Info on settings and names for them
Naming places in fiction is as much of a challenge as naming characters, and each genre requires its own unique style of name. We already looked at the reasons authors have for inventing new places to put in their mostly-real settings. Now we’ll look at naming these new places, and making the names seem natural and real.
When choosing a placename to superimpose on a real world setting, consider these points.
naming a town, a country, a world, a street or a suburb?
creating one new name or many?
remembering the general position of your setting?
recalling the racial and cultural backgrounds of your population?
Naming worlds is interesting, because it’s never really been done in reality. We call our world “The World” as opposed to “Earth” which is the name of our planet. Aliens might call their world “The World”, but that would confuse readers! A world that has been named by settlers could be called something more specific. Middle Earth, Narnia, Elidor, The Land, Glome, Sisterin and Shannara are examples of countries or worlds, while Petaybee, Pern, Fiddlers’ Green and Shiva are examples of planets named by settlers.
How to select a name? Well, when naming a planet for a sci-fi series, I found inspiration in history and myth and chose the name Elydia, based on the Elysium (or Elysian) Fields of myth. The in-world reason for the naming was because the planet was the scene of a space-wreck when the colony ship Elysian Fields went down.
Here is the scene where the planet gets its name:
We can’t go on calling it this place,” said Marianne. “Since we’re going to be here for a while, and maybe a long, long while, we need to name it.”
“Mariannia,” said Jeremiah.
“Accady then. That’s after that place in the stories and almost after you as well.”
“You were the first Elysian to land on this planet.”
“No, Elysian Fields was the first. We can’t call it Elysia, though. That name belongs to Magellan 16, where we’re going. Maybe we could call it Balm, after you.”
“Or Gilead, after Edsen… no, I know!” Jeremiah glanced back at the hulk of the Elysian Fields. “As you say, we can’t call it Elysia, but what about Elydia?”
“Oh, I like that!” Marianne finally let go of Jeremiah’s hand to fling out her arms, yelping as the swollen wrist throbbed. Trying to ignore the renewed pain (for it was as nothing compared with what had befallen Jeremiah’s brother and Edsen’s mother), she called out to the sky and the sunshine. “I name this planet Elydia!”
I named the two major land-masses Balm (for the herb—in-world reason after a character) and Acardia (from Arcady—in-world reason after a character). The capital city of Balm is Gilead, and the capital of Acardia is Cedar.
As the series develops, more and more places acquire their names; Glittering Well, The Sunset Barrens, Dryads’ Well, Shiva, Hecate and Arboria among others.
Other names I have used in different books include Celadon (meaning green) for a forest world, Azurea, for a world with blue crystals and Otherworld.
Why not consider names that hint at physical features (Frostbound, Haze, Tempest, Highland), or philosophical ideas (Tranquillity, Battle, Karma, Valhalla)? Otherwise, you could invent a word that means nothing but which sounds pleasing (or displeasing, if you want that effect). Madeleine L’Engle’s Carmazotz is an example.
If not inventing and naming a whole world, consider your private country’s position in the world. Europe and Asia are crowded, so your country must be small unless you adopt a chunk of Russia or raise a new continent. Small is fine; Monaco and Andorra exist as a precedent for tiny countries.
Probably the best known fictional countries (or continents) are Atlantis and Ruritania. Atlantis is named after the ocean, and Ruritania, with its similarity to Moldavia, Transylvania and Albania, fits with existing European names. Pamela Brown’s Ranistan is an Indian-type country. Its name sounds likely, and has elements in common with Ruritania, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I invented a country called Sulavei and planted it near Malaysia, and John Rowe Townsend placed his Essenheim in central Europe.
Naming islands is easy. Madeleine L’Engle invented the island Gaia, (the name of an Earth Goddess). Arthur C. Clarke invented Dolphin Island, and I created Atonement. Island names may echo others nearby, but it isn’t necessary. The names of Tasmania, New Zealand and New Caledonia have nothing to do with local language; one was named after an explorer and the other two after existing areas.
