Picking a character name

At the launch of my new book Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill a member of the audience asked “How does a writer choose character names?”

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Although the question could apply to any genre, my answer was specific to my science fiction writing. I think of a name fairly quickly and, unless there is a compelling reason to reject the name, I usually keep it. Once I have written a bit of action and dialogue, done a character sketch and drawn my character portrait, I cannot change the name or I experience a sort of writer/character dissociation.

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'Eu-hom' Nov 11 2016 (2016_12_30 00_28_35 UTC)
The Slain … his name, Daniel, is not known until Book 2

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Some of my characters have ordinary names — Daniel, Vicki, Kathryn. I  choose the names of characters from cultures-not-my-own by looking at lists of popular names for specific years in the country of origin. My Asian character Ning and my Indian character Aisha got their names in this way.

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Aisha paperback.jpg

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I also have alien characters and put lots of thought into these names. My Argenops (gentle furry folk) have names like Wen-le-gone, Gar-le-gnoss and Ban-le-kin. The Gel-heads (transparent green humanoids) tend to have names beginning with ‘W’ — Waglan, Wenda and Wrall. Dock-winders have complex names of no particular pattern — Dressor, Bar’ma, Garg and Don’est. Human characters with Gel-head names (Sen-eth, Fell-eth) have an ‘-eth’ added to the name since ‘eth’ is the alien word for Earth.

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The book I am writing at present has a character with an odd name — Rist. The name is a shortened form of Tristan, but Rist suits him. I did not want to ‘mystic’ him by calling him Rhyst. However, his name means some phrases are unlikely to be written — “Rist’s wrist” or even “Rist’s hand”.

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Rist paperback.jpg

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I have a few thoughts on choosing names that may help other writers:

  1. Try to choose names scattered through the alphabet. I once read a book with a Mary, a Marie, a Michael and a Mark. I referred back to the front of the book so much, the cover fell off. The ultimate similar-name novel has to be Wuthering Heights — Cathy and Catherine left me too confused to really love the book.
  2. If you select a strange name for a character, make it pronounceable and try to have it make sense to the reader. For example, my main female character is called Odymn. She explains to the Slain that her father named her for the rare earth metal Neodymium because it was the colour of her hair (red). This will help the reader remember a strange name.'Odymn'.jpg
  3. Hesitate before naming a character after a well-known character in another story. When I named a new character Tagret, I considered if it was too close to the Game of Thrones character Ygritt or the Harry Potter character Hagrid. I would not call a character Luke (Skywalker) or Leia.Tagret paperback2018.jpg
  4. Consider the meaning of the name. Some readers are attuned to this. Many common names have a biblical origin and an associated story. My Slain’s name is Daniel and the image of a good man in a den of lions comes to mind when I see his name. Darth Vader’, which means ‘dark father’ in German, was an obvious spoiler for the reveal that Darth is Luke’s father.
  5. Think before naming a character after someone you know well. I named a minor character in my stories after a friend I like well. However I wonder if my friend may feel uncomfortable about this. At least, the character I named Zachary is a good guy, through and through!

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Character names matter. My favourite book is by Daphne Du Maurier. Strange that in a book called Rebecca, the main female character is not named (Rebecca is the name of Max De Winter’s first wife). In the book, the main character’s husband says,

You have a very lovely and unusual name.

My father was a lovely and unusual man.

A point among many to make me love this book!

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I hope you have fun naming your characters and find helpful ideas in the thoughts above!

My best always,

Alexandra

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World-building: Invasive species

On Earth, in real life, careless actions often result in displacement of native vegetation by alien or exotic plants. Invasive plant species significantly modify the ecosystems they colonize. On Earth, in Canada, we have the examples (among many) of Wild Parsnip, Purple Loosestrife, Common Tansy and Garlic Mustard. For information on these invasive species, see the Nature Conservancy’s Invasive Species Guide.

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Common tansy is a pretty plant but is considered invasive in parts of Canada

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In my books about the planet Meniscus, invasive species make up a significant part of the vegetation.  As the result of Dock-winder visits to Earth, the planet Meniscus is plagued by several invasive plants. When the Dock-winders return to Meniscus after their visits to Earth, they bring back, either accidentally or deliberately, vegetation not native to their own planet.

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Adding these species to my list of plants on Meniscus has been an enjoyable part of world-building. I like to think nasty aliens like the Dock-winders will eventually have to suffer the effects of their carelessness as invasive species modify the ecosystems of their planet.

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In my books, you will find unfamiliar plants like ransindyne, spenel and zill. You will also find some plants native to Earth.

