Pronunciation

From infancy onward we learn how to pronounce words by hearing others talk and from reading books. When it comes to literature, often we find words invented by the author or ones that weren’t but we don’t frequently hear. They are often the names of people, places and things, but not always. In all cases, we are prone to mispronouncing them, out loud or just in our heads.

Names and words can be spelled the same but pronounced differently depending upon where and from whom you hear them. For example, the name Guy in French is “GEE” (not “JEE”) as opposed to the English “GIE”. In Ireland, Saoirse is most commonly “SEER-shuh” but in certain regions “SAIR-shuh” is more popular. How you say Cairo depends on whether you’re referring to the city in Egypt (“KIE-roh”) or Illinois (“KAY-roh”).

Some names have been anglicized in how they sound if not their spelling. For instance, Brian and Dylan, which respectively originate in Irish and Welsh myth, were “BREE-in” and “DULL-in” but have since been anglicized as “BRIE-in” and “DILL-in”. Ethnic background however doesn’t always guarantee a specific pronunciation. It ultimately rests with personal preferences. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas used the anglicized version of his first name. Actress Saoirse Ronan prefers “SUR-shuh”.

Not every name or word is pronounced how it’s spelled either, which many Irish, and Old Irish, names demonstrate. To use one example, a letter combination (known as a diphthong) of MH or BH sounds like either a W or a V; the name Siobhan is “SHIH-vawn” and the festival Samhain (which helped create modern Halloween) is “SOW-in”. Some Welsh names beginning with an I pronounce it like a Y. The examples go on.

Yet sometimes, a mispronunciation has with time become the correct one. Jekyll in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today is “JECK-uhl” but was originally “JEEK-uhl”. The T in Voldemort was meant to be silent, but it was pronounced in the Harry Potter films. The surname of Dr. Seuss was supposed to be “ZOICE,” but after people kept saying “SOOSE” he gave up trying to correct them.

Mispronouncing a word when reading is nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all been there, including me. This quote/image has been shared frequently on social media:

mispronounce

For us writers, there are steps we can take to help readers pronounce words correctly. Here are some personal recommendations. First, make sure you know the proper (or your preferred) pronunciation, especially if you think people will likely mispronounce it. If you have several names and/or words you believe will be hard to pronounce (such as within fantasy or science-fiction), it might be a good idea to include a pronunciation guide. With works where there are fewer such words, an easier method could be incorporating the pronunciations into the text or dialogue (if you’re writing for the stage or screen, actors will be enabled to pronounce them for you – just make sure you let them know how you want them said). That way, incorrect pronunciations don’t become correct ones.

Pronunciation Sites
Irish Pronunciation Sites
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Fact vs. Fiction

Among the genres I intend to try my hand at is historical fiction. Within this genre, the characters witness actual events from our past. Some could be real figures (or based on them). Often books and movies include the subtitle “Based on a true story”. I’ve noticed with literary and cinematic successes there’s often a subsequent wave of interest and research aimed at separating fact from fiction. For a writer, the dilemma presents itself beforehand. With the goal of telling a story and telling it well, can historical fact get in the way of telling good historical fiction? How far should writers go if they cross the line?

Fiction can actually run the risk, with time and new generations, of becoming thought of as fact. In my junior year at St. Mary’s College, I took classes discussing how literature and history have been analyzed and interpreted. In the latter, I recall us discussing how history has been “romanticized” even in America. People record events with their own beliefs and motivations. It’s human nature. To this day there have been cases where real events and figures were altered, or the truth stretched, to create a better story. Facts are sometimes selectively preserved or obscured altogether.

Fiction being fiction, some lines will be crossed. But some writers, like Rafael Sabatini, believe historical fiction should be kept close to fact. Sabatini used real events and drew inspiration from a number of historical figures when writing Captain Blood. Another novel that has been criticized for historical inaccuracies is Ivanhoe. Though several historical points ARE accurate, compared to some of his other novels it seems Sir Walter Scott took liberties. However, he DID admit he had taken liberties when Ivanhoe was published in the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle”. Some believe he wanted to reflect both his support for British unity and his Scottish patriotism through the book’s Saxon-Norman conflict.

Folktales and legends are a part of human culture and the human psyche. We need something to believe in so we may strive and rise to something better. In America, it has been noted we root for underdogs and rebels as symbols of freedom. Pirates and Wild West outlaws were almost exclusively thugs and killers. Nevertheless they’ve been popularized as romantic heroes. Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates has had a considerable influence defining how we perceive pirates today, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However some believe Johnson used artistic license. Pirates seldom buried gold. More often they sold stolen commercial goods on the black market and spent all their money on vices.

