The Healer and the Pirate

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Musing about Fiction - WHERE

So Blogger saved this as a draft and published the next entry early. I forgot I need to check to make sure every single entry is set to publish properly...sorry about that.

Anyway...I've been musing about fiction (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How). Here are a few thoughts on "Where."

Where do you set your novel? Settings aren't really my strong suit--or at least not physical settings. I'm not so interested in the physical world as much as the realm of ideas, so I don't always do the best job of describing places. When Maggie and I are playing around while writing, it can cause problems because I failed to describe a scene so she "saw" it differently! I need to work on "seeing" the world and painting it for others.

"Where" can bleed over onto genre. I've heard it said that if you can tell your story WITHOUT using magic, it shouldn't be fantasy. (I think "The Healer and the Pirate" passes that test, even though it's really a rather light fantasy.) I guess the reasoning is that if fantastical elements aren't an integral part of the story, it shouldn't be fantasy. As a reader, I don't know if I subscribe to that notion, but I imagine most serious fantasy readers do.

One aspect of "where" that I DO find fascinating (and that I might have some talent for?) is history. What kind of technology did people use to get around? How did people think? How did people talk? Dialogue can often establish setting as well as character. If a male lead is calling people "darlin'," you might just have a Western setting.

Unfortunately, with Google always available, it's very, very, VERY easy to tumble down rabbit holes when trying to find out, say, what kind of cookie my historic character may have consumed. Even when critiquing others' work, I get caught up Googling to see if something existed.

One of my favorite sources for words is the Online Etymology Dictionary. You can use it to see if your word would have been used back in the day. Now, granted, if you're writing something taking place in the Middle Ages, you can't use a lot of the words that were used then (or the reader won't understand). And you're going to have to use a lot of modern words. But if a word just "sounds" wrong to you OR your critiquer, this can be a good source. It may also remind you not to have your 1920s characters skateboard!

One thing that drives me crazy in historicals is when major characters have names that aren't accurate for the era. A great place to check American names is the Social Security website, of all places. You can check what the popular names were when your characters were BORN.

One particular problematic example I can think of is the American Girl book series, and specifically, the most popular girl, Samantha. Samantha was meant to be the quintessential wealthy 1900s orphan, and the books inspired probably tens of thousands of girls to enjoy history. (I was more obsessed with Kirsten, thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

But Samantha's name? Not so accurate; in 1895 (the year the character was born), 16 girls listed had that name. Now, the database isn't comprehensive this early, but the top female name, Mary, had over 13,000 girls given that name that year.

Now, on a fictional level, the name "Samantha" actually works; it SOUNDS old-timey. It's just not statistically very likely. Obviously authors want to come up with interesting and memorable names for their characters, but I'd still try to stick to something probable...or if not, something that sounds right. Your heroine born in 1895 would be much more likely to be named Letha, Pearlie, Elsa, or Birdie than Ashley, Madison, Addison, or Avery. (Though all of those were listed as rare boy names for that year!)

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