Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: it’s OK to write square mountain ranges

It’s almost a cliche these days to say that modern fantasy writers all stand in J R R Tolkien’s shadow. Or George R R Martin’s.

But it’s true. Obviously, having two middle names beginning with R is a pre-requisite for greatness in the genre. And it was Tolkien who really defined the field for so many author who came after – the languages, the complex world-building, the maps.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

A 1905 map showing Europe at the height of the last glaciation, with modern names overlaid. Public domain.

Maps are an excellent way to help a fantasy novel along. They make it possible for readers – and author – to orient themselves – and, more crucially, help suspend disbelief. Realistic geography makes the world more real. I’m talking about having rivers fall from mountains into valleys, thence into alluvial plains; by having swamplands in depressions, and deserts on the far side of mountains and the prevailing wind. A lot of authors deliberately build their worlds along these lines.

The odd thing is that the master in whose shadow we all stand didn’t do any of that. The geography of Middle Earth, like the stories, grew in the telling – and was essentially dictated by plot. The Misty Mountains divide the wilderness in two – ruler-straight, in The Hobbit version of the map – as a barrier for the heroes to overcome. Then comes Mirkwood – another massive barrier.

It’s no different in The Lord Of The Rings, where half the tension comes from the fact that Mordor is guarded by impassable mountains, conveniently blocking easy entry to the country from three sides. Unless you’re in Switzerland, real geography isn’t likely to hem you in that way, of course. Tolkien explained his geography by its internal history: Mordor’s mountains were raised by Sauron, deliberately, in that shape. But to me, at least, it’s always been irksome.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Fantasy geography. Part of the world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG.

But then it occurred to me. In The Lord Of The Rings, especially, Tolkien was always describing real geography – details of the landscape, often down to the highest levels of fidelity. And he often did so by revealing how it affected the mood of his characters – making it completely real, in a literary sense.  The Dead Marshes; the pleasant woodlands of Ithilien; the horror climb over the Mountains of Shadow; all these things became real because of the way the hobbits experienced them – and thence, of course, the reader.

Part of the way he did that was by taking real things and inserting them into the story. Old Man Willow was apparently based on a real willow Tolkien used to sit under. The Dead Marshes were, explicitly and graphically, a description of the Western Front, where Tolkien served with the Lancashire Fusiliers.

This was how Tolkien made his geography work. Writing is all about transfer of emotion – and by writing landscapes that he drew emotion from – and by making the response to the landscape emotional, Tolkien also gave his wider geography a credibility that could not have been gained any other way.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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Do you have a writing group…like Tolkien?

Most writers, I realised the other day, hang out with writing groups. Or at least other writers.

Inside the Eagle and Child. Photo: A. Wright.

Inside the ‘Eagle and Child’. (Wright family photo)

J R R Tolkien, for instance, was part of a group called the ‘Inklings’, who met in a local Oxford pub – the Eagle and Child, known locally as the ‘Bird and Baby’Every Tuesday from 1939 until 1962 they’d go there to drink beer, swap stories – and read their tales to each other.

Imagine that – C. S. Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield or maybe Lord David Cecil were the very first people in the world to experience The Lord of the Rings  – and they heard much of it in Tolkien’s own voice, as he sat there reading them the manuscript.

Tolkien himself was one of the first to hear passages from Lewis’s Narnia series. How awesome is that? Two of the greatest fantasy writers in the twentieth century, hanging out in the same pub and reading each other’s stories.

My key-ring from the Raffles Writers Bar. Complete with the original wrapping (yes, I am a writing nerd).

My souvenir key-ring from Raffles. Complete with the original wrapping.

During the early twentieth century other writers congregated in Raffles hotel, Singapore, to the point where there’s a Writers Bar, which (in its original location in the lobby) was frequented by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham. Its denizens were usually well lubricated with gin, tonic and Singapore Sling, invented around 1910 by Ngiam Tong Boom in the Long Bar on the opposite corner of the building.  Alas, this literary enclave came to a sharp end with the Second World War. But the spirit lingers. Did I say ‘spirit’? I did, didn’t I.

I made the pilgrimage to the Writers Bar in 2001, sans the cocktail.

Established writers usually veer into shop talk – the scale of the latest advances or gossip about editorial changes at Publisher X. I know that’s how my chats with other writers go, when I catch up with them. Which, unfortunately, isn’t often. I know plenty of writers and publishers, and it’s always good to have a yarn. But it’s hard to find time to get together.

