A sense of place plays a critical role in determining whether a reader “gets into” a story or not. Place names can lend an aura of reality to even the most fantastical of places. Conversely, an obviously made up place name in a story that pretends at reality can make a location that seems perfectly real to the author seem perfectly ridiculous to the reader.
For example, I’ve seen a number of writers set stories in California’s Gold Country, where I resided for thirty-five years. They often name their fictional towns Pickaxe, Gold Pan, or Mother Lode. When I read a story where these sort of names abound, I find my suspension of disbelief is much less willing every time I collide with one of them because, while the area is sometimes referred to as Mother Lode country, the towns have much less “folksy” names such as Auburn, Nevada City and Washington.
As a reader, I have a strong personal preference for real place names. If a story is set in Grass Valley or Chicago or San Francisco, why not say so? As a writer I try to use landmarks my reader might recognize. This requires some research on my part, but the pay off in terms of bringing reality to a story is invaluable. Not only can the reader recognize and relate to the surroundings I depict, but selecting a real location allows me to describe more with less verbiage.
Plus a side benefit to using, and therefore having to research, a real locale is that I often find new stories lurking in the scenery and history of an area.
If a real place is unsuitable for some reason, I try setting my action near a real place. For example, my detective novel, The Antiquities Hunter, required that part of the action take place at an unknown archaeological dig. The well-known digs were … well, too well-known and too well-exploited to be appropriate, so I made one up. But I set it near enough to a known site that my readers, if they wanted, could look up the neighboring dig on the Web or in National Geographic and satisfy themselves that they knew the terrain—and that I knew it, as well, and had described it accurately.
A story will likely work whether the writer uses a real or fictional setting, but I get downright grumpy when a writer has clearly made up a fictional place out of laziness and whole cloth. If the best setting for a story is a real town, then use a real town, bite the bullet and do the research. It’s worth it. I’ve gotten fan mail from readers who were certain I must have lived in the locales in which my Earthbound stories are set. Hint: If the story was set in Morocco, Nebraska or Northern California they’re right. Otherwise, I have merely demonstrated the benefits of thorough research.
Okay, that’s all fine when a story is set in the real world, but what about science fiction and fantasy where we’re tooling around planets and land masses that are entirely in our heads?
I mentioned Tolkien because he’s the undisputed master of evocative place names and has inspired a couple of generations of fantasy writers to reach deep for names.
There is, of course, a downside to this. Tolkien gave us books full of names that are delightful to read, to hear spoken and to speak. I sometimes say “Barad-dûr” just ‘cos I love the feel of the word on my tongue. It seems to say what it is—the Tower that holds the malevolent Mayar spirit of Sauron. Similarly, I love to read and say names like Minas Tirith, Cirith Ungol, and Lothlorien. Delicious delicacies, every one. And the way Tolkien changes our perception of Saruman’s capital, Eisengard by changing its name to Orthanc—well, what can I say?
What was that? I’ve gotten carried away in fits of lingual ecstasy and forgotten what I was going to say about the downside of Rivendell, Edoras, and Mordor? Yes, too right. Ahem.
The downside of this is that it is tempting for writers following in Tolkien’s considerable footsteps to simply copy the sounds or to use his names as jumping off points for their own. They copy his work, not his methodology.
The movie Willow does this in a rather good-natured way when it tosses out character names like Bavmorda, Cherlindrea, Elora Danan and Fin Raziel, ethnic names like Daikini and Nelwyns and place names like Nockmaar and Galladoorn.
The names are a mish-mosh of different cultural groups in the real world (Elora Danan has Celtic roots and Raziel is Hebrew for “the mystery of God”). They are also names that just sound cool. I have to admit, the hero’s name—Madmartigan—is one of my favorite character names ever.
As a reader, though, I like it when a writer has clearly gone back and done research and, borrowing Tolkien’s methodology rather than his syllables, found real world root stock that creates an endless supply of appropriate syllables and sounds that match.
As a writer, I try to do exactly that, which is why in the Mer Cycle series, which was my first experience writing a fantasy that took place entirely in a made-up world, I identified a language group or two that I wanted to use for my cultures and then invented character, object and place names that had meaning in that borrowed and tweaked lingo.
Hence, the heroine of The Meri is named “Meredydd” (pronounced Mar-e-dith with hard th as in “the”). The land she lives in is called “Caraid-land”—meaning land between rivers. And the place of her schooling is called “Halig-liath”, which means Holy Fortress. And this fortress looks out onto the peaks of the Gyldan Baenn (Golden Mountains). By pegging my made up language to real ones (Old English and Gaelic), I was able to avoid floating meanings. “Liath” always means “fortress” and “baenn” always means “mountain”. So, in a land of many fortresses and mountains, I have a ready component for consistent place names.
I’m sure you caught that I had to explain to you how to pronounce my heroine’s first name. I will admit that I had to provide a pronunciation key for a number of words in my fantasy world—who’d think to pronounce “Creiddylad”, Cray-thee-lyah, or that from it we get the name “Cordelia”?
This brings up an important lesson that I learned: a slavish consistency is a hobgoblin that can tie your reader’s tongue in knots.