What’s in a Name?

In her excellent manual for would-be novelists Donna Levin covers all those elements you’d expect to see in such a guide, including the subject of originality. In support of her sound advice she includes a quote from American author Rita Mae Brown:

Rita Mae Brown said, “The novel is a work of a single, unified consciousness.” As such it will always be unique.’

Donna Levin – ‘Get That Novel Written

Science Fiction writer Orson Scott Card also has this to say on the matter, cautioning novice novelists of the folly in striving for originality:

One warning though. If you try to read everything so as not to repeat an idea that has already been used, you’ll go mad.

Orson Scott Card – ‘How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy’

Unsurprisingly, Novels published in the English language alone number several million, with that number rising by the day. It’s therefore sensible to assume that everything has already been covered. Every conceivable idea, plotline, genre, sub genre – everything.

All an author can hope to bring to existing recipes are fresh ingredients.

When writing The Door to Caellfyon I too realised that there was no way for me to come up with an entirely original concept for my tale. Indeed, I’ve declared elsewhere on this blog that my influences were various and many. However, whilst originality of idea was impossible to achieve, distinctiveness of voice was assured. To achieve this, all I had to do was relax, be true to myself and tell the story in my own way.

Orson Scott Card, again:

You’re reading all these stories to get a sense of how fiction is done, not to become paranoid and decide that you can never come up with any new ideas as good as these. When I was reading Middle English romances for a graduate class at Notre Dame, I realised that almost every one of those thirteenth-century stories would make a terrific science fiction novel if you just changed the sea to space and the boats to starships.

I, too looked to history for my own inspiration.

My novel’s cover blurb hints that story protagonist, Levi, has journeyed to ‘A distant land; a land in peril.’ It also reveals that ‘… the population of the sleepy village of Skenmarris [in which Levi finds himself] is in immediate danger.’ I drew inspiration for that danger straight from my own nation’s history books.

Avoiding the need to invent a unique inter-racial conflict for my fictional land, I simply re-tweaked England’s turbulent past. So, rather than include a ‘home team’ of Britons or Saxons, I decided that my native clans would be badgers, polecats, weasels and stoats. Similarly, the role of invader was played, not by Vikings, but ferocious mink and coypu – carnivorous animals which are themselves troublesome ‘invaders’ to Britain. Both were introduced by man with devastating consequences on our own indigenous species.

‘There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.’

Helene Hegemann

In a later post I’ll describe the methods I used in creating character names. For now, I’ll explain here how I invented unique place names for my fantasy land of Caellfyon.

This map shows the British Isles of 886. Scandinavian invaders, who at one time had been content to raid and pillage from afar, were now well-settled and thriving. Although they’d once adhered to the eastern coastal regions, their need for more land led to an expansion westwards. Their advancement halted at an agreed boundary running from the Lancashire coast to the Thames.

Whilst this boundary no longer exists, its impact on England remains evidenced in the names of hills, streams, rivers, villages and towns, with those settlements to the east of the old Danelaw line having Scandinavian origins. This includes my own home village of Ulceby. The suffix –by means ‘farmstead’. The existing village was therefore once a farm owned by Ulf, a Dane.

Many eastern towns and villages in what was once the Danelaw region continue to bear suffixes such as –by, –toft, –thorpe, –holme etc – all of these are Scandinavian in origin.

In this map, taken from my own debut novel, we see a similar distinction in place names, with those in the south east corner having a noticeably different character to those to the north and west.

Like England’s Danelaw, this south-eastern region is now occupied by an immigrant force. Vanquished villages once bearing names in the native tongue have been renamed by those alien invaders who now live there.

Barkstripe’s voice trailed off slightly as he stared into space.

‘Then them swine swept in, killing, burning and taking slaves, as they do. It was your granddad that led us over the marsh and to this place. Then he died … of a broken heart some said. Withy Lea were taken an’ became Sigstad.’ He spat the name out as a curse.

The Door to Caellfyon – Chapter Four

In order to create original, fictional place names having an aspect of authenticity I first listed a diverse selection of British place names, such as:

  • Alnwick, Allandale, Avebury
  • Badbury, Bamburgh, Barton
  • Caerleon, Caerphilly, Caerwent, Carrickfergus, Chirk and Cobham

Through to:

  • Tenby, Thetford
  • Walsingham, Warkworth, Whitland, Winchester and Wormleighton

From these I extracted a list of typical prefixes, then repeated the exercise with suffixes. I also did the same with a selection of geographical terms often found in place names.





Geographical Terms


I then did the same with a sample of Scandinavian place names. Such as:

Aggersborg, Fyrkat, Viborg, Arhus, Jelling, Gokstad, Kaupang, Skara, Vastergotland, Vendel, Upsalla and so on.

As with the exercise with British names, I then had the components from which to create (un)original monikers for fictional, yet convincing villages and towns. This included those of my native population:

  • Branbourne
  • Skenpey
  • Wickstane
  • Monkgate
  • Carnsteads
  • Hengeport etc.

… and the alien settlements:

  • Sigstad
  • Hegeborg
  • Agersund
  • Tromsala

In my post entitled Strange but not too Strange, I revealed that it had been my intention from day one in the world-building phase to give make-believe Caellfyon a landscape and eco-system familiar to my young readers. Similarly, by looking to actual history and cobbling together recognisable components in the construction of fictional settlements, I also ensured that this familiarity extended to their names.

West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, Suffolk

Chapter Eleven, the latest instalment in the tale, is now available on here. Use the above menu to navigate to the Caellfyon page, or, for a free downloadable PDF, click this link.

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