My father pointed out to me a common observation that history is written by winners. This notion is especially apparent to me, together with how fiction can become fact over time, in William Shakespeare’s Richard III. I remember the news story of how Richard’s skeleton was found beneath a parking lot. I subsequently learned there are societies who believe he was wrongfully maligned by history and Shakespeare. In the play, he is depicted as an evil, scheming tyrant who has his nephews murdered after usurping the throne from them, as well as harboring an incestuous desire for his niece.

But was Shakespeare to blame? When he wrote Richard III, he was living under the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the very man who overthrew Richard. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, had to justify why he took the throne. What better way than by painting his defeated opponent as a villain by playing upon rumors of his nephews’ disappearance or incestuous desire (that rumor Richard had denied)? We still don’t know for certain what befell the Princes in the Tower, although Richard certainly had opportunity and motive. By Shakespeare’s time, this image must have been considered fact. Even if Shakespeare doubted it, he almost certainly couldn’t offend his own monarch’s grandfather without putting his neck on the line.

In other cases however, Shakespeare, who’s living depended upon entertaining the masses, did deliberately ignore fact or simply filled gaps. In King John, the hero is Richard the Lionheart’s illegitimate son, Philip Falconbridge. He did actually have an illegitimate son, named Philip of Cognac. Yet little is known of him, not even his mother’s name. Shakespeare took the name and father then created his own character. In Henry IV Part I, he made Harry “Hotspur” Percy and Prince Hal close in age so they would be better character foils, when Percy was actually many years Hal’s senior.

There are exceptions to the rule of winners writing history. At St. Mary’s I took another class on the Lost Cause. Ex-Confederates initiated the movement after losing the American Civil War to whitewash their image as heroic, conveniently ignoring slavery and racism. Once again, it is a case of people recording events with bias.

As readers, we must bear in mind fiction is fiction. Historical fiction and drama shouldn’t be taken completely at face value. But that doesn’t mean writers should ignore historical fact either. I want to try and reconcile my respect for history and the goal to tell a good story well as much as possible. I know it won’t work in every way, but I’ll do my best to be accurate, particularly with worldbuilding, and any real events or figures should I use them. When I cannot be accurate, I will acknowledge it. Good historical fiction is built upon historical fact. Fiction in turn can inspire a search for the fact.

Further Reading
  1. The Richard III Society.
  2. Higgins, Charlotte. Scotland’s image-maker Sir Walter Scott ‘invented English legends’.
  3. Sabatini, Rafael. Historical Fiction.

Building Worlds

Writers create more than stories and characters. They create places, sometimes within the world of today or the past. There are also places, and whole worlds that never existed, except within the imagination.

I find the key to worldbuilding is how believable it feels. A good setting, however fantastical, must feel real to the writer and reader (with satire and comedy you can get away with this). A few times on the British sitcom Are You Being Served? when the characters would put on theatrical pageants, senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe was going to (or wanted to) play a character far younger than herself. Someone would remark that it was “make-believe” to which there were responses of “We’re going to have to stretch our imaginations” and (to Mrs. Slocombe’s chagrin) “Not to the point of incredibility.”

Many considerations are necessary. Every detail must harmonize with the story, style, and themes. Otherwise that sense of reality will shatter. The reader will be left questioning why a certain little thing is the way it is rather than enjoying the story. The Writer’s Circle once posted this list to their Facebook page:

World Building (Writer's Circle)

A contemporary setting, whether fictional or not, is usually pretty easy. With a historical backdrop, I recommend doing research into what life was like back then. Or perhaps the world is science-fiction, set several years in the future like Star Trek, or like Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away. There I suggest looking at the present; not just science and technology but the whole world. Imagine where it could all go in the future. Or it could be an alternate reality: what it would the world like had the past been different?

In fantasy, where the greatest amount of world-building undoubtedly occurs, I find it best to begin by looking at history, or even mythology. Suppose your world could have existed. Where and when would it be? Perhaps there’s more than one possibility. If so, perhaps you can merge them. J. R. R. Tolkien drew on myth, religion, and his own life experiences, from childhood and World War I, to create his stories.

Early on I envisioned my story as an epic adventure that would’ve taken place long, long ago. As a child I’d always been fascinated with knights. So I researched medieval life and society. However when it came to symbolism, names, and other details, initially I didn’t pay as much attention. It was a mix from various sources.

