Or when is coffee not coffee but Klah?
One piece of advice I’ve stumbled upon a few times in the last month really hit home as I’ve been re-reading my manuscript is that it’s a big no-no in fantasy or sci-fi fiction to give an everyday object a weird made up name just to emphasize the sci-fi or fantasy feel of a story. An example would be something like calling coffee something else such as Grawp or something.
I wish I had saved some of the links, but I was aimlessly browsing advice instead of writing so I was careless.
Yesterday I noticed that I was doing this particular thing a lot in my manuscript.
Now I don’t know that ANY writing advice is a hard and fast rule. I do know that many established authors go against this particular bit and it works. A good example of this would be Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series where she mentions a drink called Klah (if I recall correctly) that seems to be for all intents and purposes coffee and I think it works. In fact, I believe replacing the name klah with coffee would likely take away from the world she’s building.
I took a good long look at the manuscript I’m writing and I asked myself if I really NEEDED those unique names. I came up with all sorts of reasons and rationalizations why the things that had different names than their real counterparts had them. I could come up with dozens of reasons for each instance (I did this for 4 or 5 mundane things), each with rich detail.
(For the record, I’m not writing a fantasy novel where this sort of thing would be more acceptable, my story is set in a dystopian future and I’m going for a darker grittier feel (but not too dark).)
Those reasons were fun to imagine and fun to note. I even fantasized about how to insert them into the story without doing an info dump (which I already have too much of in there). This wasted a good 30-40 minutes of my time.
Did those reasons make the story better or worse? That was the question that finally popped into my head. I’m not talking about whether calling policemen by a different name, I’m taking about the REASON they are called a different name. Is the reason making the story better or worse?
I came to the conclusion that the reason itself, while interesting, did not really change or enhance the story in any way and the different name itself seemed clunky and amateurish to me.
Just for fun, I did a quick search and replace and sure enough, using regular names for things really helped the story’s setting. I remember choosing those names when I started and I remember that I wanted to set a more “sci-fi” atmosphere. It really did not work. It gave the writing a clumsy kind of feel that I did not notice then, but I really notice now.
Thankfully, this is an easy fix. I now call my coffee, coffee and my cops are cops.