For this post, I’m starting with a word that charms me. Everyday, Wordsmith.org emails me a vocabulary word, usually one I don’t know. Here’s one I want to remember, and posting it here will help me. This is how it appears on the Wordsmith site:


noun: A figurative, usually compound, expression used to describe something. For example, whale road for an ocean and oar steed for a ship.

From Old Norse kenna (to know). Ultimately from the Indo-European root gno- (to know). Earliest documented use: 1320. Kennings were used especially in Old Norse and Old English poetry.

“The hero, Beewolf (a kenning for bear, named the ‘bee wolf’ for its plundering of hives), heads to the Golden Hall.”
John Garth; Monster Munch; New Statesman (London, UK); May 30, 2014.

“In the dawn of the English language the earliest poets or scops (minstrels) invented words like ‘battleflash’ to describe a sword, or they would identify a boat by its function with a kenning like ‘wave-skimmer’.”
Samuel Hazo. What’s in a Name?; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Feb 17, 2008.

I love this and plan to make up a kenning the next chance I get.

On May 27, 2015, Elisa wrote, I’ve totally revised my TTDP story. It was very hard for me. It’s still hard for me, because now the time setting is more similar to ancient Roman instead of medieval. Well, more or less. It’s kind of a cross between Rome at it’s various time periods and Tira in RIVER SECRETS. But most of my stories are set in medieval or renaissance or Viking-ish time periods, and I’m having trouble getting this together. Does anyone have any thoughts on world building to share?

Many of you did.

Bug: I’m writing a book in a setting different than my normal-ish type, too, so I bought a book by Jill Williamson called STORY WORLD FIRST. It’s fairly cheap on kindle and was very helpful, and fun to read, too. It had a lot of useful things to think about.

Martina Preston: Medieval time periods are just so much easier to manipulate! The only thing I would say is to research on the Romans and maybe (I know there are some out there) read some books written about a character from the Roman time period. Also, if all else fails, you always have Wikipedia =).

Song4myKing: I think you’ll have to start with some basic knowledge of place and time, then let your mind explore aspects of life that probably won’t be included in the story. Imagine your character in the clothes she’d wear and follow her through a day or a particular event as if you’re watching a movie of her. Another thing that helps me establish place is sketching a little map of where things are in relation to each other. Once I drew up plans for an entire house because I had someone trying to escape unnoticed from there.

Melissa Mead: This might have some helpful stuff in it, although I haven’t looked through it all: http://www.alden.nu/re-wb.shtml.
And maybe this? http://www.timemaps.com/civilization/Ancient-Rome, which came from “CL Favorites” on the Carpe Libris webpage. (You can get there by clicking on my name.) The group’s not very active nowadays, but there are some handy resources on there.

Thank you, Melissa!

Many of my books are medieval’ish, too, but I ventured into Mesopotamia’ish for Ever. However–and this is a big distinction–my Mesopotamia is entirely fantastical. No mention is made of the real Mesopotamia or any actual city-state that existed at the time. There is no Europe, no Asia, which freed me to diverge from history, although I did do a fair amount of research and used as much as I could. But if we are setting our story in a real place called Rome, I think we’re obliged to get our facts right or close to right, even if we bring in enchanted princes and an underground landscape, which, come to think of it, exists in Roman mythology.

If we’re setting our story in a real place and we do change real history, it’s nice to note the change in an afterword. For example, if we decide to have Caesar survive his assassination, which becomes merely an attempt, we can note that. We don’t want a generation of children growing up believing in the miraculous hundred-year rule of Julius Caesar!

But my recommendation, if you don’t want to do a lot of research, would be not to set your story in a real place and a real time, and you can still use the actual middle ages as your backdrop. The architecture of your castle can be drawn from a real castle of the period in Scotland, with only the design of the drawbridge changed–or not. Just be sure to change the name so as not to confuse your reader. Copyright didn’t exist in the middle ages, and if it had, it would have elapsed long ago. (Of course you mustn’t reproduce a photograph of the castle for your book cover, unless you have the photographer’s permission!)

After Ella Enchanted came out, I received more than one letter from a child who thanked me for educating her about the middle ages. I felt so guilty! Ella isn’t even medieval’ish. It’s entirely in fairy tale land. Castle architecture is entirely invented, and everything else. Same with Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. But, starting with A Tale of Two Castles, I’ve made an effort to be more accurate in setting and daily life, even though the latest books also have nothing to do with historical kingdoms.

My choice of time period is usually determined by my story idea, and I assume that Elisa’s shift came about for the same reason, because plot and time period influence each other. Rome makes me think of mythology, a pantheon of gods, heroes, conquest, spread of civilization, philosophy that came down from the Greeks. And a warmer climate than northern Europe. These may figure into her plot.

