What’s In A Name? (And Other World Building Concerns)

Somebody Googled ‘celedria name meaning’ or something like that. It made me squee. And now I am here to set the record straight. Nahldria/Celedria’s name means ‘Star Daughter’. ‘Cele’ was the word I originally had pegged to mean ‘star’, but it was changed to ‘nahl’ for a vaguely embarrassing reason. (Nahldria’s parents’ names were, at the time, Galandorn and Celedrail. Which, if you mix around a little bit, become more or less Galadriel and Celeborn. Look familiar? Yeah, that had to change.)

But how much does it really matter? As a writer, at what point am I officially wasting my time in making background information that will never ever make it into any books ever? Personally, I would argue… never.

Now, I allow, it will probably never come up that Nahldria’s favorite food is eggs, which really bothers her sister-in-law Ulanis, who had a bad egg experience as a small child and hates them. And it will probably never come up that a bazillion years ago, there were all kinds of evil mother in law jokes being made because ‘drail’, the word for mother, sounds a lot like ‘drae’, the word for an angry, haunting spirit which hasn’t been taken to dwell happily in the Sea of the Dead with all the other dead people because it was naughty and the God of Death wants it to go to time-out and think about what it’s done. It little matters what happened in the past, or what’s coming down the pipes (excluding, of course, the possibility of sequels and prequels). But I still think those things have value.

Pretty much every study ever has shown that the best way to learn a language is by immersion. (Yes, I made that up.) I believe the same holds true in the crafting of a story. In any tale ever told, there is more than is being said. The very details that can bog a story down are also those that make a world real. I find I am my best writer when I have immersed myself in the worlds I am writing, when I am just swimming in details. It’s neat to know who knew whom when they were growing up, and the goofy little spats they got into. And who knows when that may come up again? If I don’t know it happened, I can’t work with that. I don’t think it wasted effort to figure out the writing system that will never be in the books to go with the language that is little more than hinted at. Because, first off, it’s way fun. (Yes, I geek out about stuff like that. Yes, I read grammar books for fun. DON’T JUDGE ME.)

But more importantly, getting into the gritty details of the world my characters live in increases the clarity and uniqueness with which I can write about that world. It tweaks the way my characters interact, the way they speak, what they hold sacred and what they hold contemptible. If I know that my characters think that prime numbers are unlucky, it’s going to change the way they cluster in groups, the way they number their calendars, the way they draw up their floor plans for chapels. But if I don’t know that, at least in my own head, those little quirks of their cultures and their personalities, then I’m just going to end up chewing up and regurgitating what culture I do know: middle-class English-speaking American of European descent living in the northwest. And that’s boring.

There is a big difference between what the author knows and what the narrator says. If I added all the background information into City of the Dead that I have stored away on my computer, the book would be three times as long. Easy. But that would be boring, too. Just because I think it’s interesting to draw up descendency charts for the royal Houses, to pound out the histories of every noble House in the Homelands, to make a writing system based on simulated centuries of warping of ancient pictographs, to map out the social-political-theological-magical strings and knots in a world that doesn’t even exist, does not mean these elements add up to make a good story. There is a whole lot more that goes into a good story than tons of information. But having a well-thought-out setting sure helps.

It goes back to writing what we know. As writers, we’re told this over and over. Trying to write a historical fiction about the first and only female emperor of China is a little ridiculous if you know absolutely nothing about the Tang dynasty and its Imperial structure. If you are writing within a fictitious world, I think it’s well worth your time to get your facts straight, just as you would research any story set in the real world. If you don’t know your world, you can’t write it.

So does it matter that Nahldria’s older brother broke his arm once as a kid? No. And yes.

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