And they come with no warning,
nature loves her little surprises.
Continual crisis!

Friday, October 12, 2007

At the Cliffs of Insanity

Have you ever noticed the place names in books just never sound realistic. While most character names have progressed beyond the Morality Play conventions (James Bond movie females being the most noticeable recent fall-back), most place names haven't progressed. Granted, in high fantasy we sometimes have names that require a working knowledge of Khoisan (the family of African languages that employ clicks) to pronounce correctly, but those are some of the exceptions.

In real life you'll never see the Ocean of OMG We'll Never Make it Back, you have the Pacific Ocean. There's no We're All Gonna Die Cape, we have the Cape of Good Hope. We don’t' have Dire Straights, we have the Straights of Magellan. So why in novels do we have place names that sound like they are totally made up by fifth graders? I mean, people don't normally name things like Island of Crazed Monkeymen. Instead you'll have a name that describes the flowers.

I'm thinking about this because in my novel I need a place to have a Lake of Fire. Right now I have a "Hells Hollow, PA." It just feels right, and I pass a Hells Hollow (it's a Ohio State Nature Preserve) every day on the way home, but it still feels a little cheesy.

Oh, and while you can get to the Cliffs of Insanity from the Mountains of Madness, you can't get there from here.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's a book you might be interested in, called Wisdom Sits in Places--it's about Western Apache place-naming, and it really redefined how I thought about naming and setting and many other things in terms of story, for trying to get at authentic ways of place-naming. Alas, my mother has absconded with my copy. I believe it's by Keith Basso. It's written a bit in academicese, but if you can get past that, it's SO worth it.

Ken McConnell said...

I know what you mean Steve. Most of my stories are set in a fictional universe, so I'm very careful not to make reference to noticeably real places or people.

I used to get most of my place names from world maps. Still do.

I also hate unpronounceable sci-fi names for aliens. I had an alien character in my first sold story with a name that could not be pronounced. So the main character just called him Nightmare. Easy to say and fitting. I never even mentioned what the unpronounceable name was, didn't need to.

Steve Buchheit said...

Mer, that sounds like a cool book, I'll have to see if the library can get a copy.

And Ken, I used to think I was pretty good at Geography/History, but I'm contiually amazed when I discover that some planet name, race name, or future movement name has some tie somewhere in the world (I'm thinking here of Star Trek and Star Wars).

Camille Alexa said...

I think it depends on the kind of story you're writing, whether ridiculous names are a good fit or not. Truthfully, I've never found names terribly problematic, either in reading or writing, but I can totally see your point. A place name should add to story, not detract by distracting.

ThatGreenyFlower said...

I don't know, Steve...I'm pretty sure it's The Fence of Fortitude that separates my yard from the Alley of Bad Cats. And my Garden of Gloriouslness stands in stark contrast to my neighbor's Yard of Despair.

Steve Buchheit said...

Camille, it most definatelty can distract from a story, and that's why I'm hesitant to use that place name. However, just like character names, when then come, this one has stuck, and soem of my attempts to switch are meeting with choruses of criket chirps in my head. So I think this Lake of Fire will be in Hell's Hollow (I also like the use of Hollow, because in Western PA that could be pronounced "holl'er"). The story starts out, though, in Cedarbank. Nice low-key name, very NE Ohioish.

When I came up with Windswept, Ohio (where a number of my short stories are set) as the ex-urbia, I wanted to use "Wind" something (Windsor is just down the road, and there are three town with "Wind" in their names in Ohio). And while that name is a little meodramaticy, I like the despolation and "end of the world" feel about it.

Greeny, LOL! We have the Great Amass next door (vacant lot), Buch Lake in the backyard (a vernal pool), and right now we have Halloween Corner between my neighbor and myself. While many people around here refer to their properties by family names (because they've lived here all their lives, they know where they're talking about), I've taken to creating my own nicknames for them.