Now for cities, towns and suburbs. English placenames generally reflect people or topographical features. Many English towns end in “cester” or “caster” (town or camp), or in “ford”, “by”, “thorpe” or “wood” (river ford, farm and forest), offering a grand mixture of Saxon, Germanic, Norse, Latin and Celtic names. If naming an English town or village, you might choose from the same stock. Pamela Brown used Fenchester as a town name. It fits in perfectly. “Fen” (“fenlands”) and “chester” the Latin “camp”. Catherine George’s “Pennington” fits, with its “ton” (town) ending and its Cornish-sounding “Pen”. Anyone naming English towns could play mix-and-match with existing elements for results like “Birchcroft”, “Daleby”, “Danton”, “Wolfchester” or “Amthorpe”.
Town names in the (English-speaking) new world are different. Instead of growing naturally, many have been transplanted to a new setting with no regard for suitability. Thus, New Zealand has Wellington and Dunedin, the US has London, Australia has Edinburgh, at least two Perths, Sheffield, Kettering and Launceston. Transplanting extra names from the old world might add to the confusion, so why not shift “Wolfchester” to a new home? It will look like a transplanted English name.
Some new world placenames come from local sources. Wyoming, Milwaukee, Taupo, Nabageena, Pyangana and Canberra represent languages spoken by indigenous peoples.
To make a name in this tradition, research indigenous words.
The fun really begins when you adopt a whole area, and name not only towns, but mountains, rivers, and streets. Many modern towns show patterns in street names. For example, East Devonport has Stephen, Mary, Donald, David, Caroline and Thomas Streets. Other centres have streets named after trees, or even battles. Towns built for a specific purpose often have highly artificial names; the result of being conceived in one lump. Thus a town may have Birch Street, Willow Street, Oak Crescent, Fir Lane and Pine Road.
If naming a town in a specific place, you should choose names that fit the area. In Anna’s Own, set in Tasmania, I made sure my names fitted the existing pattern. Tasmania has many British river names. It also has a population well-laced with Irish genes. Therefore I transplanted the name “Limerick” directly from Ireland, and named a nearby property “Dublin Downs”. A mountain range became “Scotts’ Tier”, ostensibly after explorer James Scott, for whom the actual town of Scottsdale is named. A town became “Shepherd Town” after a fictitious family. This echoes the existing Georgetown, New Town and Campbell Town. Perry Bay does not exist, but Sandy Bay and Anson’s Bay do. The names fit easily into the pre-made grooves.
For Kissing Cousins and Heather & Heath, I needed a town and an old established property. Using Scots background this time, I named the property “Glen Heather”. The town I called “Mersey”, after the actual river, and placed it to form a loose triangle with the real towns of Mole Creek and Chudleigh.
Jilly Cooper’s two towns, Cotchester and Rutminster, fit the natural naming scheme. Cotchester is a “town” in the “Cots”wolds, while Rut
minster has elements of either “music” (the book centres on the doings of an orchestra) or “brightness” and “a cathedral”. The fact that “cot” can mean “bed” and “rut” has connotations of the breeding season obviously didn’t escape the author either!
Of course, if your book is even more broadly humorous than Jilly’s, you can reflect that in your placenames by naming your town Bumford, Gumble, Fatsville, Slobsbury or Shingleshank etc.
How do you find original names without falling into unpronounceability? As Diana Wynne Jones puts it in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, apostrophes proliferate in fantasy placenames. Gna’ash, the example she uses, offers quite a challenge. G-Nash? Na-ash? Nash? One way to avoid this problem is to marry existing words to form compounds that sound suitably evocative. Duneshadow, Cragcircle, Midpoint, Cloudmount and Riverflow are examples.
Another way to make placenames sound natural is to borrow existing words like Phaze, Proton, Anthem, Mallard or Banksia or to give a long name a short “pet-form”. In this way Gillanbone is known as “Gilly”, Launceston is known as “Lonnie” and television’s Ballykissangel is known as “BallyK”.
