Podcast Episode 19 – How to Create Time and History


Episode 19: Learn How to Create Time and History

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create time and history, including why we should usually keep timekeeping like minutes, hours, weeks, and more similar to Earth, and how to create historical events.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why you should keep some timekeeping measurements similar to those on Earth while others are better for changing, and by how much
  • How to create historical entries in your history file
  • What sorts of events to create
  • How long and detailed a history event needs to be
  • Why we should create history

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Episode 19 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number nineteen. Today’s topic is about how to create time and history, including why we should usually keep timekeeping like minutes, hours, weeks, and more similar to Earth, and how to create historical events. This material and more is discussed in chapter 10 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Why Create History?

The first subject I want to address is why we should create history. The short answer is that it adds a certain believability and realism to our setting. And we don’t have to go crazy with this. For a short story, we might not do any history. For something like an epic trilogy, we’re almost certainly going to want to. Regardless, we don’t have to do what Tolkien did and create an elaborate history. So, what are we really looking at?

Well, most of our stories are going to happen in a sovereign power, such as a kingdom. No kingdom stands alone. It’s going to have other kingdoms that are friends and that are enemies, and these are going to have some history with each other. Our story might not take place in just one sovereign power, but in multiple ones as the characters move from one to another to do their quest, for example.

Some of this history is going to be relatively recent, like a war that happened in the last 100 years, and some of it’s going to stretch back maybe 1,000 years. On a similar note, even within a single sovereign power, that form of government, as we’ve talked about in a previous episode, is not going to stay the same over the course of 1,000 years. It may, at one point, be a dictatorship which falls and then becomes a democracy, which also then falls later and becomes a federal republic. So, these things are always changing and each one of them leaves a mark on the sovereign power.

More specifically, it leaves a mark on the settlements there as far as building styles and other things that are left over from the past. It’s also going to affect the minds of the people who live there and their attitudes about their own power and others. Some of that will depend on how recent this event was and how good the technology is. In a medieval-like society, people probably don’t remember too much about what happened 1,000 years ago due to education. This is something to keep in mind. If we’re going to create an event that happened 1,000 years ago in a medieval society, then people are only going to know the very basics of this, like there was a war, who won and maybe what it was fought over. They may know where it happened, partly because we sometimes name areas after a battle, and they might know a villain or a hero from that. And that’s all they’re really going to know.

So, when we’re creating such an event, that’s all we have to create. The great part about this is that this is relatively easy to do. Even so, we should only do it if it’s going to somehow have an impact on the story that we’re telling now.

One of the clichés that often comes up in fantasy is that there is a long-vanished civilization that has left a number of relics that our characters will discover and use. If we want to do such a thing, then we’re going to have to think of at least a few events about the formation, demise and then what happened while that sovereign power existed. One of the ways we can use this is that we often have a quest or some sort of journey that our characters are taking through the wilderness, for example, and along the way they run into an overgrown civilization; a city that has been reclaimed by the weeds. This kind of thing is fairly common in Conan stories, for example. This is the sort of setting where some sort of monster or an artifact of some kind is lying around and ends up being picked up by our characters, and that unleashes some sort of problem or reawakens some ancient evil.

Now, we don’t necessarily have to create the history for that, but it can be a good idea. This also depends on whether you’re going to use that setting more than once. I have a planet called Llurien that I’ve been building for 30 years, and I plan on using for the rest of my career in addition to other worlds that I make up for whatever one-time use. So, if I do something like that in that setting, I need to know where that civilization came from and what was going on. I also need to know why it disappeared.

The reason for this is that if I don’t work those things out and I later do something else in that general area of the map, for example, I may contradict myself. By the way, I think that doing this sort of thing is one of the advantages to having a main setting that you intend to use for a long time. I can create all sorts of backstory that I use repeatedly.

Earlier, I mentioned that in a fantasy setting people often don’t know history, but if you think about it today, even with all the technology and information that we have, a lot of people don’t know that much about recent history, or certainly ancient history. We will have heard of things, of course. Like, we all know who Napoleon was, but most of us don’t know the details of this. This is something to consider. If you only know a little bit about Napoleon, like that he was the king and then emperor of France, and that he was involved in a certain number of wars, he was supposedly really short – which is actually a myth. He was basically the same height as everyone else around that time, but he was short compared to us today. You know, you only know a few basics about him.

