since it was already hard enough to get them on board with the whole Elf and Goblin thing." But then he creates his own languages, theology, geography, magic, and volumes of history, only to mangle it all with modern European methods of naming the days and months.

I mean WTF?

Pongo Pygmaues said...

Tolkien used English days of the week, etc as 'translations' of the 'proper' names (much like his hobbits were given names 'translated' from their own tongue). I think this grew partly from The Hobbit being something that he rather threw together for kids and then couldn't go back to 'fix' after it had been published (though minor alterations were made to later editions to bring some details in line with LotR), but also partly from the desire to give the reader something familiar to latch onto.

How many people on first read of LotR question the months and days, I wonder? Not many is my guess. But for the more fantatic, his appendix D goes into all the detail and I think provides a sufficient explanation for most.

That said, I'd prefer authors to avoid using terms that seem too out of place. The key word being 'seem' which of course is a subjective thing. This isn't limited to measurements of time of course, but even with units of time I think there are some that work: hours (so long as their duration changes with available daylight), days, months, years and others that are slightly moot: eg weeks (though I'd argue that a seven day cycle is pretty easily identifiable assuming the world is essentially earth but with different geography), others that seem too modern for many fantasy cultures (at least in casual use by charactes of a non-scientific bent): eg seconds, minutes.
What one doesn't want to do is force the reader to learn new day and month names in order to follow what's going on but in all honesty I can't see there's much need to use weekday (or month) names much anyway, and if it is necessary then a very little work could avoid the need for using the English ones without the reader being left scratching their heads wondering what in hell the author means.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint and Pongo--I think you both touched upon something as far as Tolkein is concerned: at the time he wrote his stories, the whole thing was fantastic enough without trying to put in such a concept. I find it hard to believe he wouldn't have thought of such things. I'd rather think he did, and decided not to over-weird the pudding. Considering the depth of detail he took in all things, I believe that if he were writing now, he might have made a different decision.

That, however, is my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

For my own uses, I draw the line at seasons. I will use winter/spring etc, but I won't use Wednesday. I avoid using anything as precise as anything "o'clock" and rather use as generic a way to get things across as possible (like seven bells instead of seven o'clock." It hovers on that line, but as I said--draw your line and stick to it. It's really all you can do.

Clint--when it comes to words like decimate, I have a line I draw there too--if it came into existence before the 18th century, I can use it--with a caveat--it can't directly reference any earth history. Like the word "spartan." It certainly came into existence before that time period, but it references a culture that actually existed.

As in all things, it's not those who won't notice that you have to consider--because they won't notice it done EITHER way. It's the ones who WILL notice that you have to worry about.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Hi Terri!

My goodness, you really do have a knack for picking great discussion topics. So many places one could go with this one...

Calendars are kind of a weird amalgamation of science and cosmology. Most annual calendars, from what I've seen, are based on the solar cycle, with lunar cycles incorporated in some fashion (albeit very roughly at times, as is the case with the Gregorian calendar). Layered over all of this is the cycle of seasons -- to which major cultural celebrations, such as harvest festivals, are attached. And of course, seasons and the events associated with them will be different depending where you are on the planet.

At the heart of figuring out a calendar is understanding what time means for the people in your world. Is it an abstract concept that they measure with carefully crafted hand-held machines? Or is it something they experience in the rhythm of sunrise and sunset; in the cycles of the sun, the moon and the seasons; in the beating of their hearts?

If you write about a world where the solar cycle is different from ours, or there are three moons instead of one, this will affect the evolution of the concept of time in the cultures that populate that world.

It's all fun to think about, and even more fun to play with.

Anonymous said...

Karin--and extremely easy to get carried away with!!! Sometimes, I feel like I'd really love to try expanding upon it. Most times, I realize that, in the grand scheme of things, it would be a cool element that distracted rather than enhanced.

Patricia J. Esposito said...

I love when a fantasy world evolves so wholly, with names associated with that place and time rather than what I customarily know. It makes it feel richer, more real. But oh my what a difficult task! When you mention not having Wednesday because they don't have the mythology that named it ... well, I hadn't even thought of that!

Is this why I don't write fantasy? I love the worlds, but you really do have to create their history, all encompassing, first. (Or, make that first decision ... which I think would leave me feeling a bit like I didn't believe in my world myself.)

Terri-Lynne said...

Patricia--that's why I love to fill my worlds with culture down to the words they use, the expressions they come up with, the way they mark time and the holidays the celebrate. The worlds are so much richer! So much more real.

When I come across a "Wednesday" in a story, it throws me out completely. If the writer then goes on to use it consistently, I'm ok with it. I'd prefer it otherwise! But that was a decision the writer and editor agreed upon and nothing to do with me.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

In Eolyn's world, people's sense of time is tied to the rhythms of the natural world. There is no 'Wednesday', but there is the concept of 'one week', which is referred to as a 'quarter moon'; a month is 'full moon'. The year ends and begins on Winter Solstice. And so forth.

While the people of Moisehen don't use a Gregorian calendar, I deliberately gave them a solar and lunar cycle almost identical to our own. This was because I wanted Eolyn's world to feel very much like it could be a part of our own history. I also wanted it to be very clear to the reader that Eolyn's sense of time is grounded in the natural world.

So to write fantasy, you don't necessarily need to reinvent the wheel -- haha! The Wheel of Time, that is.