My research is guided by my plot and the settings it takes place in. If I were setting my TTDP (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) story in Roman times, I’d want to know about the life of women, especially unmarried ones, during the period. I’d be interested in attitudes toward a practice of locking daughters up at night (though I might not be able to find such a thing). And, in a warmer climate with a more open architecture, how easy would confining them be? Did women and men dance with each other? I have a vague idea that they didn’t.

There seem to be books on daily life in every period. I have two for the middle ages and one for ancient Mesopotamia. I bet some exist for ancient Rome, which you can request from your library, and the answer to most questions probably can be hunted down online, especially for us fantasists, who aren’t chained to historical accuracy. I usually look at more than one site.

I’d also suggest reading Roman and Greek myths. The Roman ones are often drawn from earlier Greek originals. I grew up on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which I still love for its charm and fairy tale quality. It’s probably very outdated, though it’s still in print. The myths supply a glimpse into daily life and ideas of the time.

Here are five prompts:

∙ Some women in Roman days, according to myth, were huntresses, kind of wild women. Set your version of “Snow White” then, and make your MC the huntress that the evil queen commands to kill Snow White. Dealing with this privileged princess (however she decides to) is just part of a day’s work for your MC–except Snow White’s mess draws her in. Write the story.

∙ In your Roman “Snow White” tale, invent your own kenning (vocabulary word above) to describe the forest and the dwarfs’ cottage.

∙ Choose a Greek or Roman myth and expand it, as you would a fairy tale, keeping it in its period.

∙ Take the myth, or choose a different one and set it in a fantasy middle ages. What changes? I mean, plot changes, not just setting.

∙ Now move the myth into a contemporary setting. What changes?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the great post, Gail! I have a similar problem, except almost in reverse: I need to modernize a bunch of fairy-tale kingdoms based off of medieval European countries, without having the end result be exactly like modern Europe. It’s getting to be more complicated than I thought.

    For research on Greco-Roman times, I really suggest Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Percy Jackson’s Greek Heros for research on mythology. ( I know it says Greek, but Greek and Roman mythology were quite similar) Also, a textbook for AP world history, if your school has one, can be really helpful. I took that class last year, and while we didn’t go super in depth, it’s great for a broad overview of a certain time period.

  2. Now that were getting into October, I was wondering if anyone is planning on doing NaNoWriMo this November ? I know it’s still a month away but registrations are open, and there’s no harm in signing up early, right ????? I was thinking we could form a writers group for all the writers on this blog.

    For those of you that don’t know about NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month, where you write a complete novel in one month (November). It’s free to participate and they offer some pretty awsome prizes if you win, and if you’re in the yong writers program (17 and under) you can set your own word count goal, for everyone else it’s 50,000 words. You can find more info at http://www.nanowrimo.org.

  3. Thanks! I think I might create two, one for the young writers program and one for the adults one, in case we have anyone over 17 that wants to join.

  4. Oh wow, thanks Mrs. Levine. I haven’t been able to check the blog very often, but I do love reading the posts and comments. Thanks for your help! You’ve given me a lot of food for thought. (And I like your Snow White idea. I wonder if I can weave it into my story somehow…)

  5. How many pieces of a civilization do you need to put in a story before it’s reminiscent of that civilization? Specifically, how many non-European elements do I have to include before my story stops being European’ish?
    I have a Cinderella story with pumpkins (native to the Americas). My character wears silk and personally feeds mulberry leaves (Africa, Asia, Americas) to silkworms (Asia). Most of the characters are black (Africa). But I still feel like it’s a European’ish world overall. I’ve written stories set in deserts or prairies (which Europe doesn’t have) and used specific U.S. states as my model. But even while I’m researchig Arizona canyons and South Dakota flowers on state park pages, I feel like I’m writing European’ish fantasy.
    I’ve heard that the benchmark is whether or not your fictional royalty use titles like King and Queen. Then I read Defy by Sara B. Larson, which has kings and an extremely South American’ish setting. I’ve met the author and in the first thirty seconds of describing her book, she’ll say it takes place in a jungle. The setting’s that integral to the story.
    What do you think, hive mind?

    • First of all, I would only take elements from one or two closely related cultures. Africa, Asia, and the Americas are all vastly different cultures! If you choose one culture and then slip in references and names that are reminiscent of that culture, it’ll be a lot more convincing than just trying to make all your cultural references non-European. Some books that do this really well are The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson (Hispanic-influenced), The Wrath and The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh (Persian/Arabian/Indian), An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Ancient Rome inspired), and The Grisha Trilogy (Russian-inspired). Probably all of these are late middle-school/early high school and up. I hope this helps! Good luck on your story; it sounds really interesting!