So, do you need to create much more than that when you’re creating a fictional history for some sovereign power of yours or a character from that sovereign power? I would say that the answer is usually no. The reason for this is that your characters are not going to know. You shouldn’t be launching into a long exposition about somebody anyway.

What I’m getting at with a lot of this is that it is a good idea to quickly create some history. This is one of the easier and less in-depth things that we need to create as world builders. And yet, it can make our world seem like it goes far back in time. Which, of course, if it was a real world, it would. In post-apocalyptic fiction, we definitely need at least one major event – the one that caused that apocalypse. But, once again, people may have no real understanding of what actually happened, or any of the details leading up to this. One reason this is true is that it is the nature of an apocalypse that the technology tends to be wiped out. With it goes much of that written history.

I’m going to finish off this section with an example of a historical entry that I made up for the Creating Places book just to show you how short these entries can really be. The great thing about these is that they’re so easy to create that we don’t need to spend a lot of time on them and we can do them at any moment, really, and just insert them into our history file. So, here’s the sample.

Hessian 124. The Horn of Killian Lost. Legendary necromancer, Killian of the Lorefrost, suffers an ignoble defeat at the hands of Lord Sinius of the Kingdom Norin when Sinius kills a spectral knight who is in the act of blowing the Horn of Killian. The resulting vortex pulls all the souls into the horn, killing that of Killian, who briefly disappears from the world. By the time he returns weeks later, destroying Sinius, the horn has fallen into unknown hands.”

So, what this gives me is a couple characters and an artifact that is lying around on my world that I could use. This can almost seem like a writing prompt in the sense that by writing one of these I can give myself a story idea, either about the past of those events I just described, or the present story where that horn is found and something bad starts to happen. But do you know something? This is a great way to generate ideas for stories. Even if you never write one, so what? You created a good historical entry. I sometimes just make up stuff like this and then, later, I find a way to incorporate that into a story.

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Should You Change Time Measurements?

Let’s talk about how time is measured on our invented world. If everything is Earthlike, we can basically ignore this subject, but if we want to do something a little bit different, then we need to think about how far we are going to go with that when it comes to making it different from Earth. Generally, I urge caution on this. If we alter the measurements too much, such as a day has 40 hours in it, and then we say 3 days has passed, that’s a lot more time that’s really passed on that world than what our reader is going to understand has passed. Even if we tell the reader that the days are 40 hours long, we might have to remind them because they’re going to forget. There’s this kind of mental inertia that takes over. People just assume that things are like here.

So, a general piece of advice is to keep things relatively close to the same. So, maybe a week that has six or eight days instead of seven, but not making a week have twelve days. But, of course, it really depends on how often you’re going to mention how many weeks are passing. Weeks and months are arguably mentioned a little bit less than years, days or hours. In other words, we often talk about how old something is in number of years, and we often talk about how many minutes, hours or even days has passed since one event or another.

For whatever reason, at least in my experience as a reader and as a storyteller, I don’t mention the number of weeks or months that have passed quite as often. The likely reason for this is that the story is taking place over weeks and months, and we’re actually showing all of that time passing in smaller increments of minutes, hours and days. More to the point, we don’t usually have nothing happen for weeks or months and then just pick up several weeks or months later and have to tell the audience how much time has passed. On the other hand, we do often mention how many minutes, hours and days have passed because it’s more common for us to skip that amount of time and then have to inform the reader. So, let’s focus a little bit here on minutes and hours.

I recommend leaving both minutes and hours basically the same. There are other ways to make our world different without messing with our audience’s sense of how much time is passing. Now, it is true that on another planet, time will likely be measured differently, but the fact is our audience is here on Earth and they need to quickly understand time references in Earth terms.

Certainly, in science fiction, if the characters are from Earth and they’re arriving somewhere else, even if time is measured differently on that place, they’re still going to think of it in Earth terms. So, someone from that planet might say it’s going to be an hour from now, and one of our Earth characters says, “Well, that’s an hour and a half in our terms.” The big question here is what do we really gain by doing something like that? I would say that we’re only trying to create the sense of a different place. But there are many other ways to do this that don’t mess with something so basic. Does our audience really care that time is being measured differently somewhere? I would say no.

Let’s talk about the days in the week. Of course, here on Earth, we have seven. Most of us don’t know why. The reason for it is that ancient civilizations were only able to observe seven bodies in the sky, and that includes the Sun and Moon. For whatever reason, they decided that that would be a good way of dividing up the weeks. That’s where we get Sunday from, obviously. And, of course, Monday is really Moon day. Now, many of the planets are named after gods, and that’s where we get Thursday from, which is actually named after Thor. So, that’s really Thor’s day.

