And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part Two – Place Names

Leslie Nielsen Airplane
Image via IMDB

Last week, we looked at character names and I shared some of my methods on creating names. If you haven’t yet read the first part of this article, you can find the link at the end of this post.

Inventing place names is a very different story.

Tell me, have you ever heard of a city called Captain Kirk, a hamlet called Vlad the Impaler or perhaps a mountain called Steve? If your answer is a firm ‘no’ then please read on. Otherwise… well, you’re just weird.

Names like Byzantium, Jerusalem, Loch Ness and Cornwall have grown and developed organically over time. They often stem from other languages to our own or they arise out of local customs or nicknames. These sorts of names conjure up an image in the mind and as we learn more about the world, we attach our own connotations to these place names. Stonehenge, for example, reminds me of many childhood holidays and as soon as I think of the word Stonehenge my mind begins conjuring up images of druidic rituals, the long childhood journey on the way to Cornwall and, more recently, a trip there as an adult. Jerusalem reminds me of Assassin’s Creed, Age of Empires 2 and the film Kingdom of Heaven. Loch Ness is instantly synonymous with the Loch Ness Monster and little else, for me at least.

Here’s a little game. I’ll list some place names and you try to guess (without using Google!) which ones are made up and which ones are real. Here we go:

Foulness Island


The Empty Quarter

Roseberry Topping

Iron Mountain

Crystal Falls

OK. You saw this coming, I suppose? They are all real place names somewhere on Earth. If you looked at a typical fantasy map, you’d probably see names like the above filling every square inch of paper. If the writer doesn’t know what they are doing, the names become silly and childish. If, however, you have a convincing writer at the helm, even names like The Desolate Desert can be pulled off without the reader slamming the book down in disgust.

When I come up with place names, I first think of three broad categories:

Settlements – Hamlets, towns, cities, countries, islands etc.
Manmade Features – Castles, forts, mines, houses, monuments, roads etc.
Natural Features – Lakes, rivers, mountains, volcanos etc.

There is one specialist category, which is Worlds. This crops up rarely and I prefer to leave it well alone. I don’t enjoy naming my fantasy worlds as a whole because it’s so hard to get right. If you can pull it off, fantastic. If not, it shouldn’t detract from the story in any way.

Once I have the category for my prospective name clear in my head, I take inspiration from real world places. I quite like the ‘-tium’ ending on Byzantium and the ‘Astra-‘ beginning from Astrakhan. If you put them together you get Astratium. Nice, right?

If, for instance, I’m trying to name a geographic feature, I will focus on a physical aspect of that feature and base the name on that. Sometimes, I will have a named town that is situated at the foot of an unnamed mountain. If this happens, I will name the mountain after the town, or vice versa.

Lastly, with manmade features, I will focus on my world’s history and usually name these after a character or event that occurred in the past. You have to go about your place names in a logical way. The reader needs to believe that the inhabitants of your world named these places, not you, so you should slip into the mindset of your world’s population and really imagine what they would have called these places.

Personally, I favour the method of researching ancient cities/places and basing my naming on that. Chopping up words and reassembling them can work wonders for creating new names. Also, if your world has an invented language, you should make sure that your place names fit into the conventions of that language. By doing this, you will make the places sound far more plausible to the reader.

Hope you enjoyed this second article part on names. Make sure to check back every Tuesday when I’ll be putting up regular articles and features for your reading pleasure!

And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part One – Character Names


2 thoughts on “And Don’t Call Me Shirley: Part Two – Place Names

  1. hereticfox 31-Jan-2012 / 23:58

    This method is spot on to my own for coming up with names for places, I salute you for that and again for the well-written post. Also have to say: you’ve got an excellent selection of games titles and a fine choice of film up there!

    My preference for determining the final names for a town more reflect the surroundings and the language of the dominant culture in that area. Google Translator works wonders to that end. If you don’t feel bad reusing the context for a town’s name, you could make ten or more towns just from “Cowford.”

    Kuhford – German
    Vaccavadum – Latin
    Korovaford – Russian.

    All mean the same thing, and all have the same purpose to the townsfolk — a place at the river where cattle cross.

    Looking forward to your next post!

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