Elements of Setting: Time

Elements of Setting: Time

Ciao, SEers! Today, we’re going to talk a little about the four elements of setting. More precisely, the first element: time.

I could give you the simple dictionary definition, or one so complex only Einstein or Hawking would understand it. (And yes, I’d have to plagiarize them to do so.) But for our purposes, we’re going to focus on time at both the era-level and the instant-level.

Era-Level Measurements of Time

Sometimes this is kind of a given. But it often doesn’t get explored to the extent it could. I’m talking about the era in which your story is set. Even the difference of a decade can make big differences in your work. Think of how quickly we went from clunky desktop computers to laptops. Or from rotary phones to cordless to bulky cellphones to sleek rectangles that slide easily into our pockets.

A story set in ancient Egypt will have different language, clothing, and customs than one set in Puritan America. Victorian England will be different than 1940s Germany. Modern day Peru and Peru ten thousand years from now will likely be very different. Our Civil War era and the ending of apartheid in South Africa might seem to have many similarities, but more than a century separated the two (not to mention an ocean). How can you best use the era (and all it encompasses) to define your story.


  • Monetary systems. Is it a barter era? Gold? Cash? Credit? Something not invented yet?
  • Clothing. Floor-length, full-hoop skirts with tightly laced corsets impact a woman’s movement far differently than yoga pants.
  • Environment. A steam-punk novel will likely have a lot more air-quality issues than one set in the non-mechanical past. Or a clean-energy future.
  • Religious importance. Pilgrims seeking religious freedom made their houses of worship a prominent part of their settlements. Societies valuing scientific progress may not have anyplace to worship at all. (Does that bother their characters, or do they embrace that?)
  • Food. A recently killed buck in Sherwood Forest will be treated a lot differently than a recently killed buck by a homesteader in the mountains in the 1800s.

The details you choose matter. And they can help define the era your story is set in.

Instant-Level Measurements of Time

When we talk about “what time it is” with respect to the setting of your novel, we need to think in terms of hour of the day and season of the year.

Time on the Clock

A setting of dawn and a setting of dusk might both share a hazy, dimly lit quality. But a story taking place at sunrise often has a sense of hope. The sky is brightening, a new day is dawning. There is promise and potential for adventure, romance, or any number of wonderful things to occur.

On the other hand, a story set in the gloaming can feel oppressive. Foreboding. Like time has run out.

Granted, a lot has to do with how a character responds to the time of day in which the story is set. A college freshman who skipped studying to party until 5:00 a.m. probably won’t greet the 7:30 alarm by looking forward to wonderful opportunities. The hangover, combined with the dread of failing a calculous final, will likely yield a lot of groans until the alcohol-fog lifts and panic takes over. (Particularly if the student hits “snooze” too many times and is then running late.) Conversely, someone who put in twelve hours at a dead-end job is probably delighted to see the end of the day.

Season of the Year

Instant-level time also must incorporate the month or season of the year. I’ve read many books where the author never mentioned the month or season and never included any context clues for me to ground myself in the story. This is a wasted opportunity. Not only does the reader have a bad sense of season (or perhaps none at all), the author can’t use the setting as an additional character.

What do I mean by that? Here’s one example: Harsh elements can become a secondary antagonist in the story. I assure you, The Shining would have been a much different story if winter hadn’t isolated the family from the rest of the world.

Here’s another example. Take a blind date. There’s already a lot of angst involved with that situation. What if it occurs on Valentine’s Day? The characters would have crowds to contend with. In the north, weather could be a factor. What kind of impression would a woman make whose dress got splattered with slush? How would a man look if he slipped on the ice and tore his pants? Set the same blind date in the spring. Rain puddles and wind could become pitfalls. Summer? Sweat stains. You get the idea. The same event held in different times of the year offer different opportunities to the author to employ additional conflicts or obstacles.

I think you can see how both the era and the instant can help enrich your story and help ground your reader. Next time, we’ll discuss setting as it relates to locale. In the meantime, I’d love to hear how you use era and instant effectively in your work. Let’s talk about it below.

Staci Troilo bio

78 thoughts on “Elements of Setting: Time

  1. Pingback: Elements of Setting: Attitude | Story Empire

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  5. On the same subject but from a very different point of view. Imagine galactic terms and times. Arthur C Clarke knew as all do that proposed “faster than light travel” is a scientific impossibility. Gene Rodenberry, Isaac Asimov etc. got past with the possibility of warp drive/wormholes respectively. But time is important.
    Lol but Imagine Star Trek without it. “This is the five-year mission of the starship enterprise” eh, we have not left the solar system, This is the next five years; we are still heading through empty space. And the next and the next and the next. A ninety year old captain Kirk (lol and he is these days) looks out and says, “oh, guys that may be something…..

