Archive for the ‘worldbuilding’ category

That’s Not Even a Real Word! How I invent languages for my fiction

April 9, 2013

This week in the continuing (and penetrating) discussion of The Shadow of the Sun on her Week Two readalong post, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

You have used language throughout the book as a way to sew culture clash, create bonding, and swear creatively. How did you go about building the various languages into your story?

The master of the invented language, of course, was J.R.R. Tolkien. I am not fit to dust his dictionaries. But even for those of us whose artistic talent & impulses don’t run towards inventing languages, the development of language is a useful tool for fantasy & SF. Languages both arise from and reflect cultures: words and phrases so commonplace we don’t even hear them are profound indicators of our culture’s assumptions and norms. And the etymology and linguistic underpinnings of a language tell the story of where a culture comes from, what other cultures it has encountered, and what its problems and conflicts are.

You just made that up,
didn’t you?

Nope. A couple examples to get you started thinking about this:

Gender assumptions:

In English, we say “men and women”; where gender is mixed or uncertain, we use male words to cover all the unknowns. When we speak of both, we speak of males first–except when we’re being self-consciously courteous, as in “Ladies and gentlemen”, which embodies reasoning too convoluted to get into here. These habits reflect entrenched patriarchy. In The Heart of Darkness, the sequl to The Shadow of the Sun, some of the point-of-view characters I’m writing come from a matriarchal society. Maleness is not their linguistic default. The choices I make when my matriarchal characters speak about mixed or indefinite gender tell a story about their assumptions: right down to the fact that where my human characters say “priestess” to apply to a member of the Danaan clergy, the Danaan characters say “priest”. Because in their culture all priests are women, so there is no need to specify gender.

Swearing and Insults:

How we swear, what is considered profane or taboo, bespeaks our religious and moral norms. Americans, who as a group tend towards religious fundamentalism and puritanism to a much greater extent than some other cultures, find great shock value in blasphemy against Christian religions, sex, and bodily functions. How we insult others speaks to what our culture values and abhors. Because we tend to be very narrow-minded about sex lives that are in any way different from our own (see also: fundamentalism and puritanism), Americans can be heard using “gay” as an insult.

In other cultures, notably pagan cultures in which magic is mixed in with the religion, there is frequently a strong taboo against speaking the nmes of gods aloud, particularly in the presence of nonbelievers: because the names of the gods confer power. It may also be considered inappropriate to use the names of gods outside the context of prayer and magic, whether in the presence of nonbelievers or not. (That’s a tradition that carries over in modern Christianity as well, at least in the U.S.) I’ve made some use of both of those taboos in The Shadow of the Sun: my Beallan (human) characters, both of whom are deeply religious, rarely speak the names of their gods outside the context of religion, and certainly never in front of the Danaan, who have their own gods; and the Danaan, who believe themselves to be in a collective state of disgrace before their great goddess, no longer invoke her name outside the context of prayer. It’s the lesser goddesses and the great goddess’s consort with whom they feel themselves sufficiently close to swear by their names.

But as nrlymrtl notes, swearing is a bonding activity. People love swearing, and in swearing together we relieve the tension both of whatever made us want to mouth off and of the transgression of swearing itself. Learning one another’s swear words is a moment of cross-cultural bonding, a means of building bridges between our cultures. Kumbaya, baby. We see that in The Shadow of the Sun, too, in the moment when the Danaan mock Ellion because he is unable to pronounce one of the sounds common to their language and he turns around and challenges them to swear in his–and then they all laugh at the results.

So where did you get
those crazy words?

If you’ve been reading along lately, you will be unsurprised to learn that I stole. A lot. To reinforce the cohesiveness of the cultures I had built on a basis of ancient Irish myth as history, I drew heavily on ancient Irish and Gaelic languages and naming traditions, with a bit of Iberian thrown in for development of the Essuvian names and words. Where I could, I lifted words whole; where the word I wanted either didn’t exist or was too hard for someone with my VERY meager command of those languages to track down, I started with the etymological roots of those words in that end of the human language genome and built new ones. I also drew on ancient Greek and Egyptian sources for words that are, in the context of my tale, of yet more ancient vintage. In the course of developing the traders’ culture in The Heart of Darkness I stole from Basque and Romani language and naming traditions. And the ubiquitous profanity fouzh, which Ellion can’t get through an entire page without, was invented out of whole cloth: I wanted something evocative of the “f-bomb”, as it is delicately styled, which would be satisfying in the English-speaking mouth but wouldn’t require me to litter the pages with something that makes a significant percentage of readers flinch, not to mention bringing our cultural norms into an entirely different culture.