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Banyan:  On Earth, Banyan is native to India and occurs worldwide in tropical and semi-tropical zones. Banyan begins its life as an epiphyte, a plant that grows on another living plant. The host plant is often ‘strangled’ by the Banyan.  Older Banyan trees have vigorous aerial roots and one tree can spread to create a whole grove of trees.

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On Meniscus, Banyan were introduced by the Dock-winders as a decorative tree. The tablith, a large Meniscus bird, collects bits of Banyan as nest-building material. Seedings sprout in the nests and gradually spread into the native forests. By the Earth year 2023, Banyan has become the main species of the En’ast Wood and a major component of the Sintha and Themble Woods. My character Daniel, the Slain, has tended a giant banyan and built his home of ‘Rafters’ by careful pruning of the aerial root system.

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Glasswort: On Earth, Glasswort or Salicornia grows mainly in coastal areas. It is a small plant adapted to life in a saline environment. It often grows in salt marsh. Glasswort’s leaves are reduced and modified, so the plant has a tubular translucent appearance. The plant is very salty in taste and can be used raw as a salad green.

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Since the salt mineral is rare on Meniscus, Dock-winders have harvested plants in intertidal areas of Earth as a source of salt. Glasswort, included in these harvests, has escaped to live along the ‘Churn’ and ‘Vastness’ areas of Meniscus. Odymn, a major character in my books, collects Glasswort from the wild to use as nibbling food and to flavour stews.

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Tussilago: Tussilago or Coltsfoot is a charming yellow flower that grows along the roadsides in eastern Canada. It is one of the first flowers to bloom in spring and looks a bit like a Dandelion without its leaves. Coltsfoot has anti-inflammatory properties and was used by settlers to make a cough remedy.

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When the Dock-winders visited Earth, they collected whole transport trucks of produce. During collection, the transports often crashed and plowed up roadside soil and vegetation. Seedlings and seeds of Tussilago travelled to Meniscus along with the produce trailers. Once on Meniscus, they quickly colonized areas of disturbed ground. Edward, the Human Doctor in my series, knows a bit about herbal medicine, and uses Tussilago as a cough medicine since Human pharmaceuticals are rare on Meniscus.

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Don’t be like the Dock-winders! Don’t spread invasive species. Don’t plant invasive species in your garden and don’t inadvertently transplant species by moving untreated soil from place to place. Follow suggested methods of controlling and eradicating these species.

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I hope you enjoy reading my books and keep an eye out for these species in the Meniscus landscape!

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All my best,

Alexandra

 

 

 

 

vanilla and cinnamon – aromatics and aldehydes: five ways to describe smells in your writing

If you build a world in science fiction, describing the world should involve all the senses. Of the five senses, I find sights and sounds the easiest to describe. Smells, touch and taste are more difficult. Especially in my early drafts, aromas, tactile sensations and tastes are often missing.

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Including smells in my writing is much more than writing “the market smelled like boiling cabbage.” The range of methods and words to describe smell is full of possibilities.

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Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.

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I don’t want a story stinky with description of smells, so, in the story I am working on, I chose five places and three characters to understand in terms of their olfactory landscape.

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The challenge is to describe these places and characters in ways to bring the reader into the experience. This can be done in several ways. The writer can describe smells in terms of:

  1. Parts of speech: verbs (waft, distract, permeate, intrude, bake, fry, rot, burn), nouns (wisp, aroma, odour, pocket, fragrance, stench, stink, smell), and adjectives (moody, acrid, crisp, earthy, shrill, putrid, rancid, salty, sharp, repulsive, spicy, stale, aromatic, fetid, loamy);
  2. The classes of odours (camphoraceous, musky, floral, pungent, ethereal, minty, putrid, almond, aromatic and aniseed);
  3. The chemistry of smells: the interesting words of chemistry might not suit every story, but occasionally, used from the point of view of a character who is a chemist or a perfumer, occasional use of a chemistry term might fit. We have the smells of human waste such as butyric acid (vomit), hydrogen sulphide ( rotten eggs), valeric acid ( rancid food), and ammonia (urine). Nutty smells like popped corn, baking bread and coffee are the product of alkylprazines. Bananas and wintergreen result from esters, and chemicals of cinnamon, wintergreen and vanilla are aromatics. One of my first labs in university chemistry taught me how to extract limonene, the terpene of citrus fruit peel.
  4. Experiences connected to smells, especially universal experience. Smoky smells of fire, pungent smells of drying autumn leaves, the revolting smell of sour milk, and acrid smells of a skunk’s spray are experiences common to many readers.
  5. Characteristics not usually assigned to smell: dark or bright, lite or heavy, sharp or dull, crisp or soft, creamy or brittle, soft or hard.

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If I ‘climb inside’ my landscape, I can describe the smells of a space using the five sources listed above. Then, as I encounter the landscape in my story, I have a ready-made list of odours.

