If I wanted to just relax on my vacation, I would look for a house with a circle door to rent in the Shire. I would talke long walks, mix with the local hobbits, sample the regional cuisine, and do research on the area.
But if I was looking for adventure, I would book passage to London 1895 and join Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and solve a mystery.
My second lesson from Mr. Tolkien is this: All writers, even nonfiction writers, are in engaged in some kind of world-building.
With any kind of speculative fiction, the world-building is obvious. But any writer who is introducing readers to an unfamiliar world has to do a type of world-building for it to seem real to the reader.
Historical fiction uses a world-building different from speculative fiction. The writer wants the reader to understand a given time period so well that she feels like she knows what it was like to live in that era. Such well-researched settings enhance the fictious story.
But even nonfiction history books have to explain a vanished past in terms a reader can comprehend and make connnections with.
My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in the present, and I still have to do world-building, or at least, region-building. So many Americans are unfamliar with a rural lifestyle that I need to explain things like a lack of chain stores or bad phone reception. I have visited the area and researched the animals and plants so when I need to drop in some description, I can be accurate. Readers will feel like they are visiting an unique place and people who live in the area won’t find errors.
Nonfiction writers have to do this kind of research and then present it in a way that engages the reader. A dry listing of facts won’t do it.
So whether you write fiction or nonfiction, realistic or speculative fiction, I think all writers can appreciate the effort Mr. Tolkien put in to make the unreal so amazingly real.
Since I write contemporary, realistic YA fiction, it sounds strange that I learned any thing from a fantasy writer. But I did and the first lesson is “Know Your Backstory.”
Mr. Tolkien’s meticulous detail to his backstory may be why I could understand Middle-earth so easily. Most of the backstory wasn’t included in the narrative of his books. It was created either to help Mr. Tolkien keep his world-building straight or in the hope that future artists might expand on some of his stories. Readers would know nothing about his extraordinary creativity if his son Christopher Tolkien hadn’t published the backstory after his father’s death.
Not every novel needs a backstory. I happened to be a writer who writes better whenI know my characters like my closest relatives. I need to understand their basic personalities, like and dislikes, opinions, mannerismas, and any other personal details. Then, as I write, I can pull on that knowledge to make the characters come alive.
For example, if I need a character to make a sarcastic comment, I will not use Merritt Lody, who is fifteen and has a sunny, easy-going personality. He likes to joke but he isn’t sarcastic.
I am working on a mystery novel concerning crimes in the present that are tied to crimes occurring fifty-two and seventy years ago. Because all the crimes happen in the same county and involve several generations of several families, I needed to create family trees. I won’t use all the members I have named to fill out the trees, but going into that detail provides me with wonderful opportunities for inspiration to catch fire.
All the details do not need to appear in my novel and shouldn’t. As I have read in many places books are not dumps where authors unload the characters’ backstories in great heaps. I look on my novel as a recipe with the backstory sprinkled in like spices – just enough to add zest to the plot and characters but not so much that the backstory overpowers the main narrative.
As I wrote this post, I realized I learned another lesson from Mr. Tolkien. I’ll write about that next time.
I am no fan of fantasy. I didn’t read much of it as a kid – I was hooked on mysteries – so that may be why I can’t get interested now. If I pick up a fantasy book thick enough to break my foot, I realize I will have to take notes to remember the world’s regions, languages, and alliances, not to mention each character’s abilities, loyalties, and hatreds. So I quietly lower the book, making sure my feet are clear, and run away.
But I am a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. I have a special fondness for The Hobbit. In seventh grade, I was assigned to read it, and it was one of the few assigned stories I ever enjoyed. Most of my required reading concerned characters who learned valuable lessons and then watched a loved one die. The Hobbit has a few deaths, but they seem reasonable since they occur during a battle. And with all the action and heroics, no one has time for valuable lessons. I loved it.
I read The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out. The best sections are the ones concerning the hobbits, which Mr. Tolkien said were his favorite to write. I can tell. The human characters begin to bore me after a while. They are all so tall and grave and noble that I begin longing for a human who is short and frivolous, and ignoble.
I have recently become interested in myths and enjoy The Silmarillion because it is myths for a modern audience. As greatly as Greek and Norse myths have influenced our culture, many of the stories make us scratch our heads because they were not written for us but for the people of their time. The Silmarillion is accessible and identifiable to modern readers since it was written by a man of the twentieth century.
It’s structure is more like pure storytelling than a novel, and I think Mr. Tolkien writes better in that style. Whatever the reaons, I return to The Silmarillion again and again.
My novel and future novels are set in a fictional West Virginia county where several generations of the same family live. I created family trees to build naming patterns. For example, a teen character might have an old-fashioned name because he is named after his grandfather. I also try to use different naming patterns to distinguish between families.
The Stowecroft family is the leading family in the county. I decided that each generation would use the most popular names at that time. So a ten-year-old might be named Jacob and his father, Jason. Using popular names keeps the Stowecrofts distinct from the other more eccentrically named families. It also makes the reader think they are bound to popular opinions and maybe even bland or unimaginative.
I have had the most fun creating the names for the Kimmels, a vast family of crooks. I got the idea to use nature and weather for their names from my grandfather. He told me that when he was a boy in West Virginia in the 1910’s, his grandparents had neighbors who were named after the weather – Winter, Rain, Jack Frost.
Using nature for the names of the Kimmels brands them as different from the rest of the characters in the county. The family has five main branches, which I may have to prune, but to help my readers keep the characters straight, I have each branch use its own unique naming pattern. The Kimmels are named after the weather. Three brothers are named Cy, Cane, and Tor, short for Cyclone, Hurricane, and Tornado. The Sims are named after jewels and elements, and the Pratts have months for names. I had such a good time coming up with whacky names that I realized I had too many characters and had to whack off an entire branch.
When naming, I keep in mind something I read about J.R.R. Tolkien. He said that he worked very hard making his invented languages and the names that came from them as much like real languages as he could. He thought that their consistency would aid in making Middle Earth seem like a real place.
As fiction writers, we want readers to be able to dive into our imaginary worlds and take them as real. Creating appropriate names for our characters can help in making the unreal real.