Yet another way is to pick one-syllable words such as Swan, Grace or Rose and add a variety of English-style suffixes to create such names as Swanborough, Gracefield or Rosedale. Suffixes which can be useful include “bay”, “beck”, “berg”, “bery”, “burgh”, “burn”, “bury”, “borough”, “by”, “caster”, “chester”, “creek”, “dale”, “field”, “ford”, “hill”, “lea”, “minster”, “port”, “sea”, “stone”, “ton”, “ville”, “well”, or “yard”. Alternatively, you could always invent your own words and suffixes and use those to create a truly unique kind of placename. For example, you may decide to use the suffixes “eck”, “van”, “top” and “cay”. You might have named animals and plants in your world “cort”, “veen”, “ped” and “salz”. This would allow you to make decidedly foreign yet still pronounceable placenames such as “cortvan”, “salzcay”, “pedeck” and “veentop”, “cortcay”, “veeneck” etc. This method should be used with care, if at all, because though easy to pronounce the results still look rather weird!
When naming places in your novels, you can usually go with your gut-feeling. If you like the name, if it fits comfortably with the genre and tone of your book, if a friend can pronounce it without prompting, then you probably won’t go wrong.
THE BENEFITS OF NETWORLDING
So, now we come back to the concept of networlding. There are many benefits to this practice. One is simply that it appeals to the creative urge of authors to have their own realities in which things are conveniently arranged to suit the needs of the authors’ own fictions.
Another is that it offers easy go-to solutions to some of the problems of using real world facts, places, characters and popular icons. It avoids the awkwardness of dated references.
To use networlded icons does mean giving up the familiarity factor that draws in some readers, but often the disadvantages of familiarity factor outweigh the advantages.
So, what’s familiarity factor? It’s touched-upon earlier in this chapter when mentioning iconic places, and dealt with more fully in Volume Three, the red book, but for now let’s define it as the advantage of using a term, person or subject already known to the potential reader.
If you remember, the section on historical levels in the previous chapter included a set of examples about queens. It used the following sentence as one of these examples:
She will be no more an active part of the story than the current (as of 2016) Queen Elizabeth is in most contemporary fiction.
I used the familiarity factor of the current Queen Elizabeth on the grounds that most of my readers will know I am talking about Elizabeth 11, born to the then Duke of York and his wife Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1926. When King Edward V111 abdicated in 1936, the duke, now styled George V1, became king. Upon his death in 1952, Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth 11.
Maybe readers don’t know all the details and dates, but most would know the bare facts of Her Majesty, and therefore in that chapter I didn’t explain her provenance.
But - note the qualifier enclosed in parentheses. As of 2016, Queen Elizabeth is the current queen. Unlike a president of the US, for example, the extent of her tenure is not fore-known. Most UK kings and queens rule from ascension (upon the deaths of the immediate predecessor) until their own death. Edward V111 was a rare exception. Elizabeth 11 has had the longest reign of any UK queen, but if you’re reading this in 2030, the chances are she will have passed into history.
Even younger monarchs might not be current for as long as one might expect; George V1, Elizabeth 11’s father, died at the age of 56. He had been ill for some time, but if he had died suddenly, then any book written in 1951 presupposing he would be the current king in 1953 would be dated before it was published.
In non-fiction such as this book, the problem can be circumvented by use of the qualifier (as of 2016) and can be used as an example, as I have done here. In fiction, though, such a reference dates the book conclusively.
The question thus arises; should you name-tag Elizabeth 11 and cash in on the familiarity factor, or could that come back to bite you when someone reading your book in (say) 2030 realises conclusively that this book is not current?
You could, of course, simply say the current queen, and then readers could picture a future Duchess of Cornwall (if she takes the title Queen Camilla rather than Princess Consort) or a future Duchess of Cambridge who would be Queen Katherine. Taking this line would rule out any description, though, as the three women are far apart in age and appearance and probably, since they’re not blood-related, in personality and tastes.
The same objection could be made for any public figure, who might die unexpectedly, abdicate or resign, or fall from favour. So what would a networlding author do?
