A common question for new writers is where do you get your character names? You wouldn’t think that was much of a problem, but a lot of stories are populated by the all-too-common John’s and Mary’s. Jumping to the other extreme, we run into some tales filled with Xg’hanpl and Krnozj and other disemvoweled words. Where do you find that balance of uncommon but pronounceable?

For human names, I’ve got a few easy sources that should be in every writer’s toolkit. The first is a baby name book, segmented by ethnicity. That lets me choose a Polynesian name for the traveler from afar while sticking with German names for the locals.

whitepagesThe second reference is the phone book. This is mostly useful for last names, as I’d like to avoid Mr. Smith as well as Mrs. Gnorpthrk. However, it’s sometimes tricky to pick out an ethnically appropriate last name from the phone book, but some googling for “Polynesian surnames” or the likes will get you a lot.

A third resource I have used on occasion is the name of a journalist or famous celebrity that I happen to find in a newspaper or online article. No, I haven’t had a Walter Cronkite or a Brad Pitt in any of my stories, but I could easily use a Walter Pitt or a Brad Cronkite.

For alien or fantasy names, it’s a bit trickier, even though it need not be. There are certain names that are common across cultures here on earth simply because they are straightforward combinations of common phonemes. John is a common name for a reason. It’s easy to say. However, we usually see John dressed up differently in each culture. For some, it’s Jonathan. For others, it’s Ionakana or Joanico.

If you want to go more alien, just play around with slight variations like Johen or Jorn. Then you can completely divorce yourself from even the J-O-N form of John and start dropping in other sounds, like Sohn, Boen, Johl, or even Kaem. You can do the same to longer names too. Karen becomes Bashel. Walter becomes Salken. Even Catherine becomes Toshiline. They all look unusual, but they’re still phonetically plain enough to be easy to pronounce.

twistedtongueAnd why should it matter that they’re pronounceable? After all, aren’t some alien mouths capable of making sounds we can’t even strangle out? Well yes, they can, but that’s not the point. The point is the readers have to care about these characters, and it makes it that much easier if their names can ring in the readers’ ears. Otherwise, the tragic love story of Xgrthum and Nzkla becomes that sappy tale about that X-dude and the N-chick on the distant world of I-don’t-give-a-crap.

How about the rest of you? What alien name has really stuck with you?

Alien Timekeeping

funkycalendarI ran into this question in an SF/F group: How do you create an alternate timekeeping and calendar system? I found it interesting because it’s not so much about comparing some local calendar to the one we use here on Earth, but about creating one from scratch. How do we do that?

I figure it goes back to the most basic observable phenomena. The sun rises and sets. Seasons come and go. The moon waxes and wanes. Everything else is just invented units for bookkeeping. So how do we invent that bookkeeping?

Let’s look at the two most important units to primitive time keepers: days and years. These are almost certain to exist in any timekeeping or calendar system. If the people are in anyway diurnal (or their prey or predators are), then they’re going to keep track of days at least to the extent of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If there is any travel, you are almost certain to make plans to pack provisions for five days rather than merely two days.

Likewise, the coming and going of seasons will affect the migration of game, the availability of certain plants, and the need to hunker down and stay warm vs. escaping the heat of summer, so years will also be tracked in some form, at least to the point of talking about a previous year’s seasons or next year’s season. You might not talk about years specifically, though, since times could be discussed as “three summers ago” or “I have lived through nineteen winters.”

sundialBut what about dividing up the day? The easiest division is day vs. night, but dividing that up into smaller units is somewhat arbitrary. We got out 24-hour clock by an early sundial method of dividing up the day into ten hours of sunlight, plus an hour of twilight at each end. This was mirrored over to night through the tracking of certain stars.

Alas, depending on the time of year, these daylight hours varied in length, with long hours in the summer and short ones in the winter. This variation is fine in more primitive cultures, but once you start developing physics, you need a constant time measurement for talking about things like velocity and acceleration. So, sooner or later, that evolving society is going to have to nail down those hours into something rigid.

