Welcome back for another fun Writer Wednesday, y’all!
Today, we welcome Linsey Miller, author of the incredible MASK OF SHADOWS duology! She will talk a bit about worldbuilding, and especially the important of building a language specific to the world you create within your novels.
It’s pretty fascinating, so I hope you’ll take a look!
Works, Words, Worlds
I love world building. I love people, places, and all the weird, weird things we say to each other and to ourselves when we think no one is listening. I don’t care if it’s in a book, a play, or that tabletop RPG I haven’t gotten a chance to GM yet. Worlds are great.
But often, we focus on the big things: architecture, clothes, food, social structure, and power systems. Those are all very important aspects of a world and affect people from big picture to small picture (an arch isn’t always just an arch, a meal isn’t always just a meal); however, immersing readers in the world doesn’t have to stop at showing them that world. The words on the page should work for you, and the way the characters interact with those words should impart world building.
My favorite way to further immerse readers is to build idioms and common mistakes into the world. We all have idioms and various common phrases that we use and understand and get wrong. Why shouldn’t our worlds?
Idioms are phrases that don’t mean what they say but instead have a specific cultural connotation. Different people react to different idioms based on their own background. If I hear someone tell me “bless your heart,” I take it as an insult since I’m from the south. Someone else might not. Some people love peppering idioms throughout their speech and others take them literally. Likewise, there are a multitude of common phrases that get misstated often, which a vast amount of English teachers are dying to nip in the bud (alas, the phrase is about plants, not butts).
So I’m going to list some common phrases and what they’re often mistaken for (and who knows, in fifty years, the mistakes might be the correct version because language is fascinating; maybe you can add some character to your world with that) and then talk a little bit more about working with words in world building. (And perhaps someone will discuss fantasy tongue twisters one day.) I find it’s better to ask questions so that you can build your world yourself without me shoving my answers into your head. This will hopefully spark ideas for you.
(A note: I will be specifically speaking about American English. The only other language I know, barely these days, is Latin, but that’s less helpful.)
The four idioms below are all such that altering one minor aspect of them creates a hint as to how the world works and how your characters navigate that world. These are quick ways to insert world building while providing your reader something they’re familiar with so that the second-world immersion isn’t too much too soon.
- A penny for your thoughts: This is a fun one! And not only this phrase, but we have a multitude of sayings about money. This is as simple as substituting your lowest denomination of currency into the phrase, and that will not only tell the reader something about the world but that the narrator is someone who uses such idioms. It can also reveal how a character feels about money.
- At the drop of a hat: Are hats all the rage in your world? Are they in your world? What sort of character would wear one? What might be more familiar to your character that they could talk about instead?
- Speak of the devil: Do they have devils in your world? Are they evil? Would it be bad luck to even utter their name? Are they active threats or passive myths? And if they are evil, how badly does the narrator think of who they’re speaking?
- Burn the midnight oil: How does the world feel about working hours? Is it noble to work into the night or is it normal? Do they use oil lamps, candles, magic, glow-in-the-dark ink? What’s work like in your world and how do your characters navigate it?
Now, the three phrases below are a touch more nebulous. They’re phrases and proverbs that have changed over the years and have multiple meanings.
- Feeling under the weather: This is entirely world dependent, but if you create a world in which weather, skies, or flying factor in, phrases like this can take on entirely new meanings in your world while still being familiar to the reader but more immersive due to the connotation change. Do people fly paper planes for a living and live in cities above the clouds? Then this probably means something different to them.
- Red sky at night, sailor’s delight: This is from an old sailing rhyme. There are thousands. We love rhymes. Does your world? If so, create some! You may never use them but you’ll learn a bit about what your world values from them.
- Blood is thicker than water: Much like “curiosity killed the cat,” this is a shortened version of an older proverb with challenged origins, which is a long way of saying that this phrase can mean many different things to many different people. Is there a phrase in your world that everyone knows but means different things? Would it be about kinship, battle, covenants, or something else? If one of your characters says this, what do they mean and does the person they’re speaking to understand it?
These final phrases below are ones that are commonly mistaken or used incorrectly from their original meanings (though I’m quite partial to the idea of an alchemist or vampire extracting revenge from someone). I’m not going to explain them. I think it’s just curious to see things like that laid out when world building. If I have a character who always hears “home” in every h-word, that says something about them, doesn’t it?
- extract revenge vs. exact revenge
- feeble position vs. fetal position
- hone in vs. home in
- wet your appetite vs. whet your appetite
- baited breath vs. bated breath
- lactose and tolerant vs. lactose intolerance (All right, look: It’s not a word thing but it’s important to me that people know the correct version and that an intolerance and an allergy are two different things; also, do they have germ theory and allergy awareness in your world?)
People make mistakes in real life all the time. Those same mistakes add flavor to books because they tell you something about the character, their background, and the people around them reacting to the mistake. Think about some of the common things that happen in English. What are the words and idioms you get incorrect or use every day? Where did they come from and how did they happen? Languages change (sometimes accidentally, sometimes not); fictional worlds seem more real when they feel like they’ve been real long enough to have lived that change.
What’s important to them? How did they used to do this? How do they navigate discussing concepts that existed in the world’s past but don’t exist today? And even within a world, different people connect with different things. Maybe your alchemist character loves plant metaphors and can’t wait to correct someone who says, “Nip it in the butt.” Maybe your jokester meant to say “butt.”
Now, my purpose isn’t to correct grammar but to suggest that you use words and common mistakes to world build. If English idioms exist in your world, do your characters always get them right? If they don’t exist, what do your characters say instead? You get to decide!
(All this said, words aren’t meaningless and there are words and phrases that have problematic origins. While exploring the words of your world, examine your own words and how you understand them. Existing can be hard enough. Why make a reader’s life worse by not letting go of problematic words and phrases?)
A young adult fantasy author originally from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, college lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction, and can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.
Linsey Miller’s Website ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Amazon ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Barnes & Noble ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Kobo ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Book Depository ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Wordery ⚔️ Linsey Miller on Audible ⚔️ Linsey Miller on IndieBound