How to write a book

I invented you, honest. An author’s apology to a blameless town

5137935272_2d404cceb6_bI’ve nearly finished the second run-through of Ever Rest, and now I know the characters well, I can flesh out details that I’d previously left vague, such as where they live and what I want that to suggest. But this brings certain hazards, as I found when I published my first novel. I thought you might like this post from my archives, originally penned for Authors Electric.


It’s a funny thing, releasing a novel. You think you’ve made everything up, then someone informs you that it’s not as fictional as you’d hoped.

And moreover, you got it wrong.

Like the time when I received an email telling me the fusty village where I’d set the action in My Memories of a Future Life was not spelled Vellonoweth but Vellanoweth.

‘No it’s not,’ I replied, thinking my correspondent had a cheek. ‘I made it up.’

‘It’s near Penzance,’ he said.

Oh dear. It was.

I honestly had no idea the place existed. My Vellonoweth, with an o, was inspired by a stand-out surname I spotted in a magazine. It embodied everything I needed for my setting – a fusty, sleepy hell full of dreary people. If I used a real town I couldn’t take it to the stifling depths I needed.

But it turns out there is a real Vellanoweth. So I may have some apologising to do. Here it is.

hydra arts1. I’m sorry I gave you a terrible amateur dramatics society, which was performing a musical they’d written themselves about a lost hat.

2. I’m sorry I gave you so many atrocious singers and musicians and I’m sorry my narrator didn’t find that endearing.

3. I’m sorry your only watering hole was the Havishamesque and immense Railway Hotel with its curry-coloured carpets and paintwork like melted royal icing. In earlier drafts it was much worse so I’ve spared you a lot.

4. I’m sorry I gave you a dismal 1950s high street with concrete shoebox buildings.

5. I’m sorry I made it rain most of the time, which made the precinct even more depressing.

6. I’m sorry about the spiritualists.angelhead

7. I’m sorry no one could pick up TV or radio, except for the barmy local station in the old wartime fort which most of the time played industrial whalesong.

8. I’m sorry the electricity supply was as bad as the weather and the singers. But on the plus side I did give you a decommissioned nuclear power station which attracts more tourists than Glastonbury Tor and allows the locals to sell home-made radiation detection badges. See, it wasn’t all bad.Abode of Chaos

9. I’m sorry the people I despatched to this hell from London behaved so bizarrely and upset these good folk, who as you can see had enough to contend with.

On the other hand, as the novel is about other lives, perhaps you’ll enjoy Vellanoweth’s literary alter ego. To allow some respite, I did give you the neighbouring towns of Nowethland and Ixendon. If they really exist I’ll eat my atlas.

Yours sincerely, Roz

(Thank you for the pictures, Recoverling, Hydra Arts, Angelhead and Abode of Chaos)

Have you ever invented a place or a character and later discovered it was real? Have friends or family members ever spotted themselves in one of your stories, or imagined they have? Confess in the comments.

19 thoughts on “I invented you, honest. An author’s apology to a blameless town

  1. I am writing a book set in Cornwall with an invented village called Salmonweir. I’ve checked the geography of where the village is set and there’s nothing there (I’ve even told people in the text where my fictional village is – between Lamorna and Treen). I also checked the name – all I found was a hostel in Ireland so I am safe there.

    The only issue I might have is that the name Salmonweir does not sound very Cornish, but that’s something I can live with because the title of the book is Salmonweird 🙂

  2. For a time I wondered why in their reporting some newspapers went to seemingly excessive detail, such as “Mr. John Smith of 307 Lane Street.” Then I realized that they were simply protecting themselves from the complaints of another John Smith who would not have that street address.

    As MG Mason suggests, an author can get some protection from complaints by inserting enough additional details to exclude any sound-alike name. That and doing some Googling.

    I suspect that almost any word that’s easily pronounced has a meaning in some language and may even be a place name. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, for instance, is similar to that of an ancient Italian town and was apparently the original source. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

    Concerning Narnia and Narni Roger Lancelyn Green writes about C.S. Lewis and Walter Hooper:

    “When Walter Hooper asked [C.S. Lewis] where he found the word ‘Narnia’, Lewis shoved him Murray’s Small Classical Atlas, ed.G.B. Grundy (1904), which he acquired when he was reading the classics with Mr Kirkpatrick at Great Bookham [1914-1917]. On plate 8 of the Atlas is a map of ancient Italy. Lewis had underscored the name of a little town called Narnia, simply because he liked the sound of it. Narnia — or ‘Narni’ in Italian — is in Umbria, halfway between Rome and Assisi.

    Narnia, a small medieval town, is situated at the top of an olive-covered hill. It was already ancient when the Romans defeated it in 299 BC. Its thirteenth-century fortress dominates a deep, narrow gorge of the Nera river which runs below. One of its most important archaeological features is a Romanesque cathedral, which contains the relics of a number of Umbrian saints.”


