Welcome to the Kite Tales Writing Prompt: #KTWriteOn. Each writing challenge is crafted by a kid-lit publishing professional to help spark ideas and creative energy. This prompt was created by author and director of the Genre MFA Program at Colorado University, Fran Wilde. She’s sharing a part of her master-level lecture on worldbuilding, for all genres from literary to historical to fantasy and sci-fi, with us today! Dig in!
Hello SCBWI! Thanks so much for having me here.
As I’m writing this, it’s that liminal back-to-school moment when everything seems new and teetering on the edge of discovery. I love it, AND I remember how my nerves kind of went scrunch every year because I was so excited and maybe a little anxious all at once.
Naming, categorizing, and timelines are part of what school’s all about. When we walk into Maurice Sendak Elementary or Ursula K. LeGuin Middle School, we’re tasked with sorting things into different containers. That’s because names — category names, place names, object names — have so much power.
One of my favorite worldbuilding and brainstorming exercises (it can work as either or both) has to do with place-names, the feelings they invoke, and the deeply layered stories they can tell.
When considering a setting for a story, or creating a new one, sometimes place names get left for last. With this exercise, we’re going to unpack the stories these names can tell, either as layering details or as historical timelines all their own.
Place names can reveal a lot about geography, history, and what is important to the group of people currently residing there*. You can pack a lot of information into names.
- What does it mean when you see the word “ford” in a place name? It’s often either geological (there was a river here) or someone crossed here. Or both. (In my hometown, we know that Matsons Ford Road is always going to flood in heavy rain.) This is true for many locations. Case in point: The root words den (hill) and don (valley) indicate geological and topographical meaning in British place names. Think about place names close to where you live: Which ones have geological underpinnings? At what kinds of stories do those words hint?
- Linguistic influences. Place names — especially groups of them — often contain information about the people who’ve lived there or passed through. These can indicate a lot of history — including raids, commerce, colonialism, and lost communities. (Norse place names can be found along the Scottish islands and seaside towns on the mainland, as one example. In New Zealand, towns and historic locations have been actively reclaiming Maori place names that had been erased by British names, as another example. In fiction, place names can indicate shifts in power or plot, as well.)Whether fantastical or historic, when different types of names appear in close proximity, there’s often a story there; and absolutely more than one.
- Similarly, name changes — which you can look up at local libraries or online — indicate the history of a place over time, and can reveal both political shifts and inequities.
An important note: Knowing the depth of a place’s nomenclature doesn’t mean you are an expert on its history, or the cultures therein — or have permission to tell those stories — but it’s a good starting point for investigation. The phrase ‘currently residing there*’ from above is important too, because a lot of unfairness, colonial impact, border shifts, and outright land theft can be hidden — and revealed — by the assignation of a name or names over time, and by the revelation of previous names.
[Relatedly, in the US and Canada, land acknowledgments are bringing more awareness about the history of a place (see this article and others for more discussion).]
- So too, with the names belonging to businesses. You can trace or develop the cultural and commercial life of a location by looking at the evolution of its store names. Did the Always Here Diner become a Starbucks? How about the Sheep’s Clothing Knitting Shop(pe)? How many prior pun-based yarn stores existed in the same place before it? Brainstorming and worldbuilding with name changes can be very revealing, in a short period of time.
Here’s the What’s (Hidden) in a Name? prompt I use — it’s part of a larger lecture I give at writers’ conferences, including Futurescapes.
- PICK three places…not the most important places…in your book, or, if you’re still brainstorming, ones similar to the place you’re thinking of, in your area. (This can be a store, a road, a school…)
- Find your first place.
- Then find a second place nearby that is newer than the first.
- And a third place that is much, much older than the first.
- NAME them each according to the local geography.
- Then, RENAME them according to local history, economics, and/or cultural influences. Try to discern what other names these places have had before as well. You can do this several times if it amuses you (this is especially fun with shop names).
- THINK about how these names might change and blend over time? What stories are found in these shifts? Who is (or has been) impacted by the changes?
Once you have these places, and their names traced, WRITE a scene about how one of these name changes occurred, who was involved in the changes, and who was impacted. Then WRITE a scene about a character in the future discovering the layers of place names, and how that impacts their understanding of where they are.
Quite often, I find this exercise helps me build a richer, deeper world, and sometimes I find a story set in the world between the place names.
If you want to share your work, progress, or ideas based on this writing prompt, or if you just want to connect with others who are tackling this challenge, comment on this blog post or Tweet us @SCBWISOCALLA with the hashtag #KTWriteOn.
Need more inspiration? Check out all the past #KTWriteOn prompts.
Fran Wilde (@fran_wilde) is director of the Genre MFA program at Western Colorado University, and the author of the Nebula Award-winning debut novel Updraft, the middle-grade novel Riverland, and more than 40 short stories, essays, and articles. Her most recent, “Please Stop Printing Unicorns,” appeared in The New York Times in August. She writes for The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Middle Grade Science Fiction Author’s Alliance, and more.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.