Friday, October 26, 2012

Names in Alternate History

So one of the things about writing historical fiction (and especially alternative history) is finding the balance between accuracy and reading comprehension.  If, for instance, one is writing an alternate history of the Aztec Empire in which the Aztecs repulsed the conquistadores and survived to the present day, one is faced with the tricky decision of whether to go with authentic Aztec place-names, or come up with a scenario in which somehow the Aztecs named all their cities in Spanish (a la present-day Mexico).  At first glance, one might think: well duh, use Aztec names.  Okay, that presents some problems:

First off, most of the towns and cities in Central America were founded long after the Aztecs had been replaced as the people who got to pick names for them, so Aztec names do not exist for many places.  You’d have to make them up.  That’s not very easy, unless you’re well-schooled in Nahuatl.  Granted, if you’re writing a book about Aztecs you’re probably better with Native American languages than I, but still, thinking up place-names in an exotic native tongue is no easy task. 

Secondly and more importantly, no one will have any idea to where you are referring.  If you decide that present-day Ciudad Juarez will be called Xochipatl in your universe, you will have to somehow let your readers know that Xochipatl is Juarez.  See, language is all about context.  When someone says “Ciudad Juarez,” the reader is immediately put in mind of a wild border town on the Rio Grande across from El Paso, Texas, surrounded by desert and longhorns and gauchos.  A hundred images come to mind when one thinks “Ciudad Juarez.”  What images come to mind when one thinks of “Xochipatl?”  Any?  I didn’t get any, and I’m the one who made it up.  And even if in your universe you don’t want Ciudad Juarez (excuse me, “Xochipatl”) to be a wild border town, or want it to be in a different location, the fact is that readers need a location to which to relate.  Otherwise there will be no sense of distance between places in your universe, no sense of geography, no sense of the little things that make a world real.  For all the reader knows, Xochipatl and Tenochtitlan are just next door to each other, and they can’t understand why Catuahtec is so devastated because his girlfriend Choxibil is moving to Nuahotl.  “Why, that’s not very far from Icslixa, what’s he on about?” 

You see?  It can be tricky.  You would get so bogged down outlining the geography and explaining where everything is in relation to (or what it is comparable to in our rather more mundane world) that the story would get sidelined.  Pure fantasy is a little easier to deal with, at least in this respect.  Readers go into the book knowing that they are unfamiliar with that universe, and are prepared for a little explanation.  But most readers are of the mind that they are quite familiar with our world, and aren’t expecting a geography lecture when they read alternate history.  They cry: “Get on with it!  I know where Ciudad Juarez is, for goodness’ sake!” 

On the other side of the notebook, though, you have that nagging little voice that tells you: “Hey, you can’t call it Ciudad Juarez, because the Aztecs don’t speak Spanish!”  And if you allow too many inconsistencies like that your story becomes less and less believable, and it will be harder for the reader to be drawn into your world. 

And one might ask why I wrote this long quasi-tirade about place-names, alternative history, and so on and so forth.  Well, ask away.  Really, I was just blowing off some steam.  No, I’m not writing an alternative history where the Aztec Empire has persisted down to the present.  I’m actually writing an alternate history in which the Roman Empire developed steam technology and so never collapsed.  And when I write about places in the Roman Empire it is important that they sound Roman (or Germanic, for the places in Germania).  The problem, as outlined above, is that if I write “Lutetia” will anyone know I’m talking about Paris?  I have no idea.  I have decided to go with the Roman names, and hope that I can write well enough to explain it all properly and not have people fall asleep while they’re wading through it all. 

Check back soon, I’ll have previews of my steampunk novel “Steam Centurion” up for viewing!

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