    I’d encourage authors to show a bit of care when they select names. Don’t just use some random name generator on the Internet. Research and find names with meaning.

    For my book, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments, I needed new names for true-to-life patients I’d cared for. I turned to common names in other languages with appropriate meanings. For an extremely quick-feeling and sensitive Chinese girl in the opening chapter, I picked “Min,” which means “quick-witted” in Chinese and is often the name given such girls. For another girl, blond, slender, and vulnerable, I used “Pala,” which means “small” in Icelandic and again is a name often given to small girls.

    In both cases, I mention that meaning in the book, but as a author you need not do that. You can keep that meaning to yourself. Adding small touches like that can make your writing more enjoyable.

    The greatest risk comes with your negative characters. If you’ve got a rotten character, for instance, you might name him “Adolf” after Adolf Hitler. That’ll give you some protection if some other Adolf complains. History is filled with jerks whose names can be discovered and used.


    Also, look for names whose very sound hints at traits. J. K. Rowlings’ House of Slytherin is brilliant, since the name suggests slithering like a poisonous snake. In contrast, can you think of a name more ordinary and harmless-sounding than “Harry Potter”?

    Finally, don’t be afraid to replace names if something better comes to mind. Unlike the writers of a generation ago, searching for one name and replacing it with another is now quite easy and foolproof.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

    1. Hi Michael – what a comprehensive comment!

      I work as a journalist sometimes, so the convention of precision about our John Smiths is second nature. I realise it probably puzzles non-journos, though. As well as protecting you legally, it also gives a certain solidity.

      I didn’t know that story about Narnia. I like your point about the meaning of names. I choose names very carefully, and usually because they’re personally resonant for me. It helps me round out the characters and develop a sense for them. As you say, there’s much that the reader doesn’t need to know, but the writer draws upon. And yes, JK Rowling has a marvellous ear for names. How about the Dursleys!

  3. Hi, Roz! I can sympathize with your problem. Over the course of the last two decades I’ve had to rename characters and places myself. The most notable instance was a surname that I thought I had made up literally out of thin air and whole cloth. Turns out that not only did the name exist, but the family came to America on the Mayflower, and much of the family history I made up was close to the mark as well. Since I had the family cast as a bunch of villains, and since the real people are still around, I felt it wise to change the name!

    Sometimes, although not often, these little coincidences happen in a way that make one consider seriously the existence of paranormal phenomena. Some years ago I was thinking about the designation of a fighter group for a WW 2 novel, and the number “427” popped into my mind. Aha, said I, the 427th Fighter Group it is. I had CNN on for background noise, and about a half-hour later they had a bulletin that USAir Flight 427 had just crashed.

    So I would be willing to entertain the idea of a psychic connection between the names we choose, thinking they are out of thin air, and places that really exist.

    After all, writing is the only true form of magic. 😉

    1. Hi Tom! On Twitter I was just talking to an author who read this post, and said she’d written a novel about an Israeli PM being gunned down… just before Rabin died. And another author on Facebook is telling me that the events she wrote about in one of her novels are coming true in a rather unsettling way.

      As you say, it’s the magic. A word after a word is power.

  4. Fun post! I had two characters in my book, one named Marko and one named Ramius. Both were spaceship captains. Something kept bothering me about them, but it took a hundred pages before I realized I was channeling Tom Clancy. The Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October was named Marko Ramius. Sigh.

  5. Ack! This post gave me the shivers. Naturally, I make up names for everywhere and everyone in my fantasy books. I make up languages, which is always terrifying….what if the words will actually mean something horrible or lewd? I haven’t been bit yet, but I can imagine that day!

    1. I believe Kodak were among the first people to worry about this. Long before the days of the internet, they apparently did searches through all languages to find a name for their company that didn’t mean something unfortunate.

  6. I truly believe fiction is more truthful than nonfiction. Fiction is a larger truth. Therefor, it could clearly end up being about several places at several times in the recent past.
    I have the opposite problem. It seems that (so far, according to an expert) my novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” has one small mistake – the approx. time & place Archbishop Romero was assassinated. I purposely wrote the story the way it would have the most impact on the reader so when this nonfiction author told me I was wrong to put the details about Romero’s death at a different time, I never expected him to say, I got all the other facts right. (Mind you, there are know exact dates – a few years, but nothing more exact than that.)
    Anyway, it’s all good! Just write a great story. The rest will take care of itself!

    1. Sherrie, I thoroughly believe in the ‘larger truth’, the deeper truth. I tell people to aim for that when basing a story on real life. But sometimes you didn’t know that real life had its own version of the stuff you thought you’d invented!

  7. I set my first MS at an inland lake in northern Michigan. In a state that boasts more than 11,000 inland lakes, it is REALLY HARD to name your lake and not use one that already exists! That MS is dead, but I’m resurrecting that setting for a new story. We shall see (hopefully, eventually) if I inadvertently offend anyone with what goes on there and in the sleepy little neighboring town. Fun post, Roz!

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