It started because my editor said I couldn’t use the description “navy blue.”
“Because,” she pointed out, “not every navy on earth even uses the same color of blue,” much less the possible armada in my fantasy world. She suggested I use “dark blue.”
The proverbial light bulb illuminated.
I wondered how many other words had snuck into my writing that didn’t belong in a fantasy story – because they wouldn’t exist in that world. Had I said “Italian marble” when I should have said “archipelagic?” Had I compared the desert city of Ekhaba to the fables from Arabian nights when Arabia, much less those tales, would not exist in that world?
This may seem overly critical and nitpicky. But if I am going to spend weeks to months world building, why would I be willing to undermine all that work? Each time I have the opportunity to link into the world I am creating it is a chance to develop a sense of realism. How?
Referring to a place in your world builds an impression. Take the example above. If I described a building where the marble had been shipped from Portoreayl in the Archipelago of Bellaia, what sense of that city do you have?
Marble is expensive, so you might think wealthy. You probably picture the buildings constructed of marble. At the very least, you probably pictured a rocky place, warm, and near the sea. Admittedly, your mind might jump to a Mediterranean city as an example, but if you are immersed in reading a fantasy novel you will overlay those concepts with something new and combine it with all the tiny phrases used to describe Portoreayl and the archipelago. This is similar to building on the framework of fantasy.
It also builds history and depth. Previously the reference gave a sense of place: the environment and look of the city. But what if I’d said instead the marble came from Portoreayl before its people succumbed to disease so great that no one dares to breach its ivy clad walls? Now what sense do you have? A timeframe of the city now extends backward. Plus, you have a sense of fears and vulnerabilities of the people. Now the marble is also that much more valuable, so wherever the character is to see Portorealian marble is very special.
That is a much bigger impact than if I’d simply said “Italian marble,” and keeps a reader inside the story instead of yanking them back into the real world. As a writer, you want to pull the reader in deeper, not keep reminding them of what is beyond your novel. Things like vacation plans, places they’ve been, friends they were with…
So link back to the world you’ve created. It will help you as an author to keep building those impressions and history, word by word. By the time a reader finishes the novel, all of those instances add up a place that feels real, at least when it is done well. Real enough to remain a place they think about and miss – hopefully!
But you can take it too far.
I nearly did. At least I considered it. Because my novel is based on elemental magic: fire, water, air, spirit, and earth. Yeah, earth. Should it be earth?
We use the term because it is the name of our planet. So I should say a Myrran Elemental? That sounds like a pain to use. Until a reader is familiar with the term, I’d have to keep reminding them it meant a person that can control the ground.
Could I just use Ground Elemental? or Soil? Dirt? Stone? Ugh, I don’t like any of those. Nothing quite defines the idea of being able to control the soil, stone, and dead bits that make up everything under our feet. So I balanced the fact that the term really belongs to this world with the fact the concept means something far greater, and I used earth.
Seriously, you can lose sleep over word choice, or at least I can. Once I start questioning one, I’m wondering if fire would still be called fire until I have a headache. Then I go back to the rule that if fire is fire, you don’t call it something different unless it really is something different. The goal is not to confuse readers or require them to have a translation guide, but to keep them immersed in the story!
Do you stress over word choice? As a reader, do you notice when an author pulls you in or out of a story?