With new drafts of course came changes and the need to make everything fit together. As I mentioned before, I renamed characters, places, and things to strengthen my story’s feeling of “Gaelicness” which came out of a lifelong love for nature. I added details and symbols inspired by Ancient Celtic life and Irish myth. But I was careful not to take them too far so they didn’t feel out of place with what I already had. I looked again to history and symbolism to help refine the “map” of my world. It is at present no longer a purely medieval setting but a mixture of different periods, which thereby makes it more its own unique world.

When it came to magic, rituals, and beliefs, I looked at myth and folklore, as well as numerous books and articles on Wicca, Neopaganism, Neo-Druidism, natural magic and spirituality. This research helped me reinforce the atmosphere I wanted. I’ve found that bridging ideas and sentiments from the modern world with ones from the old helps readers connect with themselves more.

When it came to the environment, I ultimately looked to the flora and fauna of Ireland and Britain. Brian Jacques, the late author of the Redwall saga, once said that he chose creatures native to his homeland for his anthropomorphic characters, rather than trying to use every animal in the zoo. I considered the latter once, until I realized many would never survive outside of a habitat not their own, and it would be too crowded. One or two exceptions won’t hurt. Still, they shouldn’t be too out of place. Herbs were researched for medicinal purposes. Some were later discarded as they were either not native to those lands if not found in a temperate climate. Many trees were chosen for being sacred to the Celts.

In addition to real creatures, I tried cramming in mythical ones too. Earlier drafts of my book included gryphons, unicorns, dragons, elves, dwarves and centaurs. The latter three were dropped as it again was a problem of overcrowding. With too many details, places and characters, a story becomes lost in itself. As a writer, you have to know when to stop.

If you write a series of books with an imaginary setting, I strongly advise you do NOT map out the entire world at the very beginning. Otherwise you’ll be trapping your story (and yourself) in a box from which if you try to expand out of could lead to contradiction or dead ends. Without a complete box/map, you can add newer details with much more freedom. I found it very relieving, as I was able to concentrate more on my plot. Thus the world and characters could grow in conjunction with it.

I will continue to build this fantasy world I’ve created as the trilogy progresses. Other, completely different worlds will no doubt follow with future projects. As in all aspects of writing, worldbuilding is undertaken with trial, error, patience, passion, and dedication. It is all part of a writer’s evolution.

What’s in a Name?

So asks the heroine of Romeo and Juliet. Her new boyfriend’s name is hated by her family, whose own name is hated by his in turn. Names are an integral part of our identity, which Juliet acknowledges. Their families’ names define the feud, while their individual names have become symbolic of tragic forbidden love. As a writer, I have come to believe choosing the right name for a fictional character, or even a place, thing or title, makes a big difference.

Initially I paid little attention to those I chose and/or created for my novel. One beta reader who read early drafts said there was a “Gaelicness” to my story, which was what I wanted. Soon after I looked at the names more closely, and decided they didn’t reflect that feeling. With my characters, several felt too modern; a greater number didn’t feel like the kind I’d expect to find in a story set within an imaginary “Gaelic” world.

A few old ones have survived (and were moved around) as I felt they could still reflect that feeling. Nevertheless, most were changed. For my characters, the new names chosen were predominantly of Irish and Welsh origin, with a few Scottish and Celtic ones intermixed as well. At the same time I wanted to make sure most would be easy to pronounce. Several of the ones I looked at I knew might be hard to say. So for some I went with the Anglicized spelling. And every once in a while there is a “modern” name which originates from ancient history or myth. Places and things were given names created using actual Gaelic words with specific meanings. Like the book title, I won’t reveal any just yet. I have learned when you change them on beta readers, it causes confusion. Once they grow accustomed to a name, it sticks. And they could still change.

Genre I feel is a key factor to consider. Some I feel are stricter than others. Fantasy can be, often depending on the setting. Science-fiction in contrast, especially if futuristic, is very liberating. Historical fiction is perhaps the most strict. I recommend making sure most names are at least semi-common, if not known, in the chosen time period. For instance, I would be cautious giving a character in an 18th century setting a first name that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. Some stories, like mine, have names meant to reflect a theme or another aspect about them. Comedy and satire are others, where you will sometimes find “silly” names. William Goldman used that word to describe some he chose for characters in The Princess Bride.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against using uncommon names, nor creating either new names or new variants of existing ones. I created such a variant for one of my novel’s characters. A few more may certainly follow in the sequels. Sir Walter Scott and Oscar Wilde respectively gave us Cedric (derived from the Anglo-Saxon name Cerdic) and Dorian (possibly taken from an ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians) in Ivanhoe and The Picture of Dorian Gray. All I will say is, depending on the story you’re writing, be careful not to overuse them.

