World Building in Fantasy: Time
As many of you know, I write primarily about… dragons. And kids on adventures with dragons.
But even in my latest MS, a contemporary fantasy, set IRL, I had to do the most basic of fantasy story building exercises: world building.
I attended a few workshops over the summer and several of them dealt with some day-to-day aspects of world building that, in my current MS, were absolutely vital to figure out, before drafting. I'm going to explore these elements of world building, a week at a time. Author Tracey Baptiste gave a great digital webinar for SCBWI over the summer and offered several excellent examples of mentor texts. I read a few and it got me thinking about my process, while I'm re-drafting Dragon Scales.
How the main character in your world, be it a fantasy portal or middle school, experiences time is crucial to know BEFORE you start writing. In my WIP, my MC is a middle school student, so how she experiences time is, in many ways, dictated to me, as I write her story.
Identify How Your MC Marks Time
Figuring out my MC's class schedule -- periods in a day -- was necessary to do before I started writing. I had to conceptualize, ahead of writing, how my MC will "pass the day" -- according to a bell schedule. Of course, I have kiddos of my own from which I model, but I worked out class schedules for both my MC and her BF before writing, and then stuck to them.
Identify Time Structures Imposed on Your MC
Why did I also figure out my MC's BF's schedule? Because I know, from my own kiddos' experiences, the school day is passed not just according to the bell schedule -- that's the meta structure, a structure imposed by the school on the kids.
The kids themselves break that down even further, and to them, time passes according to who they're spending it with -- so classes were defined as spent with her BF, or not.
The other biggie to figure out was lunch. Again, my experience as a middle school teacher came into play here. The overall setting is a school with mixed grade-level classes, meaning 6th through 8th graders are in classes together.
But most districts in our area have policies, an overarching meta structure, dictating students are kept separate by grade level for lunches. So figuring that 8th graders had a later lunch than my MC and her BF was equally important, especially when planning scenes that took place during the MC's lunch (6th grade lunch). In this sense, time (lunch periods) was a limiting factor, dictating who could be in the scene without an exception (a pass from a teacher, etc.).
Identify the Time Frame for the Story
The next element of time I had to figure out was the time frame, or the timeline, of the story. Again, knowing how middle schools function in my state was key. Middle school is structured around 8- to 9-week quarters here, punctuated by report cards and breaks (Fall break is two weeks, followed by Christmas break, Spring Break and Summer Break). If I were writing a story set in high school, quarters tend to pass by almost unnoticed, as no class grades are issued (although breaks are still present), and I would've structured the story around semesters, because that's how teens mark time.
The timeframe for the story is one quarter, the first quarter of the school year. That meant, events had to fall on a calendar (August-early Oct.) and reflect the changing seasons, although in the desert Southwest we really only have three -- hot, slightly less hot (twice a year) and cold. Still, locating the setting's quarter on the calendar was important for scenes to have authenticity -- opening a door to a blast of summer heat, etc.
Finding the story's place on a calendar was important for incorporating holidays realistically, as well. Labor Day -- no school that day! -- made a natural three-day weekend for my MC's instrument to get up to her shenanigans. The holiday after Fall Break, Halloween / Day of the Dead, made for a natural "focus" for the music selections by the conductor for the final concert, etc.
The quarter & calendar location also gave the story a clear progression through time. I had nine weeks to play with, for my characters to work out the story problem and come to a resolution. This meant the mid-point of the story would fall somewhere close to the mid-point of the story's time frame. It doesn't have to be this way; and in fact, my WIP's mid-point doesn't fall exactly on the mid-point of the timeframe, it falls a bit (2 weeks) before. But knowing it's close helped me to structure the story, as well.
I did this process in my first fantasy book, Dragon's Leap, as well, but I didn't have time structures like class schedules imposed on my MC. There were, however, seasons in which the story takes place. I did have to figure out the placement of the story on the calendar in order for a plot driver, a parasite whose host hibernated over winter, to move the story forward.
Identify Where You Don't Want to Show Time
Showing Too Much Time
In previous drafts I've shown too much time, too much movement between class periods or info from classes other than the one I want the action / plot to take place in. Some of that's necessary, to establish the setting: middle school. And while I'll keep some, it was only one or two scenes, and each one I kept was evaluated for its ability to move the story forward.
It's perfectly ok to fast-forward or advance the story by days or weeks without showing the passage of time through anything other than a change in setting, particularly when it's boring time or time spent doing routine things that don't push the story forward. You don't have to account, on the page, for every day or week or month or even year of your story's timeline. Show only the scenes that move the story forward.
I'll blog about my other world-building processes as I get further into re-drafting Dragon Scales.