I love playing with language, maybe even more than I enjoy playing with the rest of reality. And I adore taking apart the components of our culture, looking at them, and putting them back together in entertaining/disturbing ways. It helps me think, and I hope it gives readers the opportunity to think some thoughts they would not have otherwise. It was probably inevitable that I write speculative fiction.

Place as Character: Using Worldbuilding to Develop Story

April 1, 2013


In her Part 1 post for the Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, Amy of Just Book Reading asked me a question about how I imagine the world I’m writing:

I ‘see’ this world very clearly in my head. In fact, I tend to read in pictures, active imagination and all that, when reading fantasy. When you’re writing, what do you picture and how do you keep the world so vivid? There is a map at the beginning of the book as well. Do you use maps to picture the world?


Warning: Geek Content

If you’re not into serious worldbuilding geekery, this might be good time to look elsewhere. Here is a picture of my cats.


The Map is Not the Territory.

But it is part of the story.

Maps are one of my most important tools for imagining a story world. I use a mapping program called Campaign Cartographer, which was originally designed for role-playing games. The maps I create become essential not only to the development of the world but also the development of the story.

Campaign Cartographer doesn’t build pretty maps, at least not for people who aren’t equipped to really tweak the program (read: amateurs like me). But what it does, brilliantly, is provide “real” data about the map’s territory. Once the map is built, the distances and potential routes between story locations are set—which keeps me honest, and requires the characters to deal with real obstacles. In order to facilitate the plot I’m planning, frex, I may want to have it take two days for a character to get someplace—but the truth of the world as constructed may be different. This tension helps to drive the development of the story, because it takes me out of what comes easily into stuff that makes me engage my “A-game”. It also helps to keep things feeling “real”.

Maps as Story

I’m also having a lot of fun with maps as a storytelling tool. I have the rare privilege of working with the artist Ari Warner on the maps for my books. He takes my amateurish, just-the-facts maps and develop them into maps that help tell the story of the world. Each of his maps is an exercise in worldbuilding: the glorious maps that grace The Shadow of the Sun are designed with the conceit that they have been developed by professional cartographers. Within the context of the story, each of the maps the reader sees comes from a particular collection: a couple of different royal libraries, and the collection of the Harpist Gorsedd in Ilnemedon. The inaccuracies in the maps represent misconceptions, misunderstandings, and confusions on the parts of the people who assembled the data–and those errors feed back into the story in the form of misunderstandings with which the characters who rely on them are walking around.

In the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, the sequel to The Shadow of the Sun, Ari has outdone himself: we’re creating a new series of maps that originate with the kharr, the rebels in the war that encompasses both these volumes. He’s using a completely different style for these maps, one that reflects their less exalted and more practical origins. And the ways the kharr maps contradict the loyalist maps developed for the first volume carry part of the story as well.

Another tool I use in developing worlds is theft.

That seems to be a theme around here lately.

I stole elements of a lot of places in developing my story world. The geography of the Danaan sacred isle of Ilunmore came out of the legendary geography of Atlantis. The Ruillin Basin has its origins in the Bay of Fundy and surrounding waterways, right down to the shameless theft of the reversing falls on the St. John River, which became “Bormo’s Well” in The Shadow of the Sun. I used Mt. St. Michel in France twice: the island of Aballo is one part Mt. St. Michel, one part Bru na Boinne in Ireland, situated on Half Moon Bay in California. And the tidal accessibility of Mt. St. Michel became part of daily life for the island of Bealingas.

Theft committed in the name of worldbuilding can’t stop at window-dressing and yield a world that feels real. If stealing these places brought a wealth of details to the world that help to create the experience of a real place, that real feeling can only be maintained by following the facts of the places borrowed wherever they may lead. The tides on the Ruillin Basin with which the characters in my world must contend arose from the interaction of the true facts of the Bay of Fundy with the influence of my world’s extra moon. It created bizarre obstacles to travel in that region which in turn drove the development of an arcane “technology”, windcallers: wizards specially trained to harness winds and weather for the purpose of making it possible to sail in otherwise unnavigable waters. And those obstacles to travel fed back into the action of the novel.

But I am getting ahead of myself, for a post intended to accompany the first seven chapters of the novel. And the extra moon and all the baggage it brings to the party are a topic for another day.