Fantasy writing: coming up with reasonable-sounding place names
I use the method that was invented/created by Robert E. Howard for his Conan the Barbarian series.
What he did was this:
- Pick the culture you want to base your fictional culture off of
- Reverse the spelling
- Put a vowel at the end
- End result is a word that sounds like it belongs in the culture, giving your story "authentic cultural flavour" without requiring you to study linguistics
So, picking some real places and using their names to get fictional places results in:
- Cameroon + a becomes Nooremaca
- Rwanda + e becomes Adnawde
- Zimbabwe + i becomes Ewbabmizi
- Bangladesh + o becomes Hsedalgnabo
- Timor-Leste + u becomes Etsel-Romitu
- Tonga + y becomes Agnoty
Then within each country you have the names of mountains, rivers, cities, etc, already there, and you just do the same thing for each one, which gives you a map already made, and all the names, being the reverse of a real language, means they all sound similar rather then sounding like pieces of lots of languages.
So, within the real country of Timor-Leste (which we have now renamed Etsel-Romitu), we find the following real world names of landmarks and change them same as before:
- Mt Ramelau + a = Mt Ualemara
- town of Maubisse + e = town of Essibuame
- Santa Cruz Cemetery + i = Zurc Atnasi Cemetery
- town of Dimboola + o = town of Aloobmido
- Jaco Island + u = Ocaju Island
- Lake Ira Lalaro + y = Lake Oralal Ariy
and then, if you end up with one you don't like, you can alter it by changing the vowel:
- Mt Ramelau + a = Mt Ualemara
- Mt Ramelau + e = Mt Ualemare
- Mt Ramelau + i = Mt Ualemari
- Mt Ramelau + o = Mt Ualemaro
- Mt Ramelau + u = Mt Ualemaru
- Mt Ramelau + y = Mt Ualemary
or changing the first letter...
- Mt Ramelau + a + b = Mt Balemara
- Mt Ramelau + a + c = Mt Calemara
- Mt Ramelau + a + d = Mt Dalemara
- Mt Ramelau + a + f = Mt Falemara
- Mt Ramelau + a + g = Mt Galemara
and so on, down the alphabet until you find one you like.
Robert E. Howard used this method because he had to put out so much so fast - he was writing for a magazine and was required to publish a new story every single week, so he didn't have time to build worlds or think up new names.
He didn't just do it with placenames either. He did it with character names as well.
For example if he wanted the story the feel Chinese, he'd take a real Chinese city, real Chinese towns, real Chinese river, and several real Chinese names, and do the whole reverse+vowel thing. He'd end up with a race of Fantasy people who seemed Chinese, but were not Chinese. He'd then give then Chinese style cloths, traditions, food, culture.
This method allowed him to build entire ethnicities in a matter of hours, instead of spending months building a culture the way many Fantasy authors do. It gave him maps to work with, character names, religious traditions, marriage traditions, family traditions, weapons, clothing styles, etc, all in an instance.
Say for example, you wanted to write a Chinese inspired culture, you could go to Wikipedia and take this:
Shanghai, located in the Yangtze River Delta, bordered the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking and 1844 Treaty of Whampoa allowed the establishment of the Shanghai International Settlement. Renowned for its Lujiazui skyline, and museums and historic buildings. The economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping resulted in an intense re-development of the city.
Shanghai is a 5th-century Jin name for the mouth of Suzhou Creek when it was the main conduit into the ocean. Shanghai was part of the fief of Lord Chunshen of Chu, one of the Four Lords of the Warring States. He ordered the excavation of the Huangpu River.
During the Tang and Song dynasties, Qinglong Town in modern Qingpu District was a major trading port. Established in 746 (fifth year of the Tang Tianbao era.) artist Mi Fu served as its mayor.
Downtown Shanghai is bisected by the Huangpu River, a man-made tributary of the Yangtze that was created by order of Lord Chunshen. The historic center of the city was located on the west bank of the Huangpu (Puxi), near the mouth of Suzhou Creek, connecting it with Lake Tai and the Grand Canal. The central financial district Lujiazui has grown up on the east bank of the Huangpu.
The few hills such as She Shan lie to the southwest and the highest point is the peak of Dajinshan Island in Hangzhou Bay. The city has many rivers, canals, streams and lakes and is known for its rich water resources as part of the Lake Tai drainage area
Shanghai has a humid subtropical climate (Köppen Cfa) and experiences four distinct seasons. Winters are chilly and damp, with northwesterly winds from Siberia can cause nighttime temperatures to drop below freezing, although most years there are only one or two days of snowfall. Summers are hot and humid, with an average of 8.7 days exceeding 35 °C (95 °F) annually; occasional downpours or freak thunderstorms can be expected. The city is also susceptible to typhoons in summer and the beginning of autumn, none of which in recent years has caused considerable damage.