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  6. Excellent post, Staci. I beta read a book a while ago that seemed seasonless, which the author addressed beautifully before publishing. There’s so much to think about when writing and time of year/week/day is one of them. I tend to avoid writing in a “real” era, so I get to skip the historical research (thank goodness). 🙂 Thanks for sharing your expertice.

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  7. Great post and subject, Staci. I like playing around with seasons, my favorite being winter and the time its written in. You bring up so many good points about time of day, season or year. It can all be used to show mood or the character’s challenges. Working in 1967, coffee was just coffee and no cell phones seems another world.

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    • I love your point about coffee. We didn’t have those half-caf, oat milk, pumpkin spice lattes a few decades ago. Funny the things that change.

      Winter is a great way to infuse a story with atmosphere. I tend to gravitate toward fall, but I’ve enjoyed writing winter scenes, too. Thanks, Denise.

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  8. One thing I’m always conscious of when I’m working with time and setting are things like sunrise and sunset. The sun sets a lot later in mid June then it does in early December. I have to be certain that when I’m describing things like long shadows, emerging stars, or the first brush of twilight, my hour agrees with the season and the locale. Same with sunrises. I’m frequently hoping online to consult weather tables for various areas. I find them invaluable.

    Great post, Staci!

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    • One of the first books I wrote is where I learned that lesson. (Yes, I rewrote it before I published it.) It was over 90K words and seemed to take place in a day and a half. Since then, I’ve been very careful about the passage of time and the time of day.

      Thanks, Mae.

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  9. Things change so fast, I think it would be easier to make a mistake writing about the 50’s or 60’s than the Regency period, because it would be easier to forget something small. For Halloween a few years ago, my husband bought an old-fashioned dial type play phone that had different ghosts and monsters answer when you called each number, but the boys he gave it to didn’t know what it was. They’d only seen cellphones, no turn the dial ones. That surprised both of us.

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  10. That is a great post, Staci. It is so important to have the time elements correct that a small miss can throw the reader into a spin. Your points about seasons being another antagonist is perfect. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  11. I have the escape of my POV character from danger in a wet autumn. Rain drips down her neck pitter pattering, sounding like little feet. The days are short, making the distance she can travel escaping from her pursuers much shorter before darkness means she has to stop.
    In another book, a very important event occurs when the protagonist slips once in winter and breaks his leg.

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  12. Excellent post, Staci, and timely. I’m working on a story set in the late 1970s, and I’ve been amazed by the convenience differences between then and now. How could I have forgotten? Some experiences seem as familiar as yesterday, but others (like no cell phone or goggle) stunned me. I remember mom contacting dad in his pickup via a two-way radio. I think I never imagined we might have cell phones one day. Time settings are crucial to a story, and you’ve helped us understand why. Well done!

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    • Things have changed so much in such a short time. I’ve been thinking a lot lately of all the changes my grandmother witnessed in her 104 years. When she was young, no one had a car. The only way she could communicate with her family in Italy was through snail mail. (They couldn’t afford to make a Trans-Atlantic call, and I don’t know if any of the homes on either side of the ocean had phones back then.) By the time she passed on, families had more than one car per household and phones were computers carried in our pockets. She lived through SO MANY technological advances.

      When I was a kid, we had to be home by the time the streetlight came on, and we had to account for our intended destination before we left the house. These days, we just track our kids through their devices (though I admit I never let my kids roam the neighborhood because I didn’t trust that they wouldn’t get abducted). Times certainly have changed, and not always for the better.

      Looking forward to learning more about your new WIP. Thanks, Gwen.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I recently wrote a post about which generation had seen the most changes. I concluded it was my grandmother’s. She was born at the end of the 19th century and died in the mid 1960s aged around 86 or 87.
        No cars, no electricity, no phones, no washing machines, no vacuum cleaners, indoor toilets were a luxury, tin bath in front of the fire. I could go on.
        But it’s amazing to look back even to our own youth and see how things have changed. So we must be very careful.
        Yesterday I almost had my protagonist feel as if electricity ran through her at the touch of her lover. But they didn’t have electricity! I had to find another analogy.
        It just goes to show how careful we must be, even with language.