We could choose to do the same thing on our invented world, or we could choose a different rationalization for naming the days and, of course, choosing how many days there are in a week. But I would still recommend going with something that’s only off from Earth by a day, such as six days or eight days in a week. This achieves our goal of making it seem like a different place from Earth, but it keeps it relatively similar. In other words, it doesn’t have the side effect of messing with our audience’s sense of time passing.

Bear in mind that people would have names for the days in your setting, and this is something that we should invent and occasionally have our characters use. The same way that if we were writing a story here on Earth and we had a character thinking about something that’s going to happen next week, he might say, “Hey, next Thursday I’m going to do so-and-so.” Well, that kind of commentary is usually omitted from science fiction and fantasy books precisely because the world builder has not taken the time to name the days. One problem that this causes, though, is that people have no idea what those days mean. If Thursday is called “Lienday,” and I have a character mention that, the reader here on Earth is going to have no idea how far in the future that is. So, we’re going to have to do a little bit of explanation. I talk about that more in the book, and there are some simple tricks we can use to make that easier.

We can also determine the number of weeks in a month. As it turns out here on Earth, this is not set. Instead, it is the number of days in a month that determines how the weeks are laid out. We often have four full weeks, but we seldom have five full weeks. We often have a four-and-a-half week situation going on in a month. We could choose to standardize this, and that might be a good approach because it keeps things consistent for our audience so we only have to say it once and it’s probably going to be a little easier to remember. On the other hand, if we do something like we’ve done here on Earth where it keeps changing every month, that’s actually pretty confusing. The only reason we understand that is that we live here. This is one of the things that we probably do want to change.

When it comes to the months in a year, we once again want to stay to something in the range of 11 to 13 so that it’s only 1 month off from here on Earth. We should, once again, name these months because our characters are going to refer to them. Our naming convention may want to follow something similar to Earth where we use the suffix “-ber” or “-uary,” – such as January, February, December, November – to add this to the month’s names. Now, we don’t want to be completely consistent, just like we are not completely consistent here on Earth, but by having two, maybe three of these, and using those two or three consistently, we get a certain amount of inconsistent and consistency that it gives people the impression that we’ve put some thought into this, and so have the people of the world. One point I’m making is that too much uniformity can seem too much like we planned it out.

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Universal Calendars

The next subject I want to touch on is the universal calendar. In our modern world, the Gregorian calendar is accepted worldwide, but this wasn’t always true. In many countries, they still have their own calendar and they only use ours when they’re working on things that are worldwide. There are pros and cons to doing a universal calendar, so let’s talk about some of the benefits first.

A universal calendar helps us reconcile differences between two dates. So, if we say that it’s 734 D.C. in Kingdom X, and that’s 30 years later than 343 O.E. in Kingdom Y, well, that’s kind of hard to figure out what’s going on. We need a way to reconcile this, at least in our notes. Especially in fantasy, each sovereign power may have its own time measurement. Year 1 is going to be something important, like the year that the kingdom formed. Here on Earth, the birth of Christ is what’s used, but this was not recognized for hundreds of years, and didn’t become standard for several hundred years after that. So, if we’re trying to find a universal date for the whole world, this can be a little bit difficult. We would need to have an event that impacted everyone, or was at least recognized by everyone. A mass exodus from a planet in science fiction is one way to do that, and some sort of cataclysm is another way.

Now, there are some challenges that come with a universal calendar. If we decide to use month names that have something to do with a season, we have to remember that in the northern hemisphere, when it’s winter, it’s going to be summer in the southern hemisphere. So, something like that needs to be avoided. In addition, if we call it something like “Snowtime,” obviously that’s going to be different in each hemisphere. But at the equator, there isn’t any snow. This is a mistake I made a long time ago. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t do this. That’s really the only major challenge to this is coming up with the month names. So, this is a pretty easy subject.


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World History and Event Types

Now, when we’re trying to fill out our world’s history, there are some categories for these historical events. So, let’s just go through some of these one by one. The first category are events involving the gods, which of course is only going to come up if we have them in our setting. In some story worlds, the gods keep to themselves, but in others they interfere with life and cause events to take place.

