World Building

This week I put together a list of terms—character names, geographical places, demonyms, currencies—that my sister and I never figured out while writing the first draft of our pirate fantasy novel.

The manuscript is full of words in all caps like PLANTATION NAME and COINS where one or the other of us wanted something that sounded cool and appropriate to the world, but we didn’t want to slow down and figure it out just then. Ultimately I think this strategy served us well to not get gummed up in the world-building details so the first draft could develop as quickly as possible. But now we’re paying for it. “Not my favorite part of world building,” I texted her with a monkey-covering-eyes emoji.

Which is a bit strange for me, because I generally love world building. My background is literary studies, and a couple of my solo novels have been alternate history rather than high fantasy. I am only too happy to get lost online researching cannon technology during the age of sail or the Mayan pantheon or the use of messenger pigeons throughout history. For my high fantasy projects, too, I tend to rely as much as possible on real-world cultures, geographies, myths, and languages to help build those needed aspects of realism so readers will go with the unfamiliar magical parts.

Even in the pirate book, much of the world building has come together naturally, and continues to work itself out in the editing process. For example, a later part of the first draft takes places in the French-speaking capital city, and it’s been easy while editing earlier conversations where they talk about the city to fill in the details we hadn’t figured out at that point. Questions of geography, governmental structure, cuisine, even terms of endearment slowly sorted themselves out over the months of drafting, and reapproaching the early chapters for editing with that level of familiarity has helped me address a lot of remaining questions with a confidence I didn’t have the first time through.

But for some reason names and terms are not coming as easily. I find myself scrolling through online dictionaries of Old French or Anglo-Norman, or researching the languages geographically between Parisian French and Castilian Spanish that are no longer widely spoken, but nothing seems to synthesize. I keep getting caught between liking names for what they mean and liking them for how they sound. I waffle on whether something is ripped too directly from the real world or whether it will feel too different to readers.

The good news about cowriting is that two people get to brainstorm and come up with ideas, and my sister has come up with a few names recently (for really important things, like the main character’s last name *embarrassed grin*) that work really well. And I can continue to edit for character and plot just fine without having the names all sorted.

Maybe finalized names are a problem to leave for draft 3.

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