Setting Time in Writing

Accuracy lends credibility to your writing

by Sophie Dawson

Setting a novel within a certain time, or rather the intended era is an important part of writing. Getting the technology and vocabulary correct for when the story happens lends credibility to the writing and thus the author, and also makes the story believable to the reader.

I was reading a historical novel recently. It was set in the 1800’s. “What time is it?” asked the character. The response took me aback. “3:18.” Okay, so what’s wrong with that? If that’s what the clock said how can it be wrong?

When I left for college as a freshman, way back in the dark ages of 1972, one of the new, modern things I took was a digital clock. It had sixty little flaps for the minutes and twelve for the hours. It was lit by a teeny tiny light bulb. It was the latest and greatest. The dawn of digital time.

Before the early 1970’s all clocks were round. They had numbers in a circle with hands that rotated by the minute and hour. We learned to tell time in grade school. You could describe minutes as past or after as you choose. Five after, ten after, quarter after, twenty after, twenty-five after, half past, twenty-five till, twenty till, quarter till, ten till, five till.

Until the advent of the digital clock only in school did you refer to a time as 3:18 and that was only when we were learning how to tell time. In life, you rounded to the nearest five. The author of the book I read was young enough not to realize this.

The familiarity of culture can lead to small things being just a little off when set in a different culture or time. As authors, I hope we do that little extra bit of research needed in order to use the correct phrasing for the time period. Maybe most readers wouldn’t notice the issue. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, though.

As I was writing my first novel, Healing Love, which is set in the 1870’s I was faced with needing to know if certain medical technology was in use. Many advancements were occurring and figuring out whether my main character doctor would have use of them needed to be determined. It didn’t take long to do a Google search to find out stethoscopes were in use but medical thermometers were not.

I also learned that many Civil War veterans came home addicted to opiates for the pain of their wounds. I was able to add that bit into the story. Doing a small bit of research into the history not only made my novel historically accurate, but I was able to enrich the story with a detail not many people might know.


Sophie Dawson writes Christian fiction. She lives with her husband and cat on a farm in western Illinois. Her Cottonwood Series novels have been Indie Book of the Day and Healing Love received first place in the genre in’s 2012 contest and a second in eLit 2012 contest. Healing Love and Giving Love are finalists for Readers’ Favorites Contest 2013.

1 thought on “Setting Time in Writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *