Writering Life: Things I’ve Learned So You Don’t Have To – Imaginary Words

Yes, I wrote “writering life” – it was a type-o and I left it b/c I liked the sound of it. I often create words that way. A writering I go . . .

image by Michael V. Malano (click for his site)

Many people have asked how I make up names for people, places, and things in my imaginary worlds. All I can say is they just sort of come to me through playing with language. They just sound right when I say them.

I wonder, though, are other people intimidated by making up words? This never occurred to me until someone told me they could never do that. I guess I’ve had the luxury of playing with words for so long.

I got my MFA 20 years ago from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. In a previous incarnation, I was an experimental spokenword artist (aka performance poet), so I’m drawn to sounds. And I like the sounds of my made up words to convey the meaning of the words. Names, too, if possible, but names I often get from going to babynames.com (ignore all the advertising if you can) and playing around with what I find there.

I’ve also been known to put English words into online translators or look through online dictionaries so I can play with foreign sounds that stay close to the meaning of the word.

Abdira, the female Nhord, makes delicious hrooshka.

Doesn’t Abdira sound like she might live in a desert environment? Doesn’t a Nhord sound like a steadfast beast? Doesn’t hrooshka sound like a hearty and healthy meal? They do to me.

Some of my words are simply compounds, which tell you pretty much what they are:  song drop, village-nest, candleweb, etc.

TIP OF THE DAY: Style Sheets and Lexicons

When my copyeditor asked if I had a style sheet, I seriously didn’t know what she meant. I keep a lexicon (dictionary) of made up words and I keep a list of all the characters and where they are from. But I never kept a style sheet.

See my sample compound words above? One is actually two words, one is hyphenated, and one is run together. I didn’t think about this too much until it came to editing and I found out that I’d been pretty inconsistent. Even with the same word. I might have put spell-seed one place and spell seed another.

Deciding exactly how you’re going to spell something, and whether it’s capitalized or not, will really help your copyeditor. Keep a running alphabetical list of ALL names of people, places, and things with brief notes for any rules. This is different than a lexicon/dictionary. There are no definitions, just spelling and grammar rules.

Here’s a sampling from the current style sheet:

Apprentice (capped, except when used as verb)

bird drops (two words, epithet)
blossom bells

ceunias leaf
Chevalde of Grobjahar
Chronicler (title, capitalized)

destiny markings (no hyphen, lc)
Dervia of Dionsdale
Dragon (capped only when in reference to the Eternal Dragon)

So there you go – save yourself and your copyeditor loads of time by keeping a stylesheet as you write or edit.


  1. 4amWriter
    Feb 9, 2012

    I love this. I am a freelance editor, and I never have asked writers for a style sheet. Now I will! I’ve always taken it upon myself to trawl through the document and figuring it out. Sometimes I can, other times I have to shoot out an email and ask the author their intended spelling or punctuation for fictional words.

    I love making up names for towns, shops, streets. Location-type names. One of the members in my writing group told me I should have been around in the 50s because I would have been a big creative help with street names.

    When I write with kids, I use a lot of made-up words to help spur their creativity.

    I love your list of made-up words. They conjure up so many images and ideas in my head.

    Thanks for a fun, interesting post.

    • Thanks, 4AM. Do it! I think it will benefit both you and your writer. I’m so glad I’ve got a working style sheet now. It got me thinking about my word construction being so inconsistent. Now most of my compounds are unhyphenated unless I just have a gut feeling there needs to be a hyphen. (if one can feel grammar rules in their gut)

      I like naming towns and countries and planets, but find the other details more challenging. I had to find some names for forests, mountain ranges, and beaches – all of which were more difficult than other things I’ve made up.

  2. tracikenworth
    Feb 13, 2012

    I love making up names/words as well!! I pretty much do the same thing, fool around with others until the word just clicks.

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