A networlding author would smile smugly, and crown Victoria 11, who thus becomes the reigning queen, not necessarily of England, but as the go-to royal for this author’s books.
Victoria 11 has a lot going for her. She has an impeccably royal name which doesn’t belong to any close current heir to the throne. She’s not Mavis 1st; she can be explained away, if necessary, as a descendent of Victoria 1. She can be of any age from a modern young queen to a middle-aged or elderly one. She can be married to a king or to a prince consort, or she might be single. She could be a people’s queen, friendly and casual, or she could be highly traditional and aloof. She might have a flock of princes and princesses, or a single adored child, or none at all. She could be widowed or engaged, divorced or separated, elegant or frumpy. She might have been born a princess or a commoner. She might come from just about any country in the world (after all, Victoria 1 has had over 180 descendants, right down to as of 2016, her great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren Prince George and Princess Charlotte).
The first time you mention Victoria 11 in a novel, reader reaction might be, “who?” but after three or four books, even if these are not a series, HM Victoria 11 will be accepted as the current queen in the networld of this author. So? Well, as a networlder queen, Victoria 11 can do and be as you want. You can send her to Sydney to launch the new Victoria class cruise ship Victoria Regina, or associate her with a charity you invented. She might inspire a fashion for a shade known as Victoria gold, or be known for her linguistic abilities. She might be known privately to her family as Vix, and termed the vixen by her detractors. She might be thought to resemble her famous ancestor, or she might have red hair and pale skin, hinting at a possible descent from Elizabeth 1. What? Elizabeth 1 had no children? My dear, in this networld she married her favourite Robert, the Earl of Essex and gave birth to a son named Henry, only to be deposed by her cousin James 1. Prince Henry was brought up in exile and when the Stewart and Plantagenet lines died out, a descendent of his trumped the Hanoverian dynasty to become king. In this case, our Victoria 11 would probably be an Elizabeth 11; an alternative to the current queen as of 2016.
If your taste does not run to royalty, you can of course elect your own prime minister or president just as well. A good example of networlding is shown in the Stargate SG1 series. The President of the United States is Henry Hayes for much of the run and yet the dates reflect the dates during which the series was first screened. Electing their own president allowed the creators to connect Generals Hammond, Landry and O’Neill to the Oval Office via the Red Phone, and to have the president appear now and again to discuss the future of the Stargate Program. In the other series in this franchise, Henry Hayes is also president for much, if not all, of the run. If, for argument’s sake, the same creators produced a television series unrelated to the Stargate franchise—say, a science fiction show set in 2017 and telling of the establishment of a top secret deep sea colony, then Henry Hayes might not be the current president, but his picture would be in the oval office. That’s networlding.
Networlding is about far more than the slip-sliding present and the tenures of queens and presidents, though. It can become quite an intricate and all-encompassing business.
When using the real world, not only will you be forced to research settings, but you will rarely find the features you want in the right proximity. The geography of a place might be perfect, but the inhabitants not what you had in mind. Or maybe the history is wrong. For example; you want your characters to spend the night in a real-life cave. How can you get around the fact that the cave is lit by electric light, honeycombed with concrete walkways and locked with a huge padlock at six p.m. each day? You pretend it’s newly discovered? Then you’ve departed from the real world already! You want your characters to climb a mountain, which is the historic haunt of an outlaw. How do you find an appropriate place with an appropriate character lurking it its history? You want your hero to dig up a historic treasure. Fine. But if he digs up the royal Scottish regalia, what then? It’s still lost in the real world, so you can’t display it in a real museum. In Elizabeth Peters’ Trojan Gold Vicky Bliss and her companions sought the real-life treasure supposedly discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. Of course they didn’t really find it… how could they? It’s still lost in the real world. In the television series Hamish Macbeth, some of the nationalistic characters played fast and loose with the Stone of Scone… Fancy footwork by the scriptwriters ensured the status quo was retained in the real world.
All these cases of not being free to use real places and items because of their current real-world status can be sorted by networlding your way to a solution.