Even my novel’s main mythical species has variant spellings: griffin, griffon, and gryphon. The first, undoubtedly the most common, is also a surname (perhaps the most famous literary example being the title character of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man) and occasional given name. The second is also used for certain dog breeds. I was introduced to the third in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I chose that spelling because it not only seemed the most fantasy-like to me, but some feel it is the one to use when portraying this creature as noble and intelligent, much like the one in Lewis Carroll’s novel.

Often names come down to the characters themselves. Any combination of a number of factors can have an influence (or be influenced), such as ethnic background, religion, social status, family traditions, nicknames, or a change of name (if so, why?). Perhaps there’s something about their personality or appearance you want to reflect, or the opposite. Many comic book superheroes’ alter egos have names that sound common, meant to not draw attention. But some are unique too. Some could be inside references. The classic film Halloween contains several, to both people and places.

In his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, William M. Akers offers some helpful tips which I find very helpful and can be applied to all forms of fiction writing. He recommends varying up the beginning letter, ending rhyme, and letter length to lessen the likelihood of confusion.

It all seems a lot, and certainly can run the risk of being overthought. All those factors previously mentioned do not have to have influence, nor need to. Not every fictional character, place, or thing even needs to be named. In the end, we all have different tastes. We writers must choose names because we want them. But remember, these fictional creations are our children; the children of our mind. Those of mine whom I name, I want names which suit them.

Here are links to some websites I refer to when searching for character names (some of them are interlinked):

First names
  1. Behind the Name
  2. Think Baby Names
Last names
  1. Behind the Name: Surnames
  2. House of Names
  3. Scottish Penpals
  4. Surname Genealogy Search
  5. Surname Origin & Last Name Meanings at Ancestor Search
  6. Last Name Meanings & Origins at Ancestry.com

Prologues

The novel I’m trying to publish includes a prologue, which I recently read at an open mic. Prologues I’ve discovered are tricky. It would seem they are generally discouraged in publishing. However, I’ve seen books, including bestsellers, which have them. Even in movies you’ll find them. There are different kinds of prologues too. Lital Talmor and Louise Lilley have created lists of different categories, good and bad (see Further Reading below) .

This particular prologue I have furiously tried to keep as many beta readers and fellow writers in critique groups (all of whom shall remain anonymous) gave their opinion of it and the rest of the manuscript. Why you might ask did I want to keep it so much? Was it even worth it?

I’ve learned if a prologue is going to be written, it must have a specific purpose. In order to draw readers in, the first few pages, with or without one, must hook them. If the prologue doesn’t do that, it ought to be discarded. At the beginning, what I wanted mine to do was show what is at the heart of the story, which is the beauty and importance of Nature. Throughout the manuscript and especially the prologue, when it came to Nature imagery I got a bit poetic, which at the time was what I wanted.

One of my first beta readers liked it for the juxtaposition of Nature’s beauty with its destruction, which shows what is at stake. However, as I would later learn from other readers, that was not enough. In the earliest drafts of my novel, the entire prologue was a dream sequence. However I soon learned that was a big no-no. Furthermore, it was, as Maeve Maddox (see Further Reading below) would point out, largely atmosphere. Lilley herself advises against such a prologue. Maddox says if your prologue feels “boring” then readers will want to go straight to Chapter 1. Those who read my earliest version felt it was too “detached” from the plot, and the style “wordy”. Clearly then if changes were not made it would have to go, or at least be broken up within the main plot somehow. Maddox herself offers that solution in the case of backstory.

So in an attempt to keep my prologue, I made only the second half a dream sequence, with the protagonist describing it as he was looking back on past events. So I sort of made it a cross between what Talmor calls “background” prologue and a “future protagonist” one (the idea had come around because I have considered an epilogue at the end of the trilogy where he is a young man reflecting on the story’s events). I chose to withhold his name, hoping to make readers wonder who he was and want to read more to find out. Even then, critique group members still felt it was too detached from the story.

