Before we get to the post itself, a brief housekeeping note: for this Patreon, I’ve committed to four essays a month. But as you may have noticed, I post on Fridays . . . and in some months, there are five Fridays. Since the first post this month was really just the introduction to the series, I’m going to count this as number four; where future months are concerned, I’ve added a funding goal for a bonus fifth essay.
In talking about seasons, I mentioned George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where the variation in weather etc seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the yearly round.
What is the yearly round? How do we define a “year”?
That’s a much more complicated question than you might think. A year is the length of time it takes the planet to go one orbit around the sun . . . which from the perspective of people on the ground, means the length of time it takes the sun to return to the same position in the sky. Measuring that requires a fair bit of skill. When you hear about places like Newgrange, where the building is constructed such that the light of the rising sun on the winter solstice will shine into the inner chamber, that’s the kind of method ancient people used to measure a year. It comes out to 365 days, more or less — but it’s the “more or less” part that will trip you up. Really it’s closer to 365.25 days, which is why in the Gregorian calendar we get leap days every four years (unless the year is divisible by 100 (unless the year is divisible by 400)). We have to play catch-up with the planet. If you measure the year by the lunar cycle instead, as many cultures have done, you have a year that’s about 354 days long, and over time the dates of that calendar will go walkabout through the seasons — Christmas would be a winter, spring, summer, or autumn holiday depending on the year in question. If you hybridize the two into a lunisolar calendar, you add leap months every so often to prevent the schedule from wandering too far afield. You can have a vague year, a heliacal year, a draconic year (man, I missed my chance to use that in the Memoirs of Lady Trent) — there are all kinds of ways to measure time and then call it a year.
Of course — since we’re talking about speculative fiction — you don’t have to deal with this 365.2425 day nonsense. You could make it a nice round 365, or even 360, which is cleanly divisible by all kinds of numbers. Or any other figure you like. You could have the cycle of the moon(s) match perfectly to the solar year, instead of being about 11 days off. Too tidy of an answer would probably seem out of place in planetary science fiction, but in secondary-world fantasy there’s no reason it can’t be as tidy as you like — or as messy. Don’t think there’s plot potential in the question of how to measure a year? The switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar was hugely political in Renaissance Europe, to the point where Protestant Britain resisted adopting that Catholic-driven change for nearly two hundred years. The hexarchate in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit maintains its control through manipulation of the calendar in its territory, and builds technologies based on the metaphysical effects of that calendar.
On a finer-grained level: how does the society measure months? Are they directly mapped to the lunar cycle, an approximation of it, completely unrelated? Are there months? How about weeks — do those exist? Most readers these days are going to be accustomed to a seven-day cycle, but the Roman week was eight days long, based around the timing of markets. There’s evidence for every length of week ranging from ten all the way down to one — I’m really not clear on how the Pawukon is supposed to work. Or you can step out to the macro level and consider eras. We’re used to the Common Era/anno domini approach that counts years up from a starting date, but it’s not uncommon to instead count the years of the ruler’s reign; this is how the traditional Japanese calendar handles it (2017 is Heisei 29), and historical English documents often gloss the time with the same information. In the Dragon Age multimedia franchise, every hundred-year epoch is given a name based on omens that appear at the end of the previous era — so when they talk about the Dragon Age, they literally mean the year is 9:30 Dragon, the thirtieth year of the ninth age, which is called Dragon.
Names are part of the reason why thinking about these things can be worth your time and effort. Even if you don’t want to delve into the philosophical implications of how your fictional society divides time, the names of days, weeks, months, years, eras, etc. add detail to their culture. Where do those names come from: gods, seasonal markers, ordinary numbers, historical rulers, flowers of great symbolic significance, holy virtues? Or a mix, like our own days of the week and months of the year? (As the name implies, December was originally the tenth month.) You can interweave this with the rest of your worldbuilding, so that a) you don’t have to make up the names out of nowhere and b) your reader gets a subconscious impression of what that society considers important.
And while you’re at it, take a moment to consider when things start. Want to know why many countries have taxes due in April? Because the year used to start in the spring, rather than an arbitrary date in winter. Oddly, though a number of calendars had the year begin somewhere in the vicinity of the vernal or autumnal equinox, solstices don’t seem to be popular for that purpose; our January 1st date is about as close as you get. The rest seem to be fairly disconnected from astronomical markers. Days, however, tend to be very closely linked to the sun. In the absence of mechanical clocks (which are expensive and difficult to make), many cultures have measured the day as starting either with dawn or with sunset, rather than in the middle of the night. This still crops up folklorically and in fictional magic systems, where supernatural effects often start or expire at those times. But if you go the sunset route, be careful with your dialogue: the reader is going to instinctively assume that “yesterday,” when said in the evening, means 24+ hours before, not 4. (The same is true of sunrise, but characters are rarely doing much before dawn.)
There’s enough to say about the measurement of time that I could fill another entire post with it, but I think that’s enough for now. Remember, patrons who back at the $5 level and above can request topics — so consider where you’d like me to go next!