Dark Fantasy World Building: Telling Time Without Clocks

It’s 60 or so years after the apocalypse. Countries are trying to rebuild society. War puts the world in chaos. This is life in my WIP, Book 4 of The Merging World Series, The Sciell’s Legacy. The world is dangerous for everyone. Characters build their own villages to stay safe. Several questions come up while I’m creating life in these isolated communities. One of them being, how do they tell time without clocks?

The telling time issue came up a bit in Books 1 and 2. It wasn’t a huge problem because time wasn’t that important to the characters. They needed to count days but not minutes and hours. In The Sciell’s Legacy, some of the characters have work and school. The children have pretty strict daily schedules. What are ways to tell time in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world?

“Close your fingers together and align your pinky with the horizon. Now, count how many finger widths it takes to reach the sun. Depending on the season and time of day, you may need to continue stacking one hand over the other to keep count. Four finger widths represent one hour of sunlight.”

“during the day, you can observe the track of the sun across the sky. When the sun is the highest in the sky and at the center of its track, it is about 12 noon.”
This and the above tip would work for Books 1 and 2 but in Book 4, days are shorter. Characters have about 3 or 4 hours of sunlight every day. They can tell time by the sun but not by tracking its movements.

“Animals are also natural clocks. Cocks are the first thing to wake up in the morning (stop it), and they tend, like most early risers, to crow about it. Exactly three minutes afterwards, your dog bounds into the room …”

This inspired me to create an animal my characters use to tell time in the morning. Here’s a passage from my WIP:

“The haunting call of the Orlo bird filled the silence. Senka tensed. Miku whimpered while Nerva looked like she wanted to race outside and search for the bird. You only heard its call in the Orlon Mountains. The bird had four pairs of silver wings. Despite being large enough to steal a small child, Divine only saw it once. He heard the call every morning. It meant the kids should be on their way to morning lessons.”


Reddit: World Building- Telling time without the sun

“Water clocks, or something similar. In the Forgotten Realms, in Menzoberanzen, the drow use a huge pillar that they cast faeryfire on – it takes 12 hours to reach the top, and another twelve to come back down, and changes color with regular intervals.”

My world has magic. The characters could find a way to use it to measure time passing.

Ways of Measuring Time in High Fantasy

“Some books use bells instead of hours, e.g. “in half a bell” or “at seven bells”, often referring to church bells and indicating a more medieval setting, but also potentially to other bell-based systems, such as the watch system sounded by a ship’s bell.”

I did something similar in a different story. In Shadows under the Light Book 2 of the Jura series, some characters lived underground and used bells to mark time passing.

How do your fantasy characters tell time?