Friday, August 20, 2010

Playing with Names

I enjoy all the various task involved in plotting and writing a novel, but I think my favorite part of the plotting stage is when I get to make up names. Not just people names, but place names—the names of streets, mountain peaks, restaurants, and lakes. All the names that add flavor and a sense of place.

If the setting for your novel or short story is fictitious, you can’t use an actual town name for your town’s name or the name of a real canyon for your fictitious canyon, but there’s no reason you can’t take the name of an actual town, say, Big Timber (in Montana), and use it as the name of a hotel in your book, or that you can’t take inspiration from a place name, taking, for instance, Grizzly Peak (Colorado) and turning it into Grizzly Mountain Road.

Highway maps and atlases are the best places to go for place names, though I’ve also found some unusual names on my road trips through the Rocky Mountain West. I love the sound of Crazy Woman Creek in Wyoming. Each time I pass the “Middle Fork Crazy Woman” sign on I-25 I want to stop and take a photo. One of these days I’m going to use that name.

I may be biased, living in the West as I do, but I think place names in my part of the country are especially rich and evocative. There are names that suggest pine-covered mountains. Glen Haven, Black Forest, and Turquoise Lake in Colorado. Deer Lodge in Montana. And there are rough and crusty names, real western names, like Chugwater and Buffalo in Wyoming, Bear’s Mouth and Beartooth in Montana, and Battlement Mesa, Rifle, and Gunbarrel in Colorado.

The are the obvious Indian names—such as Shoshoni, Washakie, Gros Ventre, and Absaroka—and the not-so-obvious Indian names, such as Ten Sleep in Wyoming, named for the Indians’ way of measuring distance (the town was ten sleeps from Fort Laramie).

New Mexico’s various Pueblo peoples have been the origin of some wonderful place names, including Kewa, Ohkay Owingeh, Tsi Mayoh, and Pojoaque, the latter the Spanish rendering of the original Tewa Po-Suwae-Geh and pronounced poh-WAH-kee. How could you not love that word?

Place names of Spanish origin include Alamogordo (literally “fat cottonwood”), Vallecito, Ojo Caliente, and Cortez, and French trappers and traders in the nineteenth century left us with a host of French place names, many of them in Colorado, including Laporte, Cache la Poudre, De Beque, and St. Vrain.

If I come across a name that strikes my fancy, I stick it in a folder for future use. Antelope Hills, Yellow Jacket, Wolf, Grindstone, Never Summer, Wildhorse Mesa, Roundup, Burnt Ridge, Wintergreen, Nokhu Crags, Dry Rifle, Deadhorse—all tucked away.

And then there’s Stem Beach. A tiny town in Colorado. I’ve got that one tucked away too. The origin of the name is a total mystery to me. I could probably do an Internet search and find out how the two-building town south of Pueblo became Stem Beach, but I’d rather let my imagination run wild. I know there’s a story in that name.

1 comment:

Cynthia Bruner said...

Great names! I didn't know about Ten Sleep...and I think I should have. I love your idea of keeping a file of these names, each one a muse. And by the way, my husband took a picture of the North Fork Crazy Woman sign in Wyoming and sent it to me. Said it was named for me. I'm not sure that's in the history books.

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