Besides which, a lot of what I write is history – which, here in New Zealand,  is owned by viciously hostile in-crowds. Someone once described the behaviours of the military history crowd, particularly, as akin to circling piranhas.

Instead I hang out mostly with mathematicians and science types. And talk about my original interest, which isn’t history… it’s physics.

Do you have a writing group? How often do you meet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery, science and more. Watch this space.

Guess which real-world place is most like Mordor…

Last week a British meteorologist at the University of Bristol published a weather analysis of Middle Earth. Tres cool.

Here’s a link to the paper: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2013/10013-english.pdf

According to the report, the weather in The Shire was much the same as that of Lincolnshire – which is pretty much what Tolkien was envisaging. It’s also like Belarus, but that may be coincidence. The place in New Zealand where the weather is closest to The Shire is north of Dunedin. Curiously – though the report didn’t mention it – there’s an area there called Middlemarch, which sounds suitably Tolkienish.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

Not really Gorgoroth – this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

When it comes to Mordor, the real-world place I immediately think of is the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, which I visited earlier this year. Tolkien’s explicit imagery was First World War trenches and Birmingham factories. But that isn’t where the British meteorologist found Mordor weather. Oh no. turns out the places most like Mordor, weather-wise, are New South Wales, western Texas and Los Angeles. (That said, Tolkien also made clear that the gloom around Mordor was made by Sauron.)

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.

Ok, so it wasn’t raining when I took this picture in Soest, Netherlands…but it was overcast.

What struck me about the report was how close Tolkien got to what we’d expect from a scientific perspective, if his land was real. There is a reason for this – Tolkien was basing his world on Europe. The Shire was approximately where Britain lies; Gondor and Mordor in North Italy. The weather he described followed, especially the constant rain around Trollshaws in The Hobbit, a place geographically congruent to Soest, Netherlands.

All of which is pretty neat. And it goes to show that there is often a lot more in the creations of fantasy writers than they perhaps imagine when they come up with the concept.

What do you think of Middle Earth weather?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, more science, more humour and more Tolkien stuff. Not that I’m a fan. Well, I am really.

Write it now, part 30: Middle Earth on a plate?

I’ve mentioned before that the art of writing focuses on what to avoid – not what to add.

Take food, for which we need go no further than J R R Tolkien. This week, the Roxy– a wonderful art deco cinema, literally just down the road from Peter Jackson’s studios in Miramar, Wellington – got into Hobbit mode for the annual ‘Wellington on a plate’ food festival.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The cinema’s restaurant, Coco at the Roxy, is providing Lord Of The Rings themed meals – which is pretty cool idea. Though I don’t think I’d be a fan of their genuine sixteenth century starters such as ‘faggots’,  a legitimate sixteenth century delicacy made of offal with a delicate covering of stomach fat. Mind you, how would a sixteenth century peasant view the fast foods we gorge on? I bet they’d find them too sweet (including the savouries) and way too salty.

The Roxy menu was a modern interpretation. Which is fair enough, because with a few exceptions, Tolkien was a bit vague about food. And that was a good thing. Let me explain.

Although Tolkien portrayed Middle Earth tech as High Medieval (creating the default fantasy tech for the genre), Hobbit society was a deliberate take on 1890s Midlands village life. He did this consciously, one of the many elaborate jokes he wove into his mythos. Their food reflected it; in The Hobbit, Bilbo’s cuisine is specifically English middle class, including the afternoon tea cake selection.

Tolkien went wider with the other peoples – but not much. Dwarves ate Cram on the road. Apart from lembas, Elvish food was conceptually ‘higher taste’ and largely nonspecific. He described various meals, but roast meats, vegetables, mead, breads and other pre-industrial fare was implicit rather than explicit, most of the time.

All was duly lampooned by Messrs Beard and Kenney in Bored Of The Rings, whose Boggies were uncontrollable gluttons who ate anything they would wrist-wrestle down their well-muscled  throats (anything, that is that they weren’t stashing in their coin purses ‘for later’). When the Boggies got going on the road, eventually, their menus were laugh-out-loud funny.

As always, Tolkien got it right; he did not have to describe all the food in every detail – it was more powerful to omit descriptions. Instead, and with the elves particularly, he usually gave us the idea of the food – what it meant to those experiencing it.  By painting other aspects of the elves in full detail, he was able to provoke our imaginations into filling the food gap via skilful use of image and concept – not literal description.