For example, they could father children that are members of species or just monsters, demigods or whatever we want to call them. There might be sacred places that were built and then later destroyed and these could be significant events. They might also have magic items, like Cupid’s bow or Thor’s hammer, and these could fall into the wrong hands at some point in history. Using Cupid’s bow as an example, maybe a mortal got a hold of this and shot somebody with it and that person fell in love with another person and this caused some sort of event to happen. If you’ve created magic items for the gods, this is one of the great uses we have for those. It’s arguably no fun if the gods never lose their items.

And then there’s one of the biggest events, which is a god being killed or somehow incapacitated so he cannot influence the world anymore. As with all events in history, these may have anniversaries associated with them. Then there are technological events which is especially useful in science fiction. These can include missions that either failed or succeeded, and then there are launches of rockets, satellites or new ships. There could be discoveries. There could be weapons tests. A big one is first contact with other species and aliens. As usual, we don’t have to say too much about these. Just note when it happened, how long ago, what month of the year, and what took place. This is true of all of the events we’re talking about, not just the technological ones.

Then there are the supernatural events, which certainly comes up in fantasy, but also in science fiction. There can be phenomena that spring into existence or which are discovered. There can also be magic that can be discovered or expanded upon, or maybe it’s squashed in one area of a sovereign power, whereas in another one it proliferates and becomes more popular and more used. Some of this can be the result of an event. It could be caused by a character of ours. There can be famous practitioners of magic, and there can also be famous victims of it.

Then, of course, there are the magic items that can be invented, lost or used in some dramatic way. Then there’s the rise and fall of sovereign powers. Since this shapes not only the world, but history, this is certainly something that we should spend time inventing. Many of these kingdoms will collapse due to war, and this is another major event category. One thing we should think about this is what goal are we hoping to achieve? For example, maybe we want two characters from different sovereign powers to have animosity toward each other, and a war is one way to do this.

Now, there are usually things that lead to war, such as cultural differences, and that can also be a reason why they have an attitude towards each other. But there’s no reason not to have that boil over into war either recently or farther in the past. It’s especially easy to create wars between something like a dictatorship and a democracy because the ideology is so different. Another thing to consider is that two kingdoms that are friends today could’ve been enemies 100 or 500 years ago. Some other reasons for wars are things like taking back territory or trying to acquire resources that are in another sovereign power’s territory.

Another category of events is groups forming, such as the Justice League from comics. When did this occur? There may be a special naval force, group of knights, spectral groups, or any elite guards, horsemen, archers or whatever other groups we’ve created. We should figure out how old these groups are. Sometimes there is prestige in being the oldest knighthood, for example.

Another category is missions undertaken to do something like explore, rescue, maybe kill or kidnap someone or something, or maybe to investigate a strange phenomenon. For all of these, we can decide when it happened and exactly what happened and what the result of this was. Especially doing this with a mind toward how does this impact our current setting or story? Some of the people who undertook such missions might be famous, either because they succeeded or because they failed, maybe in spectacular fashion. Such a person could be a cautionary tale and result in a world figure. We talked about creating those in a previous episode.


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Where to Start

We’re going to end here with a short section on where to start. History is great because it can be created at random. The short entries that we’re going to write into a history file can be made up at any time. That said, we will sometimes want to focus on a specific subject and create multiple entries, such as the rise and fall of one kingdom. This allows us to get into a frame of mind about that subject. For example, earlier in this episode, I was talking about this fiction Horn of Killian that I made up. I could do other entries about that, such as when it gets found, then when it gets used in some dramatic way, and then figure out what its current status is. Maybe it’s currently under guard somewhere.

So, we can create multiple entries about this, three or four of them, at the same time. We should spread out these events throughout our history so that we don’t have four about, let’s say, the Horn of Killian in a row. But in between each of those entries, we have other entries about other things. With so many things that we create, we try to do things in an order. But the great thing about history is that we can make it up in random order.

For something like that Horn of Killian, we can start with an event for when it was used, but then we can just go back and later create something about when it was created. It’s less like writing a story and more like outlining one where we have freedom to go back and forth. Start with whatever you have an idea for and what you think you can use in your story. And if you make up things that don’t end up being used, that’s fine. You’ve still helped flesh out your world.

Creating historical events is one of my favorite things to do because there’s so little overhead and weight to this in the sense that it doesn’t really matter too much if we create something we don’t use or if we change our minds later. This is one of those things that we could spend five minutes on here, and then not do anything with it for three months, and then spend another five minutes on it. I consider this one of the more lightweight and fun things to invent in world building.


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