To use networlding effectively, you need a long-range plan. Choose an area with some of the features you want for your novel. Do you need the tropics? Rivers? Deserts? Mountains? A sea coast? Pick a part of the world that matches at least some of what you want, and then you will know roughly where your setting relates to the real world. If you want a tropical island, or an arid setting, place it in an appropriate part of an appropriate continent. A desert may be somewhere in central Australia, in North Africa or perhaps in one of the drier states of the USA. Don’t put it in Wales or Fiji, because no-one will believe it.
Once you have superimposed your private piece of real estate over the existing map of the world, you can fill in the details. You want a city, settled in antiquity by Rome? A seaside village once frequented by smugglers? A new, industrial town just twenty years old? Put them in. Give your Roman settlement a ‘caster’ or ‘cester’ ending to its name. Your seaside village should have caves and cliffs, and the pub might have a suitably piratical name. Your new town will probably have a pleasant, rather anonymous name. You need a castle? Pick a likely place then decide when it was built and by whom, whether it is ruined or restored.
Next, begin to detail some events for your version of history. You’d like the wreck of a Spanish treasure ship, perhaps. To identify it, adapt a real ship’s name. To give it a viable history, date it from the time of Spain’s great sea-going days. It might have gone down in a big storm in 1627, or perhaps it was sunk by the British privateer ‘Shewolf’ under the command of ‘Sir Walter Gosling’. You need an ancient battlefield? Choose a time of turmoil and decide who was fighting whom. Give it a name; ‘The Battle of Arrow Plains’ or ‘Lincoln Fields’. You want a famous diamond? Give it a history. Mined in ‘van Rijn Mine’ in 1790, bestowed on the ‘Countess Rudolph’, distant cousin of the Tsar. Vanished during 19th Century and has now resurfaced in your new industrial town! It can’t have been planted there when it first vanished, so when and how, and by whom was it brought to light?
Now for some industry and social occasions appropriate to your setting. You can establish a May Day Festival, a craft shop, an ostrich farm, the annual Castle ball, the Festival of the Roses, White Lilac Day, the camel races, Oyster Week, Opal Sunday, the Freesia Gardens, the Cactus Fields, Mother Mercy Hospital, the Institute of Pyrotechnics... whatever you need for your plot and at dates that are convenient to you.
Anything from quaint old customs to legends and local eyesores will help to give reality to your world.
Now move on to specifics. Create your own wine label, perfume, designer jeans, motel chain, restaurant, singers, soft drink or film studio. ‘Whitecave wines’ sold from the cellar door might be a treat, and ‘White Lilac’ the perfume of choice. ‘Em-Be’ jeans are in style and guests stay at a ‘Castle View’ motel and eat at the ‘Castle Kitchen Restaurant’. The local band is known as the ‘Castellians’, ‘Rosevale Cordials’ sell pink fizzy drinks flavoured with rose essence, and the film studio is ‘Castle Films’.
Perhaps you think this is a lazy or slapdash way of writing? It can be, if done badly, but if managed well it is very effective.
The problems of using real places and events are well-known, but those of using real details are more insidious. Details can date your novel, often before it’s published. Letting characters watch a real television program saves explanations, but will that program still be airing next year? The new film your characters see may be lingering in the ‘two dollar’ DVD bins when your book comes out, and the garment your heroine favours may soon be out of style. You might avoid these problems by using generic terms such as ‘a quiz show’, ‘a thriller’, or ‘a skirt’, but this can make your writing seem bland and unfocussed. If your characters watch ‘Pop Quiz’, or ‘Dark Days’ and wear a skirt by ‘Threads’ with ‘Czarina’ shoes, you have detail without dating.