There are folk religious temples such as a Temple of the Chenghuangshen (City God), at the heart of the old city, and a temple dedicated to the Three Kingdoms general Guan Yu. The White Cloud Temple of Shanghai is an important Taoist centre in the city. The Wenmiao (Temple of the God of Culture) is dedicated to Confucius.
Shanghai's film industry went on to blossom during the early 1930s, generating great stars such as Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu, Zhou Xuan, Jin Yan, and Zhao Dan.
In an era of rapid social change, works from the Shanghai School were widely innovative and diverse and often contained thoughtful yet subtle social commentary. The best known figures from this school include Qi Baishi, Ren Xiong, Ren Bonian, Zhao Zhiqian, Wu Changshuo, Sha Menghai, Pan Tianshou, Fu Baoshi, Xie Zhiliu, He Tianjian, and Wang Zhen.
We now take out all of the words that are names of places, people and things, and reverse them and add a vowel, to get this list:
- + a =
- + e =
- + i =
- + o =
- + u =
- + y =
- Shanghai + a = Iahgnahsa
- Yangtze River Delta + e = Eztgnaye
- province of Jiangsu + i = Usgnaiji
- province Zhejiang + o = Gnaijehzo
- Treaty of Nanking + u = Gniknanu
- Treaty of Whampoa + y = Aopmahwy
- Lujiazui skyline + a = Iuzaijula
- Deng Xiaoping + e = Gnipoaix Gnede
- Jin + i = Niji
- Suzhou Creek + o = Uohzuso
- Lord Chunshen of Chu + u = Nehsnuhcu of Uchu
- Huangpu River + y = Upgnauhy
- Tang dynasty + a = Gnata
- Song dynasty + e = Gnose
- Qinglong Town + i = Gnolgniqi
- Qingpu District + o = Upgniqo
- Tianbao era + u = Oabnaitu
- artist Mi Fu + y = Uf Imy
- Puxi + a = Ixupa
- Lake Tai + e = Iate
- She Shan + i = Nahs Ehsi
- Dajinshan Island + o = Nahsnijado
- Hangzhou Bay + u = Uohzgnahu
- Köppen Cfa + y = Acf Neppoky
- Siberia + a = Airebisa
- Temple of the Chenghuangshen + e = Nehsgnauhgnehce
- general Guan Yu + i = Uy Naugi
- Taoist centre + o = Tsioato
- Wenmiao + u = Oaimnewu
- Confucius + y = Suicufnocy
- Hu Die + a = Eid Uha
- Ruan Lingyu + e = Uygnil Naure
- Zhou Xuan + i = Naux Uohzi
- Jin Yan + o = Nay Nijo
- Zhao Dan + u = Nad Oahzu
- Qi Baishi + y = Ihsiab Iqy
- Ren Xiong + a = Gnoix Nera
- Ren Bonian + e = Nainob Nere
- Zhao Zhiqian + i = Naiqihz Oahzi
- Wu Changshuo + o = Ouhsgnahc Uwo
- Sha Menghai + u = Iahgnem Ahsu
- Pan Tianshou + y = Uohsnait Napy
- Fu Baoshi + a = Ihsoab Ufa
- Xie Zhiliu + e = Uilihz Eixe
- He Tianjian + i = Naijnaiat Ehi
- Wang Zhen + o = Nehz Gnawo
Now we take those new words and put them back into that description, to turn it into this:
Iahgnahsa, located in the Eztgnaye River Delta, bordered the provinces of Usgnaiji and Gnaijehzo. The 1842 Treaty of Gniknanu and 1844 Treaty of Aopmahwy allowed the establishment of the Iahgnahsa International Settlement. Renowned for its Iuzaijula skyline, and museums and historic buildings. The economic reforms introduced by Gnipoaix Gnede resulted in an intense re-development of the city.
Iahgnahsa is a 5th-century Niji name for the mouth of Uohzuso Creek when it was the main conduit into the ocean. Iahgnahsa was part of the fief of Lord Nehsnuhcu of Uchu, one of the Four Lords of the Warring States. He ordered the excavation of the Upgnauhy River.
During the Gnata and Gnose dynasties, Gnolgniqi Town in modern Upgniqo District was a major trading port. Established in 746 (fifth year of the Gnata Oabnaitu era.) artist Uf Imy served as its mayor.
Downtown Iahgnahsa is bisected by the Upgnauhy River, a man-made tributary of the Eztgnaye that was created by order of Lord Nehsnuhcu. The historic center of the city was located on the west bank of the Upgnauhy (Ixupa), near the mouth of Uohzuso Creek, connecting it with Lake Iate and the Grand Canal. The central financial district Iuzaijula has grown up on the east bank of the Upgnauhy.
