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

 

 

 

 

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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Dock-winders, elegant aliens

On the planet Meniscus, the alien Dock-winders plague my Human characters.

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Dock-winders, angular and lean,

elongated necks tattooed,

disconcerting eyes.

 

They travel together,

bundles of eloquence,

unperturbed by depravity.

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'the Dock-winder inspects Odymn' test

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Dock-winders are purple, with chalky skin and eyes that blink one at a time. Their very long necks are tattooed to record significant transactions.

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a dock-winder stand-up figure
A life-sized, stand-up cardboard Dock-winder made for the launch of my book Meniscus: Crossing The Churn.

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Dock-winders are the oppressive overlords of planet Meniscus. Most are merchants, trading in sentients, especially Humans.  Thirty years before the opening of the story, they invaded Earth and brought the first shipment of Humans to Meniscus.

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On Meniscus, Dock-winders keep Humans as slaves, keeping them in appalling conditions. Humans are not allowed to associate with one-another. Men and women are kept apart and there are no relationships, families or communities allowed. Of course, Humans seek each other out in various ways and some manage to forge friendships.

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Dock-winders are also arrogant about the environment of their planet, forgetting that transplanted species may not stay under control. When they invaded Earth, they also brought a few other Earth species back to Meniscus with them, including the very aggressive banyan. Banyan has become a weed on Meniscus and overtaken the natural forests of the planet. Banyan has become my metaphor for oppressed Humans who may not stay down-trodden for long.

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'Don'est'paperback
Don’est, a Dock-winder child kidnapped by the Slain. Poor Don’est has to live with Humans she doesn’t understand and who don’t appreciate her odd ways.

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Next post, I’ll tell you about the Gel-heads, the other humanoid species on the planet Meniscus.

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See you soon,

Alexandra

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Copyright Alexandra Tims 2017

thank you!

A huge thank you to purchasers of my books. From June 1 -5 I ran a free book promotion on Amazon for the Kindle edition of South from Sintha. I gave away 41 free ebooks and sold a few Kindle editions of the first book Crossing The Churn. Also, thanks to anyone who bought ebooks or paperbacks! I am so pleased to know my stories and words and characters are getting out there!

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This week I am working on edits for the next two Meniscus books: Winter at the Water-climb and The Village at Themble Hill. Here is a new drawing for one of these books! The books will follow the continuing story of Odymn and the Slain, but new characters arrive, as the result of a transport crash.

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'Ning confronts a Gel-head'paperback

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Copyright Alexandra Tims 2017

working on a sci-fi series

When I first started writing my science-fiction series Meniscus, I had no plans for a series or even a book. I wrote a chapter of Meniscus: Crossing The Churn because my writing group wanted to hold a Saturday workshop on science-fiction/fantasy and I had nothing to share. I pulled out a story I had written years before but it was unbelievably bad. All I salvaged from the older story was the name of the heroine ‘Odymn’.

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'parkour through the wood'test.jpg
Odymn, my main character, is an expert at parkour … helps her travel through the Themble Wood and get them out of sticky situations

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Months later, I have two of the series published and four more in the wings. Since the story is written in the form of an illustrated long poem, a 150 page book is about 10,000 to 15,000 words long. This is only about 1/10th the length of a normal book, so when I finish, the story will be the length of a short novel. Once you get used to the narrative poetry form, the result is a rather quick read.

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All six books tell a story: on a planet where humans are not allowed to have relationships, a small group of humans tries to build a community and recapture some of what they have lost. Within that longer story are six shorter story arcs, one per book.

 

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'transport crash'paperback
more characters are added to the story when a transport crashes in the desert in Book 3

 

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The table below shows the unfolding story in terms of theme, story length and number of characters.  Writing a series differs from writing a single book in that elements of the later story must be placed in earlier books. For example, the lost child in Book 6 is introduced in Book 2, the former girlfriend of the Slain is introduced in Book 3 but is not one of the characters until book 4, and so on. If you want to know what is in the mysterious box in Book 2, Meniscus: South from Sintha, the answer is in Book 3 (Meniscus: Winter by the Water-climb)!

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Book Pages Word count Number of main characters Theme
Meniscus: Crossing The Churn 147 9,556 3 A young woman, Odymn, thinks she has found her freedom when she is rescued from servitude by a genetically-engineered Slain whose kindness may not be consistent with his purpose.
Meniscus: South from Sintha 151 9,740 6 The Slain, for love of Odymn, tries to return his former acquisitions to their homes and finds the task more challenging than he thought possible.
Meniscus: Winter by the Water-climb (DRAFT) 244 15,310 13 Winter comes to planet Meniscus and Odymn must cope with the survivors of a transport crash without the help of the Slain.
Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill (DRAFT) 220 15,229 16 When the Dock-winder overlords threaten their friends, Odymn and the Slain try to find a safe place to build a new community.
Meniscus: Karst Topography (DRAFT) 148 ? 9147 ? 17 The Slain and his friends travel to the city of Prell to rescue the women of the community but Odymn is not among them and the Slain fears she may be dead.
Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod (DRAFT) 140 ??? 10,000 ??? 16 + A mysterious alien begins to rebuild the community of Themble Hill and helps the Slain and his friends to find a lost child.

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For each of the books, I am at a different stage in the writing process: marketing for Book 1 and 2, editing for Book 3 and 4, and creation for Books 5 and 6. It means I am never bored, still embedded in the creative process and getting feedback as I go.

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If you have read one of the books in the series and want to leave a comment, I would love to hear from you.

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alien moons
‘alien moons’, acrylic, Alexandra Jane Tims, 5″ x 8″, May 2017

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Copyright Alexandra Tims 2017