Once general and specific details are in place, use them to bring characters and their lives into focus. Let’s see this in action. Suppose you want a temperate sea-coast, the ‘Dolphin Coast’, in Eastern Australia as your general setting. You have planned a medium sized town, ‘Cowrie’, as the venue for a yacht race, known as the ‘Cowrie Hundred’. A yacht sinks in ‘Cowrie Cove’, and during salvage operations, an older wreck is found. This is the immigrant ship ‘Fair Lady’ reportedly scuttled in the ‘Bay of Shoals’ in 1820. Your heroine, Amber, whose company ‘Dolphin Productions’ is in financial trouble, decides to make an investigative documentary on the ship, but your hero Tycho, the descendent of the Fair Lady’s owner, wants to let things lie. When Amber discovers that Tycho drives a ‘Wildcat’ sports car and wears ‘Zapata’ suits... she realises he’s loaded and can probably buy off the people she needs... This book might be titled All’s Fair…
This scenario shows how plot can grow from setting, and how you can use your own history and geography to motivate your characters. No concept denoted ‘ ’ is real, but none is impossible or even improbable. And networlding really pays dividends. Next time you write a novel, you can use that same networld over again.
This next novel may have a different setting. ‘Longhorn’ is a run-down desert town where the wind howls across the prairie and Mary Kate, tired of pumping gas and listening to ‘Rockin’ Blues’, dreams of travel. Her no-good news hound cousin Jack arrives in a ‘Wildcat’ car. He’s heard the tale of the ‘Fair Lady’ fiasco, and wants to dig up dirt on the insurance company that settled that claim... You might call this book Out From Longhorn.
On to another novel... This time, your setting is tropical Australia, where Julia West’s brother Craig is about to mortgage their joint future to buy a yacht called ‘West Wind’ so he can compete in the ‘Cowrie Hundred’. Craig has the habit of turning up the radio to avoid conversation; one of his favourite tunes is ‘Rockin’ Blues’. This book is called West Winds.
This linking-up of your novels can be as loose or as tight as you please. Main characters from one book may appear in another, or be mentioned in conversation. Heroines of separate books may favour the same brand of jeans, and the storm that wrecks Longhorn in one novel (Out From Longhorn) may be a news item in another. As you write more books and (with luck) pick up a loyal following, your readers will begin to feel comfortable in your networld. Of course, you can help by being consistent at all times. If Cowrie Cove is wide and white-sanded in one book, don’t make it a narrow rocky channel in another. If Zapata suits are expensive in one book, don’t make them a chain-store brand in another. And if Amber, the Dolphin Productions girl, is pregnant at the end of All’s Fair, remember to mention the child if Mary Kate’s news hound cousin meets her two years later in Out From Longhorn.
How does networlding differ from series writing? A series usually follows the same characters or at least the same setting in the same genre, whereas networlded books need not share any of these elements. You can networld a romance, a thriller, a mystery and a children’s book which have no characters or story lines in common, yet all will be set in the same ‘reality’ where Zapata suits are the last word in elegance and the brig Fair Lady vanished in 1820. You might say most series take place in a networld, but networlded books may or may not be a series.
Robert Heinlein, the late dean of science fiction, was an expert at networlding. His Future History books all accepted certain scientific developments and certain historical characters. Fellow sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov produced the Foundation Series. This was set in a networld, but his non-Foundation works were also networlded; in Asimov’s view of the future the universe is ‘humans-only’. The late Monica Edwards created her own piece of Sussex for her Romney Marsh books; a networld in which Rye doesn’t exist, and in which the town of Winchelsea has a different spelling. Antonia Forest had a networld where Kingscote School, the farm called Trennels and the town Wade Minster are constants. This networld is probably her version of Dorset—but London is London. To see a contemporary example of networlding, look at Catherine George’s Pennington books. These are all category romances, and though they don’t usually have characters in common, they take place in or around the town of Pennington Spa.
I started networlding over forty years ago when I created three towns and a river. Since then, I’ve produced realistic fiction set in four different versions of reality. These days, I stick to two networlds, one which is basically my own piece of Tasmania and the other which stretches down the east coast of Australia and over towards the arid centre. Characters in my contemporary novels may visit the haunts of my historical characters, and my heroines like dresses made by ‘Opal Road’. Some of them live in, or visit, the upmarket Sydney suburb of Windhill. Not only is this consolidation of detail convenient for my readers, but it helps me to focus my mind. To return to a networld is just like coming home.