The Last Princess – the middle grade novel my daughter and I are writing – is an urban fantasy. Which is author-speak for “it takes place on something very close to present-day Earth.” As opposed to “it takes place in another realm where elves and vampires shoot laser guns at one another under the sea.”
I suppose, for the writer, the urban fantasy presents some distinct advantages over other, more traditional fantasy. You don’t have to invent a language, or learn cartography in order to map out all of the different countries, or come up with different names for everyday things like apples and boats and November and that thing you do in the middle of the day when you eat food. In our book apples are still apples and you won’t find Rivendell on any map.
But as it turns out, it isn’t quite that simple, either. At least for us, at least for this novel.
I think our mindset was formed with the basic premise, which was that the book would be about our family, but not quite our family. All of the family members in the book are us, if you sort of squint and turn your head to the side. Our last name, Berkowitz, became Brökkenwier (which sounds like “Broken Wire,” in the tradition of Professor Caractacus Potts), and all of our fictional counterparts use versions of our real middle names as their first names. So already the world of The Last Princess was a slightly-removed reality.
But when it came to certain well-known brands in our world, we found that we sometimes wanted or needed to change them slightly for dramatic license or to make them fit our story better. Or, to invite an extreme, to avoid getting sued. The first case of this was Mary Kay Cosmetics. We feature a group of 12-year-old girls getting together for a scout meeting and doing makeovers with a bag-full of make-up samples from one of their moms. I know May Kay is very strict about how they are perceived, so I thought there might be a chance they could take offense at how their product was being used. So Mary Kay Cosmetics became Carrie Mae Cosmetics. Girl Scouts are the same way (we know; we are involved in both of these things in real life and have first-hand experience of how they feel about their branding). So Girl Scouts became Squirrel Scouts.
When the family visits a Medieval Times restaurant I knew right away that I was going to have to change the nature of the show quite a bit to fit our book. So I really didn’t feel comfortable still calling it Medieval Times. It’s now called Joustorama. Taco Bell became Taco Shack.
Probably the biggest challenge I had in this department came when I had to give our main character, Cat, an iPod. Everyone knows what an iPod is, but I want this book to be timeless. An iPod from five years ago barely resembles an iPod from today. Five years from now they may not even exist, or may only exist as part of a phone or a wristwatch. Plus, Cat will need to do things with hers that you can’t strictly do on a real iPod, like send and receive texts when she’s camping. So I invented a Japanese knock-off, called the Den-Den. You remember that little noisemaker drum from The Karate Kid 2? It’s called a Den-Den daiko.
I have no doubt that before this book (dare I say series?) is finished, we will have to invent more names for real things. If this were an adult novel I think I might want to stick with the real names wherever possible. But this is a children’s book, and children (and adults who like children’s books) are usually more willing to suspend their disbelief.
What about you? Have you created made-up names for ordinary things in your own fiction?
NEWSFLASH: We’re getting close to finishing the first draft of The Last Princess. If you would like to sign up to be a beta reader, please use the “Beta Reader Sign-Ups” tab at the top of this page.