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      • That’s my biggest fear about writing historical fiction. In a writing group I used to belong to, there were several members who wrote historicals and were experts. A new member brought in something set in Puritan times. One of his characters said “hello” in greeting, and he suffered a lengthy lecture about getting vocabulary correct, as “hello” wasn’t a greeting back then. (I would have made the same mistake, I’m sure.) Another person was lectured about the color of smoke when a particular gun was fired. (I’d have been wrong about that, too.) That’s when I decided I might dabble with a short story or two, but taking on a whole novel seems too difficult to do.

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      • I have an excellent little book, written in the 50s, I think. It’s called History in English words, and it mentions many words that were not in use in past eras.
        I don’t think the author (I forget his name) wrote it for historical fiction writers, but it is certainly useful for that purpose.
        It is still in print and available from Amazon.

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  13. To enhance consistency, I use the Custom Metadata feature in Scrivener to record setting, time, and weather. A quick look in the Scrivener’s Outliner will let me know scene by scene if I’ve hit the mark. For those unfamiliar with the Scrivener word processing app, the editor takes care of the usual writing tasks (similar to MS Word), but it also helps writers keep track of all the other details that enrich the story for readers.

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  14. This is such an important element of any story, Staci, and I agree, is a vital character, as it can play a huge role. I’ve been taught to set the scene at the beginning of each chapter so that the reader knows where the characters are and what time of day it is. I try to adhere to that. As a reader, I want to know those things. Thank you for sharing this!

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  15. Having recently written several short stories set in earlier decades, I can relate to the time factor. I used specific times for a reason. For example, in the late 1970s, we didn’t have cell phones, or for that matter cordless ones. In one story, there’s an incident with a character that, if it happened in modern times, wouldn’t have had the same impact.

    I hate when a writer doesn’t incorporate seasons into their stories. I often feel like I’m in “white space” while reading them.

    Great post, Staci.

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    • Thanks, Joan. I enjoyed your stories. I liked the different time settings. The technological advances (or lack thereof) of different eras add to the works. I really want to write a crime story in the 60s or 70s when DNA wasn’t a thing and there weren’t cell phones and video cameras every where. It would make the cops’ jobs a lot more challenging.

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      • The days before DNA were challenging. We watch a lot of reruns of Cold Case Files and Forensic Files. Sometimes it takes decades to solve, but the advances of DNA is amazing.

        Funny thing, several years ago I reread the first Mary Higgins Clark book which was published in 1975. A character is driving and he presses a switch on the floorboard to dim the lights. That’s a thing of the past, but if a writer wrote a book today that’s set in the sixties or seventies, those things were the norm. It irks me to find errors in books such as that.

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      • Those are the little details I love. When I was writing Medici, I researched exotic cars and found one that had the parking break (I think that’s what it was) on the left side instead of the right. Or something. I can’t remember now, but it COMPLETELY changed a flight scene. (I know that’s not a time issue, but we’re talking about details…)


  16. This is a very interesting topic, Staci. Researching a era in history can take a lot of effort. And you are correct to point out the pace at which things are changing now. My lats two books were set in 2014, and I was surprised at how many (technological) things we have today that didn’t exist then. As for eras, I immediately thought about your recent book with Mae Clair. Two eras, over 100 years apart. You guys did well, but that had to be a challenge.

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    • I love the setting of your work. Book one versus book two show the passage of time quite well. (I’m very much looking forward to the third.)

      Thank you for the kind words about The Haunting of Chatham Hollow. I think one of the reasons we pulled it off is because we each were responsible for a different time, so we could immerse ourselves in the setting rather than bouncing back and forth. I can’t speak for Mae (who successfully writes many dual timeline stories), but I know I wouldn’t have wanted to tackle both. If I did, I think I’d have to write one complete timeline at a time.

      Thanks so much for weighing in, Dan.

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  17. Great post and points, Staci. One thing that annoys me is if the story is set in winter yet it’s still light outside at 8pm … and this in a northern-hemisphere country … mmm. Time, location, and conditions have to match. I agree fully that time and locale can become an extra character to wonderful effect. I look forward to the next post in this series. Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

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  18. Time is currently driving me to drink… almost. 🙂
    The story opens in May, which in the UK has two Bank Holidays. Next, the Birthday Honours List is published on June 1st. (I decided nobody would get an OBE after all in case King Charles 111 changes that date.) However, a teenager is taking school examinations, and they take place in early to mid June – no changes possible, short of changing her age…
    So, why am I being pernickety and struggling? Because Staci is right. Leaving out the time and the season is like leaving out a vital character.

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  19. Pingback: Elements of Setting: Time | Legends of Windemere

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