It all started with pimchie flowers.
The Blue Sword is one of my favorite books and a few years ago I finally got it into my bookclub for everyone to read the wonder that is Robin McKinley. And for about 20 minutes at the beginning of our discussion, all they could talk about was pimchie flowers.
McKinley mentions them a few times in the opening chapter; nothing I would have considered over the top. I got what she was doing – trying to create this world with some nice, specific but foreign thing that said this wasn’t our earth. But my book club didn’t care about pimchie flowers and if it had been roses or daisies, it wouldn’t have been a discussion.
That stayed with me throughout the writing of Tattered Heart. I wanted to make this a new world, but it’s a balance to make it unique and still relatable. Fill your story with too many unique nouns and the reader won’t know if an Okapi is a plant or an animal or a sword and so the context is lost, and with it the power of what you’re saying.
In Tattered Heart I was almost afraid of using proper nouns. I decided to use familiar nouns with unfamiliar behavior – peonies that grew on vines and peaches that flowered and then the flower folded outward and transformed into the fruit. I had over 20 named characters and yet I still kept figures on the sidelines so I didn’t have to give them names. I wanted the proper nouns to support the story, not make it distracting or worse, confusing. (I managed to make it confusing anyway but whatever, I like my character names).
With Enchanted Storms, I found myself using a lot more proper nouns. And I had fun coming up with them! I researched rare animals (hence the Okapi reference above). I named ships and towns and characters all over the place. It made it easier to work through the narrative when I could say “Jabin led them” and not have a paragraph full of 4 different he’s (really, I had a paragraph of 4 guys fighting – names were the only way to keep it straight).
There are other ways to build a fantasy world than proper nouns. Susan Dennard at a recent event talked about using idioms to build culture. If you can come up with some good ones, they can be fantastic and unique markers of your story and your world without having to give definitions or explanations. Susan also discussed the importance of details in a fantasy world to give it verisimilitude. Details can be everything from slang to customs and traditions. Somewhere in there, however, there’s probably at least one new name.
Since Enchanted Storms is not yet out, I don’t know if all those names made it more confusing or not. I think, though, they built a more full world. There’s still roses and sorcerers and ordinary things; majors and captains and battalions. But the roses don’t look quite like ours. Sorcerers have their own lexicon that penetrates the culture of the world. Maybe it makes it confusing. But maybe it makes it interesting.