It’s the Little Things: Days and Dates

When I read for pleasure, I gravitate to fantasy, historical fiction, and some science fiction. I like these genres for many reasons, including the fact they allow me to experience other worlds, whether a newly created imaginary world, as in fantasy and SF, or a world that once existed, but has passed away in the case of historical fiction. I like disappearing into a world, discovering how it feels to live there, exploring what it has to offer. So I get annoyed when a writer kicks me out of their world by throwing in details or ideas that don’t fit, that call attention to the fact that this is not a real world, but a contrivance. Often it is the little things that do that…

            For example, I was recently reading Tamora Pierce’s Bloodhound, the second book in her Beka Cooper trilogy. I enjoy Pierce’s books. She is a good writer, and has spent a lot of time and effort constructing the world of Tortall, where these novels are set. Even so, something kept nagging at me. Something kept bumping me out of the world. Not in major way – just for a few seconds, and then I could get back into the story, but a little while later, I would hit the glitch again and again get kicked out of Tortall again.

            It was the dates.

            The Beka Cooper novels are written as a series of journal entries, so each section is headed by the day and date of the entry. “Thursday, September 13,” to cite an example.

But that is a “this world” day and date, specifically a western style day and date. Why is there a Thursday in Tortall? Thursday is named for the Germanic god Thor. There’s no god named Thor in Tortall. We know this because Pierce has been thorough in thinking through in the nature of religion in the world of Tortall, of the gods in this world, who they are, what they do. There is no God of Thunder named Thor in this world. So why is there a day of the week named for him? Why is there a Wednesday (Wodin/Odin’s Day?) or Friday (Freya’s Day)? Our days of the week reflect a specific set of cultural origins. They are not even universally European. In France, the names of the week are named after Roman gods, reflecting the fact that the French language derives directly from the Roman language (Latin.) Why is there a month called September in Tortall? September was simply “the seventh month” in the Roman calendar. Why does Tortall, which didn’t have a Roman Empire, have a month with a Latin name?

            For that matter, why have a seven day week? There is nothing universal about the length of a week. Weeks are completely arbitrary divisions of time. Cultures have had weeks of all sorts of lengths, from 5 days to 10 days long. Our 7 day week comes from the Jewish week, handed on to Christians. With the rise of the Christian influences in the Roman Empire, the Romans eventually shortened their 8 day week into the Judeo-Christian 7 day week. Rome carried this week into much of Europe where it became the standard, and the rise of Western culture in the modern era imposed it as the world-wide default. But if a fantasy world does not have this history, why should it necessarily have this week?

            This is hardly a big enough issue to undermine an otherwise well constructed world. It is, however, something that undermines my commitment to that world. It is also a missed opportunity to draw me deeper into that world.

             Michael Jecks, another of my favorite authors, understands the importance of using small details like this to extend the world. Jecks is the author of The Last Templar series, historical murder mysteries set in 14th century England The early books in the series use modern days and dates, but as Jecks continued to write, he also continued to research the world of 14th century England and how it differs from our world. As series progresses, more and more period specific details creep in, like days and dates. In the later books in the series, he shifts to using the days and dates that would have been used by everyday people of the time, with dates tied to the feast of a specific saint or other religious date and years numbered by the reign of the monarch:  “Morrow of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, seventeenth year of the reign of King Edward II,” for example. Of course, I don’t use this system, and I find it a little confusing, but reading these days and dates also put me deeper into the world of the 14th century where the liturgical calendar orders everyday life and which king is on the throne is a more important measure of time than which arbitrarily named decade we are in. I step a little deeper into that world.

            Days and dates are little things. I am not going to love or hate a book based solely on how the writer has handled them. And sticking with our modern days and dates as the default system does make it easier on me as a reader. I don’t have to spend a lot of time puzzling out what “Thursday, September 13” means. But it also does not tell me much about Tortall. And the reason I read Pierce is because I want to spend time in Tortall, just like I read Jecks so that I can explore 14th century England.

            Our own worlds are built out of small, everyday things. These other worlds should be, too.

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