Wednesday, June 26, 2013

You're Not From Stink Onion, Are You?

I come from the Land of the Sun. Yes, it's a blazing desert, but not as bad as The Reborn in Small Springs to the south.

That sounds more exotic than "I'm from Utah, it's a desert, but not as hot as Phoenix, Arizona."

For writers, place names are as much a part of our characters' makeup as the times in which they live. We can feel the cold and gloom in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from Melville's Moby Dick. And the grime and soot of Dicken's London.

And wouldn't you love to read about characters from Dreaded Fort, Raven Breach, and Swampy Hole? Locations also form the identities of characters in our favorite movies and TV series. Would Walter White, from "Breaking Bad," be the same person we know if he was from Nebraska?

The establishing shot of Slough in the British version of "The Office" tells us something about all the characters. And for the life of me I can't figure out why it's so amusing to the british cast of "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret" when the titular character first tells them he's from Leeds. But apparently there's innuendo of some sort, and it helps them understand his character immediately.

As a lover of maps and word origins I was happy to learn about the combination of the two by cartographers Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust from Kalimedia. I read about them in recent articles from Slate and Fast Company. You can buy their "Atlas[es] of True Names" for the USA, Canada, the British Isles, Europe, and the World. These atlases are the perfect blend of maps and etymology.

Spend a few minutes with them and you'll catch a glimpse into the history of where you and your characters are from.

As quaint and curious as some of the place names are, it's a good thing some names have changed. Al Capone and the Chicago gangsters would seem a little less (or more?) intimidating if they were from Stink Onion.

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