So this weekend’s writing job, while I do a bunch of other, non-writingy jobs, is to start dreaming up a city for one of my current projects.
I’m a big advocate of the setting-as-a-character-in-its-own-right school of world building. My favourite novels are the ones you want to keep re-reading because you just enjoy being in the world of the story so much. Think JK Rowling’s Hogwarts, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood, Diana Wynne Jones’ Moving Castle. And just to show this works outside fantastical stories, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Georgette Heyer’s Regency London. In fact, one of my big motivations behind writing The Beast’s Heart was to write myself a fairy tale world I could go and live in for a little while.
I have some sketchy ideas for this city, but so far it’s really just been a backdrop for the action in this new story. I want to level it up a bit, deepen it’s character, really bring it alive. I want my city to have twisty, shadowy alleyways lined with crooked buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas, a complicated clock tower, avenues of terraced mansions, moonlit shenanigans on rooftops, a river with treacherously damp water stairs, a monumental bridge lined with statuary, and a royal palace with towers and turrets. I want it to have all this and hold out the tantalising promise of more.
I love looking at old photographs of cities in times gone past for inspiration.
I also love using old paintings and drawings for city inspiration. I find it interesting to look at what drew the artist’s eye. What was it about the city they thought was worth capturing? Rooftops? Stately buildings and squares? Shadowy spaces and archways leading…where?
T Girtin, ‘Paris, View over the Rooftops towards Montmartre’, 1801-02
The Main Square in Bratislava by Rudolf von Alt, 1843
Thomas Shotter Boys
And I’ve been mainlining illustrations by the likes of Anton Pieck and Arthur Rackham, who did delightful, fairy-taleish cityscapes.
What are your favourite literary cities? And what brings them alive in your mind?
In 2011, when I decided to ‘get serious’ about my writing, one of the first things I did was book myself into a Year of the Novel course with the very knowledgeable and generous Craig Cormick, through the ACT Writers Centre. One of the very first exercises he got us to do, was describe our favourite kitchen appliance in one sentence, without mentioning what it is. I came up with:
When it’s packed, the mess is gone, and I can go and write.
(Can you guess?) Then, of course, we had to condense it down to one word. One word?The man is crazy, I thought. Then he uttered the magic phrase… “If there isn’t a word, you can make one up.” (Or something like that.) Awesome. It came to me almost straight away.
Now, I could have gone with ‘neat’ or ‘clean’ or something like that . But none of those words conveyed the sense of satisfaction I have at achieving a kitchen that doesn’t have dirty plates and used saucepans scattered over every surface. For some reason, if my kitchen is messy, I feel like my mind is cluttered. Words like ‘tidy’ give you a sense of the end product, but they don’t describe the journey. My word conveys (to me, anyway) a sense of my active participation in achieving that state. And there’s the rub.
If you’re going to go making up words, you run the risk of creating something that’s meaningless to other people.
Words like ‘squared-awayness’ probably don’t carry that kind of risk, because I’ve picked something that already carries meaning and just levered it into a grammatical convention that makes it one word instead of two. But, especially if you write speculative fiction like me, which often involves making up worlds and cultures, you might want to make up new words, just coz they sound cool, or there isn’t quite the right word to convey what you want. In this case, you’re going to have to rely heavily on context to get across your meaning, or you can leverage off existing words that sound similar. ‘Frack’ as a pseudo-swear word is a good example of this, although thanks to the Australian coal-seam gas mining industry, that word now has a boring and slightly depressing, well-understood technical meaning.
So there’s your second risk. You might end up with a word that means something different to other people, to what it means to you. Here’s a couple of examples from one of my works in progress. This has a late-medieval-ish setting and a lot of the characters are peasants, or common household or forest-dwelling fairies loosely based on various bits of British folklore. I’ve tried to create a kind of vernacular for the story to give it a certain feel. But, here are two of the inadvertent missteps I’ve made along the way.
What I meant: a variant of lumpy, but with a more colloquial sound to it.
What it actually means: (according to Dictionary.com) of or pertaining to disenfranchised and uprooted individuals or groups, especially those that have lost status. It can also mean stupid or unthinking (how’s that for irony?) and comes from the German word for vagabond.
What I meant: something daft or stupid. I totally made this up. I just liked the sound. I think I derived it from whelk, which is a hilarious-sounding shellfish. (I don’t think you get whelks in forests, though.)
What it actually means: the sky. From the Old English welcn and related to the German word Wolke, which means cloud. Who knew?
Well, one of my sharp-eyed, German-speaking beta readers, that’s who.
Obviously, I should have done a bit more due-diligence. I remember reading about J K Rowling Googling the term ‘Horcrux’ when writing the 6th Harry Potter book. (Now there’s a woman who’s great with made-up words.) She says she was so relieved to find no Google matches on it at the time, because she really liked the word and desperately wanted to use it. (Try Googling it now!)
So the moral of this story is: be creative! Make words up. But you might want to double check to make sure you’re using something that, well, means what you think it means.