The few hills such as Nahs Ehsi lie to the southwest and the highest point is the peak of Nahsnijado Island in Uohzgnahu Bay. The city has many rivers, canals, streams and lakes and is known for its rich water resources as part of the Lake Iate drainage area
Iahgnahsa has a humid subtropical climate (Acf Neppoky) and experiences four distinct seasons. Winters are chilly and damp, with northwesterly winds from Airebisa can cause nighttime temperatures to drop below freezing, although most years there are only one or two days of snowfall. Summers are hot and humid, with an average of 8.7 days exceeding 35 °C (95 °F) annually; occasional downpours or freak thunderstorms can be expected. The city is also susceptible to typhoons in summer and the beginning of autumn, none of which in recent years has caused considerable damage.
There are folk religious temples such as a Temple of the Nehsgnauhgnehce (City God), at the heart of the old city, and a temple dedicated to the Three Kingdoms general Uy Naugi. The White Cloud Temple of Iahgnahsa is an important Tsioato centre in the city. The Oaimnewu (Temple of the God of Culture) is dedicated to Suicufnocy.
Iahgnahsa's film industry went on to blossom during the early 1930s, generating great stars such as Eid Uha, Uygnil Naure, Naux Uohzi, Nay Nijo, and Nad Oahzu.
In an era of rapid social change, works from the Iahgnahsa School were widely innovative and diverse and often contained thoughtful yet subtle social commentary. The best known figures from this school include Ihsiab Iqy, Gnoix Nera, Nainob Nere, Naiqihz Oahzi, Ouhsgnahc Uwo, Iahgnem Ahsu, Uohsnait Napy, Ihsoab Ufa, Uilihz Eixe, Naijnaiat Ehi, and Nehz Gnawo.
And now without doing any world building at all, you have a place for your story to happen.
Now, this method is not without flaws and yes, you'll notice that if you do that straight up without tweaking, then some of the words are going to come of sounding awkward. So, you'll probably want to mess around with the words afterwards to make them sound better.
Even if you don't use the new words in your final draft, it makes it easier for you to write your first draft, if you at least have the words there. Rather then just writing "They crossed ~river A~(insert name later) to get to.." It at least gives you working names to use in your draft until you think up better names.
Also note that this method only works well with proper names and does not work so well with overall words.
For example doing it with common nouns makes words like this:
The quick, brown fox, jumped over the lazy dog.
- quick + a = kciuqa
- brown + e = nworbe
- fox + i = xofi
- jumped + o = depmujo
- lazy + u = yzalu
- dog + y = gody
The kciuqa, nworbe xofi, depmujo over the yzalu gody.
...which is just plain silly to try to read.
So, you don't want to use this method for creating an overall language. Though, you could if you needed an more alien language (such as actual aliens) do this. See how I go about creating Lovecraftian Style Alien and Demon Languages here.
This way of naming your countries and cities is also a method to use sparingly.
Generally use it for naming countries, big cities, and minor NPC characters your main character meet along the way. In other words, use it for things that'll only be said once or twice in your novel and not for things that'll be said on every page. You want to sprinkle the words in only enough to tell the reader the "cultural flavour" of the region. You don't want to drown the reader in lots of words they can't pronounce.
Also, only use it with fictional places.
For example, if you were going to ACTUALLY base you story in China, then use Shanghai NOT Iahgnahsa. While Iahgnahsa has an "Asian" sound to it, it would be offensive to pass it off as being actually Chinese.
You don't want to use it to make fun of a culture either. For example, in the 1950s it was common for political satirists who wanted to make fun of minority races, to write their place names in pig Latin, which is not very different from this reversal method of place naming. So be mindful of that sort of thing, and if you feel a word may be seen as offensive or seemingly racist then just don't use it.
Remember that the goal in using this method is to be INSPIRED by real places, when building your fictional places, and it is not intended to be used as a method of making fun of those places.
Many readers hail Robert E. Howard as the greatest creator of vastly detailed and highly believable world's and many writers try to emulate him, often without realizing how simple his method really was. They'll spend years trying to build a world... and yet... they often fail to consider that in the time it took them to build their world (3 years) he wrote ALL of his books, then commit suicide at a very young age. He worked at a hectic high speed pace, publishing WEEKLY novellas, outputting more stories in 3 years, then 10 authors combines ever publish in their entire lifetime.
People often ask me how I publish so many novels so fast... asking specifically how in the hell did I create the vast, highly detailed world of them so quickly, and they are always shocked to learn how very little world building actually goes into my stories. I do exactly what Robert E. Howard did: Grab a real world place, reverse it's names, then use it's real world culture and history and just toss my main character into that pre-built fictionalized version of the real world.
People have found lots of things to complain about in my novels, but the place names is not one of them. No reader has ever complained about the place names in any of my books.