I found inspiration from the first Iron Man film. It has a “prologue” showing Tony Stark attacked and wounded, then after the movie title shifts back to 36 hours prior. So instead of having my protagonist years later, I had it set in the main plot, with Chapter 1 beginning some days before the prologue’s events and the early pages build up to that moment, which occurs before the first quarter mark. I added dialogue between the protagonist and another character, so it would not be mere atmosphere anymore, but still there are no names included. One beta reader who read this version liked it and described it as “intriguing”. While even acknowledging publishers do not always like prologues, she felt mine “worked”. So perhaps I am on the right track. I also believe that beginning with Chapter 1 as it is now, it would feel too sudden a start.

Some still thought it too wordy, and I have continued to try to find a balance. Recently, listening to myself reading it out loud helped me simplify it even more. In the end, I am reminded of my father’s advice: the important thing is to tell a story and tell it well. He has also told me less is more, especially with writing. In the end I have come to finally accept that I maybe I did get carried away with the “poetic” feel, and it certainly could get in the way of delivering the message and drawing in readers. So perhaps a poetic style was not the right fit for a young adult audience after all.

Will this prologue be discarded before publication? Will it become something different than it is now? I cannot say. I can say not every book I write will have a prologue, nor need one, but I’d like to try it a few more times, perhaps using Talmor’s categories. If the day comes that I try screenwriting, it will be the same. But I will make sure I want it in a story, and that it will serve a purpose, or I won’t have one at all.

Watch my reading of my prologue here:

Further Reading
  1. Lilley, Louise. 6 Prologues I’m Tired of Reading.
  2. Maddox, Maeve. 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Novel’s Prologue at Daily Writing Tips.
  3. Talmor, Lital. Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue at Writing-World.com.

 

Writer’s Block: A New Perspective

I stressed the importance of persistence for a writer in my first post. Nowhere in the process of writing is this more apparent when the path you’re on hits a wall, blocking your path forward. That’s right. Writer’s block – no one likes it. Nevertheless, it’s happened to me many times and I’m sure many others before me and after me will experience the same thing. There can surely be nothing more frustrating for writers to not be able to write, as is shown in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love.

Often for me it’s a case where I have an idea of what I want, but I cannot get it out. Other times I don’t know where to start, or what to start. Especially now, with one novel being queried to agents, I have so many prompts I wish to expand on into other novels. But which one should I work on first? Should it be the sequel to the one I’m trying to publish, or something different? Or both? Can I work on more than one project, like Charles Dickens (indeed he started a new novel when in the middle of another)? I have tried, but find it a struggle. What can I do?

Late author Stephen J. Cannell gave his own description of writer’s block, which for me is very eye-opening. When I’ve blocked, I keep thinking about getting it right. But yes, nothing in life is perfect. With this novel I have gone through several drafts. At times where I thought I got it right, I realized I could do better, even in the latest draft. Even back in school when writing papers there were rough drafts and final copies. Cannell reminds us that the important thing is to have fun, just like when we played sports as children.

Early on when I went to a Maryland Writers’ Association meeting in Annapolis, another writer there told me that the first draft is always bad. Hemingway had said the same thing. No bestselling book is as it was when first written, I’ve said to others. If I can accept that in my mind, perhaps I can be more prolific. Of course I’m still going to worry about getting it right, perhaps because I’m a creature of habit. But as I said in my second post, if writing wasn’t difficult I doubt I would be as passionate about it as I am. We cannot achieve perfection, but we can get as close as we can and still be happy.

So what can I do to battle writer’s block? I am reminded of a scene where in my fantasy novel, one character was encouraged by another to climb trees to see the forest from the view of birds and tree-dwellers as opposed to ground creatures. Robin Williams’s character in Dead Poets Society stressed seeing things from another viewpoint by making his students stand on their desks. I think when we block, all we can think about is the big problem of getting over the wall. It makes the wall all the more ominous, larger than it really is. We cannot concentrate then on figuring out how to get over, just that we cannot jump high enough.

Step back then and look at it from another perspective, in order to build a solid foundation from the rough materials, and refine it into a safe stairway. Get away from writing so you don’t force it. Try doing something else for a while. Take a walk. Dickens would walk for miles thinking about his work. At times I have walked and pondered over my work. Even today with this blog post I thought about it while working out. Talk to people too. They can help you find new perspectives and ideas too. Keep a notebook, and jot down whatever ideas you get, however small. A little seed can always sprout into a beautiful tree like you never imagined. More often than not, ideas come when you are not expecting them, and surprise you.

I overcame writer’s block with one novel. I must tell myself I can do it again with other projects. It will come again, I’m sure. If the wall seems too high to jump, find another way over. Connecting my first and second posts: there will be trial and error, but we live and learn. That is life, and writing. Don’t give up.