The Name Thing

This post has two topics, really. The first is why the names of characters in my books are so culturally blended, the second is my use of a pen name.

I’ve always been fascinated by names that reflect different cultural backgrounds. A Mexican restaurateur called Jésus Fong. A CNN news anchor called Soledad O’Brien. Names like these abound, and often escape our notice. To me they are a sign that our world is shrinking and coming together, one child at a time.

So when I set out to build a fictional world, I wanted that. I also wanted gender equality. The name I have is patriarchal. It was my father’s name, and his father’s name. I do know my mother’s maiden name, but that was her mother’s husband’s name. I vowed that on my world, it would be different.

So here’s how it works on Celadon, my orphaned colony planet. Girls take their family name from their mother, and it does not change when they marry. (Hi, Quebec!) So Raisa Wing is the daughter of Maria Wing, who is the daughter of Rhiannon Wing, and so on, all the way back to the First Landing. Raisa gets her first name from her dad. Boys do the opposite: they take their family name from their fathers, and are given their first name by their mothers.

You can guess that Raisa and her sister Nikita’s dad has Russian lineage, and sure enough his name is Anthony Kinakin.

On Celadon, the surviving settlers comprised a limited gene pool, so there has been a concerted effort to mix it up, resulting in some fun names. Some of my favourites include Rajeet Bjornsen, Ichigo Bertollini and Roberto Chan.

This naming convention leads to two things. First, there are powerful dynasties built by both male and female lines. Second, there is a tendency for careers to fall into gender-led roles, as children follow their dynasty’s field of expertise. Raisa is expected to study the silk industry of her powerful fore-mothers. Her brothers will be more likely to take after their father, a dye-master.

This is one reason why all the pilots are women or girls. That, and I thought it would make a nice change from the day-to-day realities of my male-dominated profession.

Now, as to the pen name. My real name isn’t a secret, but Tim Armstrong is a very common name. There are two of us in the town where I live, for instance, and if you Google it, you get a lot of articles about an executive at a software giant. There are a lot of other famous Armstrongs, too: Neil the astronaut, Louis the jazz musician, Lance the cyclist, Bess the actress, Jo Jo the football player. And let’s not forget Kelley Armstrong, the author of speculative fiction for young adults. As far as I know, I’m not related to any of them.

I could never have registered Tim Armstrong as a web domain or a Twitter handle, whereas Timothy Gwyn was a snap. I do have to spell it for people, but I hold a sneaky hope that they’ll then remember it. Gwyn was the middle name given to me by my Welsh mother, by the way. We’re closing the circle here. AVIANS is dedicated to Ruth Maureen. That’s my mom. She’s long gone now, but she was always supportive of my writing.Avians-promo

If any of this makes you feel interested in AVIANS, it’s available for pre-order at an increasing number of vendors. The official release date is August 1st. Various formats of e-book and the trade paperback can be ordered through Five Rivers Publishing, Amazon, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble, with others to follow. Chapters/Indigo and vendors in the European Union are rolling out in the next weeks. If you want a good old-fashioned printed copy, and you don’t want to order it online, you can ask your local bookstore to order it in, and they should be glad to help. I’m pretty sure they don’t have any other authors called Timothy Gwyn.

World-building: Showing What Isn’t There.

I went to panels on world-building at conventions. I asked, “How do you show what isn’t there?” This caught panellists off guard, and the answers weren’t very satisfactory.

I wanted a world where girls flew gliders. Along the way, I had to create a planet and a society that made that plausible. Raisa’s world is low on metal. I know the reason, but Raisa doesn’t. I never explain, and I can’t have Raisa wandering around saying, “This would be so much easier if we had metal.” She’s never seen a steam engine, or electric wiring, or even a decent mirror.

I turned to books. An old favourite, Courtship Rite, by Donald Kingsbury, is revelatory. Warning: this book will strain your brain, but it’s worth it. By reverse engineering, and much gnashing of my mental teeth, I deduced that there are different ways to show what isn’t there.

  1. Show what is there.
  2. Create conspicuous work-arounds.
  3. Use scarce examples.
  4. Illustrate with myth.
  5. Avoid inappropriate metaphor.
  6. Substitute metaphor that fits.
  7. Write for the senses.

Kingsbury’s festival of the horse is a fabulous example of myth. The children make horse costumes that are not merely whimsical, they are so far-fetched that you know they’ve never seen the animal.

Here are some ways I applied these techniques:

  1. In early scenes, we have a horse drawn cart and urgent messages relayed by semaphore towers. There are stone and ceramic knives for sale in the marketplace.
  2. Raisa eats with chopsticks and an earthenware spoon, not a knife and fork. Her sewing needles are bone, and coins are glass.
  3. Raisa’s mother, Maria, has a metal ring. Not a gold ring, not a silver ring; a metal ring. It’s grey, and so precious it’s worn only for special occasions.
  4. Later, it is revealed that Maria’s ring is a platinum wedding band, brought by her ancestress at the time of the First Landing and handed down for generations.
  5. There are no steely gazes, leaden skies, or iron fists on Celadon. It would make no sense for the locals to have those words in their daily vocabulary.
  6. A flinty stare, or eyes that glitter like obsidian, can help immerse the reader in Raisa’s point of view. The expression  glass in pocket replaces brass in pocket.
  7. When Raisa visits the Converts, who do have metal, she is startled by the cold feel of a metal door, and the clanging of her feet on metal stairs.

These methods work well for other aspects of Raisa’s life. Chickens and ducks are real, but the bird names the girls take when they become Avians are more mythical. At quiet times, background sounds include distant farm noises, but never birdsong. A discussion of birds in the old Earth ecology touches on how some of them ate insects, and the young instructor can’t help but mention how dangerous to essential silkworms and bees this would be. Okay, that’s exposition, and I deliberately left it off my list because it’s not immersive.

Sometimes exposition provides necessary clarity, but I do it as artfully as I can. I try to make it fit in, not stick out. Editors and critique pals were adamant that I must spell out that the rings in the sky are planetary rings, not smoke rings or something. So the first time I mention them, I had to find an excuse for Raisa to think about them. Thereafter, they’re just the rings, and everybody takes them for granted. I was careful to make sure they never disappear, though. They’re always there, and people notice them when they’re thinking about what time of day it is.

Did I miss any? I’m not claiming to be an expert, I’m just gabbing about what I’ve learned so far. Do you have a technique or trick  that you’d like to share with writers who need to show what isn’t there?  Or do you have a book that you revere for its world-building prowess? Comments are welcome.