But ultimately the number of hours per day or the number of minutes/seconds/etc. is completely arbitrary. A metric division of time would be swell, but I’d have to question whether your timekeepers were that logical early enough to make it stick, rather than having sixteen hours a day because the gods willed it. The actual divisions could come from mythology to something as simple as counting the appendages on your alien or fantastical species.

As for the year, it is already naturally divided into days, but we seem to be primed to group them up into intermediate divisions like weeks and months. Certainly some of this is astronomical, and some of it is mythological, but a larger issue is that we have a hard time grasping bigger numbers at an emotional level. At some point, the distinction between 153 vs. 212 is lost on us while we can feel the difference between May and July in our guts. It’s hard to say for sure what an alien or truly fantastical brain is going to handle, but if their sense of time evolved along with spears and rocks, then it’s not going to have a lot of abstract math. And so we probably need at least some divisions.

moon_phases_diagramThe origin of our month comes from the more primitive cultures that tracked the passage time by the phases of the moon. This is believed to go back to stone age, but depending on how you want to observe it, there are several different ways to measure the moon’s orbit. Do you go by the phases, or do you see when it returns to the constellation of the squid? And what if you have two moons? Does one take precedence over the other? Or do you derive some time unit based on when the closer one eclipses the outer one? If there are three or more, do you look for some kind of regular alignment in their orbital rhythms? If there is no moon, there will probably be at least some demarcations of the seasons via the solstices and equinoxes.

Our seven day week is somewhat arbitrary and has as diverse origins as the Jewish creation story in Genesis and the astronomical observation of seven bodies that move through the sky (the sun, the moon, and five visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Various cultures have run on weeks ranging from three to ten days, and it’s probably as much the luck of history as it could be some seven-favoring internal wiring that caused us to end up with a seven day week.

But if you really want to go wild, consider some much stranger settings. Think about a species that lives entirely underground in caverns. There is no sky, so there is no day and night, no lunar months, not even solstices to mark the passing of the seasons and years. What do you have then? Is there an underground river that floods based on the seasons above? Is there a consistent geyser like Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful”.

Or think about a small ringworld, but instead of spanning an entire orbit like Niven’s Ringworld, make it only several thousand kilometers across and spinning around for gravity as it makes its ways around the local star. If its plane of rotation is tilted out of its orbital plane, it will still have seasons, but instead of the seasonal cycle taking the entire orbit as it does for Earth, they’ll have two sets of seasons per orbit. Consider a calendar with a first and second summers.

But, and this is a big one, I don’t like it when writers mess around with the calendar in a lame attempt to remind that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Certainly, I don’t require every epic fantasy to use the Gregorian calendar, but I remember the disaster of the original Battlestar Galactica’s use of “yarons” and “centons” for time keeping. It was overdone yet added nothing to the story. So if you’re going to mess around with the calendar, please have a good reason for it, please keep it in the background as much as possible.

Hook Me Early or Don’t Bother

I’ve just had a rather frustrating experience with a book sample. I was looking forward to this book. It’s SF from an award-winning author who I have previously read and enjoyed. The overall themes of the book are ones that interest me: Fermi’s paradox and first contact. It promised to be a good, intellectual story. The problem was that when I got to the end of the sample, the story had not yet begun.

The e-book samples for the Kindle are typically about 10% of the book. If it’s overloaded with front-end material, you might not get much of the narrative text, but most fiction books keep that relatively short. The paper version of this book is listed at about 800 pages, and the sample felt pretty long, though perhaps closer to 50 pages than 80. Still, it was a fair amount of text.

And yet, all of those pages were spent on introducing various characters going about their lives and showing off all the cool technology the author had imagined for this world. By the end of the sample, I had met seven or eight characters and also had some background text on the Fermi paradox, some poetry, and some of the recent history of this particular future Earth.

But I didn’t feel like the story had actually started. Instead, I had half a dozen story lines that did not seem to connect at all except that the character in scene fourteen was apparently the mother of the guy in scene nine. In fact, the only character I saw twice was really just one scene broken into two pieces a mere fifteen minutes apart.

