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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So is it muddle earth and not Middle Earth?

Viggo Mortensen’s recent suggestion in the British Telegraph that filming on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings was chaotic got me thinking about how a book of that scope can be adapted to the screen, anyway.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

People at the 2012 Hobbit craft market in Wellington, New Zealand. Click to enlarge.

Some years ago I had a chance to hear Phillipa Boyens, the script-writer, explain how they’d done Fellowship, the only movie out at that time. Tolkien’s novel couldn’t be translated direct to a movie. The pacings were wrong for film. That’s true, of course, of any book.

Boyens didn’t discuss The Two Towers or The Return of the King, but it seems to me that adapting them couldn’t have been straight forward. They were structurally different from The Fellowship of the Ring – the story broke into two linear threads. If that had been made directly into a movie, it would have been peculiar – effectively, two movies jammed together. So it had to be reorganised. I got the impression that was quite a task, and one for which there was no obvious answer. The original cinema cut of The Two Towers was radically different from the DVD version – I saw both editions, and they were very different movies.

The Return of the King, it’s worth noting, was also inconsistent with the other two stylistically – Tolkien, quite deliberately, shifted to more epic tones during the climactic sequences. Another challenge for film-making.

A point to discuss. And I’d be inclined to agree with Mortensen’s reported observation that Jackson’s series of Middle Earth movies have been progressively captured by special effects. The Hobbit bears only a passing resemblance to the book, and the second one – particularly – was virtually all CGI. Nice eye candy, but I missed Tolkien’s original story.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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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.

Why I don’t fan-boy (much) over The Hobbit or Trek

The other week Peter Jackson met fans in Wellington for a sneak part-preview of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Even Smaug was there – well, the pet lizard, Hermes, they used for mo-cap sequences, anyway.

I am a huge enthusiast for Tolkien and Jackson. But I didn’t don my magic elven cloak (the one that renders you invisible against green grass, green sky, green rocks and green water) and go along. I don’t cosplay. I don’t go to conventions. I don’t have a book filled with autographs from the Guy In The Red Shirt or the set-sweeper for Star Trek: The Original Series, who’s made a living from convention fees ever since.

Partly it’s because I’ve been at the receiving end to some extent. As an author I get approached every so often by strangers. Setting aside the odd incident in which a would-be author thinks I’ve written one of ‘their’ books, sees red, and barrels over to take a pop at me – which has actually happened – most of these people are friendly, but I never quite know what to say. I just do stuff. It involves a lot of hard work and doesn’t make me special.

This was the best aisle of craft stalls. That's also because it was the only aisle...

Ordinary Kiwis at the Hobbit craft market, late 2012.

I think this is true of most writers. They are professionals whose job happens to be creating stuff –  who have normal lives and do their own supermarket shopping. Actually that’s true of the whole entertainment industry. A few years back She Who Must Be Obeyed and I lived a block or two from an actor who was known internationally. My wife knew his wife slightly, and we used to run into them in the local video store. They were totally normal, unassuming and nice people.

As far as I can tell, modern ‘fandom’ emerged in the 1920s on the sci-fi magazine boom. It took on life in the 1970s – largely fostered by Trek.  Back then it was seen as a symptom of maladjustment. ‘Trekkie’ became a perjorative, usually taken to mean socially inept nerds who couldn’t function in a normal world and relied on their obsession with somebody else’s fantasy to define their identities and social interactions.

I had to prone to take this picture. 'Get up,' She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. 'People will think you're dead.'

I had to go prone to take this picture of Hobbit market stuff. ‘Get up,’ She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted. ‘People will think you’re dead.’

It’s likely, I think, that a proportion of fans then did fit that category. But not many. Certainly I don’t think that characterises fandom these days. It’s been mainstreamed, commercialised, and evolved into a way for people to express their enthusiasms. (That’s another reason I don’t go to conventions – they’re so crowded you can’t get in the door).

So why do fans become ‘fans’? I think it’s an indication of the power that stories and settings have to evoke emotion. It’s a way of sharing that experience with others who think the same way. It’s an endorsement of the ability of writers, movie-makers and actors to create emotional transfer and capture an audience.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: the final NaNo prompts for 2013, more writing tips, and more.

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.

Not so smug about Smaug

Warner Brothers released the first clips of Smaug the Dragon this week, six months ahead of The Hobbit, Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

‘You are?’ the stranger asked politely. ‘Why, I am Bioquxqwehr, a Gchqetuzgchzghghughwy from the city of  Cigghguhqchchgh in the land of Aqghpowiqghghghpoewqgch.’ ‘A land,’ the stranger observed ‘where the commonest cause of death is choking on one’s own tongue?’ ‘Why yes,’ said Bioquxqwehr. ‘How in all the name of Pwqhexghxghxghchchghxiud did you guess that?’

‘I say, George old boy, off for a spot of dragon hunting, eh what?’ ‘I should jolly well think so.’ “By Jove, bit of a ripping wheeze, that!’

The creature is the whole rationale of The Hobbit and, I suppose, focus of the next two movies in the nine-hour epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s modest childrens’ tale.

We know what Smaug looked like because Tolkien carefully drew him – my copy of The Hobbit has the author’s own illustration on the cover, in fact. A classic dragon, a creature St. George would have been proud to defeat in single combat – and deliberately done that way by Tolkien, for good reason.

Does the dragon look like that in the movie? Noooo.

Sigh.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’m a huge Peter Jackson fan. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. And the imagery we have in our heads as we read a story will always differ between people

But Tolkien was pretty specific about the look of his dragon

Question: should film-makers follow the author’s vision – or is it adding something to have a new look to Smaug? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013