But I think it's a good idea to have it clear in your head why you're using a particular calendar or concept of time. If you understand your choices, it will come through in the story, allowing the reader to understand them as well.

Nicholas Andrews said...

Just to avoid confusing myself, much less readers, I operate on the standard solar cycle. The passage of time in my stories are the same seasons/months/weeks/days.

Whether or not I give them names depends on the series. I generally don't name months or days of the week, with the exception of my Adventurers series. It's a humorous world full of all kinds of little personal references, so I named the months after locations in various fantasy video games. :)

Terri-Lynne said...

Nykk--it's a way to go, that's for sure. I know many writers who believe their worldbuilding is better spent elsewhere, and that could be very true. As always, it's not what's right, but what's right for YOU that works in this sort of thing.

Thanks for coming by!

Terri-Lynne said...

Karin--One of the things I loved so much about Eolyn, technically speaking, is the fine balance you gave your calendar. It's easily recognizable, but wholly your own.

Gustavo said...

As with everything I write, I like to experiment with different ways of doing this. But (there'a always a but, isn't there) I definitely agree that it needs to be set in stone at the outset, or the seizures Clint mentions will occur.

Terri-Lynne said...

Gustavo--but as we know, Clint loves him some seizures! :)

Clint Harris said...

This is true!

Unknown said...

I liked your comment about having Wednesday in a world that Odin never existed in. This isn't just a problem in fantasy. In an alternate world, like what I wrote in Inquest. I mentioned singer, Jack Johnson, and a reader asked if there was really a Jack Johnson in this alternate world. I hadn't thought about it until then. It's a good point to bring up and get writers thinking about before they start writing.

Terri-Lynne said...

DelSheree--yup, in alt-world fiction, it's just as important not to use pop culture references (or idiom etc.) While there will be some crossover, and you can often explain away those that make it in alt/his, it's better not to have to. Unless, of course, you're using it to your advantage. :)

Clint Harris said...

I know all roads lead to GRRM these days, but I thought his use of "destrier" and "garron" for his warhorses were a little jarring. I mean obviously, the word has a root in French, but in a world without France, isn't it just as relevant to say "warhorse?" Especially if it could be considered a "translation." I guess it gives the story weight, and for GRRM, I think it works. If we really want to nitpick, "knight" has its roots in old and middle English, and don't get me started on Chivalry, but every word we use has a history on our world, which is totally irrelevant on another world, but we have to have a frame of reference, I suppose. Just sometimes packing a story full of details to get us to relate are exactly what weigh a story down enough to break that suspension of disbelief.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Oh, I liked 'destrier' a lot! So much I stole it to use in my own stories. :)

I do think there is a point where we risk picking apart the language so much we lose the forest for the trees. The purpose of story telling is to communicate, not confuse. If every fantasy out there invented a world-appropriate terms for horse, sheep, cow, knight, princess, rapier, and so forth, I think I'd stop reading fantasy altogether.

Clint Harris said...

Karin, I've got to admit, after reading GRRM, I started using destrier myself, but in the confines of my alt-history steam/dieselpunk WWI world, its still relevant enough for my tastes. However, I wonder if people will have a problem with my use of the word "American" for the native inhabitants of the landmass we know as North America in our world. I liked it, so I left it and figured the reader was just going to have to deal.

Pongo Pygmaues said...

I think a destrier is really a specific type of horse trained for war (much like a frigate is a kind of warship but not all warships are frigates). I suppose the parallel might be roughly 'ship of the line' - destrier, frigate - courser. Or something of that sort.

But there is something jarring about the use of, say, gladius in a fantasy setting where shortsword would not be so glaring, even if the swords in question resembled one of the many sorts of gladius quite closely.

On the whole though I think these sorts of things are quite personal. It's possible to take some exception to destrier (which I do think would sound a bit odd in many fantasy worlds, though I didn't mind in Martin's for some reason, probably because it was so full of knights) and yet accept litter in the sense of a wheel-less vehicle) quite cheerfully. yet both have the same sort of historical roots in old French so really to be logical one should dislike both equally I suppose.

Personally I find a lot of Americanisms (eg fall for autumn or trash for litter) jar a lot in fantasy, probably because an old world setting tends to be more common (though in many cases American English preserves older uses that real English has discarded).

On the whole I think readers are going to find some things just ring wrong to them almost regardless of what the author does because there's no real place to draw even a very rough line of acceptability. and a lot depends on context too. Sometimes one can get away with something that should be wrong in a cultural sense because somethimng else is figuring more prominently in the readers' minds.

Terri-Lynne said...

This is why I draw my line, when it comes to word usage, at a specific timeframe (no later than 1700) That's just where I draw my line. BUT--if the word is directly relatable to an location or event in our own world (like spartan) I don't use it.

I would not have paused over destrier, but I would have over gladius, the latter being much more obvious as a Latin derived word. That IUS will scream LATIN whereas the ier suffix won't necessarily. Probably because, though England was tri-lingual forEVER, the Latin speakers were the scholars and the churchmen, by and large, and this branch of the tree seemed to have fallen off usage before the Germanic/French. To this day, we use French words all the time but never think of it, but ask someone to pretend-speak in Latin, and they'll put the IUS/US on ever other word!

Ok, stopping now, because otherwise this will be endless rambling!