A brilliant technique; but, of course, that’s Tolkien for you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, publishing news, general geekery and more. Watch this space.

Write It Now, Part 23: Speed + quality = can be done

The pressure’s on these days for writers to produce. Content is getting ever more transient – even print books, which occasionally gained a ‘long tail’ of years, now tend to dwindle after just a year or so. And the advent of e-publishing has produced a colossal market.

The reality of this brave new future boils down to hard work for writers – a lot of it. And that’s also brought home with challenges like National Novel Writing month – 50,000 words in four weeks. A challenge of pace even for experienced writers.

All of which is a great training ground for writing as a career – a world where authors have to be able to produce great material, to length, in time.

There is a conceit – certainly in academic communities in New Zealand – that ‘speed’ and ‘quality’ don’t go together. Indeed, the word ‘prolific’ is used as a put-down in these circles. It seems to be a given that if somebody is ‘prolific’ then their quality has to be questioned.

This is a classic false premise, of course. Different writers produce quality at different speeds – and in fact, speed and quality can be made to go together by any writer. It takes practise. A lot of practise. And in the race for quantity AND quality, the word processor is your friend. Exploit its strength – painless editing without re-typing. Now, I know there’s software out there designed to do more – Scrivener, for instance.

Personally I use a word processor like a typewriter anyway – all the planning is done on paper. There’s no absolute right or wrong. What counts, though, at the end of the day – are the final words.

My take is this:

1. Figure out the broad structure – for a novel, the plot points, character arcs, chapter divisions and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you could detail down to how the chapters are structured. This is one of the keys to getting quality quickly, because  your story has got everything it needs in the right places. If you think of your book as a house, this is the foundation, wall and roof framing.

2. Now’s the time to populate that plan with words. And here’s the secret. If the first sentence doesn’t arrive, start with another further down, using the outline as a placement. Then backfill. This keeps the pace going. If you take the house analogy, this is putting up the wall-boarding, inner lining and roof. It’s handy to do that in sequence – but, if the frame’s correctly done and the pressure’s on to proceed, not always esssential.

3. This might well end up a bit patch-work, but it’s straight forward to polish the text. Back to housing again – this is the fit-out, painting and carpeting.

This process should work to any scale, from a short essay to a 90,000 word novel. Does this work for you? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write It Now Part 18: Logline, the writer’s best friend

I figure a logline is one of the best friends a writer can have. A good one will help sell your manuscript to an agent or publisher.  What’s more, loglines are also brilliant writing tools.

A logline is a one-sentence description of a book. Its purpose is to tell the agent or publisher why the public want to read the book. To do that, the logline doesn’t recount the plot; it describes the character arc – in effect, the emotional effect of the book on the reader. It works for non-fiction, too, but it’s usually used for fiction. In novels or plays, the usual form is “[character name] has to [do something] in order to [achieve exciting goal] and so [develop as a character]”.

It has to grab the person reading it at once and convince them why they should represet or publish the material. The keys to writing a good logline are active language and being able to hone in on why people want to read the story.

“Halfling hero has to face dangers to drop a magic ring into a volcano.”

Uh…yay, but no cigar. OK, try this:

“Unwilling halfling has to find the courage to face the power of the Dark Lord in a quest to destroy a cursed ring that threatens the world.”

There’s character dynamic, purpose, drama, and the stakes of failure are clear.

Some books don’t render a good loglines, because they don’t meet the requirements of dramatic convention. Yet that convention, like it or not, is what sells. The only cure is to re-write the book.

Is there a way to avoid that re-work? Sure. This is where the logline comes in as a writing tool.

Got an idea for a book? A phrase – ‘In a hole in the ground lived a…’ for instance? Excellent. But don’t start writing the novel from that (yes, I know someone did…) These days the bar is slightly higher.

Sit down and write the logline. Make those the very first words you write on a book. Make it the real thing – grippy, dynamic, all the stuff you think you’ll need to sell the book. If it looks lame – well, that’s a good litmus test as to the book itself.

If you have a Good Idea half way through? No problem. Loglines can be revised. But it’s important to sit down and look at the whole structure of the book if you change direction part way. More on that next time.

Meanwhile, do you use loglines? Have you ever sold a story or book with one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

Coming up: more writing tips, Neanderthal geek adventures with Amazon – and more.