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The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells : the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp.

The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells: the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp could be used to describe the smells of this space.

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The method above can be used to describe tastes encountered in the story, or touches and sounds.

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All my best,

(have fun with your writing)

Alexandra

 

series complications – time-lines

I have published four books in my science fiction series Meniscus. The fifth book (Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill) will be released on April 14, 2018. I have four other books in DRAFT. Keeping them straight has become a bit of a nightmare!

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'Odymn falls' final
in ‘The Town at Themble Hill’, Odymn breaks her leg … not a happy time for a girl who loves to run in the Themble Woods …

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The planet Meniscus, with its interesting landscape and biology, suggests many possible adventures. A while ago, I began to think about a ‘spin-off’ featuring the stories of different main characters. I also wanted to include characters from the first books, to give them more background and a better chance to ‘speak’.

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To weave the stories together, I realised I would need to create a time-line for my books. This would help me to situate the new characters in time and avoid character collisions. I did not want characters who were supposed to be in Prell to show up in Sintha. I did not want dead characters to live after their demise.

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The time-line shows the books in the series, the number of days covered in each book, the seasons and the years. The first eight books are consecutive, flowing from one to the other.

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time line

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In my next book, I want to introduce some of the Human recruits to the Village at Themble Hill and tell about them when they were still captives of the Gel-heads. So I knew the next book would start before the end of book Four and continue until the beginning of Book Six when Don’est’s continuous, banshee scream splits the air of the Themble.

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'Don'est'paperback
Why is Don’est screaming? You’ll have to wait until Book Six, ‘Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod’, to find out!

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Plotting the time-lines helped me know what characters I could include, the seasonal components of the setting and how to merge the stories.  It also suggested to me that I should re-number Meniscus Six, Seven and Eight to better reflect the time-line.

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time line 2

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If you are writing a series, I suggest you add time-lines to your process. Think of your story in terms of time. Determine how many days pass during the story. Plot the sequence of your stories with respect to one-another. This will help you to avoid inconsistencies and incongruencies.  It will also help you be accurate if your setting has a seasonal component.

If you are dealing with time-travel, causality and paradoxes, considering time-lines is essential!

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Hope this helps you with the writing of your series!

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All my best,

Alexandra

 

 

ending a story

When I started to write my science fiction Meniscus Series, I had no idea where it would take me. All I knew was, the first story was there in my head, waiting to be told. Now I have four books published in the Series and five more planned. I have had to think about how I would end each book. I want each book to stand alone and yet I also want to segue into the next book. I also want the read to be satisfying and somewhat unexpected.

Meniscus: Crossing The Churn (here)

Meniscus: One Point Five – Forty Missing Days (here) (or free on Wattpad here)

Meniscus: South from Sintha (here)

Meniscus: Winter by the Water-climb (here)

Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill (coming April 14, 2018)

Meniscus: Karst Topography (coming in 2018)

Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod (coming in 2018)

Meniscus: Journey to Bleth (coming in 2019)

Meniscus: Oral Traditions (coming in 2019)

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Crossing The Churn  Scan_20180120 (2) Scan_20170522  Meniscus Winter by the Water-climb

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Perhaps the most significant characteristic of endings has to do with outcome.

Do characters reach their destination or not?

Do they find the object of their quest or are they unsuccessful?

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'release of the feather' close up

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Beyond this, endings have other characteristics. Endings can be:

happy or sad

surprising or expected

exciting (active) or subdued (passive)

fated or governed by free-will

triumphant or disastrous

concluding or beginning

optimistic or pessimistic

encouraging or disappointing

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'Odymn hides in the leaves'

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With eight variables, there are many possible combinations. I did a quick analysis of my stories Meniscus: Crossing the Churn (blue dots) and Meniscus: Karst Topography (red dots). The endings are quite different, although they have commonalities. I have put in bold the characteristics of endings I usually prefer in stories.

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endings

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A book in a series may demand a different set of endings than a self-contained, stand-alone story. An ending that suggests a new beginning will make a reader read the next book to discover what happens next. A disastrous ending will entice a reader to find out how the disaster is dealt with in the next book.

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Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a reader who said the best endings are unexpected, but not necessarily related to the main objective, quest or destination.  The ending returns instead to something contained in the story that seems unconnected to the success of the mission or the eventual fate of the characters.

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A simple example:

A woman, whose husband is killed in an explosion, tries to rebuild her life. She searches for a man who will make her happy and after several failures, she finds him. The story ends at the wedding when she sees a man among the visitors who looks just like her first husband.

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'Belnar woos Vicki'.jpg

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The ending is, of course, is not independent of the story. Moreover, stories have a way of writing themselves, situation leading to situation until a conclusion is reached.

