What’s in a Name?

This is a musing stemming from the edit pass I’m doing. I’ve been working on a lot of the daily life sort of stuff, which means looking at what sorts of food characters should eat, or what sort of materials their clothes are made out of.

This part is always a balancing act for me, especially in a book like tKC. While I do have some more ‘removed’ worlds in the works, ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ and tKC are secondary world, but quite close to reality. I modelled the world of ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ off 1940s Australia (mostly – I definitely played pretty fast and loose with what exact technology was available. I look forward to the eventual dissertations I receive on how I can’t possibly have one technology I listed without another common technology that I just never mention but that everyone should be using). tKC is different: I’ve taken some inspiration from various levels of technology from early rail to diesel, and some of the architecture and clothing aesthetics, but tKC is much more embedded in its world history than ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ is. Wilom could have turned up in pretty much any world and his story would have only changed in the details. tKC, though, I had to really dig in and do my due diligence on history and technology, otherwise the whole story would fall apart.

One question that I’ve been going back and forth a lot on is how to name things like foods and cloths. Food and cloth names are often extremely location-specific. ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’, I largely got around this by renaming tea varieties and throwing in a few place name-common food name combinations to imply that these were recipes or vegetable varieties built into the world. tKC won’t be so kind to me, I fear.

Let me back up a step. Food and cloth varieties, and a lot of other things that we use every day, are often named for the places that they’re invented in. Cashmere, for example. Chianti wine. How can you have a place with Cheddar cheese without a Cheddar, England to make it?

If you really want to get technical about it, the names of things that aren’t from places are tricky, too. If you have a fantasy world where everyone speaks English, nouns like polenta or tulle are clearly loanwords from another language. Does that mean your fantasy world has to have an analogue to French or Italian, so that the fantasy English can have French loanwords? Given how prevalent loanwords are back through history (and not just in English, though I’d have to do way more research before writing this blog post about anything in another language), how far back do you go before you decide that something is just part of English now? Is it more important for nouns based on everyday objects because we pay attention to those more when they’re loanwords, or do you actually want to change register or writing style in your story to imply different linguistic origins?

That’s a tangled topic and about the only answer is a resounding shrug and “whatever works I guess” but I do actually have some tools or a method I use for deciding about the nouns thing, so I’m going to just narrow the topic and talk about that. I also did have a reason for talking about both ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ and tKC in the beginning of this post:  I took different approaches in both of them and I want to use them as examples.

I tend to think of this as a spectrum. On one end, you have total verisimilitude, almost to the point of writing an alternate history or modern urban fantasy rather than a secondary world fantasy. It’s a certain time and place in all but actual place names and historical references. On the other end you have stories like The Edge Chronicles where every single aspect of the world is changed down to the ecology. There are no familiar animals or plants – there may be familiar concepts like ‘berries’ or ‘roots’ but nowhere will you find a capsicum or a potato – the names of all animals, all food crops, all trees, everything is different.

Then you’ve got a range of things in between: stories where most things have their modern English or loanword names but there are setting-specific items that have different or made up names, and so on and so forth.

When writing The Ferryman’s Apprentice, I was way down on the ‘verisimilitude’ end of the scale – not quite to the point where I made everything exactly as it might have been in the rough time period I was working with, but enough that the whole world felt very familiar and grounded. It was important for the story that the tone of the novel be quite subdued, and if I’d had to stop and explain a whole new ecosystem or system of magitech, I’d have had to deal with a whole different set of expectations and a sense of wonder or the new that would have made it much harder to get the effect I wanted. It was also important for that story that the reader feel as close as possible to the world – I still wanted a secondary world, because I very much did not want the baggage that would come with writing about a conflict that real people were actually involved in, but I also didn’t want the reader to have as much of the distance that would come with a full secondary world – that sense that ‘this is an interesting story about different people to me’. The characters needed not just to feel like real people, but to hint at people that the reader might know personally; the world needed to feel like a part of reality. So, I made up no new plants or animals, I didn’t change very much about how people dressed or what they ate, and I only changed names where it would be very obvious that that dish or ingredient would come from a place on Earth, so as not to break immersion. As I said, too, I changed the technology a bit, mostly to make everything feel more hands-on and manual than things actually were at the time, so that I could give the sense of small people in a big conflict – rather than giving Wilom and Vanda cars and phones and firearms that would have given them a sense of power over the environment that they just don’t have within the story.

tKC, on the other hand, is also about small people in a big conflict (the astute may note that I have somewhat of a preference for that style of story), but the plot ties directly to several historical events in the world, and the magic of the world is a lot more tied into society (where in ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’, the magic is separate from and in many ways hidden from society). In tKC, I do need to sit down and take the time to instil the sense of interest and wonder in the world because there’s the equivalent of a couple of history and science dissertations that the reader needs to fully understand the plot and the implications of what the characters are doing (please note: I will not make readers sit down and read a couple of dissertations in order to enjoy the book. I promise to try and make it much easier and more pleasant than that). I wanted scope to play more of a part in this story: the characters are affecting the world on a much larger scope than Wilom and Vanda do in ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’, so I need to put more of the world on display for them to interact with. I also needed a much less despondent and sombre tone – tKC is much larger more dramatic, and more intense than ‘The Ferryman’s Apprentice’ and the world needs to reflect that. However, I am also conscious that I have to introduce far more concepts in tKC – I have to make sure that I’m not making the reader learn a whole glossary as well as the details of how magic functions, the layout of the geography and how that feeds into the political landscape, and all the standard information about the characters’ personalities and positions in society. So while it might help my tone a bit to have new names for things and a different ecology for tKC, I decided to keep a lot of it quite familiar, to reduce the amount of explanation I needed to front-load into the book. The result is that I’ve scrubbed the serial numbers off a lot of things, and I’ve renamed a few dishes that I really couldn’t get around an Earth reference for otherwise, but in terms of farming and textiles and construction, most of the names and ideas remain very similar to Earth.

I think that’s about all I had to say on the topic. As always, I’m interested to hear ideas about the topic, and examples of other stories and how the problems were solved there. My approach can always use refining! I just hope that my musings were useful to some of you who might also be working through the topic at the moment.

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