    • I think it differs from writer to writer ( no pun intended ) and depends greatly on the story. If your characters speak english with an accent and eat snails with their baguettes, it may be a good idea to change up a few things. If you didn’t add any aspects of modern Europe to the story, and it just happened to become something like that, then you can imagine out the rest of the scene. If your aiming for the setting to be modern-world, then use parts of, as Katie said, closely related cultures. If you set the backdrop of a place of your own imagination, then surely Europe, as a whole, does not exist. Try to use scenes you can remember from fantasy, or future-istic movies, or historical civilizations to fuel your setting and the way of life of the people. Hope this helps!

  6. I think it’s hilarious that you bring up kennings – we’re reading Beowulf in class right now (which is choc-full of kennings) and spend a ton of time talking about them every class. 🙂
    I love to take a lot of elements of a historical setting and put them in a fantasy format. That way, you get all the cool little realistic details from the time period without having to worry about getting the style of alarm clock or shoe exactly correct. Also, I think having a NaNo group is a great idea!

  7. I love this topic. I have a book that’s set in a place not unlike Upstate NY in the mid 1800s. Originally, I was going to make it clear that this was an alternate version of a real place, but in the end I found the “real world bits” distracting and took them out. Now it’s a fantasy place that might have a “Little House in the Adirondacks” feel for some people. I still don’t know which way is/was/would’ve been better.

    Thank you for sharing the Carpe Libris link. We haven’t had this many visitors in months!

  8. I’ve always wanted to sign up for NaNoWriNo but I’ve heard mixed views about it. Some say it makes writers turn out bad novels while others think it’s great. What do you guys think?

    • Jenalyn Barton says:

      That’s what I thought at first, but I’ve since learned that it’s great motivation to actually get things written. Even if the writing isn’t the greatest, at least you’re writing. And besides, first drafts are never publishing material right from the start. Hope that helps. 🙂

    • I think NaNoWriNo is a great goal to get lazy writers , like me, out of their seats. You can think what you want about it, it doesn’t matter. Getting down something, (anything!) even if its just a start, is great, and it makes getting started with your next project even easier. I think everyone who thinks they can, or thinks they can’t should at least participate. Its a goal. And like all other goals, it gives to a place to get to. Anyways, there will always be next year, right?

  9. I did it once (and won.) It proved that I CAN produce writing at that speed (using Dragon voice recognition software,) but I found it stressful and didn’t much like what I produced.

    OTOH, I have friends who’ve loved it.

  10. I love this! I definitely prefer medieval-ish periods, but whenever I try to write in that kind of a setting, I find myself using more modern wording. I decided to just make that a style that I write in; kind of like modern-medieval or something. It’s actually kind of fun, because then I can combine the humorous phrases that real people from that time period wouldn’t have used, and the cool weapons that people now don’t really use anymore!!

  11. Thank you for pointing out that there’s a NaNo for younger authors. My nephew just told me today that he’s writing a novel, so I suggested it to his mom. (Running it by her first in case he’s not old enough yet.)

  12. ButterflyYulia says:

    Just a quick book recommendation question: Is ROSE UNDER FIRE a good clean book? I heard it got the Josette Frank Award, but I wanted to ask your opinions. (If you haven’t read it, that’s all right too).

    • I’m fairly sure it is! It’s definitely a lot less dark and mature than its companion book, Code Name Verity (an AMAZING read, but be warned, it’s very intense and sad). I mean, Rose Under Fire isn’t exactly a /happy/ book (it’s set in an all-female concentration camp and mostly focuses on Nazi medical experiments) but it’s very good. Common Sense Media says it’s suitable for 14+, but I think a mature 13-year old could handle it.

  13. I have a question. I sent my manuscript to a publisher nearly a month ago and still haven’t heard back from them. I know this means it’s still in the slush pile and they haven’t read it yet, but what do I do in the meantime? Can I send my manuscript to another publisher while I’m waiting?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m not sure about another publisher, but you can certainly send query letters and a sample chapter to several agents. Let the agents know the manuscript is out at a publisher, and say which one and any other publishers that have seen it. You can get names of reputable agents from aaronline.org. Good luck!

    • Have you considered self-publishing? A lot of authors are straying away from the traditional publishing path with great results.

  14. ButterflyYulia says:

    Hey, quick question: When you’re supposed to put one word of the title in the header of a manuscript, which one should it be if the title is The Woman in the Blue Coat?

    • In my opinion, it should be a word that’s important in the title or distinctive and full. For example, for “The Women In The Blue Coat”, I would probably use the word ‘Women’ or ‘Coat’.

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