In short, the author spent all those pages, and he never hooked me. I had not had enough time with any single character to develop a connection. In fact, the only character that had summoned any emotion from me was a spoiled brat who looked like he was about to die. My emotional reaction? “Good riddance!”

So when I reached the decision point for my purchase, I had not developed any connection with any character, had no desire to see what happened to anyone, and I still had no idea what the book was going to be about. The only reason I know that it’s going to be about Fermi and first contact is because the author has been promoting it like a broken record.

I think this has always been true, but it’s true now more than ever: You need to hook the reader early. How?

  • Give me a few characters to care about. There can be others, but focus on just a few.
  • Show how these characters are going to interact with each other. If they’re not obviously connected, give me some hints on how they will eventually connect.
  • Make it clear what the inciting incident is and that it’s happening right now. Yank these characters out of their ordinary world in the first few pages.
  • Show me a source of conflict early on. It doesn’t have to be THE conflict for the whole book, but at least put something or someone in jeopardy to keep me turning pages.

That’s about it. If you can hit those four things, I’ll keep going past the sample without even looking at the price tag. Miss all of them, and I’m going to go write about it on my blog instead.

And it’s a shame, too, because I was really looking forward to see what this author had to say on the Fermi Paradox. Maybe I should see if he wrote an essay on it.

Review: The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up because my wife recommended it. She said, “It saved fantasy for me.” That was high praise, but I can see now that it was worth it. I am also tempted to say that it saved fantasy for me, but I’m not sure I’ll find much else like it.

I do enjoy Urban Fantasy, but I confess I’ve never really enjoyed much traditional fantasy, i.e. epic sword and sorcercy, though I could never quite put my finger on it. The best I could say was that, “I just couldn’t get into it.” I figured that the genre simply was not for me, and I stuck to my science fiction.

After reading this book, I think I figured out my problem with most fantasy. It’s the long expository openings setting the scene and showing off all the world-building the author has done. I can’t really blame most of these authors, because this seems to be The Way It Is Done, in a mold set first perhaps by Tolkien himself.

Well, with all deference the old master, this usually bores me to death. It’s the kingdom of Blahdyblay, ruled by the Lords of Nuchinsuch since the ancient days of Dear-God-my-eyes-are-bleeding! We’re usually seven or eight pages in before anything actually happens, except in rare cases, where we start with some brief excitement, only to be followed by page after page of exposition. Look, I’ll give you the One True Ring if you’ll just shut up about the damned jibbenweed smoke for five minutes!

Sheepfarmer’s Daughter does not suffer from this problem. Admittedly, it starts with a now unfashionable prologue, but even then, it introduces a mystery. Then, chapter one starts with our protagonist, Paks, doing stuff. She’s in a struggle and is making a change in her life. She’s already five steps into the mythical Hero’s Journey, and she’s just getting started.

Yes, the book shows signs of quite a bit of world-building. There are old alliances, gods and saints, raging ogres, fallen kingdoms, and so forth, but it doesn’t come in a front-loaded infodump. Instead, it is revealed to us through the eyes of an wide-eyed foot soldier, one muddy step at a time. The narrator doesn’t tell us about the southern farm lands, the impenetrable fortress, or the honorable allies. Instead, Paks marches through them, butts up against them, and fights alongside them. We don’t so much see the world as we feel it.

Beyond that, the story is good, and it is both gritty and noble. People die, Paks gets hurt. Wounds heal slowly, and scars accumulate. But honor is upheld, and despite all the setbacks and painful losses along the way, the good guys win in the end. Since it’s also the first book in a trilogy, I should also say that powerful forces are at work in the world, and we see them moving slowly and at oblique angles. I don’t yet know where they’re going, but I can see that they’re going to pull Paks deeper into the crucible and explain the mystery that was laid out in that prologue.

So, it was very good – beyond five stars. It’s the first of a trilogy, so I’m looking forward to diving into them, even though they’re each about 500 pages long. And what’s more, Elizabeth Moon has returned to this world after several years, so even after I finish this trilogy, there will be more waiting for me. I’m tempted to dive in headfirst, but I think I’ll stretch it out a bit and savor this one for the next year or two.