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When you finish writing your story, you have not reached the end. Now comes the editing! The ending of your story deserves a little analysis. Considering the ending with respect to the characteristics above may help you with the process.

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All the best in your writing!

Alexandra

 

 

 

 

Six reasons to write narrative in poetry

Almost every day I wonder if I should have written my science-fiction story in prose, as is usual with fiction. Instead I wrote all three books as free verse, in a long narrative poem. Many people do not like to read poetry — too complicated, too intense, too much like high school. Poetry books, even those that tell stories, do not sell well. There is not even a category in Amazon books for ‘Poetry, Science Fiction’. Poetry is boring.

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I could have written my books as prose. I have written four books (unpublished) of fiction, so I know a bit about the process. If I was given the choice of reading a tale in poetry or prose, which would I choose? I only know, the story of Odymn and the Slain, set on the planet Meniscus, was made for poetry.

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Meniscus Crossing The Churn cover painting (3)

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1. The strange world of Meniscus needs strange description. This is a world where all is viewed through a purple mist.  The smell of cinnamon dominates. Water flows upward not down, and floats in droplets in the air. The alien language spoken on Meniscus is itself filled with alliteration and strange sounds. The word choices of poetry help the reader take the journey to Meniscus.

Bubbles rise, meet surface,

swell to domes, stretch and burst.

Disperse in elastic, floating drops.

 

Droplets hover

above the sheen of mosses,

between emerald and velvet ferns,

fronds flat and freckled.

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2. Poetry allows terse story-telling. A lot of information can be packed into a few lines. Description is sometimes sacrificed, but the reader, embedded in the story, can fill in the detail. Sometimes the world created by the dual effort of writer and reader is more complex and complete.

A slear-snake, trolling for prey.

Nostrils expel viscous breath, visible

in the light of the rising moons.

 

Putrid exhalation,

sulphides and zootoxins,

evolved to paralyse prey.

Three eyes, oozing.

 

Her muscles respond,

propel her forward.

Side-wind and a claw

rakes her back.

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3. The brevity of poetry suits the communications of the characters. The Slain, a genetically modified human with nictitating eyelids and the ability to channel energy to his armour, speaks rarely and briefly. Odymn sometimes jabbers she talks so much. The gaps and rhythms of poetry allow spaces in their conversation, the way white space on the page relieves our eyes.

“Odymn,” she says.

“Named by my father.

 

“Now you,” and points at his chest.

 

Blue sparks snap to the tip of her finger.

Faint vibration through hand, along arm,

deep into torso.

 

Penetrating stare.

Lazy double blink.

Membrane and lashes close and open.

 

“OK. I’ll choose a name for you.

Daniel. Or James.

Not quite right, too common.

 

“You need an alien name.

Something deep from Dock-winder mythology.

Amblyn, god of fire. Or De-al, water-weld.”

 

Steady stare. Double blink.

One hand lifts. One finger raised to lips.

Be silent.

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4. Odymn, the main female character, has a skill to help her survive on Meniscus — she is a practitioner of parkour. Parkour is a way of moving through the landscape with running, jumping and climbing. The flow of poetry helps with the description of the fluid movements of parkour.

Dismount from the tree.

Trunk to trunk and flip forward.

Leap and struggle to stick the jump.

Vault and pivot.

 

Loves the silence,

quiet impact of feet, slap of fingers.

Ballerina toes thumping the stage.

Hands touching the surface of planet.

'parkour through the wood'test

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5. When I write in free verse, I leave out most of the little words, the, and, a …  There is not much room for adverbs or unnecessary adjectives. The nouns and verbs tell the story. Actions read as more immediate, fast-paced and urgent.

Fingers ripping fabric.

Knee on her throat.

Violated by mouths and teeth,

dragged backwards over cobblestones.

Rising mist of red.

Fabric and legs splayed.

Skull-cracking fist.

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6. Love scenes are fun to write in poetry. The reader uses every word to suggest a hundred more. Even a word like ‘peel’ becomes sensuous, embedded with meaning.

He lifts her, removes

every barrier between them.

Cold copper and silken ribbons

peeled away.

 

His skin a brief pause

before muscles

and movement.

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'uneasy sleep'.jpg

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I have considered writing other books in the series in prose. But when I do, I remember what is sacrificed. Brevity, depth, intensity, strangeness and urgency are components I want to keep in the story of Odymn and the Slain. Occasionally, I can relax the poetry to write dialogue, for example. But I always want to return to a place where the reader can walk through a village on Meniscus and experience the surroundings in brief impressions, as we do in reality.

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Narrow streets.

Smooth stucco, mossy stairs.

Aroma of brewing zed.

Passageways exhale

solace, comfort, repose.

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All my best,

Alexandra

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